Richard Foss

Mar’Sel at the Terranea Resort [RESTAURANT REVIEW]

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mar'sel restaurant palos verdes terraneaIt’s easy to understand the philosophical idea that a restaurant might want to be a hideaway, a place both physically and psychologically disconnected from our everyday lives. We want to toss our cares aside and be in a different, peaceful space, undistracted by our cares.

mar’sel is on the grounds of the Terranea Resort, well away from the lobby. There is no sign at the parking lot to suggest that you might be somewhere near your destination, and the path forks with no clear suggestion as to where it might lead. Had we been less intrigued by what we had heard about this restaurant, we might have turned back and gone to another restaurant on or off the property.

But I was interested, because I had heard positive comments from people who are usually dismissive of restaurants on the Hill and the South Bay dining scene, in general. I had heard that the menu at mar’sel was amazingly ambitious and that Chef Michael Fiorelli, who practiced his trade at some of the top restaurants in the country, had the chops to pull it all off.

When we walked past the bar and into the restaurant, it was cozy rather than opulent, with simple clean lines, wooden paneling, a fireplace, and glass on two sides. Since an ocean view never goes out of style, it’s a sensible choice. We were there for the food, though, and focused on the menu. It was short – 10 starters and nine entrees – but extremely interesting, a mixture of relatively simple items made with premium ingredients, and some more adventurous combinations.

A friend, my wife and I all enjoyed an amuse-bouche of duck rillettes on toast with homemade jam while we mused over our choices. We decided to start with grilled Spanish octopus over sausage and peppers, maple-glazed Berkshire pork belly, and a plate of hot and cold foie gras. I had been attracted by the Jerusalem artichoke soup with duck confit, but when I asked our server if he would choose that or the pork, he unhesitatingly suggested the latter. I wouldn’t mind having that soup sometime, but was delighted with the pork – the presentation was beautiful, cubes of pork over kabocha squash puree, topped with Brussels sprout cups filled with chopped apple and bacon. The winter vegetables and tart apple perfectly complemented the delicately sweet and sour cubes of maple glazed pork, and it was an inspired combination.

The octopus was similarly successful, and showed a certain facility in handling flavors. Two long coils of tentacle had been grilled and then slow-cooked in sous-vide style, then set atop spicy Spanish-style chorizo with fresh tomato jam and a dash of horseradish. Instead of sweet and sour, there was a balance of sweet and spicy and smoky. The tentacle was very tender, which we found interesting – octopus that is even slightly under or overcooked can be very rubbery, and working out how to combine two methods of cooking must have been a challenge. Pairing octopus, sausage, and peppers is traditional in Spanish tapas, but this was uncommonly well executed.

My wife’s foie gras was the most complicated dish – foie in a cold terrine topped with chopped black grapes and persimmon, paired with seared foie gras on brioche with aged balsamic vinegar for the warm side. The cold foie had a fine flavor, but was served in a thick terrine; I find cold foie cloying in large amounts and would have preferred some variation in texture. My rather picky wife found it delightful, and since she’s the one that ordered it, it was her opinion that counted. The hot foie was more my style, caramelized exterior over jelly-like soft meaty goodness inside, the natural sweetness and the vinegar continuing the sweet and sour theme.

Our companion had brought a fine bottle of old Rioja from her cellar to accompany our dinner, but I scanned the wine list and was impressed by the range of bottles and by-the-glass offerings. The sommelier stopped by, we chatted for a few minutes, and he offered a taste of Layer Cake Cabernet that he thought might complement my main course. It was a good match and generous gesture from a man who knows his business, but I was drinking moderately that evening and declined.

For main courses we selected roasted loin of New Zealand venison, grilled wagyu rib eye cap, and prosciutto-wrapped tuna with sweetbreads, ricotta pudding, and caponata. The venison had been grilled with a stock sauce with just a hint of black currant. Deer meat is so rare that it becomes tough unless enhanced with some other rich stock, and sometimes that masks the true flavor, but this time the texture and character shined through. It was served alongside a mix of roasted fingerling potatoes, fennel, pearl onions, tomato, and pancetta, a mix that emphasized the earthy, smoky tones of the meat.

I am rarely impressed by wagyu steaks, which are always tender but often flavorless, but this rib eye had plenty of meaty taste and overtones of salt, herbs, and a slight grill char. As our friend observed, some of the items in the previous course had verged on over-complicated – it was actually a positive sign that the chef could just let good beef be good beef with subtle adornment. There was art in the side dishes with the steak, a fat cream chard tortellini and baby carrots in an Italian tomato, caper, and berry sauce that again brought back the sweet and sour theme.

My tuna wrapped in prosciutto did verge on overly complex; when I ordered it, the server had been very specific that I should eat all the items together, not separately, or I wouldn’t like it. To me this raised an obvious question – if it should be eaten after being blended, why not serve it that way? The answer is obviously that it wouldn’t be as pretty a presentation, the rare tuna wrapped in crisped prosciutto atop the sweetbreads, flanked by bright red caponata and the creamy disc of the ricotta pudding. Sure enough, when I tried the items separately, they were out of balance – salty prosciutto too much for the tuna, sweetbreads all musky meatiness, pudding too rich; but when blended they really were splendid. This plate cries out for a tableside presentation – show it off in all its elegance, then blend it into the rarefied version of hash with an enchanting flavor.

For dessert we decided on a warm molten carrot cake, chocolate cake with espresso ganache, and a glass of a Chateau Suduiraut sauterne. The carrot cake really was almost molten at the center, and the spiced golden raisins and maple ice cream showed that chef Fiorelli has skill at unorthodox pairings with sweet flavors. I hadn’t been that interested when my wife ordered it, but I wanted more after the first bite. My chocolate cake was more straightforward despite the fancy-sounding hazelnut brittle topping and malt ice cream on the side; it was comfort food at the end of an adventurous meal. As for the sauterne, it was sunshine in a glass, flowery and warming.

Dinner at mar’sel is not an everyday delight — our meal for three, with a $25 corkage fee included, was $267. (Granted, we had ordered two of the most expensive main courses and the most expensive starter on the menu, but had we experimented with that wine list, it would have been more.) Nevertheless, it was well worth it; far and away the best meal I’ve had on the Peninsula, and a more thought-provoking repast than any I’ve had in the South Bay in a long time. This was an uncompromisingly creative meal from an exceptional chef. I hope that Mr. Fiorelli stays here, and that both locals and hotel guests appreciate his vision and support him with their patronage.

mar’sel is at the Terranea Resort, 6610 Palos Verdes Drive South. Full bar, plenty of parking a short distance from restaurant. Open daily except Sunday and Monday, dinner only – reservations required. Phone 310-265-2800.

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