Richard Foss

Love & Salt refocused [restaurant review]

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Chef Michael Fiorelli has reduced his offerings and sharpened his focus

The sunlit interior of Love Salt at Sunday brunch. Photo by Richard Foss

There has been a subtle but interesting evolution at Love And Salt, which I reviewed shortly after it opened in 2014. Chef-partner Michael Fiorelli was inspired to a culinary career by a meeting with Thomas Keller of the French Laundry, and his cooking occasionally shows influence from Keller’s wild experimentation. The sprawling, eccentric and somewhat confusing opening menu included an aptly named section called “odds and ends.” This was the first restaurant in the area to serve a halved roasted pig’s head, and certainly the only one to glaze that porcine pate with maple syrup.

Last week I had a friend in town from New Zealand, a country with excellent ingredients but few chefs who prepare them with brio, so we decided to visit Love & Salt. The atmosphere was electric; a buzz of conversation over upbeat tuneage, punctuated by the music of ice cubes in a bar shaker. We were handed menus and I quickly noticed two things: they were offering slightly fewer items, and the focus had sharpened. The focus now is innovative takes on rustic Italian traditions, often centered on natural flavors that have been intensified by pickling or other techniques.

We selected antipasti of grilled octopus with chorizo and crispy potatoes, grilled asparagus topped with a fried egg, and an endive and anchovy salad with fried sage, crispy chickpeas, and garlic parmesan dressing. That salad has been on the menu since the early days, and it’s a brilliant pairing of strong flavors. The crunchy, bitter endive and oily, peppery anchovy are left natural, with fried sage leaves and deep fried garbanzos contributing crispness and aromatic nutty and herbal notes. A rich garlic parmesan dressing relates to all the flavors, a trick when there are this many things going on. There are a number of good salads on the menu, and this is the great one.

The grilled asparagus, by contrast, was a simple idea perfectly executed: lightly cooked vegetable bathed in green garlic butter, topped with a fried egg, breadcrumbs and pecorino cheese crumbles. Any home cook could make this, if gifted with top quality ingredients and an almost supernatural sense of proportion. There was only one minor imbalance, and it was an odd one: we both thought it was better with a dash of extra salt, ironic given the name of the restaurant.

Love & Salt server Jazmine Zapata with grilled Idaho Trout. Photo by Jp Cordero

There was no such problem with the octopus, which had been partially cooked before hitting the grill so that it had a soft rather than chewy texture. This was laid on a bed of salsa verde, the Mediterranean variety rather than Mexican. It’s a puree of green herbs and oil with no chili peppers, and if you think of it as pesto with a few extra layers of flavor you’re close. The octopus was topped with crisped potatoes and accompanied by four coins of garlicky Spanish chorizo. I could have eaten a larger portion as a main course.

For entrees we selected trottole pasta with bone marrow and a roasted half chicken with wilted greens and natural jus. The housemade spiral noodles arrived in a sauce of roasted garlic and parmesan with nothing else but parsley and pepper. Our server brought out a roasted beef bone and scraped the marrow over the dish. Depending on your attitude about food this is either a chance to dine like a proper Italian peasant or an appalling spectacle, and I have met people who had both reactions. If you don’t like food that looks like the critter it used to be, you probably shouldn’t order this unless you ask them to prepare it in the kitchen. If you want to see how our ancestors dined from the days of spearing mammoths to the early 20th century, when no protein was wasted, go for it. Bone marrow has the texture of partially melted butter and a flavor that is meaty and rich, and it was marvelous over the pasta.

As for the roast chicken, we had ordered it because we wondered what even a master chef could do to make it special. The surprise was that there was no surprise. It was a very good half chicken with an herb rubbed skin and a hint of woodsmoke, served over housemade bread that sopped up the rich gravy. That’s what we ordered, and that’s what we got. As I looked over the menu afterward I noticed that the flashier ideas are all in the salads and small plates, with the mains oriented toward bold simplicity. It suits the name of the restaurant, in which skill at the basics is more important than a spice rack a yard deep.

We finished with a brown sugar pudding with cocoa nibs and sea salt and an order of the Italian doughnuts. The doughnuts were flavors from the early 20th century, sweet and citrus cream with just a bit of nutty background, while the pudding represented a more modern style. Salt and sweet are the palate of the 21s Century, and they’re beautifully matched here. There are cocktails on this menu that artfully use bitter and fruity flavors, and one of those would be the perfect companion to this dessert.

My wife had missed that dinner, so in the interest of domestic harmony I took her to Love & Salt for brunch a few days later. The room that is dramatically lit by night has a different feeling when sun is pouring in through the windows, the energy mellower despite the same sound level. We started with a ricotta pancake with blueberries and lemon curd, and we might have ordered another and finished it too. It was an amazingly light and sweet confection that would be a perfect companion to a pot of French press, but we decided to have a cocktail called “#INeedCoffee” instead. This mix of coffee and hazelnut liqueurs, cold brew, and cream has everything I like about Irish coffee, but without the compulsion to drink it quickly before it gets cold.

For her main my wife ordered a bagel with smoked salmon, cream cheese, radish, onion, capers, and dill, a classic that the chef evidently felt doesn’t need to be updated. He’s right, and it’s a great start to the day. I had been eyeing the wood oven baked eggs, but my server recommended the Calabrian sausage and spring onion pizza so highly that we decided to go with that instead. This was a straightforward expression of the aesthetic I had seen at dinner, all about a few natural flavors subtly enhanced. The cheese was sparingly applied so that the fruity tomato sauce and gentle spring onion sharpness were to the fore, with the sausage an occasional burst of umami and garlicky pork.

That brunch for two ran $73 with two cocktails, dinner about $90 per person with cocktails and wine, which is competitive with other area restaurants of this caliber. It’s a worthwhile experience for those who want to be reintroduced to ancient traditions transcendently well executed. Fiorelli and his team have figured out what this restaurant is supposed to be, and they have the chops to make it happen.

Love & Salt is at 317 Manhattan Beach Boulevard in Manhattan Beach. 5:30 p.m. – 10 p.m. Mon. — Thurs., 5:30 p.m. – 11 p.m. Fro., Sat 10 a.m. — 11 p.m., Sun 10 a.m. — 10 p.m., Parking structure behind restaurant or street parking. Wheelchair access good. Some vegetarian items. (310) 545-5252. LoveAndSaltLA.com. ER

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