Tee for Two at Pacific Standard Prime
by Richard Foss
Former pro golfer Kevin Leach found his passion for wine in a place that has never produced a drop of it.
“I was stuck in the airport, and the only magazine I could find in English was a copy of Wine Spectator. I read it from cover to cover, classifieds and everything, five times. What hooked me were the tasting notes for a Chardonnay. They mentioned pears, apples, nectarine, caramel, forest floor, oak, and I thought, There’s no way there are all these components to wine. I decided to check that out when I got home, and I started out at Trader Joe’s. I’d take thirty bucks and buy five or six bottles of wine, then take out a sheet of paper and make tasting notes. Somewhere in my garage are eight or nine binders of those notes over the course of six years.”
When Leach decided his pro golfing years were behind him, he couldn’t think of what to do at first, and decided to ask a friend of his who shared his passions for wine and golf.
“I said to Robert Bell, ‘I’m done playing golf, and I have a college degree but no skills whatsoever.’ Robert said, ‘You’d be a perfect restaurant manager.’”
Bell was a partner and chef at Chez Melange. As he said modestly, “I have found over the last 40 or so years that I’m pretty good at spotting a good employee. I had played golf with Kevin a few times and we got to know each other around the Palos Verdes Golf Club. We had a good time even though he was vastly better than I was, and I could tell he would know how to nurture a customer. He knew the difference between adequate service and really good service, so I brought him in on Chez Melange.”
Leach did well there, though he eventually left to follow his passion for wine by becoming a winery representative. But he couldn’t detach himself from the restaurant business, and ended up helping his restaurant clients by working shifts on busy weekends. Eventually he started thinking about starting a restaurant of his own.
“For years I’ve been telling my family that someday somebody’s going to open a good steakhouse near the Peninsula. I started thinking that it might be me, because when I left the restaurant business, part of me died. I missed it. My wife gave me the green light. She said, ‘Go forth, do it.’”
Leach had his eye on an empty space on PCH that had been a restaurant called Azure. He was able to get a very good look at it thanks to someone’s lack of concern about security.
“While the place was vacant they left the door open. I walked in and thought, wow, that’s a nice big room, it’s a great space. They just never had the right concept in here. The first person I contacted was Robert. I asked for recommendations for someone who might be interested in taking on the back of the house. That night he sent me a text saying, ‘I found your guy. Let’s meet tomorrow.’ I showed up at the golf course the next day and asked, ‘Who’s this guy?’ He said, ‘You’re looking at him.’ When someone with his experience said he wanted to be part of it, that confirmed to me that this was a good idea.”
It might seem unlikely that a chef responsible for bringing cutting edge California cuisine to the South Bay would relish working at a restaurant focused on simple grilled items. Bell points out that this overlooks two things: California cuisine’s roots and the way that ingredients have changed.
“One of the first California cuisine restaurants I went to was Spago. When Wolfgang opened it, every plate had a protein and a mesclun salad on it. The protein might be a simple grilled chicken or lamb chops, but the salad on every plate was unusual. No one else did that in those days. He did, because this was California, and he was thinking about balance in a way that other people weren’t.”
A 1983 Spago shows meat and seafood items that would fit seamlessly into a modern steakhouse, and the restaurant’s current menu has not one or two, but four steaks. California cuisine embraced steakhouse ideas much earlier than many people might expect, though this might be forgotten because the more outrageous ideas tend to be the ones most remembered.
Modern steak houses have an advantage that Puck and his pioneering contemporaries did not: the vastly increased supply of high-quality products.
“Fifteen or 20 years ago, there was only one kind of beef available. It was grain fed. You picked between choice and prime, and there was very little prime. Nowadays there are so many different types of beef being grown, among them grass fed, grass fed grain finished, grass fed carrot finished, American wagyu, and Kobe. There’s so much prime available that the cost has come down and the quality has come up.”
But will the average customer even recognize the difference?
“There is a broad lack of understanding about the character of different kinds of beef. Some people will order a Kobe or Wagyu just to show off, because it’s the most expensive. They are the same people who will order a bottle of Opus One just because it’s the famous thing they’ve heard of. People are eating less meat as a general part of their diet, but when they do eat it, they want it to be special.”
Bell has a partner in the kitchen, chef Noah Gott, who has both an impressive resume and a local connection. He attended Riviera Elementary School and South High, which his children now attend.
“I started at 17 at Kincaid’s in Redondo as a dishwasher. My second job was at Fleming’s in El Segundo. My parents took me to Chez Melange when I was probably about 11 years old, though I didn’t have the slightest premonition that someday I might be working for their chef. After working for so many big corporations, being able to not just be local but to work at someplace personal was an amazing opportunity.”
Bell is so confident in Gott that he has done something unusual: turn the usual pattern of developing new dishes on its head.
“He is creative enough that when the two of us have been talking about a dish, instead of me saying, I’ll put it together and you see what you think of it, I’ll say you put it together and let me take a look at it. He has a lot of freedom, and he’s doing a lot of the groundwork for the dishes that I thought I was going to have to do.”
As a lifelong resident, Gott believes that he knows what locals will like, and he is keeping that in mind as he develops dishes.
“Our idea is to do things for the people who live in the South Bay, but we know it’s going to go beyond that. We want this to be a destination for people who come from all over the place to see what we’re doing.”
Leach doesn’t see a conflict between a locals’ hangout and a destination restaurant.
“Robert’s and my first conversation was about how to create a great neighborhood steakhouse. We recognized that if we do that, it will be attractive to people from elsewhere, and the word will get out. We don’t want to be, either attitude wise or price wise, a place where people will only come once a month. If they want to come in and order from the bar menu, whether they want a cocktail or a Diet Coke, we want them to feel like this is their place. If they want a great piece of fish, or just a salad and an appetizer, we want them to do that as well.”
Bell was quick to agree.
“Neighborhood restaurants, whether they’re in Los Angeles or Rome, serve their local community Monday through Thursday and that’s what keeps them paying the rent. They’re a destination restaurant on weekends, and I would love that to happen here.”
The customer experience is Leach’s major concern, and he was quick to specify a break with tradition.
“We are not going with the old school, club atmosphere where you have to break out your flashlight to read the menu. The dining room will be comfortably lit, with a lot of plants and fresh herbs that we’ll be using. It will be contemporary, comfortable, and beachy, not the usual clubby masculine space.”
As might be expected, the man who obsessed over that wine magazine in an airport long ago has firm ideas about the beverage list.
“It’s not just a beverage, there’s a story behind it, a process, and everything comes together to create this thing that people enjoy. It’s a reason to celebrate, and that’s something I draw from when creating the wine list. Our tagline is that we’re Pacific Standard Prime, the original California steakhouse, so our wine list will be California-centric.”
Pacific Standard Prime was scheduled to open February 25, only two days before Chez Melange serves its final meals. Some will see this as a brilliant way of drawing attention to the new business, but Bell insists that it’s not.
“It’s a coincidence that Chez is closing the same week as PSP is opening. We really didn’t plan it that way, it just happened. We expected to be open back in September or October, but there were unforeseen problems with the city and the county.”
The new steakhouse opens its doors with a level of recognition that other places might envy thanks to the high-profile team, but the test for the restaurant will be over the longer-term. Is there a demand in South Redondo, at the base of the Palos Verdes Peninsula, for a place that will serve one of the most uniquely American luxury meals in a modern style? This trio of pros is betting that since they’ve built it, we will come.
by Richard Foss