Circa is Manhattan Beach's newest restaurant that’s already fitting in. There's the neighborhood vibe—both surfers and suits are among locals who drop in—as well as unfussy, industrial furnishings that you've already seen at least a dozen times around town and star power from chef Octavio Becerra of the shuttered Palate Food + Wine and Julian Cox (Playa, Sotto) and Josh Goldman (Ink) who head up a solid bar program. However, the restaurant, ultimately, fails in many areas.
Right off the bat, it's clear that Becerra's menu wants to be everything to everyone. Small plates, big plates, gnocchi, pork buns add up to dishes that fall short on flavor—be it prawns ($10) drenched in a flavorless, though mildly spicy, red chili sauce or deep-fried Asian chicken nuggets ($17) paired with “kimchi” and lettuce cups. The saving grace from a recent meal was a surprisingly tasty whole deep-fried sea bass ($38) served over and under a bed of pea tendrils, cilantro, jalapeño slices and roasted peanuts to share.
If all fails, follow up with drinks. Soak in the lively scene—fitting to its beachside locale, service is slow—and top-notch intoxicants of original handcraft, bottled and draft cocktails and a small, intersting selection of sparkling, white, red, dessert and (a single) rosé wines. Try the pineapple and rum-based Hotel Nacional ($12) or Ravines dry Riesling ($12) and you could leave a happy camper.
What to eat: The family-style whole crispy striped sea bass is perfectly deep fried with moist meat under its crunchy skin. Sichuan peppercorn dipping sauce pulls the plate together.
What to drink: The Julian Cox-crafted list of cocktails on tap, bottled or shaken/stirred is a high-end mix of surprises. A vodka cranberry ($10) is mixed with organic cranberry juice, lime, and Combier served by the bottle and Jane's Addiction ($10) plays up the usual vodka, lemon, seltzer with Sherry.
Where to sit: Dinner-only diners should opt for a front banquette table by the large retractable window that looks out onto Manhattan Ave, while happy hour or a night cap calls for a center sofa seat.