Variations on a culinary theme

The spacious patio offers a wide view of the street life of Riviera Village. Photo by Kevin Cody

The menu at Hook & Plow in Riviera Village has a distinctive style that is generally successful

I was in a restaurant where the menu lists signature dishes, and it caused me to think about what my actual signature looks like. This is a distinctive scrawl that inspired my wife to remark that it always looks like I happened to have a pen in my hand during an earthquake. On the bright side, it’s almost impossible to forge, because anybody else trying to write my name would probably feel compelled to make at least some of the letters legible.

Restaurants with a signature style may also be concerned with forgery, because copycats are everywhere in the culinary industry. Like a human signature, the more individual the original, the more difficult it is for anyone else to pass them off as their own.

Based on this proposition, the Hook & Plow in Riviera Village has little to worry about. Whoever creates the dishes here is obviously fascinated with the way rich, spicy and fruity flavors combine, and has a whimsical take on some classic dishes. They’re not consciously outrageous, or based on adding a polarizing item like truffle oil in everything, but seem to be genuinely inspired.

Consider the brussels sprouts appetizer. Sprouts are on many menus now, often sauteed with oil and garlic until they’re soft and have some caramelized sweetness. This moderates the cabbage flavor that some people find off-putting. The Hook & Plow goes in the opposite direction, roasting them lightly so that the natural vegetable flavor is still dominant and pairing them with kale, thick-cut bacon, and Grana Padano parmesan in a lemon caper sauce. There’s a lot of sweet-cured bacon in the dish, and along with the saltiness and citrus of the sauce and the rich cheese it balances the vegetable flavors elegantly. If you’re not a fan of the flavor of brussels sprouts front and center this dish may not be for you, but you might want to give it a shot, because you probably haven’t tasted them like this before.

Clam chowder gets a subtle makeover, too. Their recipe uses bacon, which isn’t unusual, and chive oil and more of that Grana Padano, which is. This chef obviously likes the stuff and enjoys experimenting with it, and in this case it was an inspired decisipn. There’s no mention of a dash of sriracha or some other hot sauce in the menu description, but there is a gentle heat that you notice after a spoonful or two. I really can’t remember having parmesan cheese in chowder before, but it works, and the chive oil adds a little more aromatic intensity when used instead of the chopped green onion that is a more standard ingredient.

We followed these two starters with entrees of the jidori chicken and a daily special that was described as handmade pappardelle with lamb belly and asparagus in a cream sauce. I had ordered this out of curiosity, because lamb belly is such a rich ingredient that it’s not often prepared with cream sauce. Unfortunately, this particular preparation reinforced the wisdom of the ages, because the cream sauce with Grana Padano didn’t have a sharp enough flavor to balance the fatty meat. The asparagus and micro-greens that topped the pasta needed something more – perhaps chopped leeks, arugula, or kale in the sauce would have been a good touch, maybe a little of that chive oil, or perhaps roasting the lamb with a pepper and herb rub. Oddly, the pasta was rigatoni rather than the advertised housemade pappardelle, so I have a suspicion that this item is still undergoing some tinkering in the kitchen. I could see what they were trying to do, but it was the only disappointment of the two dining experiences we had there.

The jidori chicken at Hook & Plow in Riviera Village is served over leek cream sauce, dried cherries, and arugula. Photo by Richard Foss.

The jidori chicken was a return to form, a plump, juicy leg and thigh section over a bed of arugula, dried cherries, broccolini, and sourdough croutons in a leek cream sauce. A bit too generous with the cream sauce, really, without some bread to mop it up, or perhaps some orzo or similar small pasta. The combination of fruit, cream and slightly bitter arugula with frizzled grilled leek suited the meat well, and it’s a house classic.

The wine list is good, but this location has added a cocktail list since we had last visited, with the house drinks invented by manager Silvia Rho.   The house old fashioned uses smoked bourbon as something more than a novelty, but the hit of the ones I’ve tried is the “rye not?,” a mix of whiskey, tawny port, bitters, and maple syrup. I have recently had a couple of cocktails that lessened my antipathy to maple and booze together, and this one finished the job. I’m way more likely to order them now.

We came back for weekend brunch a few days later, and an unusual brunch it was. American breakfasts tend to be egg-heavy or sweet, but here they go for a different approach. The only waffles or pancakes are as a side order or on the kids’ menu, and there is one conventional breakfast sandwich and one plate of eggs and bacon. No omelets, no French toast, nothing sugary. There are shrimp and grits, a breakfast standard in Low Country South, and a steak hash, about which I’ll say more later, but otherwise the selections are more like you’d expect to see at dinner. This is the only place I know of in the South Bay where you can order an $80 seafood platter or a prime steak sandwich at 9 a.m., and I can imagine that night shift workers who have been looking for a nice place for a date will be thrilled when they read this fact.

The non-traditional breakfast burrito at Hook & Plow. Photo by Richard Foss

We decided to try their version of a breakfast burrito and the steak hash, because we were intrigued by the changes they’ve made to these two classics. The burrito has most of the ingredients you’d expect, eggs, hashed browns, bacon, avocado, and cheddar, but in the place of the expected salsa there is onion jam and pear sriracha sauce. Instead of enchilada sauce, it’s topped with the kind of bacon gravy you’d expect to see on biscuits at an unusually good southern roadside diner. There’s a cognitive dissonance here – it looks like the item we know and love, but tasted like it was invented in Georgia instead of New Mexico. My wife asked for the pear sriracha sauce on the side because she wasn’t sure she would like it, but found that the fruity heat perked up the homespun flavors very nicely. This may be the oddest breakfast burrito you ever get, and I recommend that you get it.

The steak “hash” is layered in a way that is almost like a sculpture. Photo by Richard Foss

The “hash” wasn’t really a hash at all, but a carefully constructed stack of roasted potatoes surrounded by a ring of pear sriracha and topped with layers of that same bacon gravy, asparagus stalks, sliced steak, onion jam, poached eggs, and chives. It was a monumental sculpture of food, made prettier by the arugula on the side, and it was delicious, but in no way a hash by the conventional definition. I’m not sure what they should call it, but it’s much more interesting than the typical hash, however well made. I’d have it again in a heartbeat.

After breakfast we sat on the serene patio, sipping coffee, French press made with a smooth blend, and watched the parade of people walking dogs. I also enjoyed a tasty, spicy bloody Mary that arrived garnished with celery, olive, and a cucumber slice. It wasn’t a cheap breakfast at about $45 each, but it was a memorable one.

The Hook & Plow is one of the few low-key establishments in a neighborhood notable for party places, and their eccentric, eclectic take on American classics is generally very successful. There are ideas here that are worth savoring, and if you try to replicate some of them at home later, I’m sure the staff here won’t mind.

The Hook and Plow Riviera Village is at 1729 S. Catalina Avenue in Redondo Beach. Open 11:30 a.m. – 9 p.m. Mon. — Thurs.; 11:30 -10 p.m. Fri.; 9 a.m. – 10 p.m. Sat.; 9 a.m. – 9 p.m. Sun. Street parking or nearby lots. Wheelchair access good. Full bar, corkage $20. Some vegetarian items. (424) 247-8272. ER


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