More than just a steak
Porterhouse Bourbon & Bones goes beyond the steakhouse essentials
Musician Brian Eno once wrote a list of what he called “Oblique Strategies” for solving creative problems, which are valuable for many endeavors besides music. One of my favorites is “Make a blank canvas valuable by putting it in a perfect frame.”
I find this advice useful when considering the pros and cons of steakhouses. A steak is usually a blank canvas, a piece of meat with minimal seasoning that is made great or awful by the skill of the person running the grill. What makes the steakhouse experience creative and interesting are the accompaniments to that chunk of meat, and they say a lot about who the intended clientele is. They can range from an iceberg lettuce salad, creamed spinach, and a baked potato for the classicists who hang out at the Bull Pen in Redondo Beach, to more eclectic fare like scallop carpaccio, a pear and brie turnover, and brussels sprouts cooked with Caesar dressing.
The latter examples were all taken from the menu of the South Bay’s newest steakhouse, Porterhouse Bourbon & Bones, which opened on Richmond Street in El Segundo in July. The former Second City space was given a thorough makeover that involves mid-century styled furniture and low but dramatic lighting. The bar is backlit in a way that makes it look like a temple of alcohol, and the walls of the seating area include the classic old brick and some interesting textured surfaces. The main room is buzzy and loud, but the back patio offers a more serene experience with the bonus of tasteful live music on some evenings. The mix of classic and modern ideas carries through to the food choices, which have enough innovative items to attract a young and eclectic crowd without alienating those who crave old school experiences.
On my first visit I was in the mood for a light meal and tried starters of a pear and brie pithivier, and braised pork belly topped with an Asian-style vegetable mix. For those who haven’t heard of a pithivier, it’s a pastry made from puff pastry discs with a filling in between, coated with an egg wash and baked. It was a pretty little thing served with a small pine nut and arugula salad, and a nice starter. I was a little less impressed with the pork belly because while the meat itself was tender and flavorful, it didn’t need both the puddle of sweet soy reduction beneath it, and the sweet chili sauce that was on the vegetables. I would ask for the sweet soy reduction on the side, or leave it off entirely, because the combination of the two sauces obscured the natural flavors.
That visit was enjoyable, and I’ve been back twice since to try more menu items. Among the starters were both their spring pea soup and lump crabcakes that were made with top quality Maryland lump crab, but not in that state’s distinctive style. Anyone from Maryland will add some Old Bay or Phillips crab cake seasoning. The chef here decided the flavor of the crabmeat should be front and center. That’s not to say there weren’t other interesting flavors, because the crab cakes were served atop a delicious sweet corn sauce topped with roasted corn kernels, and bits of pasilla chile. The flavors were vivid and well combined, and the plate was beautiful, so if you like crab at all it’s a must-order.
The spring pea soup was less bold, but still enjoyable, a simple vegetable-herb soup with a dash of coconut milk to add interest. Those who like natural flavors subtly enhanced will savor it, though it must be said that the portion was very small for sixteen dollars.
We started both meals with cocktails after surveying a list that was almost all whiskey-based classics with minor twists. Since I had seen some other interesting bottles, I went to the bar and talked with Danielle, who turned out to be something of a genius at combining flavors. The items from the list are fine, and we had a very nice Paper Plane. Having a cocktail crafted by a master to suit my palate was a delight.
The main courses we tried were a seared duck breast with mole sauce, sea bass, lamb pappardelle Bolognese, and a sixteen-ounce ribeye steak. We tried two sides, the “caesar’ed” brussels sprouts, and the roasted mixed mushrooms.
The duck breast was described as having a crispy skin, but didn’t. It was cooked the medium rare we requested and had been sliced and fanned over a bed of black mole sauce, with fried plantains on the side and a salad that included fried caper berries. The idea was sound, but the richly spicy mole sauce overpowered the duck. It would be nice on the side, and even better if there was a bit of rice beneath it so one could enjoy the duck jus and sauce. Rice isn’t offered even as a side, but you can order freshly made Parker House-style rolls to mop up the tasty liquids.
I would have liked some rice with the sea bass too, because the nutty romesco sauce was worth savoring. The fish atop that sauce was excellent too, crisp-skinned and moist, and the flavors went together beautifully. Some dollops of pesto were offered too, but I barely disturbed them – the other flavors were quite enough to satisfy us. We were every bit as impressed by the pappardelle Bolognese, which was made in a very unusual style. Bolognese sauce is usually heavy on tomato paste, meat, and onion. This was a cream-based sauce with peas, carrots, and a few pieces of roasted tomato, with lots of coarsely ground lamb and parmesan cheese. Given the variety of regional styles in Italy, it’s likely that somebody there makes it like this, and it’s really a fine idea. The management might want to note the unusual style on the menu, because people who order this with their mind set on the conventional tomato based version may be disappointed. The open-minded will find it worth ordering
And it’s the time in the review where I’m getting around to the steak, the metaphorical blank canvas in a nice frame. The plate was a blank canvas, indeed, with nothing but a few sprinkles of salt, a small bowl with the peppercorn sauce we ordered, and a piece of thick ribeye, nicely cooked. Some steakhouses sear their meats so that there is an almost leathery exterior crust and smoky char, but that’s not the style here. This steak was very moist and tender with little grill caramelization, and it was a good piece of meat properly prepared.
We tried two of the side dishes, the brussels sprouts cooked with Caesar dressing and the chef’s mixed roasted mushrooms. The sprouts were a disappointment, slightly overcooked and mushy, but the mushrooms were excellent with an intense flavor. I could happily get an order of those mushrooms, a salad, and some fresh rolls and call it a light dinner.
We paired our mains with wine from their curiously small list. They have 17 wines by the glass, or bottle, and two dessert wines, with all but one of the reds from California, and the exception a Tuscan blend. I had expected a larger and more varied selection, but enjoyed the Cline Zinfandel with the steak.
We tried two desserts, a chocolate confection called a 100 Grand Bar, and a soft bread pudding. I prefer crisp topped bread puddings, but liked this, partly thanks to a caramel sauce that wasn’t over-sweet. The 100 Grand Bar was even better, layers of light and dark chocolate with a dash of salt and caramel sweetness. It’s a fine way to finish a meal with nicely balanced bitterness and sweetness.
Porterhouse Bourbon & Bones is a relatively new operation but has swift and assured service, and though I quibbled with some aspects of the meal, all three experiences had high points that were impressive. Steak lover or not, there is something on this menu to make the visit worthwhile.
Porterhouse Bourbon & Bones is at 223 Richmond Street in El Segundo. Open 5 p.m. – 10 p.m. Tues. -Thurs., 5 p.m. – 11 p.m. Fri./Sat. Street parking, or nearby free lot. Full bar. Some vegetarian items. (310) 648-8500. Porterhousela.com. ER