All the ingredients for greatness
As far back as the 1930s, dining in California was noted for a casual blending of indoor and outdoor spaces. The emphasis is on the casual – movie stars showed up in fancy dress at restaurants on the Sunset Strip, but their home entertaining was more likely to be a barbecue on a covered patio, with ties and gowns shed in favor of shorts and Hawaiian shirts. That informality was ridiculed by New York critics, but envied by Midwesterners who gazed wistfully at pictures of people eating outside in February.
Outdoor dining remained casual until 1973, when Ma Maison became the first high-style eatery to feature outdoor dining, and others followed suit. The pandemic launched that trend like a rocket, and nowadays an indoor/outdoor space has to look pretty special to stand out from the crowd.
Boa Steakhouse in the Manhattan Mall has found a way to do that, with a dining room filled with greenery and made distinctive with ceiling panels that ripple like an ocean wave. By day it’s filled with natural light, by night the shades roll down, and it’s dramatically accented with indoor fireplaces and colored lights. It’s striking and modern, suited to the upscale menu of steaks and seafood with eclectic touches.
The menu is odd because the starters, and salads are described in detail, the steaks that are at the core of the menu not at all. Some come with side dishes, some don’t, and there are details of preparation that really should be included. On both of our visits the servers were communicative and helpful, but we were to discover that there were questions we didn’t think to ask.
On our first visit at dinner, we started with a goat cheese baklava that set a high standard for inventiveness and flavor. This was made with layers of flaky phyllo dough filled with goat cheese, and chopped black truffles, topped with honey, and chopped pistachios. It’s a superb idea, which they executed perfectly, and the bit of frisée salad on the side was a nice palate cleanser.
The caesar salad that followed was only average, the dressing on the romaine lettuce fresh tasting but mild, with little anchovy and pepper flavor. There was only a very light dusting of finely grated parmesan, and we weren’t offered more. We might have pepped the salad up with some ground pepper, but that wasn’t offered at the time the salad was delivered and when we looked for our server, they were at another table answering a seemingly endless series of questions about the menu. Nobody else came by for some time, so we ate the salad as it was.
We paired our starters with cocktails, a “Smoke Show” and a Fashion Forward. The smoke show is a stunt cocktail in which smoke is captured in a bottle that also holds liquor. It looks like a mad scientist’s concoction when it’s poured, the liquid going into the glass and the smoke creeping along the tabletop like fog. At Boa the liquid is bourbon, maple syrup, and bitters, the smoke applewood, and it works well. I’m wary of maple in cocktails because the flavor can take over, but the smoke moderates that and complements the bourbon and bitters.The Fashion Forward was simpler, rye whiskey, blood orange liqueur, grilled orange, and bitters. The bar here is well stocked, and they know their business. They dish up drinks that complement the richness of meat.
The meats we ordered were a Cajun cowboy ribeye, and a 40-day aged New York Strip. It’s worth mentioning that the former ran $74 and the latter $69. We were informed that the ribeye came with a small portion of salad, the strip with nothing, so we ordered some smashed broccoli ($16) as a side. The ribeye arrived with a ceremonial touch that we didn’t expect – after the steak was on our table, a server added some blue cheese and then flamed it with a blowtorch. It did melt the cheese so that it could be spread over the rest of the steak if we so desired. I had expected that anything called Cajun would have a healthy hit of peppery seasoning, and worried it would overwhelm the meat, but the situation was the opposite. The seasoning was used so sparingly that I asked our server whether the right item had been delivered. It was a very good steak, but not what I expected from the name. It was juicy enough that I wished we had some bread to mop up every bit, and when I mentioned that after our meal, I was told that bread is available if you ask. We were not advised of this, and it wasn’t noted on the menu.
The aged strip steak was seasoned only with sea salt and herbs, and that’s all that was needed. Beef that is aged over a month becomes very tender and develops a slight but agreeable funkiness, like an overtone of cheese. It didn’t really need any sauce, but we tried two, the J-1 that is like a housemade copy of A-1 and the peppercorn. Between the two I’d recommend the peppercorn, which was good enough that I thought about buying some to go.
The smashed broccoli was an enjoyable surprise, and it was just what it said – cooked broccoli that was probably run through a blender with a little butter and seasoning. It fit the same niche as the creamed spinach that is generally offered at steakhouses and is worth trying.
We paired our steaks with glasses of wine from their list, which was well-chosen. Our server recommended the Peju Cabernet, which paired nicely with the ribeye, the Domaine Latour Burgundy with the strip steak.
I returned on the weekend to try lunch, and we started with their version of a cobb salad. There’s an iconic style of serving these where the chicken, blue cheese, bacon, avocado, and eggs, and tomatoes are laid out in stripes across the greens, which makes a pretty picture. That’s not how they were conceived when they were invented at the Brown Derby in 1937, because by all accounts Bob Cobb tossed everything together when he made the first one. Boa’s version is faithful to the original except for the use of buttermilk dressing, and I think it’s an improvement. I thought some pepper would enhance it and none was on the table again, so with the server elsewhere I went to the bar to request some. In a few minutes a server showed up with a small square box of very finely ground pepper, not what I usually expect for a salad. Just after I added this to my salad, another server showed up with the grinder, but it was too late.
For our lunch entrees my wife chose a lobster salad sandwich, while I had the marinated skirt steak with fries. The lobster salad was mostly lobster by weight, and nobody could complain about them stinting on the claw meat. Unfortunately, it was in a very wet mayonnaise sauce that could have used a bit more herbs and celery. It was a bit on the bland side. We chose sweet potato fries as a side, and were rewarded with some of the best I can remember having, very crisp outside and tender within.
The skirt steak was very good but not what I expected. It had been marinated in pineapple juice that tenderized the meat and added caramelized sweetness like a good teriyaki sauce. I would certainly recommend this because it was excellent, but would add to the description on the menu because it’s a polarizing flavor.
My wife chose a Fashion Forward cocktail that was just as pleasant as the one we had a few days before, while I ordered a Cafe de Tropica, described as coffee with rums and orange liqueur. The menu doesn’t mention that this is a cold drink, but it’s a very good one. It looks like you’re drinking muddy water, but the coffee and citrus go very well together.
A meal at Boa is a bit of an extravagance — dinner for two with two cocktails, and two glasses of wine ran $284 before tip, while brunch with two cocktails was $140. It’s an experience with some very high points and some things that need work, but they have all the ingredients for success and have been packed almost since opening day.
Boa is at 3110 N. PCH in Manhattan Beach. Open daily 11:30 a.m. – 3 p.m. and 4 p.m. — 10 p.m. Free parking, valet at peak hours, wheelchair access good, noise level moderate. Full bar, corkage $35. (310) 683-4080. Boasteak.com. ER