Costa Manhattan Beach far from merely coasting [restaurant review]
Chef Josiah Citrin juices up dining in downtown Manhattan Beach
Some chefs come up with ideas so novel they seem outside of space and time, yet the flavors and textures are completely integrated. A more subtle art of the kitchen is when someone makes a familiar dish in a way that makes you feel like you had never really tasted it before. Most chefs gravitate in one direction or the other, but occasionally an exceptional artist demonstrates their skill at standards and new ideas in the same place.
Josiah Citrin is one of these. His new restaurant Costa Manhattan Beach is the latest in his astonishingly diverse empire, which includes the Michelin-starred Melisse, barbecue restaurant Charcoal, old school steakhouse Dear John’s, and, bizarrely, a chain of hot dog stands. Costa draws a little from all of his operations except the hot dog stands, as well as offering seafood and a few Italian classics.
The building has changed a bit since it was Fonz’s, the menu a lot. The previous operation was all about comfort food, with only minor twists on standard themes. This one, at first glance, looks like two menus on one page – a classic steak and Italian joint and one serving adventurous post-cultural cuisine. Some of these are priced rather oddly – why is bread and butter $7 and a Caesar salad $24, you might wonder. I sure did, and I found out fairly quickly. The bread is a small sourdough loaf fresh from the oven with homemade butter. The Caesar salad is probably the only one in the South Bay made tableside in the old school manner. I didn’t end up trying the Caesar, but the bread was fantastic.
The menu is terse, an abbreviated list of ingredients that encourages you to talk with your server if you have food allergies or are at all curious about what you might be eating. It’s not necessarily a bad thing – the staff I’ve interacted with are professionals who know their food and beverages.
On our first visit one of them recommended the grilled octopus with roasted sweet potato, preserved lemon, and spicy North African harissa sauce. This turned out to be a brilliant combination, the octopus tender and slightly smoky, nicely set off against the crisp sweet potato and herbed chickpeas with just a gentle hint of vinegary citrus and spice. The harissa was used so sparingly that at first we didn’t notice it, but it added a gentle but complex cumulative heat to a dish with layers of flavor.
The beet and burrata salad was conventional in every way but one –tartly fruity persimmon augmented the sweet, vegetable flavor of the beets, with a subtle hint of rosemary tying everything together. Persimmons have a limited season, so this may not stay on the menu long, but if it is offered I suggest that you get it.
Combinations of fruit and vegetable sweetness seem to be a theme in this kitchen, as in the roasted butternut squash topped with pomegranate seeds and pepitas. The menu also lists cilantro, which is misleading — the four leaves atop our portion were more garnish than integral element. What the menu did not list, and what helped tie this dish together, was the bed of carrot puree with just a hint of what tasted like cinnamon and nutmeg. The balance of fruit and vegetable was also brilliantly expressed in a dish of carrots, passionfruit, and Fresno chili accented with a little lime juice. The Fresno chili was a bigger and spicier flavor here than in any other item we had at Costa Manhattan Beach, and the carrot and passion fruit sweetness balanced it nicely.
My highest recommendation among starters goes to an item that is on a different axis entirely. The salad with avocado, seaweed, mizuna, shiso leaf, and salted plum is superb. The tart seaweed, rich avocado, bitter lettuce, minty shiso, and plum are unified with a topping of nutty sesame and a subtly sweet dressing. There are so many things going on that I kept finding new flavor combinations. Every element works with every other one, and it’s brilliant.
We were so entranced with these highly creative items that we almost didn’t order any of the traditional Italian selections, but during Dine LA they offered meatballs over polenta. This was so simple and traditional that I had to see what they might do with it, and I was not disappointed. The meatballs were made with a mix of delicately seasoned ground beef and pork belly, the latter creating a silky interior texture that contrasted with the slightly leathery exterior. They were over a bed of soft polenta and topped with a tomato sauce that emphasizes the fruity sweetness of the tomatoes. It was a new look at an old favorite, and made me want to try all of the pastas on the menu.
That will be a challenge for another day, because on our visits we actually tried the sand dabs, striped bass, a glazed pork chop, and two steaks, a ribeye and a top sirloin. I am not generally a big fan of sand dabs, but serving them over a tomato-based sauce with green olive, lemon, and herbs took this normally bland fish into interesting territory. It was the equal of the bass, which was presented over stewed fennel in a brown butter ponzu sauce with chopped fresh tomato and green onion. In both preparations the fish may have been at the center of the plate, but the items around them were what really gave them distinctive character.
I was skeptical about whether Manhattan Beach needed another steakhouse, given that this one is equidistant to the Arthur J and the recently opened Slay’s. The two steaks we had here were excellent, but that’s almost not the point. There’s more to a steakhouse than just a steak, and depending on your taste in accompaniments any of these three establishments might be dishing up your dream meal.
Those who prefer a good chunk of pork will not be disappointed by the glazed pork chops, generally served with charred pineapple and scallion. I tried the version served during DineLA – the same piece of meat with charred celery and red cabbage. The pork had a caramelized exterior and a soft delicately pink center, which scares some people who think it is underdone. It’s not – though most of us were taught that pork needs to be white throughout, a little pinkness remains when it is perfectly cooked. While the version that I had was a special, it whetted my appetite to try the other version.
The wine list here is shorter than I would have expected, and while the wines we tried were very good, if you are a cocktail fan I recommend that section of the menu. Those who appreciate good liquors and wish to know what is in their drink will have to interrogate the servers, most of whom will have to go ask the bartender. You should persevere and try one anyway, because the sense of flavor in these cocktails is exceptional. Their eccentric version of gin and juice carries forward the food menu’s mix of fruit and vegetable by using celery juice along with citrus. It’s refreshing as is the “Beast of Burden,” a three-ingredient bourbon drink that has a perfect Negroni’s fine balance.
I have only tried two desserts, the apple crumble and a brilliant take on a chocolate budino that adds a dash of salted caramel and a pinenut cracker. Both are slightly more in the comfort food section of the palate, but that’s what a desert is supposed to be.
Costa Manhattan Beach is not just a local outpost of a Los Angeles area celebrity chef’s empire – it’s a showcase of his talent with a focus just a bit different from anything else he does. It’s not cheap – you should expect to spend about $100 a person here, more if you indulge in the better wines and have a second drink. I can’t say it any better or more simply than this: it’s worth it.
Costa Manhattan Beach is at 1017 Manhattan Avenue. Open Tues. – Thurs. 5:30 p.m. – 10 p.m., Fri., Sat 5:30 p.m. – 11 p.m., Sun. 5 p.m. – 9 p.m. Street parking only. Wheelchair access okay. Full bar, corkage $35. Some vegetarian items but verify on ordering. Noise level medium. (310) 376-1536. Costa-MB.com. ER
by Richard Foss