I often find myself dining at places where much more creativity is given to marketing and promotion than to making sure that the kitchen is doing anything remotely interesting. Occasionally, I come across the complete opposite – a place with excellent and creative food, but where nobody has given any thought about how to explain to customers what is going on. It may be the signature of a gifted chef who is so focused on his cooking that he hasn’t thought much about how to entice people to order it.
Manhattan Beach’s Oceana Bistro isn’t the worst I have run across in this regard, but the typo-ridden menus, weak website, and starkly undecorated interior all look like the rough draft of a place that is about to open. I almost decided to go somewhere more promising, but a few items looked interesting enough to be worth a visit, so my wife and I stopped in on a weekday evening.
The place was quiet, and we were seated in an otherwise empty section with a moonlit view of the ocean. An enthusiastic server named Eder showed us to the table, brought water, and answered some questions about the menu. He disappeared for a few moments, then returned with slices of toast with a fresh tomato checca, a sort of do-it-yourself bruschetta kit. The chopped fresh tomato and basil were a good sign – plenty of places would have just dished out some marinara sauce, but this was more of a true palette cleanser.
My wife and I decided on a crabcake and soup to start with a shared salad to follow. (I had been tempted by a starter of fried calamari with shrimp and mushrooms, similar to the Italian fritto misto, but couldn’t resist the crabcake.) I am picky about crabcakes and more often disappointed than not – most are more filler than seafood and are the nearly flavorless Pacific crab rather than the richer Atlantic variety. This one had plenty of crab flavor, and it was good quality Bluefin crab with a dash of herbs and just enough binder to hold things together. It wasn’t a traditional crabcake – it was broiled rather than fried in oil, so it lacked the browned crust – but it was very tasty. It was served with a small salad and some marinara sauce that wasn’t really needed but was a nice thought. The spinach soup also raised our expectations; it was nothing complicated, just pureed spinach with the most subtle of warm herbal notes, but it showed that the kitchen staff knows when to let simple flavors speak for themselves.
There was a slight setback with the salad, a well-planned mix of greens with sliced strawberries, tomato, fresh mozzarella, and toasted almonds. Had this come with the intended balsamic and olive oil dressing it would have been a excellent dish, but someone goofed and it came out with a mild vinaigrette instead. The balsamic would have tied everything together in a way that the mild dressing didn’t – it was like a play where the lead actor hadn’t showed up. (I know because I took the leftovers home, hit them with a bit of aged balsamic and it completed the flavors.) When we brought the problem to Eder’s attention, he immediately apologized, offered a replacement, and removed the original salad from our bill, which showed that he had the reflexes of a pro.
We paired our starters with glasses of Summerland Viognier from Santa Ynez and Alamos Chardonnay from Chile. The Summerland had a flowery character that suited the crabcake much better than I expected, but the Alamos was the clear winner, a crisp and fresh accompaniment with the crabcake but hefty enough to pair with the soup. It’s a modestly priced wine that was $9 a glass here, and good enough that I’d buy a few bottles to have around at home.
As the server cleared our table, we asked him about the history of the place. The owner is Brazilian, which explained the soundtrack of samba versions of modern rock hits. It was actually delightful to listen to, and throughout the evening we found ourselves laughing out loud at the audacious tropical reworkings of pieces by Nirvana, Guns and Roses, and Pink Floyd. The atmosphere here is unusual in Manhattan Beach, quiet enough for soft conversation without being stuffy; I’d like to see a few more pictures on the walls, a little more color, but an ocean view and cool sounds will go a long way.
We continued our meal with main courses – pan roasted trout with lemon-caper sauce and asparagus, and a penne pasta with chicken sausage, walnuts, and goat cheese. The house special is gnocchi, an entre I almost never order on a first visit – it’s hard to do well and atrocious when done badly. Based on the penne, I would come back and order gnocchi, because it was expertly executed. The sauce was tangy and fresh with bold but not excessive spice and garlic, and the balance with the cheese, sausage, and nuts hit all the bases. My wife’s fish was also delicious, the fish grilled with a little pepper and paprika before being topped with the buttery, citrusy sauce and asparagus. The fish was served with roasted potatoes, carrots, and broccoli, making for a colorful plate and variety of flavors.
I paired the main course with a pleasant Angeline Pinot Noir, which also went well with our dessert, a homemade apple pie that was misdescribed as a tart. This was definitely a flaky pie crust rather than a shortbread or biscuit crust that would usually be called a tart, but it was well-made and served with a drizzle of chocolate, whipped cream, ice cream, and a strawberry.
We departed marveling at how good everything had been, especially given our initially low expectations. Dinner had been pricey — $102 for two starters, a salad, two entrees, and three glasses of wine – but the attentive service and good food made it a worthwhile evening. Oceana Bistro has all the elements of a first class restaurant. Now all they have to do is figure out how to present themselves so people come in to try the food.
2201 Highland in Manhattan Beach. Open daily 8 a.m. – 10 p.m. Some parking below building and adjacent, wheelchair access only to one area, patio dining. Beer and wine served. (310) 546-2767.