With the recent openings of David Lefevre's M.B. Post and the two-week-old Strand House, the central crossroads of Manhattan Beach now boast two chef-driven destination restaurants from toques previously associated most strongly with the city. Having dipped into The Strand House last weekend for a hosted media dinner, we see both are taking off with the local crowd. Call Michael Zislis the Manhattan Beach Monopoly Man, as he now successfully rules over pretty much the entire southernmost block of Manhattan Beach Boulevard (The Strand being The Boardwalk in this game) with his businesses lining the block from The Shade Hotel up the street down to Rock 'n Fish, and BrewCo., the first entry in his empire, which Zislis opened as a master brewer in his twenties.
Long before he calls Gavin Newsom a communist at our table, it's clear that this is a man who knows The South Bay crowd; knows what it wants and needs, and knows just how much he can squeeze out of them for an appetizer of hamachi crudo ($18). With The Strand House, Zislis has turned the crap-tastic Beaches into a room of lounge-y nooks, polished ends, and seaside views, though retaining the dance floor and its accompanying hellscape of heinousness. Anything would have been an improvement, of course, but here the rooms really do dazzle, from the foyer with a wine vending machine to the supper club surrounds of the dining room. Just beware of the lower level, unless you are dying to be pounced upon by cougars, or worse, the dudes who court them to a soundtrack of whack beats.
While the space is a sweeping improvement and Neal Fraser and Travis Lorton's food is expectedly fresh and excellent, it appears to be the same old South Bay crowd. Elderly people picking up the tab for a table of their progeny? Check! Clean-cut dates and co-ed packs who might look more at home at BrewCo.? Yes sir. And the aforementioned, desperate divorcees clinging to the bar? You better, you bet. One has to wonder if it's the constantly changing menus or the scene they're really here for. Or if the beef cheeks, suckling pig, and rabbit gnocchi calling our names could ever sell better than the salmon or steak.
Time will tell. Until then, The Strand House is doing the most important aspects very right: The cuisine, the wine program, and the cocktails. An eclectic menu is in turns overflowing with rainbow-colored produce from the neighborhood farmers markets, perfect cuts of meat and preparations of local seafood, and indulgent international influences, like in a bowl of hand-torn pasta rags with lamb sausage or a grilled big-eye tuna with Thai curry.
The food is pricier than what's on most of the menus coming out in the last year (though, as Ziklis' guests, we didn't pay but for the tip) with $18 appetizers and entrees hovering between $20 and $40, but this is The South Bay after all, where the bad economy only appears to have created more prosperity.
In the end, it's so nice to see Fraser's food back in action, and a trip to The Strand House reveals the chef in graceful form. The extensive menu has plenty of well-poised possibilities that would bring us back just to try. But like many of the tables around us, we're more likely to reserve The Strand House for rare occasions when a group has, for some reason or another, reluctantly amassed in The South Bay, necessitating an extravagant repast or better yet, if some friend's wealthy grandpa ever wants us at his table. There's certainly sophistication on the plate and in the runnings of the room, even if the crowd firmly holds us in place.
Take a look at some of the dishes being served by Zislis and company at The Strand House in our slideshow.