El Segundo’s original destination restaurant has matured into a steady kitchen with flashes of genius

By Richard Foss (richard@richardfoss.com)

Second City Bistro’s stylish interior sets the tone for a romantic night out Photo by Richard Foss

Second City Bistro’s stylish interior sets the tone for a romantic night out
Photo by Richard Foss

El Segundo’s range of dining options has mushroomed over the past decade, and now Main Street boasts places that are both stylish and innovative.

Outsiders might not realize that the scene didn’t start on the main drag most visitors see, but on a narrow tree-lined thoroughfare a block off Main. It’s here that Second City Bistro opened as the first upscale restaurant in the downtown area’s history, which started the ball rolling for everyone else.

Back in 2002, Second City offered steaks and simple grills for conservative diners, but it also offered trout stuffed with crabmeat and salmon mousse as well as specials like scallops with ginger-chili jam. This was wild stuff for the neighborhood, and for quite a while the restaurant was on a hot streak, hosting adventurous wine dinners and continuing to innovate. Consistency became a problem as the menu grew more ambitious, and after the original chef left it cut back on the creative dishes and stopped doing events entirely.

Second City was no longer cutting edge, but kept doing business as the surrounding neighborhood spawned more adventurous establishments. I visited occasionally as much for the relaxing atmosphere as for the interesting but often erratic food, and retained a certain fondness for the place. On the last few visits I’ve noticed greater confidence in the cooking and some interesting new items, and when I saw a new menu of small-plate snacks I decided it was time to reassess the place.

I have visited twice and still haven’t managed to get those small plates. On the first trip I asked for the roasted garlic polenta bites from that menu, but our server misheard and brought the mushroom polenta that was a special that day. We tried a bite before realizing that this couldn’t possibly be what we ordered, but liked it enough to finish it anyway. It had the consistency of homemade mashed potatoes and tasted richly of corn and mushroom and herbs, and though the portion was large it disappeared quickly.

The starter was sufficiently filling that we decided just to split a bowl of tomato-basil soup and one entrée, roast chicken over vegetable risotto in caper butter. We paired the meal with a bottle of La Segreta Sicilian wine from the specials list — Second City has an excellent selection both by the glass and bottle. We finished with a very good crème brûlée and departed satisfied but not stuffed. The full meal with two cocktails and wine ran $110, and both food and drink were good enough that we soon returned.

On that visit we started by splitting a grilled Caesar salad. If the idea of grilling lettuce sounds odd or gimmicky, allow me to explain why that’s a great idea. Romaine lettuce has a slightly bitter flavor but sweetens when grilled, and as a bonus the smoky flavor goes great with the anchovy and garlic in the dressing. If you haven’t tried a grilled Caesar before, this is a great place to start. The only thing we might have wished for was some better bread with the salad — a crusty loaf would go much better than the chewy, soft stuff they offered.

For our mains we had a creamy shrimp risotto that was nicely flavored and very well made, but paled in comparison to a superb fried trout that showed Thai inspiration. The fish had been soaked in coconut milk and coated with paprika breading, and it was topped with sautéed stir-fried vegetables and served with coconut rice. The spicing was mild but I was still finding new flavors in the last bite. It was among the most successful Thai fusion items I’ve ever had.

On this visit my wife had a glass of Chamisal Chardonnay and I tried a roasted blueberry basil margarita. Our server apologized for taking a while to serve the drink because she had to pick some basil from their patio herb garden, which both excused the delay and impressed me. At first sip I thought it was going to be too sweet, but the flavors of tequila, herb and lime balanced it nicely. Second City didn’t serve liquor when it first opened, but since getting its license a few years ago the restaurant has developed a sophisticated cocktail program.

Dinner with drinks ran $83 this time, and gave further proof that the kitchen is now firing on all cylinders. Second City has matured from an unpredictable innovator into a reliable restaurant that has flashes of genius, which is a good place to be as the downtown area around it has become more sophisticated. It’s not only worth a trip off
El Segundo’s increasingly glitzy main drag, but for dining excursions from throughout the Westside.

Second City Bistro is not open on Sundays and closing times vary, so call ahead if you’re dining late.

Second City Bistro 223 Richmond St., El Segundo (310) 322-6085 secondcitybistro.com