From Decadence to excellence [restaurant review]
A clubby spot with a provocative name has become a dining destination
Names matter. They set expectations, telling you with varying degrees of subtlety what clientele a business owner wishes to attract. Changing them is no small matter – it’s more than hoisting a new sign. So what is a business to do when their concept shifts, or they want to appeal to a different demographic?
In the case of Decadence in Hermosa, which has changed direction twice in two years, the name wasn’t specific to any particular cuisine, but strongly suggested a focus on the party and dance club crowd. It opened as a Vietnamese fusion restaurant, changed to a steak and seafood house after about eight months, and has recently gone through a third evolution. The most recent change was spurred by the arrival of Chuck Kallal, a talented chef whose resume includes Factory Kitchen, Petit Trois, Patina, AR Cucina, Sea Level, and the briefly brilliant P’tits Bretons in Manhattan Beach. From the number of French places on that list you might expect to see French classics at Decadence, but the new items are eclectic with hints of Americana and Italian influences.
The starters come from all over the map and include a few Asian items, like the ahi tartare that has been there since the place opened. The Dungeness crab and shrimp cake is another of these, a thick seafood patty that has been fried crisp, topped with jicama-apple slaw, and is served with an arugula and radish salad on the side. There’s a smear of remoulade sauce on the plate too, adding a dash of New Orleans to the Oriental style.
The Tokyo chicken bites are similar to the popular karaage fried chicken bar snack, but with a gentle hit of fruity sansho pepper that is cooled by a kewpie mayo ranch. Kewpie – a Japanese reformulation of mayonnaise with MSG and rice vinegar – is great at cooling and balancing the slightly numbing heat of the pepper. The fried chicken dumplings are conventional in style but excellent – it makes a difference when high quality ingredients are used and the dough is fresh. If you prefer simple vegetable flavors then get the peppadew, tiny sweet peppers stuffed with goat cheese and almonds. It’s a three-ingredient item that still has layers of flavor.
Those with adventurous palates should order roasted shisito peppers with lime, rosemary, and miso caramel, a mix of salty, sweet, herbal, and citrus that is so complex that you may need to eat several peppers just to figure out what is going on in your mouth. Adding a strong oily herb like rosemary to the already aggressive peppers sounds odd but works – the extra herbal overtone along with citrus is a match for the heat and the fruity sauce. This is easily the most inventive and unexpected combination I’ve had in a long time and I recommend ordering it, but beware – shisito peppers vary widely in heat and you’re liable to really appreciate having something cool at hand if you get a particularly piquant one.
Decadence has a full bar (with a name like that, how could they not), and there are several cocktails that will fit the bill. Try the Shiso Mojito, which is based on vodka infused with that Japanese member of the mint family, or the Shiso Boss, which uses the same base along with pineapple juice and sparkling wine. The Purple Sky, bourbon with blackberries, honey, thyme, and lemon, is another masterpiece of complex cocktails, and I haven’t found a dud on their bar list yet.
Two pastas are offered, gnocchi in gorgonzola sauce and capellini pesto. If you’re dining with friends you may decide to split one of these as a second dish. The pesto has a delightful basil flavor and is studded with different colored cherry tomatoes, and includes a sprinkling of toasted breadcrumbs that add crunch. The gnocchi are feather light and in a luscious cheese sauce with spinach leaves and pine nuts. Chef Kallal obviously has respect for Italian classics, and the execution on these is flawless. Those who prefer modern ideas might instead split a beet salad with basil almond pesto, goat cheese, and candied kumquats. The kumquats are a novel idea that works, mirroring the sweet vegetable flavor of the beets with lightly tart fruit, and pairing those with the olive oil and basil punch of the pesto and unctuous goat cheese is a stunning success. I could eat this salad as an entrée and just enjoy the way different elements combine.
The only sandwich I’ve tried is the porchetta, pork roast that is pounded, layered with herbs, and rolled before being slow roasted. The pork slices are finished on the grill to create a crisp exterior, then served on ciabatta with a bit of arugula. It’s an excellent sandwich but needs something else on the plate to finish it to justify the sixteen dollar price. A scattering of fries or some salad would do wonders, or perhaps an item that is offered with some other entrees – sauteed radishes with snap peas. Radishes lose much of their sharpness when cooked and become sweeter, and are a great match for the green vegetables. We asked if we could order some as a side and are glad we did.
The other dinner entrée we tried was an herbed pork loin that had been cooked sous vide style before a brief trip to the grill. The pork was still a bit pink in the middle, which may put some people off, but sous vide style of cooking makes it safe to eat while concentrating the flavor and making it as tender as pork can possibly be. It came with buttermilk mashed potato and a sauteed mix of brussels sprout leaves and spinach, another good idea I hadn’t seen before. It’s a well balanced plate, and, at $29, fairly priced.
We returned for weekend brunch, and as we basked at a table on the sunny parklet, the restaurant’s name with its whiff of scandal seemed even more incongruous. Many of the same dinner items are offered, but we zeroed in on three: chicken and waffles, a smoked salmon flatbread, and a tuna melt made with Italian-style pickled tuna conserva. Conserva is about as different from typical canned tuna as it is possible to be, with the fresh fish marinated or brined and then poached in olive oil. (Most canned stuff is just steamed.) The conserva has a texture that is silkier and that difference shows even in an otherwise traditional traditional tuna salad recipe. It’s a great sandwich, but the plate was somewhat bare otherwise, with only a few leaves of salad. When the chef stopped by our table, I brought this up with him, and other items may be added in the future.
The salmon flatbread isn’t what you probably thought of when I listed the items I ordered. The word flatbread has become synonymous with pizza on local menus by non-Italian restaurants, but this is actually traditional Scandinavian style handmade bread, topped with salmon, grated preserved lemon, crème fraiche, red onion, dill, capers, and arugula. It would work as a shared appetizer or light meal, and might be a worthy addition to the appetizer section of the dinner menu.
I ordered the chicken and waffles despite a number of poor experiences locally – I like very light, crisp, yeast-raised waffles, which few places make because batters using baking powder are much faster and easier. At Decadence they are first rate, so crisp they almost shatter, and the chicken breast that topped it was moist with a flavorful batter. It’s very good, served with real maple syrup and a jalapeno butter, but at nineteen dollars it’s a bit overpriced. The quality at breakfast is every bit as high as it is at dinner, but the value is less. Three entrees and three cocktails ran $85, which is on the high side for the area.
Decadence has changed, and if you experienced the place more than a few months ago then you should consider giving the place another try. They are still refining the menu, but are already at a high level of creativity and execution. The name sounds like a nightclub or dance hall, but the food is on the level with the best in the area, the service friendly and assured. They probably won’t change the name, but be aware that they’re really delivering excellence rather than debauchery these days.
Decadence is at 1332 Hermosa Avenue in Hermosa. Sun., Wed., Thurs, noon to 9 p.m. Fri., Sat. noon ‘til 11 p.m. Street parking or structure across the street. Full bar. Wheelchair access good. Some vegetarian items. (424) 409-0990. ER
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