Richard Foss

Love & Salt: Manhattan Beach’s newest restaurant brings audacity and creativity to the plate

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Love & Salt, a collaboration between veteran restaurateur Gay Gabriele, his daughter Sylvie, and acclaimed chef Michael Fiorelli. Photo by Andrea Bricco

Love & Salt, a collaboration between veteran restaurateur Gay Gabriele, his daughter Sylvie, and acclaimed chef Michael Fiorelli. Photo by Andrea Bricco

The hardest thing to convey in a review of anything – books, theatre, music, or a restaurant meal – is how exciting it can be when someone comes up with a genuinely new twist on an old concept. Classic ideas still have the power to delight, to remind us of enduring values, but when an artist uses old ideas in an unexpected way, they change our sense of what is possible.

One of the big openings of last year was Love & Salt in Manhattan Beach, a collaboration between veteran restaurateur Guy Gabriele, his daughter Sylvie, and acclaimed chef Michael Fiorelli. I had been a fan of Guy’s Café Pierre since it opened decades ago, and my first impression of its replacement was not positive. I have since come around. There’s a logic to the new space, which is bright, loud, and dynamic. I would change a few details – the seating at the center shared table is tight and uncomfortable – but in general it works. It’s one of the loudest restaurants in town, but if you prefer a quieter experience you can make a reservation for a table along the west wall.

The menu is surprisingly varied and divided into a section of bruschetta, both cold and hot small plates, pizzas, pastas, and main courses that are meant for sharing. There’s also a section called “Odds and Ends” that is aptly named – a corned lamb tongue panini, crispy pig ears with pickles and radish, and a whole roasted pig’s head aren’t things that fit neat categories. On my first visit I joked that they could probably run out of the roasted pig’s head and nobody would ever know, because nobody in Manhattan Beach was likely to order it. On my second visit, the people at the table next to me ordered one, proving me wrong.

Love And Salt, Manhattan

Love And Salt, Manhattan

I have heard from people who were skeptical about some of the bruschetta that are on the menu here – how, they wonder, could it be worth thirteen dollars for one large slice of rustic bread topped with braised leeks, burrata cheese, pickled Fresno chilies, and a dash of olive oil? The answer is that this item is more than just an assemblage of vegetables and cheese on toast – the flavors are complex and you will nibble it to figure out how each of those things are interacting. It’s a showcase for strong flavors deftly used, and definitely worth trying  at least once.

The small plates section has several items that show the French and Italian heritage of the partners – a shaved fennel and parmesan salad and roasted cauliflower with preserved lemon both draw from traditional ideas. I was more interested in some of the unusual items like sautéed cauliflower leaves over polenta, mainly because I hadn’t previously known cauliflower leaves were even edible. If you like the flavor of cauliflower and the texture of leafy greens like kale, this may be your new favorite dish. Cauliflower and kale are in the same family as broccoli, and there’s a bit of that flavor apparent in the leaves, which were delicious on top of the creamy mascarpone cheese polenta.

An old proverb says all a cook needs to make a good meal is love and salt. Photo by Andrea Bricco

An old proverb says all a cook needs to make a good meal is love and salt. Photo by Andrea Bricco

The endive salad with fried sage, anchovy, crisp sage, and roasted garlic-parmesan dressing was interesting too; not recommended if you don’t like sharp flavors, but if you do this is an unbeatable combination. At our server’s suggestion we also tried the “Freekehlicious” salad that included five grains and five herbs, along with shaved radish, black currants, and toasted hazelnuts. This house specialty had a comfort food effect – it reminded me of some quinoa-based salads I’ve had elsewhere, but with an extra dimension from the variety of grains used. If you’re ordering some of the items that celebrate strong or bitter flavors, this is an excellent palate cleanser that can be enjoyed on its own merits.

The pizzas at Love & Salt are traditional compared to the small plates; though duck egg and fennel pollen are included in some of them, they’re faithfully Italian in concept. They are very good, too, the thin crust crisp as it hits the table, the fennel sausage on the one we ordered housemade and zesty. I’d order one for a table of three or four so everyone could have a slice, as it makes a good transition from starters to the main course.

That main course might be listed under the small plates, which aren’t all that small if you’re considering the grilled swordfish or flat iron steak with barley risotto, egg, and dandelion greens. It’s not a huge piece of protein, but with the accompaniments it’s a hearty meal for one or shared dish for two. The meat was expertly grilled and delicious, but what knocked us over was the risotto, a luscious, creamy concoction of grain cooked with stock and cheese. It was a terrific accompaniment to grilled meat and I want to learn how to make it.

The main courses that most intrigued me were the pig’s head and the rabbit porchetta, and we decided to try the latter because I hadn’t even known you could make porchetta from rabbit. Porchetta is usually a piece of pork belly rolled around sausage and slow-roasted so most of the fat melts out, leaving a crisp exterior and tender meat within. Rabbit is a very lean meat, but Chef Fiorelli solves this by wrapping the rabbit in prosciutto, which crisps very nicely and keeps everything inside from drying out. The presentation is beautiful, the flavor delicate and delicious – since the large portion is a good main course for three, the $75 cost works out to be moderate for this level of cooking. It was served over a mix of chopped Swiss chard with black rice and farro, and the nutty character of both grains made a fine pairing with the sauce.

The pig's head has become an attraction -- and a social media portrait subject. Photo by Andrea Bricco

The pig’s head has become an attraction — and a social media portrait subject. Photo by Andrea Bricco

We were enjoying our rabbit while the people at the table next to us were figuring out how to eat their pig’s head – half the head, really, cut open so more of the meat was accessible. The half-head weighed seven pounds, and though some of it was bone and fat there was plenty for two people, and they enjoyed it immensely once they finished taking pictures and tweeting them to all their friends. Our server confirmed that everybody who ordered the pig’s head did this – the temptation to freak out people is irresistible. It smelled tantalizingly of the maple glaze, herbs, and roasted pork, and I wished for some distraction out the window so I might sneak a piece while they weren’t looking.

I have tried two of the desserts – a honey buttermilk panna cotta with pomegranate seeds and streusel topping, and a toasted almond caramel tart. Both were deftly made and tasty, a comfort food finish to meals that merged tradition and avant-garde ideas.

A variety of fine wines and cocktails are offered, at prices that are reasonable – the bar staff here know their classic cocktails and also make some nifty original items like the Dirty Boulevard. This concoction of rye, Galliano, aperol, and bitters has a deeply complex flavor and deserves to become a new classic.

Love & Salt acquired its name from an old proverb that suggested that those two things were the only things a cook needed to make good food. That may be true, but there is much more going on here –  like creativity and audacity. This restaurant is a must-visit for anyone who wants to experience some of the best creative cooking not just in the South Bay, but Los Angeles as a region. It’s the new answer to anyone who doubts that our neighborhood is a first-class dining destination.

Love & Salt is at 317 Manhattan Beach Boulevard in Manhattan Beach. Open daily at 5:30 p.m.., closes at 10:30 p.m.Sunday through Thursday and 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Street or pay structure parking, full bar, wheelchair access OK, many vegetarian/vegan items. No online menu, phone 310-545-5252.

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