Richard Foss

The triumph of simplicity [restaurant review]

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Slay Steak and Fish House appeals to those who appreciate the classics

David Slay Jr. and chef dad David Slay with the evening’s produced, picked from their garden. Photo by JP Cordero (CivicCouch.com)

Every time I write about a steak and seafood house, I get the same complaint: “Why are you writing about something simple like this that I can do at home?”
If you have even rudimentary cooking facilities, you can indeed cook a steak at home. You may also have a piano at home, and listening to you play it is cheaper than concert tickets, but given a choice between you or Herbie Hancock, I’ll shell out to hear Herbie.
Lots of locals apparently make the same calculation, because there are several steakhouses under construction that will join the ones already thriving in our area. The most recent to open, Slay Steak and Fish House, is a good example of how simple ideas can be exquisitely executed.
The change from the former Darren’s on Manhattan Avenue could hardly be more complete — Darren’s was bright, loud, and modern. Slay’s is a notch or two quieter, somewhat darker, and decorated in a cool vintage style. The two chefs cook very differently too, Darren a master of intricate multicultural dishes, Slay an advocate for American classics embellished with modern touches. Nevertheless, some people who were fans of Darren’s are still coming here — I recognized a few on a recent visit.

Slay Steak and Fish House evokes the sophistication of an earlier era.

The appetizer portions here are small, so ordering one per person plus a salad is about right, and it also preserves the rhythm of an old school steak place. We chose stuffed squash blossoms, bacon-cheddar deviled eggs, and a crabcake that was on special. It deserves space on the regular menu, because it’s one of the best I’ve had, locally. Slay used Caribbean crab that evening because it was in season. The meat is unbreaded and mildly seasoned so you really taste the flavor of the seafood. I’m picky about crabcakes and usually prefer the Maryland style with Old Bay seasoning, but this one won me over. It was topped with an excellent slaw and a dab of carrot top pesto, and was so good we asked for dinner rolls so we could soak up every bit. Slay’s rolls are baked at his other restaurant and are slightly sweet, with a crisp top crust and a few flecks of salt crystals on top.
The squash blossoms were a hit too, stuffed with herbed cheese, dipped in egg batter, and fried crisp. It was a masterpiece, the filling hot and soft, exterior crisp, the flavors delicate and in balance. This is the kind of cooking most people can’t do at home even if their lives depended on it. Which made it odd that the other appetizer we ordered, the simplest of the three, was the only dud of the meal. The deviled egg with cheddar whipped into the yolk had a hefty dose of horseradish that threw off the balance. It was served with thick slabs of housemade bacon that had a sweet overtone reminiscent of Chinese roast pork. The bacon had a good flavor but was a bit tough. The best thing about the dish was the tart, fruity housemade jam drizzled along the side. The ideas weren’t bad, but just didn’t come together.
To pair with these we had a Gold Rush cocktail and glasses of two Chardonnays from Slay’s own vineyards. The Slayer was more oaky and rich, but I preferred the lighter, more floral Verna’s Vineyard. The Gold Rush was properly made and reflects the bar’s aesthetic. This isn’t the place for fancy modern mixology, but for well-executed classics.
Our middle course was a bowl of fresh lettuces with shaved fennel, carrot, tomato, and both red and golden beets. Slay owns his own farm and the quality of the greens was very high. He made the correct decision to not drown them in dressing. The herb vinaigrette added just a whisper of flavor, but it was the difference between a salad and a bowl of raw vegetables.
We continued our meal with steak and seafood, of course — a seafood pasta, twice-cooked ahi tuna, and a coffee-crusted ribeye with peppercorn sauce. The seafood pasta was a bowl with linguine, red and yellow tomatoes, a broth that tasted of seafood and white wine and a breath of green herbs, and a generous portion of salmon, whitefish, mussels, and shrimp. It fit the aesthetic of letting natural flavors shine in a way that a more robust, garlicky version wouldn’t, and was excellent.
The twice-cooked ahi was the most novel idea on the menu. Chef Slay takes a whole side of fish, rubs it with herbs, and sears it on all sides, after which it is chilled. When someone orders a portion, a steak is cut off and it is seared again before serving. The result is that both sides and edges have a tasty crust and are infused with a smoky herb flavor. Seared ahi is such a standard dish these days that it’s rare to see an interesting take on it. It arrived with pesto mashed potatoes topped with English peas and mint, a fine combination.
As for the ribeye, it was one of the best I’ve had anywhere, the coffee rub mingling with the slight char and caramelization of the fats to create a perfect crust over the medium-rare interior. It was an expert execution of my favorite steak, and though we ordered a 12-ounce cut expecting to take some home, it mysteriously disappeared. It was served with a very good, spicy corn mix and a cheese potato that was fairly standard — ask for the pesto potato, instead.
To pair with the entrees we selected a Slayer Pinot Noir and a Kenwood Cab.As expected both wines went well with the beef while the Slayer played nicely with the seafood. The wine list here is short but well curated, while corkage is relatively high at $30.
For dessert we decided to split a pot au crème with caramel and a bread pudding with peaches. Our server decided to surprise us with a berry sabayon that had been run briefly under the broiler. That’s an interesting idea and the lightly scorched egg, cream, and wine mixture had a fine flavor, but we all felt that something was missing. A bit of mild toasted granola might add texture and a little nutty flavor, but that’s just a guess. The pot au crème hit the spot, and the bread pudding was odd but good. Rather than the usual torn pieces of bread baked into a custard with fruit and a liquor topping, this was much more like french toast topped with peach slices and ice cream. It’s not what I expected, but it tasted just great. I paired it with a snifter of of Armagnac from their unusually good selection, while my companions had port.
Dinner at Slay isn’t cheap, but expert cooking of expensive ingredients rarely is — it came to about $130 per person before tax and tip. Given rents in Manhattan Beach, good service by a large staff, and the caliber of the experience here, that’s reasonable. Slay is a marvelous addition to the South Bay dining scene, and if you appreciate the classics with a few modern twists, it’s a place you must go.
Slay Steak and Fish House is at 1141 Manhattan Avenue in Manhattan Beach. Opens daily at 4 p.m., Closes Sun. -Thur. at 10 p.m. Fri.-Sat. 10:30 p.m. Street parking. Wheelchair access good. Full bar. Corkage $30. (310) 504-0902. SlaySteakAndFishhouse.com. ER

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