Writing up an early report on a new restaurant can sometimes be awkward. At just a week or two old, some places are not yet ready for prime time, which is why we generally wait two or three months before publishing a full review of a new restaurant. Tin Roof Bistro in Manhattan Beach falls into that awkward phase -- almost ready but not quite.
Mike Simms, owner of the popular Simmzy's (his family also created Mimi's Cafe, Lazy Dog Cafe and the Kettle), has given himself a difficult assignment transforming a space that was once a free-standing mall restaurant into a vibrant welcoming bistro. The banal architecture is definitely a handicap. But he and his designer have managed to warm up the space somewhat with a mini vineyard and a bocce ball court out front. Inside, a pressed tin "roof" has been suspended from the ceiling to make the place feel a bit cozier.
Wine-themed tchotchkes -- a wooden Champagne riddler, lamps made from wine bottles -- and tabletops of artfully distressed wood complete the look. If you can, get a table on the patio next to a tinkling fountain where the light isn't as glaring and the sound level is more comfortable.
The cooking from chef Anne Conness, former chef of Napa Valley Grille in Westwood, is basically American bistro with Italian accents. The menu makes a big deal of "our Italian 'Ferrari' of a wood burning pizza oven." So far, though, the thin-crusted pizzas may not rock your world, unless your world consists of Domino's or Pizza Hut. The crust is a little flaccid, without that much flavor, and the toppings on offer are an oddball collection. Sure, you can find a "plain Jane pizza" (tomatoes, mozzarella, chili flakes and basil) or a regular pepperoni, cheese and tomato pie. (I just wish the tomato sauce weren't so sweet.) There's prosciutto and asparagus pizza with fontina cheese too, and the oddly compelling Pizza Lorraine topped with bacon, Swiss cheese, caramelized onions, braised greens and bubbling bechamel.
"Fearless Caesar" is touted as having a "take no prisoners" Caesar dressing, but it's actually a bit wimpy. And the panzanella (Italian tomato and bread salad), though made with flavorful heirloom tomatoes, features the same commercial croutons as the Caesar's instead of the traditional torn stale bread soaked in water and olive oil and vinegar.
That oven does turn out a great roast jidori chicken, though, with a super-crisp skin. And the shoestring fries, though pale, are terrific, especially dipped in a delicious malt vinegar and sea salt aioli.
You can get a beautiful piece of Chinook salmon from the wood-burning oven with roasted asparagus and potatoes, a not-so-enticing sirloin steak with those wonderful frites, and pan-roasted California striped bass. The chef's interpretation of fish and chips features plump crab cakes instead of fish and a fiery Napa cabbage slaw. Bargain alert: The burger with sharp cheddar and sweet onion chow chow comes in under $10, which is a relief given all those $18 burgers out there. A couple of dollars more buys you fries to go with it.
Dessert at the moment is either an open-face ice cream sandwich or what our server describes as a deconstructed fruit crumble -- a swatch of puff pastry topped with warm farmers market berries and a dollop of mascarpone.
With some astute tweaking, Tin Roof Bistro may turn out to be something interesting, but at this point it's hard to tell.
Tin Roof Bistro
Where: Manhattan Village shopping center, 3500 N. Sepulveda Blvd., Manhattan Beach.
When: 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sundays through Thursdays and 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays. Full bar. Lot parking.
Price: Starters, $9 to $14; soups and salads, $3.50 to $15; pizzas, $9.75 to $14; main courses, $9.75 to $23.75; sides, $3 to $4.50; desserts, $6.50 to $8.50.
Contact: (310) 546-6180; www.tinroofbistro.com.