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.
My pick for the mains is the local black cod, simply cooked, each bite rich and flavorful. Next best is the vegetarian main course, buckwheat crepes rolled up with fresh ricotta and sauteed beet greens — simple and satisfying. When did you ever see two avid carnivores pass up their steak or chicken for one more bite of crepe with beet greens? It happened.
Now for the bad. Pork confit-stuffed tortelli with chanterelle mushrooms and kale is workmanlike at best, heavy and unappealing. Potato gratin with caramelized onions, bacon and Gruyère comes in a cute little casserole but is so overly rich it's almost inedible. Hand-cut frites, double-fried in tallow (polite speak for beef fat) are fluffy inside but sadly limp. For me, that lack of crispness is a deal breaker.
Hanger steak ordered rare arrives medium rare and lacks flavor, despite a watercress gremolata, which is a lovely idea, in fact. Grilled pork tenderloin topped with a khaki-colored chimichurri is dried-out. And the Moroccan-inspired rack of lamb rubbed with chermoula may be the most tasteless piece of meat I've encountered for $38. Brussels sprouts glazed with maple seems off kilter — you get that cabbage funk sweetened. Why?
I'm just as mystified by the butterscotch doughnuts sprinkled with powdered bacon. Everybody loves bacon, but not as a powder with sticky sweet doughnuts. If you crave a sweet, go with the Strand bar, an elongated rectangle of dark chocolate ganache so rich it has to be shared.
In the end, the restaurant comes off as amateurish and not ready for prime time. I'm not expecting three-star service. But is it too much to ask for a little common sense? Or thoughtfulness? I'd love to get a cease-and-desist order to prevent servers from continually checking in to ask if everything is "great." And the $30 corkage fee for a restaurant with such a weak wine list isn't the swiftest move either.
The trouble with the Strand House is that the place lacks soul. And even though I'm sure the chef is working hard, he may be hampered by an inexperienced crew and the chaotic front-of-the-house. I could be more forgiving if the restaurant were less expensive. But in the end, there's little reason to go back.
The Strand House
Rating: half a star
Rating is based on food, service and ambience, with price taken into account in relation to quality.
****: Outstanding on every level.
**: Very good.
No star: Poor to satisfactory.
Location: 117 Manhattan Beach Blvd., Manhattan Beach, (310) 545-7470, http://www.thestrandhousemb.com
Prices: Salads, $11 to $15; appetizers, $13 to $18; pizzas, $13 to $19; mains, $23 to $39; sides, $8; desserts, $8 to $12. Corkage fee, $30 per bottle.
Details: Open for dinner 5 to 10 p.m. Tuesday to Sunday and for brunch 10 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.