Strand House promises more than “Just Desserts”
A few weeks ago, the Strand House restaurant’s kitchen was filled with buckets of plaster, disconnected wires and cellophane-wrapped chefs tables – getting around was kind of like navigating an obstacle course. In fact, it didn’t look much like a kitchen at all.
“Watch out for the screws and nails on the floor because it’s still a construction site,” Travis Lorton had said over the noise, as he ducked under the metal scaffolding that led to the fourth floor bar.
“I know the view’s not much to look at here, but maybe you can find something you like,” Lorton joked, as he looked out the restaurant’s floor-to-ceiling windows at the waves glistening in the sun as they crashed on the shore.
Lorton, the restaurant’s executive chef, along with Neal Fraser and Seth Caro, consulting chef and pastry chef, respectively, have recently traded their construction hats for their chef’s hats. Instead of lugging cardboard boxes loaded with kitchen gadgets up and down the restaurant’s stairs, they’ll be butchering suckling pigs and creating in-house dry vermouth.
The 250-seater restaurant, a partnership between brothers David and Michael Zislis, and the Hunter and Bloomfield families, is set to open to the public on August 11.
Continuing the tour of the construction-ridden restaurant space, Lorton greeted Larry Drasin, who designed the beach home-like concept for the restaurant. “Good surf today,” Drasin said. “People are having fun in the ocean.”
Caro, pastry chef and former contestant on “Top Chef: Just Desserts,” piped in – he had just been out surfing the day before. “I got stung by a jellyfish yesterday,” he said, adding, “I went home and peed on it.”
Being so close to the ocean is unusual for Lorton and Caro.
Lorton, a charismatic 34-year-old with a fauxhawk and earrings, was raised on a Black Angus beef farm in Missouri. “Feeding people has always been in my blood,” he said.
Caro, a tanned, articulate 35-year-old, was raised in a New York City suburb in Westchester County. “It’s always been my dream as a New Yorker to get a bachelor pad on the beach,” Caro said. “Wake up every morning and jump in the ocean.” His current beachside commute sure beats riding the New York subway, he said.
Both Lorton and Caro began cooking at young ages.
Lorton began washing dishes for a local restaurant at 14 and started butchering meat a couple years later. He moved to Chicago in his mid-20s to take his culinary pursuits more seriously, working at fine dining restaurants including MK and Blackbird, and attending culinary school at Le Cordon Bleu Cooking Hospitality Institute. He moved to Los Angeles two years ago for a job at Gjelina in Venice Beach.
Caro started cooking in delis, never really considering it a long-term career. “It was just a fun way to make paychecks without having to wear a suit or sit at a desk,” he said.
When he discovered modern pastry, he attended the pastry program at the Institute of Culinary Education. He completed an externship at Nobu restaurant in New York City and later served as pastry chef for different Japanese fusion restaurants. With the Strand House, labeled modern Americana, Caro said he has more freedom with the type of pastries he can conjure. “It’s like a blank slate so it’s just kind of like a mirror of everything you learned and that you are,” he said.
Neal Fraser is a local – originally from Laurel Canyon, Los Angeles – and has a long history in the industry. He has opened eight restaurants in the last 15 years. He attended the Culinary Institute of America in 1990 and opened his first restaurant called Boxer in 1995. Last year, he sold his most recent restaurant, Grace, which was located in Beverly Hills, to reopen it in downtown Los Angeles.
Serving as a consulting chef for the Strand House is a temporary gig that will likely last until the end of the year. “I get to be the best mother for six months, then all the kids have to figure out how to do it on their own,” he said.
“The Ferrari of everything”
With $10 million invested in the project, the Strand House owners and chefs were able to build their dream restaurant and kitchen.
“I’ve wanted this real estate since the day I first saw it,” said Michael Zislis, who opened Manhattan Beach Brewing Company across the street 21 years ago.
The equipment purchased for the restaurant is the best on the market, Caro said. “They got the Ferrari of everything,” he said.
This means he and Lorton have the best toys to play with all day long.
“We have a spit over the grill for whole animals,” Lorton said, excitedly. “We can roast a whole hog or a whole lamb or leg of veal if we so choose.”
“Mm, that sounds good,” Caro said. “I’ve never been in a kitchen that has a spit roast.”
“Yeah, it’s going to be dope,” Lorton replied.
Caro is in charge of the dessert and cocktail menus, for which everything will be house-made – fresh squeezed lemons for the vodka lemonade, in-house brandied cherries, bright green apple juice and salted caramel foam for the apple martini.
“House-made means house-made,” Lorton said, munching on fish and chips for lunch at Brew Co. He took a bite of his coleslaw and paused. “They changed their coleslaw recipe,” he said.
“Oh yeah? Looks nice,” Caro replied. “I made Mexican food the other night, guacamole and margaritas.”
Caro cooks all sorts of dishes at home, but of course, desserts are his forte.
“(Caro’s) desserts make mine look silly,” Lorton said. “Downright silly.”
Caro’s signature dish is cube-shaped butterscotch doughnuts with a hot, liquid butterscotch center, served with powdered bacon and toasted peach jelly.
“My charcuterie isn’t so good,” Caro joked.
Lorton recalled preparing his signature charcuterie for the Zislis brothers while he was still interviewing for the position. “(They’re) very proud of the charcuteries that we make,” Lorton said.
He also loves preparing foie gras, or fattened duck liver. “I would shrivel up and die if I didn’t have foie gras on the menu,” Lorton said.
A self-described foodie, Michael Zislis remembers the hunt for the Strand House chefs, interviewing and tasting the dishes of countless individuals. “We set ourselves on a mission to find the best chefs we could find,” he said.