The proximity of the newly-opened Chef Melba's Bistro to a new branch of the venerable Eat at Joe's, just a block apart in Hermosa Beach, brings up the always fascinating, and generally Talmudic, issue of what exactly defines the cooking of the South Bay.
It's something I've wrestled with over the years, wondering if South Bay Cuisine is defined by the food, by the setting, by the bar, or by the crowd.
There have been times that I've argued that the very essence of South Bay cooking is found at landmark restaurants such as Chez Mélange, or at several of its progeny - notably Christine's and Depot. There have been other times that I've insisted that if you want to find our native cuisine, you've got to go down-market to legendary joints such as the Kettle, El Gringo, Uncle Bill's Pancake House, or the old Fat Face Fenner's Flashback.
It was, and is, a question with no answer - the restaurant equivalent of counting the angels who dance on the head of a pin.
I was reminded of this the other day, as I walked from Chef Melba's to Joe's, and back to Chef Melba's. There's a lot of California about the two of them. And indeed, viewed as a set - as conceptual bookends on Hermosa Avenue - they may manage to define the beast. Certainly, there's a consciousness of their positions in the world of local cooking - Chef Melba's Bistro is subtitled "California Lifestyle", while Joe's is "A Southern California Landmark since 1969".
Chef Melba is Melba Rodriguez, for many years the executive chef at McCormick & Schmick's. That she has a history of cooking seafood is apparent from glancing at her menu. The tuna isn't just tuna; it's "Seared rare 'big-eye' tuna". The tilapia isn't just tilapia; it's "Griddled Costa Rican tilapia". The seared Alaskan halibut is served with Thailand prawns and lobster sauce. The seared "Dry pack natural sea scallops" come with shrimp hash.
But though there's a good deal of seafood on the menu, this isn't a fish house. It's a… well, what is it exactly? "Bistro" is a fair enough word, for it's eminently casual. And "California" does seem to cover all the bases - it's a general enough term to allow Chef Melba to serve vegan spinach soup on the same menu where she offers a low-carb rendition of grilled London broil, an ahi tuna tower, and a pork chop with an apple demi-glace. And there's a dessert of a dark chocolate "bag" filled with passion fruit mousse.
The nice thing about "California" as a descriptive is that it's a big tent. It's a good looking restaurant, casual enough for you to just drop on by (there are a number of stools at a lunch-and-dinner bar that faces both into the restaurant and out to the street), but formal enough for a special evening.
The windows are largely floor-to-ceiling, giving the impression that you're outside, even when you're inside. There's an open kitchen, though there isn't much of a show - the chefs here are very businesslike, very focused. And there's a lot of music that's as eclectic as California; on a recent night it bounced from Paul McCartney to Donna Summer to that classic disco wheeze "Pop Muzik", a curious mix, but not painful.
A good way to eat here is California-style, which means lots of small dishes. The deep-fried calamari is perfectly crispy, served with a sauce made with roasted elephant garlic, which is milder than most. The spinach dip comes with some very tasty garlic-sesame breadsticks. The ahi tuna towers is as it ever is, good but predictable. (Only Michi in Manhattan Beach manages to move it into another sphere.)
For as long as they're in season, try the heirloom tomatoes with basil-flavored oil. And though it's an entrée, the grilled Atlantic salmon is proportioned for modest appetite, leaving room for the dessert of fresh berries with crunchy praline - so simple, so good, so California.