White oak-grilled sword squid with marinated gigante beans and lemon curd… (Arkasha Stevenson / Los…)
The concrete walls of the new M.B. Post (short for Manhattan Beach Post) are stenciled with giant faded postmarks beneath a barrel-vaulted ceiling. The design by Stephen Francis Jones of SF Jones Architects plays off the fact that from the '50s through the '70s the building was the beach town's post office.
And even though old mail-sorting slots are used as dividers in the dining room, that long-ago post office definitely didn't have a tapas bar. And it's a fairly sure bet that few of the people picking up their mail back then had an inkling about Spanish cuisine or ingredients like yuzu kosho or white anchovies.
Now, with sliding steel-and-glass doors opening onto the street, a tapas bar and communal tables of salvaged oak, plus a gutsy small-plates menu from chef David LeFevre, the old post office has a whole new life as a "social restaurant." Though it's hard to spot from the street, inside it's a different story. Everyone is passing plates and sharing tastes of the globe-trotting menu, which covers a number of time zones.
Thursday nights, women in form-fitting off-the-shoulder tops, lavishly applied mascara and strappy sandals meet up with guys in shorts and flip-flops. They're on two different fashion wavelengths. Cocktails are ordered — Manhattan Avenue made with Sazerac rye, vanilla, caramel and "bacon dust" or perhaps Mo-Pho-Jito, a mojito flavored with kaffir lime, ginger and coriander honey. Hoots of laughter bounce off the walls. There's a lot of coming and going to and from the bar, dashing outside for a smoke, before squeezing back inside at the massive communal table or capturing a table for two.
But M.B. Post is more than a bar scene.
The food — exotic by South Bay standards — comes out in waves from the open kitchen where LeFevre can be seen, attending to every plate issuing from the stove. He's there every night, even on a Monday, which shows some serious commitment to this new venture. It's a departure for the Wisconsin native and Charlie Trotter veteran whose career, so far, has been almost exclusively in more formal high-end restaurants. His last job was executive chef at Water Grill.
But LeFevre is showing that he can do rustic and gutsy just as well as fine dining. He seems to be having fun, picking up ideas from Spain, Provence, Japan and Vietnam. His menu, with handwritten additions nightly, is so enticing sounding, we ended up over-ordering every time. Discussing this menu with your fellow diners over the tremendous din is not that easy, though. Pointing will have to do. The blistering noise level seems designed to limit the crowd to the young and impervious.
Start with bread — biscuits, a pretzel or a flatbread, all baked in-house. Buttermilk biscuits laced with bacon and cheddar are rich and crumbly, served with a maple-sweetened butter (but probably better without). The braided pretzel is a real beauty, shiny brown on top and dusted with fleur de sel. This one comes with a sharp horseradish mustard that gives the bread a lift. There's also grilled nan, to tear apart and dip in yogurt spiked with vibrant house-made harissa.
Look around, the rough wooden tables are covered with dishes, everyone trying everything in a riot of passing plates. There go some cured meats, Creminelli salami or La Quercia prosciutto, here come any of four or five hand-crafted cheeses.
The menu section dubbed "eat your vegetables … " proposes dishes everybody can love. Red and gold salt-roasted baby beets are presented upside-down, their roots in the air, sitting on a beet green pesto and adorned with creamy chêvre and pistachios. Everybody's got a beet salad on their menu, but this one is a smash hit. "Blistering" green beans sauteed at high heat with Thai basil, chili sauce and crispy pork bits play up Southeast Asian flavors. Or for something Mediterranean-inspired, have the tender spring garlic and bacon tart made with Bellwether Farms sheep's milk ricotta, arugula and a touch of spiced honey.
For something lighter, LeFevre makes a couscous dish dotted with feta, almonds, mint and pomegranate seeds. Now that stone fruits are in season, he's grilling yellow nectarines and serving them with ricotta that's been whipped for a creamier texture and fresh candied walnuts.
The chef manages to avoid the clichés of beach food, though he does make excellent fish 'n' chips from halibut. He serves hiramasa sashimi with dots of yuzu kosho, avocado and crunchy puffed forbidden rice. Instead of the usual fried calamari, he has larger sword squid grilled over white oak and set on a bed of fat white marinated beans seasoned with a touch of lemon. It's like eating a squid steak. King salmon goes on the grill, smartly paired with a Korean pear, celery root and fava bean slaw. The portion is hardly enormous, but amazing for $13.