The Strand House is across from the Manhattan Beach pier. (Kirk McKoy, Los Angeles…)
The Strand House in Manhattan Beach commands an enviable position at the edge of the ocean-side town overlooking the pier. No accident, since owner Michael Zislis is already a big presence here with his Shade Hotel and a number of casual restaurants, including Mucho, Brewco and Rock 'n Fish.
But with the Strand House, the Zislis Group is trying something different from its successful run of beachy restaurants. It has overhauled the former Beaches and turned it into a lavish three-level restaurant and lounge that looks more to Hollywood for its style cues than to the town's laid-back beach culture. And the Cal-Mediterranean food borrows from what's perennially popular in L.A. — pizza, handmade pasta, vegetable sides and the usual suspects in terms of mains — with mixed results.
The place definitely stands out on a block anchored by a bikini store. One night a doggy stroller (pink, and my first sighting) is parked just outside the front doors. By the time I leave sometime after 10 p.m., the stroller and its occupant are gone, replaced by that trendy bit of paraphernalia, the velvet rope. What? The gentleman hired to man the door tells us the downstairs level becomes a club in the later hours. On this wind-swept night with not one person in line, this seems more like wishful thinking.
Inside, the two hosts at the desk are appropriately chirpy and welcoming, but the place still has a chilly corporate vibe. Table not quite ready? Get out your credit card. In the entrance, Wine Station machines dispense wines from the quite ordinary to cult bottlings. If you've just made a killing somewhere somehow, by all means go for the 2008 Opus One at $45 a glass (or $15 a half-glass or $7.50 a taste). Or the 2009 Sea Smoke Pinot Noir from Santa Rita Hills at $36, $18 or $6.
Follow the hostess up the steep backlit stairs past a window looking onto the lower level lounge (there's another bar half a flight up from the main dining room). Floor-to-ceiling windows look out on the dark sea and the glinting lights of the pier. The crowd is prosperous-looking and much more dressed up than the diners at nearby M.B. Post. You see suits and ties, Italian sport jackets, designer dresses and major bags. They're here for the action, and loving the idea of not having to drive to the city for a taste of upscale night life.
I was excited at the prospect of yet another interesting new South Bay restaurant. And my first meal — pizza with Benton's ham and roasted tomato red pepper sauce, pasta, hanger steak — was promising, the food something of a cross between Grace and Gjelina, which makes sense. The consulting chef is Grace's Neal Fraser while chef Travis Lorton comes from Gjelina. Lorton's previous experience was in Chicago at several well-known restaurants, including Blackbird and Schwa.
Visits two and three were disappointing, though. Given the talent involved — and the prices — the food should be much better than it is. Pizzas are as thin-crusted as Gjelina's, but toppings are criminally sparse (and I'm a minimalist when it comes to pizza topping). Our mushroom pizza had only the thinnest veil of Fontina and maybe three or four mushrooms dispersed on the crust. The flavors are good, but the kitchen just needs to be a bit more generous. Zucchini blossom pizza must have had half a blossom torn into shreds, almost invisible, a few paper-thin slices of zucchini and barely any cheese. When one of my guests complains, the manager comes over and peers down at it. It does seem a little thin, he says.
I can imagine what's happening. The pizza maker has been admonished for loading on the toppings and has gone way too far in the other direction. Meanwhile, this place is busy, and the chef is too harried to monitor what's going out.
The food is wildly uneven, service in disarray. If you request the pizza to come out first, you can't count on that happening. All the appetizers could arrive at once, the pizza a good while after. Servers dressed all in black like Bunraku puppeteers may show up with main courses before the appetizers have been cleared — or even finished. If you send them away, they're back minutes later trying to do the same thing.
Here's the good, the bad and the ugly.
I love the Parkerhouse rolls to start, served warm as a pull-apart loaf, with creamed butter. Heirloom tomato salad made with tomatoes from a farm near Paso Robles is terrific. Red tomatoes streaked with color are generously served up with creamy burrata spooned over the top, a great dish to share. Roasted beet salad with pickled onions and a finely tuned sherry vinaigrette works too.
And the pizza with roasted pepper and tomato sauce topped with Benton's smoky ham is a plus. Hand-torn pasta rags with rustic lamb sausage, roasted fennel and pine nuts would be the best dish in the house if the kitchen would sauce it a little less exuberantly. As it is, pastas come off greasy.