Fine dining that goes the distance.
If your salad tastes smoky, maybe that’s because it’s from Big Sur. Chef Matthew Poley of Michael’s probably hasn’t been there since the fires, but he thinks nothing of driving up with his girlfriend, spending the day at the farmers market there and at specialty farms in the area and returning to Long Beach the next morning with produce for that night’s salads. Or he may do the same in Santa Barbara or shop at farmers markets in Silver Lake or Hollywood.
“My girlfriend and I go to the farmers markets pretty much four or five days a week,” he said in a phone interview last week. “We wake up each morning and go.”This kind of thing is part of owner Michael Dene’s business plan. Another example is the branzino, a seabass from the Mediterranean.“It’s caught by fishermen off the coast of southern France a nd northern Italy,” said Poley. “It’s packed in ice and goes to an airport, where it’s flow directly to Los Angeles. Within 24 hours of it being caught, it’s brought directly to us through a special fish purveyor.”
Dene spent 40 years in the decorative-lighting business, owning factories in New York, Pittsburgh and China. When he retired three years ago, “I traveled the world and sort of got tired of it, and I always had a screaming desire to be in the restaurant business,” he said in a phone interview last week. “I’ve been eating in great restaurants all over the world for 40 years. I tell everyone I have 40 years of experience.”
For the last 22 years, he’s lived in the Long Beach area, but he said he would go to Los Angeles and Orange County for restaurants that met his fine-dining standards.“I’m involved in various investment properties, and when this property came up for sale, I looked at it from the perspective of, well, I’ll obtain the property, do the improvement on it and then find a suitable restaurateur to put in there,” Dene said. “I basically became enthralled with the way the property could lay out and the opportunity to develop it myself, and I scrapped the idea of a tenant and decided to do it on my own.”
He patterned the design after a restaurant he had been to in Capri, Italy, a year ago. “It was sort of laid out the same way with the outdoor dining and interior dining, and it had the same feel, with a very contemporary, very classic, clean look using earth tones and natural stone.”
He hired Martin Howard’s local firm, Howard CDM, to do the architecture and Sybil Van Dijs as interior decorator. Of course, Dene used his expertise for the lighting. Together, the three produced a restaurant that’s among the most beautiful in Southern California. The cost: $1.25 million, not including the price of the property.
As for the food, Poley, the second head chef, has experience at Vissani, a Michelin two-star restaurant near Orvieto, Italy, and Angelini Osteria and La Terza in West Hollywood He serves outstanding dishes as:
Mozzarella e Pomodoro
The buffalo mozzarella is imported from Italy because the cheese is sweeter. The heirloom tomatoes come from farmers markets. The cheese and tomatoes are joined on the plate by a salad of baby mixed greens and wild rocket arugula, some Ligurean extra virgin olive oil and imported aged balsamic vinegar.
Minestrone di Verdure
The soup is all vegetable. Vegans can ask that the beef short rib agnolotti be left out.
This was the risotto of the day when I was there. The mushrooms were sautéed with garlic and thyme. The rice was “the best Italian carnaroli rice from Italy,” Poley said. The mushroom stock and rice are finished with Parmesan Reggiano, sweet cream butter, mascarpone cheese and fresh lemon juice.
Cut at the restaurant, it’s pan-seared in olive oil and then pan-braised with zucchini, smoked cherry tomatoes, fingerling potatoes, Gaeta olives, garlic and lobster stock, then finished with the house stock fresh herbs — basil, chives, tarragon, dill and parsley.
Tagliata di Manzo
The New York strip steak is from Montana. “It’s free range, but it’s fed granola, dried fruits and berries for the last six months of its life,” said Poley, “and this makes the aftertaste sweet.” It’s grilled on a gas char-broiler and served with fresh greens and rapini (wild broccoli) salad, plus sautéed wild mushrooms and a couple of fingerling potatoes.
Underneath chocolate flan and amaretti cookies imported from Italy is a marsala zabaglione cooked from an egg yolk and marsala wine emulsion.
The service is as exceptional as the food. That has a lot to do with consultant Claudio Blatta, who helped Dene put together a business plan and training manual, helped interview the staff (he brought in Matthew Poley, who worked for him at La Terza), helped assemble the wine list, developed the menu and helped open the restaurant.
Every day, the staff has a family-style meal at 4 p.m. “And during that time we do a tasting of the day’s specials and new menu dishes and the pairing of wines to go with them,” said Dene. “Almost every other Thursday, we bring wine vendors in to teach about regional wines in Italy and California. And we teach about seasonal aspects of the menu, which is very important in Italian dining: why there’s more meat used in Tuscany in the winter and what makes fish an important aspect of Sicilian-style food.”
The result is waiters who can answer almost any question. In addition, they are friendly and efficient. Of course, all of this comes at a price, and Dene worries whether people will be willing to pay for the expensive ingredients he insists on. It’s good that he has a la carte entrées as low as $23 for those who can’t afford the dishes that range up to $38. Add soup or salad and it’s $9 or $10 more.Even so, the food, service and ambience are a typical Long Beach bargain. You’d pay a lot more in Los Angeles and Orange County.