American greatness [restaurant review]
America wasn’t the first place where people celebrated special occasions with steak dinners – that was probably Britain, where “beefsteak societies” started meeting as early as 1705. These all-male gatherings were a magnet for minor nobility, major celebrities, and merchants who wanted to flaunt their success. Steaks were the symbol of wealth, because big chunks of high-quality meat were all but unattainable by the British working class. The only accompaniments at first were potatoes, later followed by olives and celery, because the focus was on the beef.
Americans took up the habit with enthusiasm, and since the first steakhouse in America opened in 1837, that meal has been a symbol of celebration. There have been many improvements. Women may now partake alongside men, and wider arrays of side dishes are on the menu, but at the core is that luxury of a tender, perfectly grilled piece of beef.
Pacific Standard Prime, also known as PSP Steak, is the South Bay’s newest shrine to the mighty meat treat, though like any self-respecting modern steakhouse there are other options. Owner Kevin Leach worked with Chef Robert Bell on the original plans and design, and now that the place is open, his partner in the kitchen is Christine Brown, another Chez Melange alumnus who has an eclectic style. Leach was formerly a host at the Chez and is a wine expert who has assembled a remarkable list, so between them they have the front and back of the house covered.
PSP’s space adjacent to Ortega 120 has a covered patio, which was probably an afterthought in the original plans but has become indispensable during the pandemic. It seats 24 people with appropriate distancing and is comfortable, though on the loud side due to hard surfaces and traffic noise. On two visits our server was Seth, an old pro who has worked with Christine for years. He’s a cheerful character who has a remarkable memory for customers and is not shy about giving opinions when asked, and he ran through the specials, offered drinks, and then left us to decide.
This was far from easy. On both visits I was with someone who doesn’t eat beef, so exploration of the seafood entrees was in order. (They also offer a chicken dish that looked lovely when I saw an order going by, but I couldn’t persuade anybody else at my table to order it. I was in a specialty steakhouse and determined to enjoy some cow, so that part was easy, but the array of starters, salads and side dishes made choosing a challenge.
On two visits, one with another couple, we tried starters of warm crab dip, PSP salad, forbidden salad, wagyu chili, pork ribs with a Korean-style glaze, and the “Karl’s crumpets” cheese muffins. The crumpets are muffins with cheese and bacon, hardly an original idea when it comes to combining flavors, but very light and fluffy. Jalapeno-honey butter was served with them, but they didn’t need it. PSP’s pastry chef is Karl Viking, another Chez Melange alumnus, and he hasn’t lost a bit of his touch. They went splendidly with the wagyu chili, an item I hadn’t expected to like much. Wagyu meat is tender but usually delicately flavored and can fade into the background in recipes that involve spice and slow cooking. This chili had a touch of heat and a lot of herbal flavors in a broth that was rich and meaty without chunky meat texture. I could have made a meal of that chili, bread, and a salad, particularly if it was the PSP salad. This is made with greens, dried cherries, pecans, pears, and a Dijon vinaigrette and topped with pieces of baguette spread with pungent Brillat-Savarin cheese. Using dried fruit and nuts in a salad is not a new idea, but the balance here was particularly good.
As much as we enjoyed that salad, the forbidden salad was even better and an item I’d order again. It’s a four-grain salad with black rice, farro, quinoa, and couscous tossed with mint leaves, citrus zest, currants, radish, and pepitas along with extra virgin olive oil. I admired the restraint in not dressing it further, because the nutty grains and pepitas were an equal partner in the flavor with the sharp radish, mint, and zest. It was an unexpected balance and one that really went into new territory.
The warm crab dip also showed restraint, the shredded crab meat in a creamy, lightly seasoned sauce accented with a little finely chopped green onion and freshly ground black pepper. It’s for people who like the taste of crab rather than the seasonings that often smother it. As much as I like a crab cake with a shot of Old Bay or Zatarain’s creole seasoning, I appreciate the natural version. The pork ribs were very good too, though only when they arrived at the table did we find that three ribs were served to a party of four people. Ribs are finger food and awkward to share, so making sure that each person got one would have been appreciated. Seth did that with the crumpets, which are also usually served in threes, and we can only assume there was some miscommunication with the kitchen in this case. As it turned out the sweet and spicy sauce was on the piquant side for one person at the table, so no duels occurred over who got to eat them.
For main courses we tried a bone-in and boneless ribeye, roasted salmon dusted with fennel pollen, filet mignon topped with crab and bearnaise sauce, and fresh Alaskan halibut. The halibut was an example of minimalist perfection, the fish naturally moist and silky inside and gently accented by herbs. Some potatoes, roasted tomatoes, and pesto sauce was on the plate to lend color and different textures, and they were appreciated, but nature was the star here. The salmon had a whole different aesthetic, a nice piece of fish to be sure, but scented with a musky sweetness from the fennel and given a sophisticated setting by the bed of beurre rouge. That sauce of butter, shallots, red wine, and herbs might seem like something you’d enjoy with red meat, perhaps a steak, but it is perfect with seafood. The only thing we could have wished for was some rice, potato, bread, or something else to mop it up with, because though bread is available by order, you don’t know you need it until you try that sauce.
As for the steaks, most served here are from Wanderer Beef, an Australian producer of free-range cows given barley in their feed. This is supposed to give it a richer marbling without the somewhat strong flavor of animals fed entirely on grass, and whether it’s that or the skill in the kitchen, the steaks did come out very tender. I tried a 16-ounce boneless ribeye on the first visit and split a 20-ounce bone-in with someone else on the second. Cooking steaks bone-in is supposed to make the meat slightly sweeter and richer because the marrow flavors it, but if that did happen, I couldn’t detect it. Both were superb, caramelized outside and with just the right amount of chew to let you savor every bite. They were very lightly seasoned, and we enjoyed housemade green peppercorn sauce or blue cheese butter for occasional dips. Horseradish cream, chimichurri, and the beurre rouge were available too, but even we couldn’t try all the sauces in two visits. We did have some of their bearnaise sauce because it came with the filet topped with crabmeat, a dish I actually found too filling. Taking a cut as rich as filet mignon and adding both crabmeat and bearnaise seems to me to be the equivalent of topping honey with whipped cream – it’s so rich that what looks like a small portion leaves you sated.
We tried several sides, of which the crisped brussels sprouts with spicy garlic and blood orange were most unusual. I thought I had tried everything you could do with brussels sprouts, but this was a new one. The sauteed wild mushrooms with crisped shallots also hit the spot, and the three-cheese macaroni with bacon was an American favorite very well made. I was of two minds about the scalloped potatoes with fennel, fontina, parmesan, and gruyere because the texture wasn’t what I expected. The potatoes had the scent and flavor of the cheese but lacked the creamy sauce that is usual, and though I liked them on their own merits they might have benefitted from a little more seasoning. The only side dish that actually didn’t work was the sweet corn risotto, which was curiously flat. The flavor of the corn and richness of the creamy rice was there, but it needed a sharp flavor to play off of, perhaps some leek or jalapeno.
We had well-made cocktails to start but decided on wine with our dinners. Since Kevin knows his cellar, we admired the list and then ignored it in favor of letting him choose. The Lucky Rock pinot noir was very good with the starters, the “Comes A Time” Mourvedre blend from Paso Robles exceptional with both the meat and seafood mains. It’s an almost impossible wine to find in stores, but I’m going to try to find some bottles to enjoy at home.
We tried three desserts: an olive oil cake, brown sugar pound cake, and a chocolate dessert assortment that is recommended for two. The olive oil cake was surrounded by a berry coulis that I thought overwhelmed it a bit – I might have preferred this on the side so it wasn’t in every bite. The pound cake had no such problem even though the presentation was more complex – it was over a whipped berry cream, surrounded by crème anglaise in which there were more bits of berry. I have been generally immune to the charm of pound cake before, but this one explained why people like it. The brown sugar gave the fluffy, light cake a little caramel sweetness that I would have never expected might go so well with the berry and cream.
As for the “Chocolate Overdose” sampler with chocolate gelato, chocolate cake, fudge sauce, and cocoa whipped cream along with Spanish peanuts, it would have been an overdose for two, but was fantastic for four when shared alongside the pound cake. There were many different textures and styles of chocolate with the peanuts to add a rich, salty counterpoint, and when the chocolate became overwhelming a bite of pound cake cleared the palate.
Dinner at Pacific Standard Prime will set you back about $120 per person if you eat and drink like we did, though it’s worth noting that we over-ordered and took home leftovers on both visits. It is worth it, whether for a special occasion, or just an evening when you want to feel civilized and celebrate the good things in life. The Englishmen with their beefsteak clubs never dined this well, but they had the right idea.
Pacific Standard Prime is at 1810 South PCH in Redondo. Open Tuez — Sun at 4 p.m. – closes 9 p.m. Tues — Thu and Sun, 10 p.m. Fri. — Sat. Full bar, corkage $35. Reservations strongly suggested. (424) 247-7521. PSPSteak.com. ER
by Richard Foss