We Got the Beef

Anything but rivals, peers and chefs David LeFevre and Tin Vuong open new steakhouses within months of each other. We say the more the merrier.

 

Climate impacts cuisine, always, in direct and indirect ways. We hunter-gatherers are hardwired to crave what conveniently grows nearby, despite our modern, on-demand grocery store bounty.
 

Chowdah just seems to makes sense in New England, as intuitively as fish tacos do down in Baja. And does anybody honestly think omakase in Omaha or jambalaya in Jersey are real good ideas?

There’s something, then, that feels wonderfully wrong—even a bit naughty—about opening a serious steakhouse on the beach. Shouldn’t it be in landlocked Vegas or Palm Springs that one springs for that second (or third) martini to wash down the NY strip, the wedge salad with blue cheese and the classic shrimp cocktail, while Rat Pack tunes waft through the dining room?

It’s curiously cheeky that not one but two of our most innovative South Bay chefs have chosen to take on the venerable steakhouse concept, in close proximity to each other and on the beach. Chef Tin Vuong’s Steak & Whisky is a post-modern temple of browned beef and brown spirits, whereas Chef David Lefevre’s The Arthur J will unleash your inner Don Draper in short order.

I’ve always been a fan of Chef Vuong’s impresario approach, his remarkable ability to make well-established restaurant concepts seem fresh. His gastropub fare at Abigaile, the East-meets-West fusion menu at Little Sister and the modern Mexican at Día de Campo are equally creative. So I was excited to see what this guy and his executive chef, John Shaw of NYC’s Tavern on the Green, might do with a slab of beef.

Chef Lefevre, on the other hand, was schooled at Trotter’s, where he once manned the grill station. Restaurant folks who knew Charlie Trotter can attest that this gig was undoubtedly a trial-by-fire in all senses of the word. One senses that Lefevre is excited to rekindle those embers, despite his more recent immersion in seafood (Water Grill, Fishing with Dynamite).

MODERN STEAKHOUSE The sleek, contemporary design of The Arthur J.

 

Lefevre does light it up at The Arthur J, named for the scion of the Simms restaurant family and a man who actually hung out with the likes of Sinatra and Sammy. The room, designed by Julie Fisher and Rachel Crowl of trendy firm fcSTUDIO, thankfully divides the dining room from the bar, where a TV unfortunately hangs. (Manhattan Beach is grown-up enough for adults to have cocktails and conversation without ESPN.)

Sleek mid-century design notes create a debonair feel, with playful elements like the collectible Corningware dishes that graced every American table in the ‘60s and ‘70s. And as is increasingly the hallmark of a Simms restaurant, the service could not have been more gracious and genuine at The Arthur J.

 

 

 

 

A CUT ABOVE Slicing into one of Steak & Whisky’s tempting dish options

Photographed by Lanewood Studio
 

I passed an hour and a half at the bar while waiting for my husband and was made to feel like a long-lost friend for whom dinner would be cheerfully delayed. That’s not as easy as it may seem in an industry rife with staffing challenges, and I attribute much of the success of Lefevre’s restaurants to his colleague, Jerry Garbus, who runs the front-of-the-house operations. Garbus is great.

But on to the beef—the star of this story. Lefevre is cooking on wood, and there’s a steak for every appetite and wallet: USDA prime, certified Angus, bone-in and boneless, dry-aged and wet-aged, and the inevitable Wagyu that clocks in at $36 per ounce. I like that the menu explicitly prints and describes the beef temps available. Nothing is more annoying to chefs than diners who order medium-rare and are shocked, shocked that it’s red in the center … unless of course it’s those diners who insist on beef well-done. (shudder! shudder!)

Throwback touches include steaks done Oscar-style (not the gold statue, folks), while more modern saucing includes Vietnamese caramel or foie maple butter. Don’t overlook the menu category cleverly entitled “A Beef with Beef,” where you’ll find Lefevre’s delicious Colorado lamb and a very good snapper roasted whole with charred citrus.

Because I had time to kill at the bar, this wine lover instead opted for the “Drunken Boy Scout” because, well, of course. The wine list, though, is very good, and while spendy, it features some fun, unexpected choices outside of those trophy cabernets.

Over at Steak & Whisky, the ambience is less Mad Men and more intimate. Here you can linger with your lover over 48 ounces of prime Tomahawk ribeye, should you be so inclined, while you sip from your private stash of rare whiskey. (The restaurant offers 10 coveted liquor lockers for your favorite hooch.)

And while the cocktails at The Arthur J are fun, the whiskey collection that Chef Vuong and partners have assembled is downright encyclopedic. It’s an absolute must for anyone serious about brown spirits, with domestic, Irish, Scottish, Canadian and Japanese products in a well-curated and surprisingly affordable list.

Chefs Shaw and Vuong have designed a steakhouse menu that feels more modern; the mandatory iceberg salad here is instead called the “P.L.A.T.” done with pancetta, fried green tomato and Point Reyes blue. Unsurprisingly, Asian notes turn up at perfect moments—in a curried ketchup, in a shoyu glazed pork, in a torchon with cardamom.

Yes, there’s peppercorn sauce, lobster tail and crab legs, but it’s the unexpected moments in Vuong’s cooking that distinguish him. The Caesar salad has dehydrated olives and shaved artichokes because, well, of course. The steaks at Steak & Whisky are superb, but one senses that this chef can’t quite limit himself to simple grilling—and we are the luckier for it.

Be sure to chat with the lovely young sommelier who was working the night we dined. As always, the South Bay is refreshingly unpretentious and fun, proof again that you can do serious food and wine without being all that serious about it.

The Arthur J and Steak & Whisky can more than hold their own amidst Los Angeles’ steakhouse legends like Mastro’s, The Palm and Pacific Dining Car. They’re frankly better in some respects, like cheerful service and creative beverage programming.

Both exciting openings remind us why there’s no place quite like home, as the South Bay continues to develop as a culinary destination in its own right. Well done on the beef, chefs, well done. The other kind of “well done.”

 

 

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