What's Cooking at Circa in Manhattan Beach

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Circa, Michael Zislis' radical conversion of Mucho Ultima in Manhattan Beach, feels like a small slice of Downtown just drifted away to the South Bay. An atoll of exposed beams, bulbs, and brick, one almost feels the spirit of restaurateur Bill Chait looming here, down to the spotlight on a revered consulting chef, Octavio Becerra, and the cocktails by Julian Cox. Tastes certainly seem to be evolving in Manhattan Beach, compelled most conspicuously by the mastery of David LeFevre at M.B. Post, and sometimes satisfied by Zislis' own Strand House, which despite the trappings of its subterranean cougar cage, counts Neal Fraser as one of its chefs, bringing the once isolated climes of this city the charms of chefs like Nancy Silverton, Jonathan Waxman, and Alain Giraud at its monthly "Master Chef Series."

Whereas M.B. Post is a can't-miss destination worthy of sweeping diners into its folds from the farthest corners of L.A., Zislis knows this zip code from the marrow to the meat. In fact, there are times it feels he owns the town, with several restaurants and a hotel among the addresses stitched with his name.

So while Circa—which counts Patina alum and former Palate Food & Wine chef Octavio Becerra as its consulting chef—strives to further the evolution and sophistication of the local palate, it still understands its audience well enough to know when and where to push.

This may explain why such a beautiful modern industrial space has television sets blaring NHL games above the bar. Why someone has taken the intelligent, incomprehensibly rare step of putting soundproofing on the ceiling to deflect the chirping of blonde gaggles assembling for post-work drinks. Why the incomparable Julian Cox is putting his creative stamp on rum and Cokes and vodka cocktails instead of rimming the glasses with crushed grasshoppers like he did at Rivera. Why the kim chi-topped bone marrow is coming off the menu and why a neighboring table is turning their noses up at the Spanish sardines with house-churned butter and house-baked bread.

Still, Circa takes some bold steps for a town where The Kettle and Uncle Bill's Pancake House long reined supreme. The menu, executed by Chefs Wanted winner Bryon Freeze, reaches to several far-flung corners of place and time, bulking up the pristine product Becerra is known for with scattered global and historical influences. Here, steelhead salmon is paired with Indian spices and a Baja seabass comes with Sichuan pepper sauce. Korean kalbi shares the tapas section with a take on lamb xiaolongbao, salmon basturma aside a caraway latke, and scallop ceviche with Oro Blanco grapefruit and vadouvan.

Though there are times when flavors in the more adventurous dishes could veer even bolder (the powerful punch of the heady lamb dumplings certainly excluded) and though it may seem like many of the beauties circled around Circa's table may be there for the drinks more than they are to stretch themselves, the restaurant still strikes a strong balance between giving the swinging local crowd what it wants, while broadening the palate and increasing the willingness to experiment of its South Bay audience.

Check out a few of the dishes currently being served at Circa in our slide show.

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