Manhattan House back in plain sight [restaurant review]
Once easily overlooked by fast passing traffic, their new outdoor dining and new menus is catching diners’ interest
There are people who drive by Manhattan House every day and have never stopped in to see what they do. It’s easy to understand why this happens. There is speedy traffic most of the day at by the northwest corner of Sepulveda and Manhattan Beach boulevards, and the gaudy mural that is intended to advertise the place actually distracts people from reading their sign. You are likely to get more recognition by referring to it as “that building with the mural” than by using the restaurant’s name. It doesn’t help much that the place usually looks closed even when it’s open, thanks to small windows that make it impossible to tell whether there are people inside.
That situation has changed due to the pandemic, which forced them to move their dining operations outside so that diners are in view of the street beneath sunshades. This higher visibility arrived at the same time as a new menu that narrows the variety of foods they offer as well as considerably dropping the price. Chef Juan Torres, who took over from Diana Stavaridis in late 2017, transitioned gradually from her hypermodern style and added some Italian classics he cooked at his previous restaurant Sotto in LA. His current menu at Manhattan House is a further evolution toward simplicity, with the menu dominated by pizzas and pastas along with one each in the steak and fish column and two chicken dishes.
The parking lot turned dining patio isn’t quite as nice as the dining areas downtown. It lacks the pretty views and is not completely level, but the staff was quick to note that it’s a work in progress. It’s quieter than some of the outdoor dining areas downtown, because it’s further from the street.
There are only four starters on the menu now, three salads and a plate of sourdough bread with burrata cheese. If you’re a big fan of fresh bread and fresh cheese you might want that last item, because both are made in the house and are excellent. That creamy, rich cheese is also in what they call their heirloom tomato salad, the classic Italian caprese with basil and a simple olive oil dressing. That’s very good, but I recommend their classic Caesar or the more modern salad that they call the Vegetable Remix. It’s a mix of roasted cauliflower, broccolini, and carrots with celery, pomegranate seeds, pinenuts, and Fresno chillies, and it’s a terrific starter or a vegetarian plate for someone who likes carefully calibrated mixes of heat, bitter, and sweet. Those with a delicate palate might want to eat around the Fresnos, because they pack some cumulative heat, but there’s a payoff with or without them.
We had considered ordering a pizza as a starter, but our server advised us that they were substantial, so we had one as an entree. There are five pizzas and two calzones on the menu. We found out that if you ask, they’ll make the calzone as a pizza or vice versa. We did exactly that with a pizza topped with kale, olives, anchovy, and burrata, which is the most unusual of the combinations. Not everyone likes anchovies, but we do, and they work very well with the cream cheese, olive tang, and slightly bitter kale. The pizzas here are the traditional Italian thin crust from a wood burning oven, and they are our new favorite.
The other entrees we’ve had in two visits were vegan spaghetti, wood roasted chicken, and their fried chicken parmigiana, which is a decidedly unusual version of this Italian classic. It’s usually made with a pounded chicken breast in a simple crumb crust that is layered with cheese and sauce. Here it’s American-style buttermilk-fried
chicken made from leg and thigh meat and not flattened, and they use Mary’s chicken instead of the commodity stuff. It is more flavorful and juicy, and is the perfect item for that day when you can’t decide whether you want fried chicken or pizza. It’s all the flavors of both, high in protein and low in carbs. I liked their fried chicken when they were serving it as a separate item, and find it inexplicable that they didn’t keep it on the menu, but I’ll happily have it in this form. The chicken is offered either as a standalone item or with a side of spaghetti, and with the spaghetti it is a fine meal for two for $35. Since we had tried the vegan spaghetti on a previous visit and wanted to sample something else, we asked if we could have another similarly priced item, gnocchi in a tomato, basil, and pecorino sauce. They assented, and we were quite happy with that for more than just novelty’s sake. These gnocchi are made with ricotta cheese as a base, and are fluffy little pillows of pasta in a simple tomato, ricotta, and basil sauce. This is another of those Italian recipes that makes a virtue of simplicity, three ingredients and you can taste all of them.
We also had the brick-flattened roast chicken over a mix of wild mushrooms, farro, and kale, another rustic item that was a success because they didn’t try to make it anything it wasn’t. The roast chicken had enough seasoning to enhance the natural flavors without overwhelming them, the mushroom, grain, and kale mix was a balance of nutty, funky, and vegetable flavors. It was just what it was supposed to be, a model of a chef subtly improving upon nature.
One oddity about the repositioning of this menu is that a restaurant that formerly offered a wide variety of innovative cocktails now offers a very short list of standards on the menu. They are still capable of making more interesting drinks, but don’t advertise the fact. When I asked about other options the bartender came out and asked my flavor preferences, then delivered a nicely made Soho cocktail. They still have a very good wine list by the bottle or glass, and when we asked for something to pair with the chicken Parmesan they suggested an excellent Contucci Montepulciano Vino Nobile at $15 for a generous pour. The other wines that they recommended were also good, but this is the standout and I will strongly consider getting a bottle the next time I’m there.
The main courses were amply enough portioned that we only had dessert on one visit. That was an aromatic olive oil cake topped with berries and fresh cream, and it fit the restaurant’s aesthetic with a focus on the natural flavors. One piece was enough for two, and it was a light, fresh finish to the meal.
Like all restaurants, The Manhattan House is enduring tough times and they have a tough location, but they seem to be doing everything that a business can do to keep their customers happy. They deserve a look from those who are just driving by now, because there is a lot to love in this location just steps west of Sepulveda Boulevard.
The Manhattan House is at 1019 Manhattan Beach Boulevard in Manhattan Beach. Wed.-Sun. 5 p.m. – 9 p.m. Sun. and We.-Thu. 5 p.m. – 10 p.m. Fri.-Sat. Street parking or small lot. Full bar. Some vegan items. (310) 574-2277. ManhattanHouse.pub. ER
by Richard Foss