Back to his roots, personally and professionally

Fête Bistro by Slay offers a festive atmosphere with whimsical touches like the wallpaper of monkeys smoking cigars. Photo by Richard Foss

Manhattan Beach’s Fête Bistro by Slay draws on French and Lebanese influences to be traditional, yet innovative

When I saw the sign for Fête Bistro by Slay, my immediate thought was that this is going to be the most mispronounced restaurant in the history of the South Bay. For those who haven’t run across it before, that thing over the E is called a circumflex, and it changes the pronunciation of the letter so this word sounds like a cross between “fet” and“fate.” The word means celebration or festival in French. In Victorian England and America the word was a slang word for an occasion that was elaborate yet at least somewhat casual, and often raised funds for charity. It has mostly faded from use in America outside Louisiana, Georgia, and various areas around the south.

Real bistros in Paris are stylish yet casual, and Fetê has done a good job of capturing that vibe. One room is minimalist with antique caricatures, the other more decorated with whimsical touches like the wallpaper of monkeys smoking cigars, and drinking stronger beverages than are generally found in jungles. Opposite that frivolous graphic is the wall that shows why this restaurant exists – menus and memorabilia from the French restaurants where David Slay first worked as an executive chef. While he’s better known in the South Bay for Italian cuisine, Slay has a deep knowledge of French cooking, and spent time in the kitchen at the famous Ma Maison early in his career.

So there’s a French name, and French food on the menu, and that tracks. But wait, what are hummus, housemade pita, and stuffed grape leaves doing here? This is another facet of David’s heritage, because both of his parents are Lebanese, and family dinners included tabbouleh, hummus, and other Arabic staples. Since there are dozens of Lebanese restaurants in Paris, including one that won a Michelin star, there are probably some restaurants there that look a lot like this and have both cuisines on the menu.

Most of the Lebanese items are among the starters, which makes sense because Lebanese dinners always start with small plate items. Slay’s hummus is very smooth but not oily, and flavorful though light on the garlic. It’s available either plain or topped with onions, cauliflower, and pinenuts, and you can get it with lettuce, carrots, and Persian cucumber on the side. I strongly recommend that you get the toppings, because they are an absolutely luscious combination, along with the fresh, hot pita bread. The vegetable option is less essential but would help extend this starter so it would be an appetizer for four rather than two.

Other Lebanese items we tried were stuffed grape leaves and kibbeh, and both showed more cross-cultural influences than the hummus. Grape leaves are generally stuffed with a meat and rice mixture that is about two-thirds rice, but here that proportion is reversed. They’re more meatballs wrapped in a grape leaf than anything else, but they’re very good meatballs. Slay uses lamb rather than beef, which is what you’d usually find in the Middle East. The tomato sauce that tops the stuffed leaves is lightly seasoned compared to the oniony and heavily herbed traditional version. Slay owns his own farm, and one of the common threads through his restaurants is an appreciation for lightly adorned, natural flavors. I actually wished we did have a little rice to mop up that sauce, but we used some of the pita bread for that purpose.

The kibbeh was very different from the traditional item, a football-shaped meatball that is usually coated with cracked wheat, and then deep fried so it’s inside a crispy crust. This version has the traditional shape but is baked rather than fried, not an innovation in itself because kibbeh can be served baked, fried, or even raw as a sort of steak tartare. What is unusual is the lack of any cracked wheat, which means this is gluten-free, but lacks the crunchy crust on the outside. That’s my favorite part, and I wish they had mentioned that on the menu. That said, it’s worth trying this savory herbed meatball stuffed with pine nuts and served with housemade tahini that is thicker and richer than usual.

The French sheep cheese appetizer is whipped with herbs and served with olive oil and vegetables.

We ordered another starter that looked purely French but had a twist. It was listed as whipped chevre with blistered tomatoes and tarragon, but what arrived was a warm goat cheese blended with herbs, with a pool of olive oil in the middle, and topped with broiled cherry tomatoes with basil. This is how the Lebanese serve labneh, the cheese made with strained yogurt. But instead of the agreeable tartness of yogurt there was just smooth, rich cheese with a hint of goat milk flavor. It’s an admirable fusion of cultural elements, and a must-have item here.

For main items we tried the duck confit l’orange, shrimp kebab with sumac-citrus rub, coquille St. Jacques, and a bistro favorite, steak frites with peppercorn sauce. The steak frites was a classic perfectly executed, a sliced flatiron the medium rare that was requested, topped with a sauce in which you could taste the reduced stock, brandy and pepper. If you want a simple French bistro meal, this is it. The coquille St. Jacques was ornate by comparison, fat scallops perched on their shells on a bed of mashed potatoes, topped with a layer of mushrooms, a layer of spinach, and hollandaise sauce. The scallops are cooked just to doneness, so they’re almost gelatinous in the middle – I like them that way, but if you don’t you can ask for them to be cooked firm. The portion looked small but was filling, and there were so many distinct flavors that it was a delight to eat. Few restaurants feature this dish because it’s time consuming to make, and one has to appreciate their dedication.

Entrees of steak frites, front, and Coquille St. Jacques, rear.

The duck confit is a hearty dish traditionally eaten in winter, when ducks that were preserved months before are roasted so the fat melts out and leaves the essence of concentrated flavor and tender meatiness. The meat still had some firmness but came off the bone at the touch of a fork, which was as it should be. The sauce has less of the strong, almost syrupy orange that you often get, and emphasized the citrusy and fruity elements to good effect. The leg and thigh were served over mashed potatoes with roasted carrots, and was a hearty meal.

The shrimp skewers were a lighter meal, six perfectly grilled large prawns with just a light seasoning of tart sumac over a salad of grilled lettuce with roasted tomatoes. If you expect to fill up on appetizers, order this for a main item and you’ll be fine.

Like all of Slay’s restaurants, there is a well-chosen wine list, and we particularly enjoyed a Picpoul with the scallops. There’s a cocktail menu as well, and the well-stocked bar has some house specials as well as old favorites. It’s not a mixology destination with esoteric ingredients, but the pink negroni was a nice choice for those who enjoy bittered drinks,and the Le Fête cocktail nicely balanced.

We tried two desserts, a creme brulee and a warm cherry crumble tart topped with vanilla ice cream. The brulee didn’t have the glassy top of caramelized sugar but still had a little smokiness, and was good but to me not essential. The crumble, on the other hand, was fantastic, a pastry cup with lightly sweetened cherries, and what appeared to be a bit of dried fruit and nuts, topped with vanilla ice cream. Slay has a way with natural flavors and they were shown of very nicely here.

The service was professional, warm, and helpful by people who know this menu and their wines. Prices are reasonable for a French restaurant in Downtown Manhattan Beach, with entrees starting at $25 and topping out at $55. Figuring on spending between $65 to $100 for food and you won’t be far wrong. It’s money well spent if you appreciate French and Arabic tradition as filtered through the experience of one of the South Bay’s master chefs.

Fête Bistro is at 1017 Manhattan Avenue in Manhattan Beach. Open Tues. — Thurs.  5 p.m. – 9 p.m;  Fri — Sat. 4:30 p.m. – 10 p.m.; Sun 4:30 p.m. – 9 p.m. Full bar, some vegetarian items. Reservations recommended. (310)  376-1536. ER


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