On the trend of L.A. chefs opening New England–style seafood joints, my mother is incredulous. "Why would they do that?" she asks. "New England seafood places aren't even that good." Born in Los Angeles and raised mainly in New England, my mother's opinion could be less informed, though I'm sure there are plenty of great seafood shacks she never encountered.
Yet I think there's some truth to the idea that the incredible seafood spot on the ocean, the one that serves amazing chowder and perfectly briny oysters, is more often a fantasy than a reality. We want it to exist, but it's a rare beast.
This conversation takes place as my mother and I sit in the tiny, sunny dining room at David LeFevre's Fishing With Dynamite in Manhattan Beach. Fishing With Dynamite isn't specifically East Coast–themed; rather, it's inspired by the chef's long-standing relationship with seafood, first as a child fishing on Virginia's Eastern Shore, later as a chef for seven years at L.A.'s best-known seafood restaurant, Water Grill.
The menu features tributes to New England, to Maryland and to the modern Californian playfulness for which LeFevre has become known at his other restaurant, the highly respected Manhattan Beach Post.
M.B. Post is only two doors away from Fishing With Dynamite — both are just two blocks from the ocean on Manhattan Beach's main drag — and it offers a place for customers to hang out at the bar while they wait for a table at Fishing With Dynamite. And wait you will, unless you get in the door before 5:30 p.m. or snag one of the two tables the restaurant holds for reservations. The wait — which can easily stretch to two hours on the weekend — is partly due to popularity and partly due to the restaurant's diminutive size. At capacity, the restaurant seats only 36.
But it's a massively appealing room, sun-drenched and airy, a glassed-in box holding whitewashed wood walls and brightly colored, geometric floor tiles. A raw bar takes up the main part of the room's center. A small bar resides in the corner of the 1,100-square-foot space, and the back wall is painted a cheery yellow. The room is all hustle and bustle, and it gets incredibly loud at the peak of the dinner rush.
Fishing With Dynamite's popularity clearly speaks to a yearning in Manhattan Beach for that seafood shack of our fantasies, casual but high-quality, laid back but delivering the seafood of our dreams. Could this be it?
Yes and no.
The raw bar delivers on its promise. Lobsters can be had for $20 a half and $38 whole. There's a mix of East and West Coast oysters, six varieties on any given night, and the quality rivals any oyster spot in town (though at close to $40 for a dozen oysters, it's fairly steep compared with some crosstown rivals). There's beautiful California sea urchin, Peruvian scallops and Dungeness crab. Platters of assorted, chilled seafood range from $39 for a restrained "SS Minnow" meant to feed one or two, to $145 for the "Mothershucker" meant to feed five to six.
The rest of the menu is divided up into "old school," "new school" and "no school" sections, delineating whether dishes are classic, modern or non-seafood, respectively.
There are winners and losers in each category. It's a masterful crabcake LeFevre is serving here, made almost entirely of sweet hunks of Maryland crab meat and served with whole-grain mustard remoulade. But frankly, it ought to be masterful for $16, and the menu probably should not advertise the dish as "cakes" plural, either, when a singular cake is all you get.
A huge, cast-iron cauldron is presented when you order the steamed Manila clams, and the stew enveloping the fresh briny clams is hearty and addictive: linguiça sausage, tomato and an appealing spike of vermouth. But a small filet of loup de mer was cooked a little too hard and seasoned a little too lightly, and the accompanying caramelized onion–and–red wine reduction overpowered the delicate fish with too much sweetness. The addition of dates to a tomato ragu under a well-grilled octopus also was unnecessarily sweet.
And the black cod dish was just odd: Anemically glazed with miso, the three small pieces of fish were slightly mushy rather than buttery and firm. They came over eggplant and adzuki beans, which just added to the general textural confusion of the dish.
There's a New England clam chowder, which is fairly milky and one-note. While it's not as nostalgic, you'd be better off going with the Thai shellfish and coconut soup, a very accomplished version of a standard Thai curry, with the addition of rice noodles, mussels and fat shrimp.
The wine list is appropriately full of crisp whites. They match the food well, and glass pours are conveniently available by the half-glass, a trend I appreciate even if I'm unlikely to ever take advantage of it.
There's a list of cocktails that mainly riff on classics — the Original Gangster takes a Boulevardier (a Negroni made with rye instead of gin) and twists it, using Buffalo Trace's un-aged, white whiskey White Dog, Aperol, Californian sweet vermouth and grapefruit. For a drink with a name like Original Gangster, and an inspiration as dry and balanced as the Boulevardier, this drink was way sweeter than I'd have expected, and many of its brethren on the cocktail list suffered from the same problem.
For all the chaos created by the long waits and the crowded room, the staff here carry themselves with exceptional poise and grace. From their handling of the original phone call I made to understand the seating and reservation system, to the sunny hostess who helped me figure out a strategy to get in on a Friday night, to the service inside the restaurant, the staff was nothing but helpful and happy, their calmness working to soothe customers who might otherwise be stressed by the rowdy room. The look and feel of the place and the attitude of the people working there go a long way toward making this an exceptionally pleasant place to eat.
So, while I found a lot of the plated food a bit lacking, there are plenty of good reasons to eat here. Fishing With Dynamite is exceptionally useful as an attractive spot just steps from one of L.A.'s most appealing beaches, a place to sit and eat raw seafood and sip a glass of chablis. Whether you want to wait two hours for the privilege is another matter entirely.
Reach the writer at firstname.lastname@example.org.
FISHING WITH DYNAMITE | Two stars | 1148 Manhattan Ave., Manhattan Beach | (310) 893-6299 | eatfwd.com | Sun.-Wed.. 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m.; Thurs.-Sat., 11:30 a.m.-10:30 p.m. | Small plates, $7-$18, seafood prices $2.50 (for a single clam) to $145 for a seafood platter that serves 4-5 | Full bar | Street parking, city-run valet during dinner