Confession: Even though I work in an office where everyone is an expert on all things Orange County, it’s a semi-regular occurrence that someone asks whether or not Seal Beach is a part of Orange County. (Answer: It is.)
It’s an honest query; the city lies at OC’s westernmost tip, right across the border of Los Angeles County, just where Long Beach begins. It’s also a sleepy beach town – one that isn’t often in the news or gaining notoriety for some scandal or reality TV show. One gets the feeling that the locals like it that way, and that they enjoy their beaches less travelled and their boardwalks only spotted with tourists.
But then along comes a restaurant that threatens to undo that anonymity. 320 Main is Seal Beach’s all-purpose steaks-chops-seafood restaurant – the kind of place where locals chat over hand-crafted cocktails and microbrews. But it’s also a chef’s playground, where classic American comfort foods meet a modern twist. And the crowd appreciates the artistry; everyone from the surfer fresh off his beach cruiser to the glass-swirling oenophile all look suitably impressed by the efforts and creative energy expended by husband-and-wife owners Jason and Rebecca Schiffer, Executive Chef Kelli Elliott and Bar Manager Dave Castillo.
A good first impression doesn’t hurt, which was the job of the first order of the evening: a cocktail. Under the stewardship of Castillo, 320 Main’s bar menu is taken as seriously as any other component of the restaurant, incorporating the freshest ingredients and techniques into its selection of classic and signature cocktails. Experimentation isn’t eschewed either; cocktails such as the Hu Hu Hala-Kahiki involve non-standard spirits like mezcal and a mysterious mention of pineapple shrub. Refreshing after a long day absorbing ultraviolet rays while horizontally positioned on the sand, the mixture, which also includes jalapeño-infused tequila and fresh-squeezed lime juice, is one we imagine formulated in Castillo’s brain while he was soaking up the rays on a remote Mexican beach. And best of all, these handcrafted libations are a natural opening for small plates like kale-mushroom flatbread and mac and cheese.
Let me briefly interject by saying that, despite the popularity surge that kale has experienced in the past couple years due to its exceptional health benefits, it is a leafy green that I find best avoided. Even in its best incarnations, in which it has been ably diluted in juices, its flavor largely diminished by the addition of green apple and lemon, or covered up in kale chips by an ample coating of seasoned salt, kale is a vegetable that I find hard to reckon with. Its strong, distinctive leafy flavor is overpowering, and its texture is at once thick and stringy, making it stand out unfavorably under even the best of camouflage. I generally refuse to eat it; I don’t care how many vitamins it has in it. But I can also be an intrepid optimist, the kind who will give something a chance over and over again under the right circumstances. And the right circumstances here involved truffles and cheese. Crispy and almost airy in texture, the kale crumbled at a mere whisper, letting off aromas of fragrant truffle oils. Manchego and mozzarella cheeses combined with shimeji mushrooms for texture, and the crispy crust provided the perfect vehicle for hand-to-mouth transport. The kale’s flavor betrayed none of its less attractive vegetative characteristics, and in fact added a pleasant earthiness to the dish. Kale had had its day of redemption.
Mac and cheese was kept simple, made with cheddar and mozzarella and topped with a crunchy panko-parmesan crust – delicious and suitably oozing with melted globs of cheese and still somehow al dente macaroni. It was a treat for the more hedonistic senses.
From the larger plates, Mary’s Airline Chicken Breast was intriguing for its airplane reference – not typically the most appealing of cuisines. But this chicken breast, which was grilled and serve with wild mushroom risotto and jus de poulet, was moist and flavorful, and not at all evocative of the generally sad, plastic-encased food found on airlines. Likewise, the hanger steak was tender and satisfying, served with 320’s own steak sauce and housemade fries.
Dessert was an homage to American classics: carrot cake (no raisins, hallelujah!), banana split and one, in particular, that could either be an assault on an American classic or a dessert made in heaven: fried PB&J. Thick slices of bread were stuffed with peanut butter, strawberry jelly and marshmallow fluff, then deep fried to a golden brown and served in quarters. It was delicious, but we wouldn’t complain if the bread were a little bit thinner, allowing the PB&J flavors to come through more. Fertreuse ice cream, made by local OC company Drunken Udder, was sublime, a recollection of ice cream days past, when freshly spun ice cream had the pull and chew of something akin to taffy – only this one was enhanced with Fernet and Chartreuse, two herb-infused liqueurs from Italy and France, respectively, that gave the ice cream inimitable flavor.
Maybe it was the ending on this international note, but the urge to offer a golf clap and a hearty “bravo!” did not go unfulfilled.