Abigaile: handcrafted goodness in Hermosa Beach
Some restaurant environments are so associated with certain cuisines that any variation is jarring. Consider Hermosa’s Abigaile, which some people insist on calling a gastropub. The rationale seems to be that since Abigaile is a beer-centric place and they’re not serving banger sausages and mushy peas, it fits that definition. When you walk through the front door, your eyes will indeed be drawn to those gleaming brew tanks, and they aren’t just for decoration. Ignore them for a moment, look at the menu and ask yourself where would you expect to see dishes of this variety and daring. Then look around and see this place for what it is – a daringly original, contemporary restaurant where they just happen to do their own brewing. If you go to Abigaile expecting the highlight to be a new riff on the burger, you will be surprised, and if you haven’t gone to Abigaile because they serve beer, you are missing something big. There are several dining areas here – a bar area with stools and shared tables, lower and more formal booths near the window, and an outdoor area with heaters,, a comfortable place to lounge and stargaze while you try to figure out what to order from an intriguing menu. Much of the list is seasonal; appetizers and small plates abound, but there are a few full-dinner items, including a steak that looked delicious as it went to another table. Despite this temptation, we ordered several small plates and starters, along with a sampler of five house beers for twelve dollars. At the pale end of the spectrum, I tried an orange blossom ale and an American wheat, both of which were very light. I’ve also tried two versions of India Pale Ale, both being properly hoppy, bitter, and great companions for spicy food. On one visit, I sampled an XPA, which was hoppy but mellower, and if this is representative, I need to try more. The only brews consistently on tap seem to be an excellent red ale and an odd but likeable bourbon-vanilla porter that is a bit flowery for my traditionalist nature – I’d prefer a dark that tastes mainly of the roasted malt. I’ve ordered three of the regular appetizers: the signature Brazilian-style cheese biscuits, tempura green beans, and rosemary & sage potato chips. The biscuits are addictive: crisp puffs wrapped around mozzarella with spiced honey butter on the side, each about two bites of chewy goodness. You’ll be glad they come only four to an order so you can enjoy the flavor but still have room for the other wonders on the menu. Tempura green beans aren’t exactly a new idea; putting vegetables in batter and running them through a fryer always works. The version here adds a subtle twist – a shaving of Gran Padano Parmesan cheese along with romesco sauce. The mild Spanish roasted pepper and olive oil condiment transforms the Asian dish into something Mediterranean, and adds dimension. Unfortunately, the house-made potato chips arrived cold. When we brought that to our server’s attention, she took them off the bill and sent out a fresh basket, but they were not equal in concept to the other starters and I found them the least impressive item. Our thirst slaked, it was on to the small plate items. Standouts include black pepper gnocchi, fluffy pillows of potato starch briefly pan-seared to give them texture and flavor, and the p’tit Basque melt. The latter is just caramelized apples and onions with melted cheese on a baguette – a delicious snack that is simple to make. Once you try it here, you may be inclined to steal the idea – if you do, give credit. The menu here is huge and changes frequently, and among the items that have come and gone was a memorable tandoori octopus. Happily, they have kept the eccentric version of the kibbeh, a Moroccan lamb, pine nut, and onion meatball coated with bulgur wheat and fried. Traditionally crispy finger food to be dipped in tzatziki sauce, the version here is topped with a delicious tomato sauce, chopped mint and celery. They were delicious, and we used the pita bread provided to get every bit of the sauce. We were less enchanted with the house-smoked trout – not that it wasn’t tasty, it was, but the portion was tiny, only a few nibbles. One of the few flaws with the kitchen is that some items that are in the same category and price level vary widely in portion, so it’s easy to over or under-order.
We almost missed an excellent small plate item because it was in the culinary ghetto of the menu labeled “Caution: Restricted vegan area only.” The creamy spiced tomato couscous was brilliant – plump wholegrain semolina in a delicious sauce with spinach, eggplant, garlic, apricot, and pepitas. I could have had a full meal of it. The non-vegan but still healthy zucchini and potato gratin had a similar balance and perfect execution, making us wonder if there’s anything this kitchen can’t do. That said, there have been occasional missteps or items that seem to be novelties. The vaunted housemade bacon was in the novelty category, served like Chinese roast duck in little steamed buns with cilantro and raw vegetables. It was a very pretty, but the variety of ingredients obscured any special characteristics of the bacon. The side of bland kimchi (and those two words aren’t paired together very often) didn’t help, though the tiny roasted shisito peppers were tasty. Any deficiencies among the individual items on the menu may be excused because there is so much that is so audacious and so successful that anyone is guaranteed to find many things to like. The dessert menu is shorter but has a few sure-fire items – a hazelnut-chocolate crunch cake that is superb and a fine walnut cinnamon carrot cake have been standouts. Those with a hankering for twisted comfort food may opt for soft-serve ice cream with toppings as common as chocolate sauce or arcane as olive oil and sea salt. There’s something for everybody, especially if the ‘everybody’ in question is feeling adventurous. Given the extraordinary experience, the prices are moderate – only a few items top the $15 mark, a bargain for cooking of this caliber. Abigaile is alone in its category, a casual, lively place to enjoy creative food paired with handcrafted beers. And yes, I waited until the last sentence to mention that they have wines and some nifty cocktails too – but whatever you drink, you must come here to eat. Abigaile is at 1301 Manhattan Avenue, Hermosa Beach. Open daily 5 – 10 p.m. Valet or street parking, wheelchair access OK, full bar. Menu at abigailerestaurant.com – phone 310-798-8227