Slow evolution at Strand House

The main room at The Strand House combines elegance with casual style, not unlike neighboring Strand homes.

Manhattan Beach’s only beachfront fine dining destination has a new chef, but so far his contributions are subtle

One of the tribulations of being a restaurant reviewer is when I recommend a place I have recently visited, suggest specific items they should try, and then get an email the day after my friends visit that reads, “They didn’t have any of the things you suggested, and the server said something about a change in the kitchen.”

Sure enough, a new chef has brought new ideas and put them all in place at once, and as the Firesign Theater comedy group so aptly put it, everything I know is wrong. The change may be for the better, may be for the worse, and the only way to know is to go experience the place again.

Having to go back isn’t a chore when the restaurant is The Strand House, which has had three different Executive Chefs since 2012. Each brought new ideas, and in some cases the change was considerable, but they were always interesting ideas and generally flawlessly executed.

The fourth master of the kitchen is Chris Park, whose previous experience at Italian and Japanese restaurants suggested that a Euro-Asian fusion influence might creep onto the menu. I should say an increased Euro-Asian influence, because multicultural fusions have always been a part of the menu here.

The decor and style of the restaurant has changed not at all, which is just fine because it’s one of the prettiest spaces in the South Bay, and that’s before you include the view of the pier and bay through the windows. Unfortunately, we were seated at a table far from those windows on the east side of the dining room. We didn’t mind not having the view, but were next to a narrow corridor that had high traffic. Our conversations with our server were invariably interrupted so they could move aside to let other staff go by, and it impacted our enjoyment of the evening. The restaurant only gains four seats by putting these tables here, but it complicates life for the staff and gives diners there an inferior experience.

We started dinner with one of the new items, a Brentwood Farms corn bisque with whipped mascarpone cheese, corn slaw, and poached rock shrimp. The Brentwood in the name is a farming community in Northern California where they created a sweet, intensely flavored hybrid, and now that I’ve had it, I want to find more of it. All other corn tastes watery and thin by comparison. Chef Park wisely just accented the natural flavors with a drizzle of olive oil and subtle seasoning. The slaw was submerged beneath the broth, lending surprising bursts of flavor and texture, and the tender poached shrimp added a buttery seafood element. It wasn’t flashy, but really hit the spot.

Server Lexi Howard has a standout bar program at her disposal. Photo by Kevin Cody

Our other starter has been on the menu for a while, and was described as a chili-spiced avocado over a cabbage and jicama slaw. From the description and the brick-red crust of spices over the halved avocado, I was expecting a blast of chili heat, so I was surprised when the first bite was mild and citrusy. That bright red spice was sumac with a little red pepper and was an interesting contrast with the fatty richness of the fruit, but it wasn’t at all hot. I think some people who ordered this would not like it because it wasn’t spicy, and some people who would like it wouldn’t order it. These flavors were in balance with the jicama, cabbage, radish, and quinoa salad, but the proportion was a bit off – there was one medium size avocado half perched atop a huge pile of salad. Since this item is $24, I would have expected both halves of the avocado, so we could have more than a nibble with a bite of salad.

We continued with two of Chef Park’s items, roasted grouper over fried polenta, and fideo di mare. Fideo is a Spanish pasta much like angel hair, but made in short lengths and often toasted before boiling to accent the nutty flavor. Toasting gives it a different texture, slightly chewier, and makes it more of a presence when used in soups and stews. In this case the mound of pasta was topped with a mix of clams, mussels, fish, and shrimp. It was served over a pool of white wine and seafood stock seasoned with a sofrito herb mix. A bit of radish and some spinach leaves added color and texture. It was an elegant presentation. It was very good too, with enough different flavors and textures to keep us interested right to the end.

The grouper was a more petite portion, but as we were sharing our entrees, I didn’t mind that at all. This fish has a meaty, distinctive flavor similar to sea bass. It had been simply roasted, put over sticks of fried polenta, and topped with stewed tomatoes. A drizzle of basil oil and a smear of chermoula aioli completed the dish. I wished for some sliced baguette to collect these sauces and the last of the fideo sauce. Servers might consider offering some to diners, because I’m sure I’m not alone in this.

The bar program at Strand House has always been a standout in the South Bay, and they’ve outdone themselves with their current offerings. I started with a milk punch, a drink whose fruity kick will delight those who enjoy tiki drinks even though it was invented a century and a half before the first Don the Beachcomber brought that style to the world. It’s very rare to find this on a bar menu because it takes time to make, but if you have any interest in cocktail history, you must get it. Afterwards you can look up the recipe and find out why a drink with milk is clear rather than white, but this is left as an exercise for the reader. My wife had a “The Poacher,” a modern bourbon-based cocktail with vermouth, maraschino liqueur, and bitters, and found it to be an excellent twist on the Manhattan. We switched to wines with dinner and followed our server’s suggestions from the excellent by-the-glass list.

For dessert we had a chocolate passion fruit cake and a deconstructed carrot cake – plain cake served with a carrot and orange gel, alongside walnut crumble and a cream cheese sorbet. It was a fun presentation, allowing the diner to mix and match the traditional flavors of a carrot cake in whatever proportion they like, and a brilliant idea on the part of Chef Park. The chocolate cake was more traditional in presentation but spectacular in effect, a chocolate cake layered with passion fruit cream, with praline crunch adding little bursts of flavor, and enrobed in a dark chocolate frosting. I almost always order the homemade doughnuts when I go to the Strand House, but now that I’ve tried this cake I’ll be in a quandary on my next visit.

I wanted to see what lunch was like these days, so went back again the following Friday. Unlike weekend brunch, when the place is almost always slammed, you can usually walk right in then, and so we did. We asked our server their favorite item, and were surprised when they suggested a seared ahi sandwich. We had to order it to find out what it was like, and following in that vein we also got a fried chicken sandwich. What, we wondered, could they do to infuse the Strand House eclectic signature?

The Strand House seared ahi tuna sandwich with deep fried brussels sprouts. Photo by Richard Foss

The answer is nothing, and they don’t try to. Some days you want a great version of an American favorite, and when you do, you get the Strand House’s chicken sandwich. It’s made with heirloom chicken, served on a toasted brioche bun with a dash of chipotle aioli, tomato, pickle, and lettuce, and is exactly what it’s supposed to be. As for the tuna sandwich, it was a thick chunk of tuna seared just to smoky doneness with a tiny dash of Japanese togarashi chili mix, a little wasabi yuzu aioli, and pickled cucumbers. It was the Asian influence I had been looking for, used subtly and elegantly. The only problem was that the fish was so thick and so lightly done that it was difficult to eat neatly – the kitchen might consider slicing or scoring it so that it is easier to bite through.

The offered sides are beef fat french fries or brussels sprouts with bacon, gorgonzola, and blue cheese. If you have to choose just one, your decision is difficult. Frying in beef tallow allows extremely high heat so you get a crisp exterior without drying out the fries, but very few kitchens do it. French fry fans will love them. On the other hand, those sprouts were first class, deep fried before being tossed with the cheese, bacon lardons, and a touch of vinegar gastrique. Go with a friend, order both, and share, and don’t fight over the last one.

Chef Park hasn’t transformed the menu, but he is adding his own subtle ideas. It will be interesting to see what he does after he settles in. Manhattan’s premier contemporary restaurant is in safe hands, and for that we may be grateful.


The Strand House is at 117 Manhattan Beach Boulevard. Open Mon. 5 to 10 p.m. Tues.-Thur. 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Fri. 11:30 a.m. – 11 p.m., Sat. 10 a.m. – 11 p.m., Sun. 10 a.m. – 10 p.m. Street parking or adjacent pay lot. Full bar. Wheelchair access good. Some vegan items. Sound level moderate. (310) 545-7470, menu at ER


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