A Bountiful Year

New South Bay restaurant openings in 2007 were plentiful and in many cases, inspired
by Richard Foss
Published February 21, 2008

I think of restaurant management as a performing art because those who are successful at it must have all the skills of a theater director. You need to audition a cast, give them great material to work with, rehearse them so each individual’s talent is used to the best effect, and coordinate them so that everyone concerned works well together. ET’s Steven Spielberg would probably be a fine restaurateur, and since the skills ought to translate both ways, I’d trust Che Melange’s Michael Franks direct a play, as long as he doesn’t have to sing.

Stretching the metaphor until it’s groaning from the strain, I might muse that the skills of an indie filmmaker might be similar to those required to run a small restaurant. Actors might have to move some scenery when they’re not in the spotlight, just as servers ma bus a table or wash a few dishes. This crossover of skills might explain why so many aspiring actors become waiters – deep down, they comprehend that they’re advancing their careers even as they recite specials and refill water glasses.

Having proved beyond a doubt that my metaphor is accurate, I present the top new productions in the category of South Bay Restaurants. 2007 was an unusually good year for restaurant openings. While I tried to make this a Top 10 list, I really couldn’t pare it below a dozen without removing two worthy establishments, so a dozen it is. As with the movies, there are flawed but fascinating places that didn’t make the cut. Some otherwise promising places were disqualified for inept, sullen, or uncomprehending service, including a restaurant where the servers were unwilling or unable to provide water after three requests. I also remember a server who argued heatedly with another waitress for several minutes about what was in a particular entrée rather than going back to ask the chef. When the food finally arrived, it was excellent, but I certainly wouldn’t recommend that restaurant to anybody.

The following are presented in alphabetical order, and span the range from inexpensive little cafés to fine restaurants that can stand with the best, not only of the South Bay, but greater Los Angeles. There was a time when such a claim would have been hyperbole, but that is in the past. South Bay standards are now competitive with the very best in the region.

The Corkscrew Café, Manhattan Beach: The term “hidden gem” is so overused that I hesitated to write it, but critics keep using it because it is applicable. The Corkscrew Cafe has a low key design that looks appropriate for a fast food sandwich shop, but the food is ambitious, modern, and successful. Menu items change regularly, and there is some real creativity in the blend of European and modern California cuisine. Though some find the layout of many small rooms claustrophobic, it creates intimacy – go with a few friends and you have a private dining room. The service is friendly and efficient, which is especially impressive given the challenging layout.
2201 Highland Ave. Manhattan Beach. (310) 546-7160

Darren’s: For a few years, chef Darren Weiss ran an exceptional little restaurant called Café Catalina in Redondo Beach, offering an ever-changing array of creative, wine-friendly dishes. The restaurant was cramped, the service sometimes slow due to a tiny kitchen and strange layout, but customers lined up for great food. After a hiatus of a few years, Darren is back with the same fine food in a far more welcoming atmosphere. Café Catalina regulars will be delighted to know that old favorites like the spicy lobster chowder are back, and there are plenty of new attractions. We are glad Darren returned.
1141 Manhattan Ave., Manhattan Beach. (310) 802-1973.

Dragonfly Thai: Several new Thai restaurants opened in the South Bay last year, but the standout for excellent food in an unlikely location is Dragonfly Thai in Rolling Hills. The standard is very high and the flavors are bright and fresh. The mango salad is worthy of a Thai Town locals’ hangout. The food is remarkably good, not just for a Palos Verdes ethnic restaurant, but for any Thai restaurant serving a non-Thai clientele. There are only a few tables, but it’s worth the wait to try these fresh-tasting dishes on premises, rather than ordering take out.
50A Peninsula Center, Rolling Hill Estates. (310) 265-8424.

Deluca Traittoria: This new Italian place should win an award for building redesign – the old brick walls and classic décor makes it look like it has been here for four decades rather than four months. Add the nice touch of a small band playing classic jazz, Tin Pan Alley, and Italian standards, and you have a pleasant, classy nightspot. The real draw, though, is the food – mostly traditional pastas and salads, but exceptionally well executed. I have heard quibbles about rushed service, but that has not been my experience – our server was efficient but friendly and knew the menu well. Richmond Street has another claim to fame, and El Segundo has a new place that is worth a drive from the other beach cities.
225 Raymond St., El Segundo, (310) 640-7600.

Happy Veggie: The name makes it obvious that Happy Veggie is a vegetarian restaurant, but gives no hint that the food is quite this interesting. Behind the bland storefront is a restaurant that specializes in meatless Vietnamese cuisine – stir-fries, salads, rolls, and the soup called “Pho” that is usually made with seafood or beef stock. The flavors are fresh and bright, and even dedicated omnivores will find that they don’t miss the meat at all. The atmosphere is that of a family café, and the service is friendly, with regulars greeted by name. There is sometimes a wait at lunch due to a press of orders in the tiny, oddly placed kitchen, but a meal here is worth a bit of a wait.
709 N. Pacific Coast Hwy., Redondo Beach (King Harbor Shopping Center). (310) 379-5035

Hoka Hoka Sushi & Sake: Hoka Hoka means steamy-hot – an odd word to apply to sushi, which is usually served cool. Still, it’s not a bad name for this mini-mall marvel, a pleasant little Japanese restaurant that serves a lot more than fish and vinegary rice. There is a wide variety of sushi rolls, some traditional, others showing a Korean fondness for red pepper and spices, and also Japanese cooked dishes like tempura, udon, donburi rice bowls, and grilled black cod. They serve an amazing variety of sakes, shochu, and other Asian beverages, making this reasonably priced but pretty little restaurant a great place for novices and advanced food aficionados alike.
811 Torrance Blvd., Redondo Beach. (310) 316-7850.

Jitters: Unlike some years when I have done this survey, there are diamonds even in the economy price category. Beach residents have been trekking to the original Jitters in Torrance for years, attracted by homemade baked goods and big and tasty crepes, omelettes, and sandwiches, washed down with bucketfuls of coffee and chai. The new Jitters has introduced an astounding innovation: they’re open for dinner, though their 7 p.m. closing time means other places are just opening while they’re shutting down. Nothing on Jitters menu is wildly creative, but this isn’t that kind of restaurant – Jitters is all about exceptional comfort food at subterranean prices, and they deliver every time.
190 Hermosa Ave., Hermosa Beach. (310) 372-4712

Kobe Steakhouse: Real Japanese Kobe beef is quite a rarity in the U.S., but this mall steakhouse has a source for the best. Behind the dark windows and anonymous façade is a very nice little restaurant that serves top-quality beef from a variety of sources – you and a friend can order rib eye steaks from Japan and Colorado and eat them side by side, just to savor the differences. Best of all, the side dishes and starters are far more inventive than those offered at the average steakhouse – there’s an Asian flair to the beautifully presented salads and starters that elevates a dining experience here far above the usual carnivore fest. The servers are sometimes short on English but long on charm, and the positive attitude makes up for the occasional problems in comprehension. The Steakhouse has a short menu and a very brief wine list, but everything we tried from both categories was first-class.
2933 Rolling Hills Road, Torrance. (310) 891-2333.

La Creperie: There is just no question regarding which restaurant in the South Bay has the most outrageous style – one look at the leopard-print banquettes flanking the glass mosaic archway delivers a verdict. La Creperie delivers that high fashion with a side of savory or sweet crepes, sandwiches, and a few French country specialties. I’ve waited years for this place to open, having enjoyed the food at the original location in Long Beach, and I’m happy that it’s now in my neighborhood. There have been a few glitches in the startup phase – mostly dishes delivered late or out of sequence – but the staff gives every sign of working hard to make things right.
1209 Highland Ave., Manhattan Beach. (310) 545-3509.

La Sirena: Talk about unpromising locations! This restaurant is on the back side of a building at the back end of a shopping center. Since the complex is called “The Edge,” we’re talking the edge of the Edge. It sounds like it would have a view of an abyss instead of a parking lot, but despite the location customers have been flocking in. La Sirena does serve the standards, like a carnitas burrito with your choice of mole or a wonderful tomatillo sauce, but they also have wild salmon, duck tamales, and other dishes that combine high style and Mexican traditions. The offerings from the bar include fine wines and tequila tastings, showing a rare level of attention to food and beverage combinations for this cuisine. Other modern Mexican places have opened in the South Bay this year, like the interesting but erratic Mucho, but La Sirena has managed a high level of consistency from the first day. They recently added live, acoustic entertainment on Friday and Saturday nights.
710 D Allied Way, Plaza El Segundo. (310) 640-6170

Red Fort: There’s obviously a story here: At the beginning of 2007 this building housed a restaurant over which a handsome, hospitable gentleman named Mr. Singh presided that boasted an excellent kitchen serving Punjabi food. Then another restaurant moved in serving Southern Indian food for about six months, then it closed. Now Mr. Singh is back with an even larger menu of delicious food. This is the most stylish Indian restaurant in the South Bay, and even though I usually don’t like TVs in restaurants I sometimes find myself mesmerized by the Bollywood videos. With or without the entertainment, this is the best North Indian food in the South Bay, and a wonderful outpost of a spicy, complex cuisine.
22231 Palos Verdes Blvd., Torrance. (310) 316-8500.

Teresa’s Mosaic Café: It is almost rare for a new restaurant in the South Bay to target middle class diners; most seem to be wooing the hard drinking and high spending demographic. Teresa’s Mosaic Café offers homemade food in a classic atmosphere of traditional Mexican art, and at prices that families can afford. Despite an awful location in the corner of a mini-mall north of the El Segundo golf course, this little place has caught on thanks to the menu of classic items interspersed with Oaxacan specialties. Try the Mexican-style beef stew that contains cumin and savory spices. It’s richly flavored but not overly-spicy, and it’s a delight. The tortillas are handmade while you watch by a tortillera, and the flawless execution of family recipes make most other local Mexican restaurants seem flat and one-dimensional. The place is packed at lunch but frequently quiet at dinnertime, though evenings seem to me picking up. I hope so, because brave tactics like good food at a good price should be rewarded.
150 S. Sepulveda Blvd., El Segundo. (310) 648-7212. ER