Food

Restaurant review: M.B. Post delivers

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The concrete walls of the new M.B. Post (short for Manhattan Beach Post) are stenciled with giant faded postmarks beneath a barrel-vaulted ceiling. The design by Stephen Francis Jones of SF Jones Architects plays off the fact that from the '50s through the '70s the building was the beach town's post office.

And even though old mail-sorting slots are used as dividers in the dining room, that long-ago post office definitely didn't have a tapas bar. And it's a fairly sure bet that few of the people picking up their mail back then had an inkling about Spanish cuisine or ingredients like yuzu kosho or white anchovies.

Now, with sliding steel-and-glass doors opening onto the street, a tapas bar and communal tables of salvaged oak, plus a gutsy small-plates menu from chef David LeFevre, the old post office has a whole new life as a "social restaurant." Though it's hard to spot from the street, inside it's a different story. Everyone is passing plates and sharing tastes of the globe-trotting menu, which covers a number of time zones.

Thursday nights, women in form-fitting off-the-shoulder tops, lavishly applied mascara and strappy sandals meet up with guys in shorts and flip-flops. They're on two different fashion wavelengths. Cocktails are ordered — Manhattan Avenue made with Sazerac rye, vanilla, caramel and "bacon dust" or perhaps Mo-Pho-Jito, a mojito flavored with kaffir lime, ginger and coriander honey. Hoots of laughter bounce off the walls. There's a lot of coming and going to and from the bar, dashing outside for a smoke, before squeezing back inside at the massive communal table or capturing a table for two.

But M.B. Post is more than a bar scene.

The food — exotic by South Bay standards — comes out in waves from the open kitchen where LeFevre can be seen, attending to every plate issuing from the stove. He's there every night, even on a Monday, which shows some serious commitment to this new venture. It's a departure for the Wisconsin native and Charlie Trotter veteran whose career, so far, has been almost exclusively in more formal high-end restaurants. His last job was executive chef at Water Grill.

But LeFevre is showing that he can do rustic and gutsy just as well as fine dining. He seems to be having fun, picking up ideas from Spain, Provence, Japan and Vietnam. His menu, with handwritten additions nightly, is so enticing sounding, we ended up over-ordering every time. Discussing this menu with your fellow diners over the tremendous din is not that easy, though. Pointing will have to do. The blistering noise level seems designed to limit the crowd to the young and impervious.

Start with bread — biscuits, a pretzel or a flatbread, all baked in-house. Buttermilk biscuits laced with bacon and cheddar are rich and crumbly, served with a maple-sweetened butter (but probably better without). The braided pretzel is a real beauty, shiny brown on top and dusted with fleur de sel. This one comes with a sharp horseradish mustard that gives the bread a lift. There's also grilled nan, to tear apart and dip in yogurt spiked with vibrant house-made harissa.

Look around, the rough wooden tables are covered with dishes, everyone trying everything in a riot of passing plates. There go some cured meats, Creminelli salami or La Quercia prosciutto, here come any of four or five hand-crafted cheeses.

The menu section dubbed "eat your vegetables … " proposes dishes everybody can love. Red and gold salt-roasted baby beets are presented upside-down, their roots in the air, sitting on a beet green pesto and adorned with creamy chêvre and pistachios. Everybody's got a beet salad on their menu, but this one is a smash hit. "Blistering" green beans sauteed at high heat with Thai basil, chili sauce and crispy pork bits play up Southeast Asian flavors. Or for something Mediterranean-inspired, have the tender spring garlic and bacon tart made with Bellwether Farms sheep's milk ricotta, arugula and a touch of spiced honey.

For something lighter, LeFevre makes a couscous dish dotted with feta, almonds, mint and pomegranate seeds. Now that stone fruits are in season, he's grilling yellow nectarines and serving them with ricotta that's been whipped for a creamier texture and fresh candied walnuts.

The chef manages to avoid the clichés of beach food, though he does make excellent fish 'n' chips from halibut. He serves hiramasa sashimi with dots of yuzu kosho, avocado and crunchy puffed forbidden rice. Instead of the usual fried calamari, he has larger sword squid grilled over white oak and set on a bed of fat white marinated beans seasoned with a touch of lemon. It's like eating a squid steak. King salmon goes on the grill, smartly paired with a Korean pear, celery root and fava bean slaw. The portion is hardly enormous, but amazing for $13.

M.B. Post stands out for its excellent wine list, which features 30 wines by the 3- or 6-ounce pour. The bottle list is a single sheet, one side for whites, the other for reds. The selection spans the globe and includes little-seen wines, such as Simic Chardonnay from Slovenia or Baumard Savennières from the Loire Valley. And there's also a short, sweet list of draft beers.

Service is attentive and enthusiastic. Waiters are ready to explain the food to anyone who's puzzled by unfamiliar items and ingredients. The crowd seems to be game, though, relishing pork jowl and halibut cheeks, albondigas and Japanese Tai snapper.

Braised lamb belly, succulent and crisp, slicked in LeFevre's Moroccan barbecue sauce, is a great combination with cooked semolina and skinny cardamom carrots. Beautifully caramelized Vietnamese-style pork jowl arrives with bright-tasting green papaya and lime salad, all served in a two-handled skillet. Here comes another pesto, this time a delicious one made with those shiny green Castelvetrano olives and served with veal costoletta, or chop. Buttermilk-marinated fried chicken, though, could have been crisper and more flavorful, and the thick-cut fries are mealy.

I keep wondering how LeFevre can turn out this food at these prices and whether he can keep it up. I hope every person dining there realizes what a bargain M.B. Post is for the quality. They must, because the restaurant is packed even on a Monday night.

Desserts aren't the $14 we're used to seeing. Seven dollars buys strawberry-verbena shortcake with soft thick vanilla cream and strawberries perfumed with lemon verbena. I like the rustic three-point strawberry rhubarb tart with edges of the piecrust folded over. And if your sweet tooth craves cheesecake, try the fluffy lemon ricotta version with stewed apricots. And after dessert, a cup of Intelligentsia coffee.

Things are changing. Fussy and gourmet haven't always gone over in the South Bay, but with M.B. Post, a highly trained chef has decided to zero in on the casual instead, capturing some of the beach town's irreverent spirit. Right now, the crowd at M.B. Post seems to be celebrating the fact that there's such a terrific new restaurant in town, one that can hold its own against anything in Southern California.

irene.virbila@latimes.com

Starting this week, The Review and The Find will appear on alternating weeks. We're also introducing Critics' Choice, which will feature themed brief reviews of some of our favorite restaurants.

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