A star is born [restaurant review]
Jute at Westdrift’s flashy dishes revitalize the former Marriott
One of the oldest ideas in movies about movies is that of the backup singer, bit-part boy, or chorus girl who dons a star’s clothes and shows that they have the talent to be a star themselves. The actor who has been part of the scenery is transformed before our eyes, and we wonder how anyone, ourselves included, could have missed them.
The blossoming of the former Marriott in Manhattan Beach has been about as remarkable. Not from the outside, mind you – though new paint and a shift to the Westdrift name have made some difference, it’s still a boxy rectangular building in a neighborhood with plenty of those to choose from. Things get lively when you step inside. This used to be as much of a style-free zone as any typical business hotel lobby, but as noted in a recent article in this publication they’ve turned the interior into a design showcase. This is particularly true of the restaurant and bar, and it raises a question. To put it metaphorically, they’ve dressed the chorus girl up to look like a star – but can she sing? Are the food and drinks up to the expectations raised by the surroundings?
The menu skates along the top food trends of the last decade, but it’s not a random selection, and one can discern the executive chef’s sense of taste. In this case the chef is Octavio Sabado, formerly of Jose Andres’ famous Bazaar restaurant in Los Angeles. That restaurant blends Spanish traditions with wild experimentation, and there’s a little of that aesthetic along with North African influences here. Preserved lemon, pomegranate, pistachio, and saffron show up in dishes with sous vide egg and crisped fennel, the flavors of the western Mediterranean gone modern. It’s not the same dishes as Bazaar, but some of the same spirit, and that’s a good starting point.
My first visit was for lunch shortly after they opened, at which time I verified that they make quite a decent burger. Adding fried shallots was a good idea, as it gave a little burst of crunch with a mild bite and delicate pungency. It was well-made and attractively served, and a sign that further research was in order.
I have returned for dinner twice, dining inside the first time, outside the second. The shaded exterior with the view of the golf course is my favorite, and other people obviously find it just as relaxing. Fellow patrons included a woman who lounged across a sofa reading a novel, a young couple who held hands through their dinner, and two men who played endless games of cribbage while sipping their beers. I didn’t ask whether the board belongs to the bar but I’d guess that it does, since the lobby also has ping pong and foosball tables. The noise of the games and those encouraging the players can get a bit loud over there, but patrons obviously don’t mind. There are quieter spaces along the wall near the host desk, and that’s where we dined the time we ate indoors.
You’ll have to rely on your server when it comes to ordering starters, because there is no division on the menu between starters and main items. Everything is coyly described as “Items to share, or not,” which is not particularly helpful. The items we tried as starters were the salt roasted beet salad, tomato and grilled avocado salad, and the Spanish prawns with chorizo and crisp fennel in a rich tomato sauce. That last item is described as being served with “crystal bread,” heaven knows why, the servers don’t. This turned out to be slices of good but standard toasted sourdough roll. The five prawns were served head-on in a sauce with chunks of Spanish-style chorizo, a coarse-ground sausage that is firmer and meatier than the Mexican variety. It’s a good starter for two or three people or a light dinner for one, all bright and sunny flavors tied together with a fruity, thick tomato sauce.
To stretch the show biz metaphor again, the item called the tomato and grilled avocado salad gave top billing to two items in what was really an ensemble cast. The watermelon in that salad was at least as much an integral part of things as the tomato, and the mint and burrata added essential elements. Grilling the avocado slices was a technique I haven’t seen before, and it added a faint smokiness to what was already a successful melange of flavors. There was a drizzle of citrusy dressing and a sprinkle of microgreens that made it a salad rather than a plate of fruit and cheese, and a successful salad it was.
It was colorful and nicely presented, but still not as impressive as the roasted beet salad, which had three kinds of beets along with raspberries, arugula, pistachios, and to our surprise, some marzipan drops. The marzipan had evidently been added for visual effect rather than because it lent a necessary flavor, but it was a surprising burst of dry crunch next to the moist, sweet fruit and vegetables. I might suggest chopping or grinding the pistachios and putting them on the side instead of serving them whole, because their texture and flavor worked with many elements here and it would be fun to mix and match. Even so, it was a superb flavor combination and a treat for the eye.
The cocktails here also include some show-stoppers, particularly a whiskey drink with three kinds of bitters, pineapple cordial, and a pinch of sea salt. This is called an “LAX to JFK,” for some reason, and the glass arrives at the table in a strange contraption like a lantern, with a slight murky fog around it. This and another drink called “Magic Fog” are briefly exposed to smoke from burning star anise, and it gives an exotic scent that dissipates within a few minutes. The smoke adds to a complex flavor combination that makes this a cocktail to be savored slowly, because it changes over time. This was merely the most visually impressive of a collection of cocktails that have masterful flavor combinations, and as soon as word gets around this bar is going to be on the South Bay’s craft cocktail map.
Right now someone who is reading this is probably asking, “Is everything here fancy, or is this really a hotel restaurant where you can’t get just a decent plain steak?” There are two steaks on the menu, and I ordered the grilled hanger steak with cipollini confit and oyster mushrooms. Whoever cooked it couldn’t resist adding some microgreens and a drizzle of a pesto variant on the plate so it was more dressed up than a steakhouse standard, but otherwise they wisely left a good thing alone. The mushrooms had been lightly sautéed so that they were still springy, and with the onion confit provided plenty of mix and match flavors with the meat.
The soy-glazed cod was a more complex dish that also had a great sense of flavors, but I take issue with the way it was presented. The fish arrived in a bowl atop wide but thin shreds of carrot and Chinese tatsoi greens that were entirely submerged in a soy-based broth. As much as I liked that broth, this was too much of a good thing because it blunted the natural flavors of the vegetables, which I would have liked to savor. I might order this again but would ask for the sauce on the side.
The only savory item I wouldn’t order again was the Thai style chicken breast, not because it was bad but because it was one-dimensional. The description listed coconut, yellow curry, cucumber, and mint, so I expected the chicken to be in a coconut curry sauce with some cucumber on the side. Instead the meat had been brushed with a little curry before grilling and had been doused in mild sweet chili sauce with shredded cucumber. That sweet chili sauce hijacked the dish, overwhelming the other flavors. This was a surprising misstep from a kitchen that had handled more complex items deftly, and I hope they rethink it.
There was no such problem with the tomato, garlic, and cheese flatbread, a pizza by any other name. The crust was freshly made, thin, and light, and the only innovation was the use of a Manchego and Parmesan mix instead of the traditional Mozzarella, and the richer flavor was a pleasant novelty. We asked for a sprinkling of vegetables on top and they obliged with onions and sautéed bell peppers, and given the chance I’d do that again.
The portions at Jute are moderate and left room for dinner, and we tried their made-to-order buttermilk doughnuts and the “modern key lime pie.” I had been more than a bit skeptical of the latter because I like the traditional version so much, but was completely won over. A small fishbowl arrived with a layer of key lime custard served over the traditional crumbled graham crackers, and over that were dollops of whipped cream, a few raspberries, flower petals, lime zest shavings, and tiny chocolate drops. There were a lot of flavors going on here, but every combination worked. My days as a key lime purist are over.
As for the doughnuts, you know the rough-textured and slightly crispy buttermilk doughnuts you get at doughnut shops? These aren’t them. The dough was smooth and soft, though there was still some buttermilk in the fragrance so you could tell it was there. There was some sauce for dipping and a sprinkle of powdered sugar, but otherwise this was all about the simple goodness of freshly fried dough. I’d get them again except that the key lime pie is on the list, and I can’t imagine coming back here without ordering that again.
A three course dinner at Jute will set you back sixty to seventy-five bucks per person, but if you appreciate culinary innovation in a pleasant setting you will probably think that’s just fine. There are remarkable ideas in play here, and most of them are successful. The Westdrift has found a master for their kitchen, a star who is ready for the spotlight, and it will be interesting to see what he does next.
Jute is in the Westdrift Hotel at 1400 Parkview Ave. in Manhattan Beach. Open 6 a.m. – 11 p.m., validated self-parking in structure. Full bar, some vegetarian items. Menu at westdfrift.com/taste, phone 310-546-7511. ER
by Richard Foss