Anyone who still doubts that Southern California has seasons should visit one of Long Beach’s growing number of market-driven restaurants at the beginning of spring. Right about now, the shift from hearty cold-weather dishes (root vegetables!) to the light and bright ones that herald the year’s first new growth is at its starkest. And with a dozen or so local kitchens now relying on the bounty of Farm Lot 59, Wiser Farms, Mary’s Chicken and more, it’s also a chance to compare what the various chefs using the California bounty as their palate are capable of doing with it.
One of the most reliable places in Long Beach to experience the possibilities of each season has been Taste WBK, a 35-seat dinner-date hideaway on Broadway in Belmont Heights with a constantly evolving menu of surprisingly diverse small plates. I admit, it took me a long while after its 2015 opening to overcome my lack of interest in another wine bar and take a chance on Taste WBK, which stands for “wine beer kitchen.” I finally considered it last year when, in the process of reviewing the crucial Long Beach sandwiches from Olives Gourmet Grocer next door, I realized the menu at Taste – a concept from Olives owners Laurie Semon and Erin O'Hagan – had finally veered away from some of the wine-pairing clichés of chicken liver paté, olives and cheese plates.
In their place was an increasingly creative array of medium-sized plates that, with unlikely sounding combinations (like a jalapeño-and-fish-sauce melon salad and puffy Navajo fry bread with sides of Middle Eastern dips), each read like something dreamed up for a young L.A. chef’s tasting menu. But even the menu descriptions were not enough to prepare me for a build-your-own shareable multi-course meal from head chef Brad Neumann, the former chef de cuisine at farm-to-fork kings Primal Alchemy Catering, who just might be one of the most underrated chefs in the city. It took only one visit to realize how much more than just a wine bar Taste WBK truly is.
The secret, it seems, is Neumann’s ability to pull from a world’s worth of cuisines to cull extreme nuance out of simple, fresh ingredients. One of the first dishes I that made me a Taste convert was a quartered butternut squash oozing with warm burrata and topped with a tangy drizzle of balsamic, olive oil and a handful of its own roasted seeds. The knife slid right through the sweet gourd and I lapped it up along with every stringy morsel of creamy cheese, savoring the purity of fall that it represented.
Handmade soup dumplings filled with Farm Lot 59 Swiss chard were another eye-opener. Sitting in a delicate onion broth, the dumplings oozed with salt and sesame – and came with an unexpected twinge of chili heat at the end.
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In fact, I’ve found that anything involving Neumann’s dumpling or pasta dough is a safe bet here. The recent spring menu change brought a plate of green garlic gnocchi and sun dried tomato pesto, implausibly topped with meaty mushrooms, marinated baby artichokes and fried capers bursting with vinegar and brine. Another new addition is the heavenly baked ricotta. Cut with whipped eggs and reimagined as a soufflé, it was served with local wildflower honey, California-grown olive oil and a pile of sea salt produced by the Rancho Palos Verdes resort Terranea.
Even if you only go Taste WBK once a year (the prices are admittedly not for the working man), make sure it’s around a seasonal shift, when the new growth becomes available and Neumann's menu changes with it. And instead of focusing on the wine (though the list is great) with food as a soak-up afterthought, treat Taste as one of those dreamy neighborhood San Francisco bistros that happens to have a killer wine list. Order one dish from each section on the menu, let your server bring it to the table in guided courses, and enjoy the fact that SoCal’s seasons exist enough to bring new food without the drastic weather changes.
3506 E. Broadway, Long Beach; (562) 433-1000; Taste-WBK.com