It's almost a given that any restaurant next to the ocean or a bay with a view is going to be average or worse. So it was with slight trepidation that I decided to try McKenna's on the Bay in South Long Beach's Alamitos Bay, even though I had a strong recommendation from a friend. After all, I'd been to places in San Francisco's Fisherman's Wharf, the San Diego Harbor and Newport Beach that were highly recommended and didn't live up to expectations.
McKenna's just opened in July (apparently it's in the spot where a Moose McGillicuddy's nightclub was before) and the interior still looks brand spanking new. There are large windows overlooking the bay and the floor is completely open providing everyone with views out the windows, into the open kitchen and grill and at the bar (which was very lively with a comfortable amount of patrons huddled around televisions broadcasting the World Series). The décor is what I'd call Northeastern library - emerald green upholstery, dark wood booths, blond polished wood floor, etc. The windows have a blueish tint and teal green housings, but fortunately there was no polished brass or other tacky "nautical" appointments that you usually find in such establishments.
The front of the menu features McKenna's "manifesto" and is a little cheesy, stating how they serve "serious seafood," describing the prime meats and boasting about their commitment to service. The menu lists a good variety of appetizers, steamed seafood items, standard entrees, pastas, fish dishes and steaks, featuring mainly the usual suspects and few out-of-the-ordinary surprises. While the restaurant touts itself as an oyster bar as well, the only mention of this on the menu is "half-dozen oysters - ask your server for varieties." The wine list was decent, offering a selection of your usual suspect California wines and a few imports like Penfold's GSM. Wine prices started at $17 with average prices being in the $30 to $40 range, and there was a very good selection of wines by the glass starting at $5. Nothing here to excite an oenophile - just a people pleasin' selection. I ordered the 2000 Cuvaison Napa pinot noir ($35), mainly as a middle-of-the-road wine to go with the fish I planned on ordering and the steak that my fiancée wanted.
Water note: when you are seated the server brings you a milk bottle of fresh-tasting purified water, which they keep filled throughout the meal. No "still or sparkling" shenanigans here.
Appetizers offered included carpaccio, grilled artichokes, coconut shrimp, shrimp cocktail, and the like. My fiancée and I decided to split several appetizers - a half dozen oysters, carpaccio and coconut shrimp. We started with the oysters first. The waitress couldn't remember all of the varieties they were serving that night (check the board by the entrance when you come in), but she mentioned three - Kumamoto, Malpeque and Hog Island (turns out four varieties were available, the other being Malaspina). We ordered the Malpeque, which turned out to be nice medium-sized oysters (not the largest Malpeques I've had), very fresh and shucked to order. They were served with red vinegar mignonette and cocktail sauce. The order was $10, and I'd definitely go back again just for the oysters.
Next we ordered carpaccio ($8) and coconut shrimp ($8) appetizers. Interesting service note: our waitress took each course order individually - instead of having us order everything at once she waited until we finished the oysters to take our appetizer order, then after we finished our appetizers she took our main course order, etc. I didn't mind, but it made for a very leisurely, laid-back pace and could be an annoyance if you're in a time schedule crunch. The shrimp arrived first - six large breaded shrimp each with a few large strands of loose coconut shreds that fell off when you picked up the shrimp. The sweet dipping sauce that accompanied it was good although it slightly overpowered the shrimp's flavor. The shrimp were nice and plump and the coating was crisp and flavorful, but somehow it seemed to be little more than deep-fried shrimp with almost no detectable coconut flavor.
The carpaccio was good, although it wasn't the best I've had. The menu states that McKenna's only serves prime beef, and the beef used for the carpaccio seemed to be of that quality. What kept it from being exemplary was the accompaniments - thick shreds of bland parmesan cheese, a scattering of red onion slivers, a few capers, a lemon wedge to squeeze on top, and about 10 Carr's water biscuit crackers (first time I've ever seen crackers served with carpaccio - maybe they were trying to pull off some type of beef tartare presentation?). I prefer thin slices of pungent parmigiano reggiano and a good olive oil coating with my carpaccio, and I'd gladly forego the crackers, which I tried with one mouthful and found just got in the way of the subtle beef flavor, for some better imported Italian cheese.
When our waitress showed up to clear our plates, I mentioned that we'd like to order our main courses. She seemed surprised that we were ordering dinner for some reason - maybe a lot of diners just drop by here for drinks and appetizers. She asked if we wanted to know what tonight's specials were and she pulled out a notepad and recited them to us, with prices. Then she disappeared and said she'd be back to take our orders. She was gone for a while, but we really didn't mind as we were enjoying being distracted by the tasteful jazz sax and piano duo in the bar (at least until they played a Billy Joel cover for some reason - most of their repertoire was jazz standards) and getting a glimpse at the ball game.
When the waitress finally showed up 10-15 minutes later, my fiancée ordered the eight-ounce filet mignon ($22 or $28, can't remember) and I got the pan-roasted Alaskan halibut ($22). There were a lot of other good options to choose from, including a variety of steamed seafood items (king crab legs, bucket o'clams, crab, etc. - I enviously spied an order of king crab legs going to another table), cioppino, etc. that I vowed to try on a subsequent visit. We both opted for the New England clam chowder to start (they offer a variety of soups, including Manhattan clam chowder, and salads).
The clam chowder was a hearty serving of thick chowder, and is the best I've had in the area - much better than what I've had at Walt's Wharf and the Los Alamitos Fish Co. (still don't understand the appeal of this place). My only complaint is that it may have been slightly too salty, but overall the flavors were really pronounced, the broth was rich and creamy and the clams were tender.
The main courses arrived quickly and were nicely presented. My halibut sat atop a large heap of pesto mashed potatoes next to a generous serving of sliced asparagus, tomatoes and red onion in a sesame vinagrette. The asparagus was crisp and nowhere near overcooked, and all of the vegetables tasted very fresh. The mashed potatoes were also flavorful, with nice subtle basil undertones from the pesto. The potatoes are roughly mashed with the skins, instead of a fine puree. My halibut was expertly seared on the outside and very moist and tender on the inside - a very good pan-roasting presentation (and one of the main reasons I almost always order fish prepared this way when it's listed on the menu).
But I have to admit that I was really envious of my fiancée's filet mignon, which was cooked to a perfect medium rare as specified. Fortunately, she shared a few bites with me. This was one of the best steaks I've had in L.A. The beef was very flavorful and tender, tasting the way I remember beef used to taste (and doesn't taste like too much these days). While the menu only specified prime, I'd guess that McKenna's steaks are dry aged as well. This was really a wonderful piece of beef, and I'm glad to have a place that serves excellent steaks for reasonable prices (and in nice surroundings) so near where I live.
After clearing our plates (which we could not empty, the servings were generous, but I think the real culprit was the sourdough bread served before the meal, which may have doubled in size in our stomachs - go easy on the bread here), the waitress brought over a dessert tray with lots of good looking items - crème brulee, cheesecake, Hershey bar pie, upside-down apple pie, etc. However, we were too stuffed to even split an item.
I highly recommend McKenna's for a casual get-together with friends when you want crowd-pleasing food and nice surroundings with a view. But it's also a good place to grab a few oysters and a glass of chardonnay, or to have a decent beer (several varieties on tap) or drink and take in a game at the bar. The crowd seems to be mostly locals from Seal Beach and Long Beach out for a casual, laidback evening.
McKenna's is hidden out of sight near the end of the bay by Khoury's, which may explain why this place isn't overpopulated and subject to the crowds and long waits you often find at Walt's Wharf and the Crab Pot. But I'm afraid it's only a matter of time before the word gets out and this place gets discovered by the hordes. Another bonus is that there's plenty of ample free parking in the adjacent lot, although you can spring for valet parking ($3) if you don't feel like walking the extra 100 yards.
McKenna's on the Bay
190 Marina Drive