The adventurous 10: The South Bay’s best new restaurants of 2015 are creative, wildly diverse, and boldly going to places where dining of this kind has rarely gone
by Richard Foss
Photo by Pete Henze
One of the marvelous things about the restaurant business is that there are so many ways of succeeding. You can execute your grandmother’s recipes brilliantly or create your own cuisine. All that matters is that the food makes people happy. This is a sharp contrast to occupations like accounting, brain surgery, or nuclear reactor maintenance, where entry to the profession is restricted by people with a rigid idea of how things should be done.
As I looked at the candidates for the best restaurants of 2015 I was struck by the variety of ideas and approaches. Unlike some past years there was neither a fad or a neighborhood that dominated. There are now creative restaurants outside the downtowns in all of the Beach Cities, and they’re serving a variety of cuisines that are exciting and sometimes bewildering. If you look back to years when all the action was in Manhattan or Hermosa, or when the majority of openings were Italian, Japanese, or gastropub, the current diversity can be seen as a sign of maturity. For instance, the four winners from Redondo this year serve four different styles of food and they’re in three different neighborhoods. The broad range isn’t too surprising if you look at it one way – Redondo is twice the size of its neighbor cities, with more than twice the population, so of course it would have more dining options. It always has, but the majority were at the relatively low end of the price and quality scale.
High-end diners in Redondo Beach used to flock to Manhattan Beach, but they now have options not only in their own town, but in many of its neighborhoods.
Torrance is even larger and the growing scene there suggests that it too is becoming a destination for more than seekers of exotic and authentic Asian cuisines. There are now many roads to success, both conceptually and the old asphalt kind.
If you’ve been reading these restaurant articles for a while, you know that sometimes I shrink or expand the list to reflect which places are really deserving of being in the top tier. This year was a natural 10, though not without a few judgment calls. Doma Kitchen’s transformation after being closed for almost a year almost put them back in the new category, but I decided that there was too much continuity to compare them to operations that started from scratch. Lou’s on the Hill was a different conundrum. The restaurant changed hands and menus late in the year and seems to be still evolving. The new management has lowered prices a bit and simplified the menu, which were both good ideas, but the place still seems to be a work in progress.
In the interest of fairness, I decided that any restaurants that opened after early December would be considered part of next year’s crop. Hop Saint, Frida, and a few others show great promise, and it would be unfair to evaluate them prematurely.
Overall this was a very good year. Several places that didn’t make the cut this time would have been winners in other years. These 10 would make the cut in any year and are listed in alphabetical order.
A BASQ KITCHEN
The future of the Redondo International Boardwalk is in doubt due to the proposed waterfront redevelopment project, but in the present the place is very much alive. Even in winter diners have been braving the chilly walk from the parking structure for meals at A Basq Kitchen, the only Basque restaurant in Los Angeles County. Chef Bernard Ibarra modeled the menu on the tapas-style dining in the taverns on the coast of Northern Spain. This cuisine is hearty and simple, based on the wholesome flavors of fresh seafood, cured meats, and artisan cheeses, with wines and beers to match the flavors. A Basq Kitchen has gained a following in LA’s small Basque community and on some evenings you may hear diners chatting in a melodious language that is like no other spoken on Earth.
136 N. International Boardwalk, RB. Website: abasqkitchen.com. (310) 376-9215
THE ARTHUR J
Every once in a while someone captures the spirit of an era and manages to make it both universal and personal. The Arthur J does that in the architecture, menu, and the general atmosphere, evoking an updated version of the 1950s steakhouse that is attractive to people who didn’t start dining in fancy restaurants until half a century later. The steaks, chops, and reimagined versions of mid-century favorites are never campy. Everything is done for a reason, and the revived dishes sometimes illuminate what our fathers and grandfathers found attractive about dining out during the Eisenhower administration. The bar is worthy of mention too. The drinks are based on historic favorites and crafted with the same zeal that chef David LeFevre brings to the kitchen.
903 Manhattan Avenue, MB. Website: thearthurj.com. (310) 878-9620
In a town with plenty of stylish Italian restaurants, Bettolino Kitchen stands out. Everything about the place is both authentically Italian and very modern. This is the cuisine Italians are enjoying today, rooted in regional and ancient ideas but served with flair. Chef Fabio Ugoletti was a cooking teacher in Florence when he met Vince Giuliano, whose last name you might recognize from his family’s restaurants and delis in the South Bay. The two bonded over an appreciation for artisan Italian food and that’s what is served here. Pastas are handmade in house, heirloom grains make an appearance with shrimp and arugula and a gorgonzola soufflé is served with beet sauce, figs, and walnuts. The presentations are artistic, geometric, and sometimes reminiscent of Oriental art, but the flavors have rustic roots. Bettolino Kitchen is a leap into modernism and high style from the family behind more modest and conventional eateries, and their venture is as surprising as it is successful.
211 Palos Verdes Boulevard, RB. Website: bettolinokitchen.com. (310) 375-0500
Many of the other restaurants on this list earned their place with creative riffs on traditional ideas. Kagura makes it on faithful renditions of Japanese cuisine. Their specialty is gozen, trays with as many as a dozen items that all come out freshly made and beautifully presented. Every element is handled with precision. Perfectly executed tempura and tonkatsu are crisp and moist, grilled cod is fragrant with the scent of sweet miso and seafood. The servers are fluent and helpful to diners who are boggled by the variety on their elegantly arranged trays. I observed the staff making accommodations for special diets with attentive politeness. The starkly minimalist setting may put some people off at first, but it’s a reflection of traditional taste. Everything about this experience is Japanese, as befits this spinoff of a popular Little Tokyo restaurant.
403 Main Street, ES. No website yet. (310) 333-0689
In many ways, Manhattan House was a gamble. The space had been many failed eateries in the past decade and some questioned the wisdom of putting a high-end place outside the downtown area. The skeptics have been silenced, the modern gastropub fare has earned a growing fan base. Chef Diana Stavaridis works miracles with local produce, including vegetables grown at local elementary schools. The “carrotology” plate shows the flavors that can be coaxed out of the most common root vegetables. Seafood and meat dishes have been strong too, and show the subtle touch of a chef who deftly combines Middle Eastern and Asian ideas with American favorites. The bar is lively and offers some ideas that sound wacky but go down very easy.
1019 Manhattan Beach Boulevard, MB. Website: manhattanhouse.pub. (310) 574-2277
Korean cuisine has been one of the big success stories of the last decade. Creative fusions like bulgogi tacos are now part of the American culinary mainstream. The Japanese have fused their ideas with Korean techniques too and developed dishes that round the rough edges of pepper and vinegar while keeping the soul of the cuisine intact. Other area restaurants in the area have served this Japanese style of tabletop barbecue for years, but Manpuku stands out for a particularly successful and approachable version. Their menu has a well translated array of options that includes several complete dinners at reasonable prices. The helpful servers are ready to explain unfamiliar items. Torrance has become a destination for adventurous diners from a wide radius. Manpuku is one of the reasons for the trend.
1870 W. Carson, Torrance. Website: Manpuku.co/en. (424) 271-7830
ORLANDO’S PIZZERIA & BIRRERIA
The restaurant that brought Montreal-style Italian food to the South Bay keeps adding ambitious items. They’re serving braised beef cheeks, lobster poutine and other things that seem unlikely in a place called a pizzeria. The core of pastas and pizzas is still there and includes toppings like rosemary lamb, dandelion root with spinach and other adventurous offerings. Chef Orlando Mulé takes a hands-on approach, smoking the brisket and salmon and making his own mozzarella cheese daily. The location next to a doughnut shop and liquor store gives no hint of culinary ambition, but this is the most eclectic restaurant to open in Redondo in years.
1000 Torrance Boulevard, RB. Website: pizzeriaorlandos.com. (310) 792-9300
The oddest, most endearing restaurant of the year is Pia, a tiny Italian-Japanese fusion place run by a hard working fellow named Hiro. After he welcomes you, takes your order and serves your drinks, Hiro goes back to the kitchen and works wonders. The short menu is augmented by daily specials that are scrawled on sheets of paper posted on the wall. They usually share the focus on fresh seafood and vegetable pastas. The little space has character thanks to enigmatic and surreal art on the walls. It’s a charming environment in which to enjoy crab salad, spaghetti with seafood and ginger, or excellent mushroom pasta. Only about a dozen people can dine at a time, so reservations are recommended, It’s worth some planning to experience this little gem.
112 International Boardwalk, RB. Website: 112pia-redondo.com. (310) 379-0915.
The most high-concept opening of the 2015 was also one of the most successful. Chef Anne Conness combines nineteenth century Californian flavors with contemporary Mexican regional ideas in a way that is unique. You won’t get some of these dishes anywhere else. There are other restaurants that are serving duck confit with chanterelle mushrooms, but here they’re inside a tamale with mole sauce and it works spectacularly well. The success of this sophisticated place in a section of Main Street better known for pizza and burgers is another sign that El Segundo is fast-developing dining scene is rivaling their neighbors to the south.
219 Main Street, ES. Website: sausal.com. (310) 322-2721
STEAK & WHISKEY
Let’s get this out of the way first. Yes, it’s the most expensive restaurant in Hermosa Beach. And yes, they have had some problems with consistency during their first year, with brilliant flavor ideas alongside dishes that just didn’t come together. That can happen in a place using very expensive ingredients in original ways and to their credit the staff is usually very accommodating and offers to replace anything that doesn’t hit the spot. What elevated Steak & Whisky to my list is that every meal I’ve had there has been good and a few have been great. They are obviously working to provide an experience like no other in the area. If you’re looking for a romantic or special, adult night out, this is Hermosa’s stylish, sophisticated place to get steaks, lamb, seafood,and all the trimmings.
117 Pier Ave., HB. Website: steakandwhisky.com. (310) 318-5555 B