Richard Foss

Paul Martin’s American Bistro [RESTAURANT REVIEW]

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Paul Martin’s American BistroThe first person who told me about Paul Martin’s American Bistro started by saying something puzzling. “It’s like Fleming’s, but without the steaks,” she explained. Fleming’s without steaks? Might as well say it’s like Baskin-Robbins without ice cream, or The Spot without vegetables. What could this be? I had to find out.

Once there, I understood completely. The layout was similar, a sleek kind of comfy with high ceilings and a welcoming bar area. Paul Martin’s has a more whimsical streak – the glass dome inset in the east wall looks like part of Captain Nemo’s submarine, and the logo of the ring from a damp glass makes it look like all the napkins were previously used as coasters. The difference between the two establishments is obvious once you look at the menu – where Fleming’s spotlights perfectly seared hunks of meat with classic sides, Paul Martin’s focuses on modern versions of American favorites made with gourmet and organic produce.

If it seems like I’m comparing unrelated establishments, I’m not. The guy who owns both restaurants is Paul Martin Fleming, who is also the P.F. behind P.F. Chang’s. The El Segundo Paul Martin’s is his second outpost of a concept that started in the Northern California wine country, and there’s more than a whiff of Napa about the new venture. The focus on small-farm producers and sustainable ingredients is matched with a taste for eclectic combinations – creamed salmon with sliced apples in lettuce cups is probably the oddest.

The “Butcher’s Board” that we started with was more European than American – Americans like their smoked and cured meats and cheeses on sandwiches, rather than artfully arranged with capers, olives, and a small pot of mustard. The Euros have it right – alternating nibbles of these premium meats and cheeses is the perfect way to experience the virtues of each. The four meats and cheeses ranged from delicate to robust, from a subtle California cow cheese to a gigantic blue, an unadorned ham to a big, garlicky slice of sausage. The air-cured ham, sliced so thin it was translucent but still full-flavored, was a marvel by itself, and the aged Laura Chenel goat cheese needed bread only as a texture contrast. We ordered a platter for two for our table of four and it was the right move — everything on that platter was rich, and a taste was sufficient.

We continued with starters — butternut squash soup, the best spinach salad in recent memory, shredded Brussels sprouts with bacon, and macaroni and cheese. The last two are listed as side dishes rather than starters, but we ordered them because they had been highly recommended – there are many more conventional appetizers, some quite intriguing. Now that I’ve tried shredded sprouts sautéed with bacon, I’m going to try this at home and see if I can get even a shadow of this flavor and texture. I’m not usually a big fan of mac and cheese, even the trendy modern versions, but this had a sharper, fuller flavor that was a lot more than just pasta and cheddar, even excellent cheddar. As for the butternut squash soup, those who have only tried pour-it-and-heat versions from Trader Joe’s should order this and see what really fresh squash tastes like – squash is associated with winter, but this is like a bowl of sunshine, all fresh, sweet vegetable flavor with just the right touch of sage and other herbs.

We complemented our starters with innovative cocktails, the best of which was a “Champagne Lemonade” made with bubbly, Meyer lemon vodka, and a dash of fresh basil. This worked remarkably well with food and would be a perfect lazy hot day drink – I’ll have to go back in a few months when the temp hits 80 and sip one on the patio. Our server helped with recommendations, showing remarkable knowledge of both the food and wine list. He and the other servers were very professional, but there were some of the service gaps that occur in a new restaurant; water glasses sometimes went dry, and at one point everyone thought someone else was going to bring our bread. The problems are minor, and will certainly be fixed soon.

For main courses, we picked pan-fried sole with winter vegetables and lemon-thyme butter, a rack of slow-smoked ribs, a huge but tender pork chop, and salmon salad with oranges and buttermilk-dill dressing. The entree salad was a perfect light meal, orange slices and “toy box” tomatoes giving sweetness that was balanced by the herbed dressing and freshly smoked wild fish. My sole was just a bit more substantial; the earthy, slightly smoky vegetables were a fine contrast to the delicate, lemony fish. Too often sole is paired with something else mild like mashed potatoes and simple carrots – the bigger vegetable flavor is the right foil.

My friend’s comment aside, Paul Martin’s does serve steaks, and the pork chop we were served was really a pork steak, a big chunk of meat on the bone, with proper seared flavor and slightly chewy texture. If you’re a big beef eater, this is a piece of pig you should be introduced to – it hit all the right notes, and was served with perfect roasted carrots and a little more of those heavenly Brussels sprouts. I was only slightly less enamored by the pork ribs, and that was all about texture rather than flavor – these were fall-off-the-bone tender, and I like a little more substance. The flavor was perfect, though; smoky, lightly sweet, and the right tinge of red and black pepper. These could dethrone my previous standard of excellence.

On our server’s advice, we ordered a bottle of Pinot Noir from a winery we had never heard of. When it arrived, everybody drank half a glass and stopped – it was unusually harsh and tasted off. The waiter noticed our lack of enthusiasm, sampled a bit and determined that the bottle was indeed off, and offered to comp it. We continued with wines from the by-the-glass list and were pleased with both beverage and attitude.

We finished with banana cream pie and a Meyer lemon crème brulée, both of which were excellent, and braced ourselves for the bill. It was surprisingly reasonable – dinner for four, with multiple starters, cocktails, and wine, ran $50 per person, which was downright reasonable for the quality of food and service.

I returned for lunch a few days later, taking a place on the sunny patio and commencing with a glass of Gruet sparkling wine from New Mexico. This time the service was flawless, and we enjoyed exceptional calamari, spinach-artichoke dip with crostini, and an unusually good caesar salad with eggless dressing as starters. The burger that followed was accompanied by a mountain of crisp fries, and the brick-flattened chicken had the crisp, tasty skin that is the real flavor of Tuscany. Only one thing was off – on both the chicken and an order of meltingly tender short ribs, the mound of garlic mashed potatoes was a starch overload – we would have much preferred half the potato and a dab of some other vegetable as a respite.

That quibble aside, the second experience at Paul Martin’s confirmed our impression that this venture is a keeper – the prices are reasonable and the experience exceptional. Paul Martin Fleming has not only created three successful restaurant concepts, he has opened one of each in a quarter-mile stretch of El Segundo. If he keeps opening restaurants here, perhaps we should change the name from Rosecrans Avenue to Fleming Avenue – the signs will be on every corner anyway.

Paul Martin’s is at 2361 Rosecrans in El Segundo, just west of Aviation. Open Monday-Friday 11 a.m. – 10 p.m., Saturday-Sunday 11 a.m. – 11 p.m. Valet or structure parking, full bar. Reservations recommended. Phone 310-643-9300.

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