The cooking of David Slay has been a major part of our culinary lives here in Southern California for a very long time.
Though I didn’t know his food when Slay was the best chef in St. Louis, I did get to know it, and well, when he moved to Los Angeles some three decades ago, and opened David Slay’s La Veranda in Beverly Hills. His cooking was straight forward, clear, not at all showy — but always so very good.
The one dish I remember, because it’s a food from my childhood reimagined as a grownup dish, is his pastina of the day. Pastina is a small, star-shaped noodle, a great dish for a sick child who needs to eat, but doesn’t want to eat anything that involves chewing.
My mother would make it, using a box made by Ronzoni, with melted butter and salt — which was about as exotic as her cooking ever got. And re-encountering pastina at an actual restaurant, reconsidered by a skilled chef, and made with a different flavoring everyday, was downright exhilarating. Mixed with porcini mushrooms or seafood or just some meat broth transformed the little stars. It made them glow. And it told me that David Slay…was inspired. And unpredictable.
After Beverly Hills, Slay moved his food to Orange County, where he opened Park Avenue Steaks & Chops and il garage ristorante, both in Stanton, adjacent to Anaheim — and both built around Slay’s obsession with growing his own vegetables, a love of the loam that dates back to St. Louis. And he grows the vegetables served at his eponymous Manhattan Beach steak and fish house, in the space that was last home to Darren’s, adjacent to Little Sister, across from MB Post. If he wanted to be in the middle of our food life, Slay succeeded.
Actually, in terms of local culinary excitement, the place is matched by MB Post across the street — except the demo at Slay appears to be the parents of the demo at Post.
The drinks at Post lean towards exotic mixology and craft beers. At Slay, there are some very fine wines being opened, some brought by the diners, who seem to happily share with the staff — and with chef Slay. Slay is a party for those talking about their upcoming trips to Maui, for a few weeks in the house they bought on the beach. At Post, Airbnb comes closer to the vibe.
Considering the menu at Slay Steak + Fish House, it’s pretty clear the chef has never lost his Midwestern sense of taste. Direct, clear, unsullied with folderol, with no edible nonsense. No sense, indeed, of the Asian influence found on just about every notable menu in town — though his ahi tuna does come from Fiji. Slay could probably take this menu back to his roots — and nobody would flinch. The men doesn’t do trends. His does, to be simplistic, good.
His food does challenge or mystify. Instead, it soothes, it calms, it satisfies. His plates arrive with a proper meal on them. Order the five-spice baked wild king salmon and you’ll find brown rice and spinach on your plate as well, along with the sweetness of wildflower honey and the tang of English mustard, to make the salmon sing with the celestial choir.
Slay Steak + Fish House
Rating: 3 stars
Address: 1141 Manhattan Ave., Manhattan Beach
Information: 310-504-0902, www.slaysteakandfishhouse.com
When: Dinner only, every day
Details: Full bar; reservations very essential
Atmosphere: In what was last Darren’s, the latest for fabled chef David Slay, one of the unsung culinary heroes of SoCal dining, with a packed nightly destination restaurant in an even more elegant space, but with prices that are surprisingly good considering the high quality.
Prices: About $65 per person
Suggested dishes: Stuffed Squash Blossoms ($15), PAG Crispy Greens ($14), Harvest of Beets ($15), Baked Portobello Mushrooms ($14), Crudo of the Day ($19), Smokehouse Bacon & Eggs ($14), Steak Bites ($14), Turkey Meatballs ($14), Mussels ($14), Clams ($17), Steak Tartare ($18), 5 Salads ($10-$14), 5 Spice Baked Wild King Salmon ($38), Wild Orata ($36), Wild Swordfish ($38), Seared Wild Scallops ($38), Twice Cooked Ahi Tuna ($38), 2 Chops ($35-$52), 6 Steaks ($34-$90)
Cards: MC, V
What the stars mean: Ratings range from 4 stars to zero. 4 stars is world-class (worth a trip from anywhere). 3 stars is most excellent, even exceptional (worth a trip from anywhere in Southern California). 2 stars is a good place to go for a meal (visit if you’re in the neighborhood). 1 star is a place to go if you’re hungry and it’s nearby. Zero stars is not worth writing about.