The Art of the Meal
There is a time-honored ritual for the opening of an art gallery, and every new exhibition must bring a smile to the owners of nearby wine and cheese shops. Pity the artist who is lactose intolerant and doesn’t drink, because most of the food at their own receptions will be off limits.
One local art institution goes far beyond cheddar and chardonnay, though you’ll have to open your wallet rather than depend on the kindness of an exhibitor. Stripe Café is located inside the Palos Verdes Art Center, and after a year of being open for lunch and special events on a BYOB basis they have obtained a wine license and opened for dinner.
The decor in the small space is dominated by the candy colored stripes along one wall that look like stray drips of watercolor paint. It’s cheerful and whimsical, in keeping with many of the exhibits in the galleries on the other side of the wall. The wide-ranging menu by chef Brett Hickey reflects his obsession with teasing out the flavors of seasonal produce, and is untethered to any particular tradition.
This isn’t to say that there are no cultural influences, as one of the starters on the day we dined was a twist on prosciutto with melon, an Italian classic. I find this dull when made with standard cantaloupe or honeydew, but Hickey’s version was brilliant. He had used fresh heirloom honeydew and what he referred to as an “experimental melon,” a cantaloupe crossbreed that was a brilliant orange and had a vibrant flavor. These had been wrapped with thinly sliced ham and topped with mint and olive oil powder, a mix of oil with malt sugar and salt. This powder lends the flavor of olive oil without the greasiness and added another dimension to the fruit flavors with concentrated pork.
Another simple dish brilliantly handled was sherry-marinated cherry tomatoes sautéed with mushrooms and served with soft, mild crescenza cheese. Those mushrooms and cheese were modifiers to the tomatoes, whose sweetness was enhanced by the sherry marinade. It was a simple recipe in which the quality of all three ingredients shone. Hickey took the same idea different places with a dish of grilled octopus over a stew of chipotle tomatillos and braised chickpeas tossed with raw radishes, radish sprouts, and fresh cilantro. I had ordered this because I like octopus, but the vegetable items stole the show here. It only needed some bread so none of that delicious sauce would be wasted, and when we asked for some our server brought it.
Six entrees were offered, and we tried three: fried quail, seared halibut over roasted cauliflower, and lamb belly with lamb hash, shisito pepper jam, and sweet potato puree. The presentation on the lamb belly was ornate, the sweet potato on one side of a semicircle of meat, the hash on the other side, and drips of the shisito jelly in a pattern around the edge. Lamb belly can be done two different ways, lightly cooked so the meat is moist and rich but chewy, or slow-roasted so that the fat renders out of the tender meat and a crisp crust develops. This was the lightly done variety, and it was well matched to the peppery jelly that cut the richness of the meat. The hash was a mix of gold potato, bell pepper, zucchini, and lamb chunks, a colorful choice that added textures and flavors to the plate. My own preference is for the slower roast, but this was good on its own merits.
We had ordered the quail for two reasons: first, because we had never had that bird battered and fried like chicken, and second, the accompaniments of housemade mole sauce and wild greens with tequila-soaked currants and raisins sounded too interesting to miss. The quail was an amusing novelty, a half-size half chicken in a tasty batter, and while we were impressed that the meat was tender, it was a meal for a light eater. The rest of the items did make the plate worth ordering, the smoky-sweet raisins with bitter greens delicious and the mole sauce another reason to deploy the bread.
The halibut was outstanding, the crisp fish topped by salad leaves and served over both roasted cauliflower and a cauliflower jamon mousse. Cauliflower doesn’t have a particularly strong flavor, but pureeing it with bits of Spanish ham adds a rich smokiness that makes it a great companion to fish. I have no idea how this pairing came about, but it was a stroke of brilliance.
The wine list here is small, which is no surprise – they have only had a license for a short time, and a lot of their regular clientele is used to bringing their own. The wines they serve by the glass are well chosen, and run between eight and fourteen dollars for a generous pour.
Four deserts are offered, and since we were curious we ordered all of them. These were a pluot crème brulee, salted caramel budino, chocolate mousse, and berries with meringue topped with a rose wine reduction. The pluot crème brulee a successful twist on an item I don’t usually like much, the mousse well-made but standard. We liked the salted caramel pudding, served with chocolate chip cookies for dipping, but my favorite was the berries. The warm reduction of a dry rose wine added intense aromas to the assorted strawberries, blueberries, and raspberries, and if this is offered when you visit it’s a must-have.
One of the galleries w
as still open when we finished dinner, so we strolled among whimsical neon art for a final few moments of the artistic experience. The bill for three people with two glasses of wine each ran $211, of which about $135 was food. It should be noted that we over-ordered and took some home, so you might get away for less. Still, it was worth it for a superb meal in an extraordinary setting. Dinner at Stripe Café is a place where you get very personal service from one of the hottest new chefs in the South Bay, and you should visit while bookings are still widely available.
Stripe Café is at 5504 West Crestridge Road in Rancho Palos Verdes. Open 11:30 a.m. – 2:30 p.m. for lunch Mo-Sat, 5 p.m. – 9 p.m. for dinner Wed – Sat. Closed Su. Parking lot, wine and beer served, patio dining. Menu at cafestripe.com, phone 310-541-2479. ER