It was one of those magical meals that hit all the right notes. I wandered in off the street and sat by myself at the small marble bar. In defiance of the restaurant's name — Steak & Whisky — I ordered a rum cocktail, a tiki-type thing that suited the beachside location. Like a sunset in a glass with spiced edges, it went down quickly.
Next up, a steak tartare, which was good for all the reasons steak tartare should be good but then also for reasons I barely understood. The top of the tartare had a crust, almost jerkylike, but shredded and tangy. Turns out it was trim from the restaurant's 30-day dry-aged tomahawk rib-eye that had been rendered in beef fat and dehydrated. That, plus a circulated soft egg and house-made fennel crackers, made for a dish that grabbed your attention with texture and then sustained it with taste. There's a lot of steak tartare in this city. A lot of it could run together in your mind. Not this one.
Then came the cioppino, a bouillabaisse-inspired broth rich with essence of shellfish in which a giant prawn, a lobster claw, spindly crab legs, plump scallops and mussels swam. By the time I was finished, I felt as though I'd taken a bath in that stew, all the cracking of shells and slurping of liquid, done frenetically like I was in some sort of seafood delirium. The broth, so deep and pungent, was downright haunting.
I left aglow. It was one of the better meals I'd had in a long time. But that experience, my first at Steak & Whisky, was not to be replicated.
This is the fifth restaurant from Blackhouse Hospitality, a group growing at a rate that's almost alarming. Without making much of a fuss about it, chef Tin Vuong and business partner Jed Sanford have built a not-so-small restaurant empire. The pair's holdings soon will stretch from Redondo Beach north through the South Bay beach cities, up to Culver City and all the way east to downtown L.A. There's pizza and contemporary Italian at Wildcraft in Culver City; New American at Abigail and modern Mexican at Día de Campo, both in Hermosa Beach; and soon a downtown outpost of Little Sister, Manhattan Beach's Southeast Asian powerhouse, and still the best of the bunch. Later this year another restaurant is coming from Blackhouse in Redondo Beach.
And in March, they opened Steak & Whisky, a swank little restaurant on the curvy corner of Pier and Hermosa avenues, in view of the ocean and the Hermosa Beach Pier. There's a heavy wooden door to get past, as if you're entering the lair of a viking king, and the interior is just as brick- and leather- and marble-clad as is appropriate for a modern-rustic-macho den of meat and booze. It's a small space, and the square footage is used wisely, but there's no room for a big bar or large tables. In fact, it's downright cozy, soaring barnlike ceilings and all.
As the name would imply, the whiskey collection is impressive (though the cocktail list is surprisingly not whiskey-focused), and the steaks are plentiful. As with much of what Vuong does, the idea is to take a known quantity — in this instance, the all-American steakhouse — and turn it on its ear by injecting the chef's bold sensibilities. Hence, a steak tartare with a dehydrated steak crust.
And as my initial Steak & Whisky meal proved, Vuong, along with on-site chef John Shaw, can be very, very good at this type of cooking. They're smart with flavors, and there's a kind of gonzo cleverness at play that's true of the food in all of Vuong's restaurants.
There's serious ambition in dishes such as ham hock ravioli, which arrive as an appetizer stacked atop one another, a leaning tower of pasta surrounded by creamed leaks and pork jus and crunchy chicharrón. The ravioli themselves contain a lovely hammy flavor, but the components, once piled together, become too much, too salty, too overwrought.
This wasn't the only problem during my second visit. The same was the case with the crab cakes, brimming with fresh crab meat on a plate with "crispy butterbean" and tomato jam. The sweet crab ended up obliterated by the saltiness of everything else.
A few salty dishes aren't a huge deal. The bigger disappointment at Steak & Whisky is that the steak is very expensive (ranging from $42 for an 8-ounce flat iron to $120 for a 42-ounce tomahawk rib-eye to $18 per ounce for Japanese Wagyu) and also slightly underwhelming. There's nothing wrong with these steaks — they're prime beef, dry-aged (mostly for 30 days) and cooked well. Yet these hunks of cow aren't particularly tangy or meaty or memorable in the way a great steak is. Add on $10 for a small plate of tasty but otherwise unremarkable sautéed greens, and the price starts to seem not just decadent but possibly unreasonable.
Indeed, I think I'd love Steak & Whisky a whole lot more if it were called something else, so that I didn't come in the door expecting to have a great whiskey cocktail and an amazing steak. Granted, the whiskey selection alone is worth exploring — a purist would be happy sans the mixology. But still. The best meal I had here was one in which I ignored the name and went for the things that looked most suited to Vuong's particular sensibilities.
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Perhaps he ought to rename it Rum & Stew. Or perhaps Blackhouse ought to slow down a little, focus less on taking over the world and more on getting what it already has just right.
STEAK & WHISKY | Two stars | 117 Pier Ave., Hermosa Beach | (310) 318-5555 | steakandwhisky.com | Sun.-Thu., 5-10 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 5-10:30 p.m. | Entrees, $20-$120 | Full bar | Street parking