Love & Salt
317 Manhattan Beach Boulevard
Manhattan Beach, CA 90266
You probably can’t live in Manhattan Beach. The prices are too high; the lifestyle is too idyllically Californian; the people are too beautiful for their age; the parking is too scarce. Most importantly, perhaps, the quality restaurants are too few. While higher dining options exist – M.B. Post, Fishing With Dynamite, and the subject of this review, Love & Salt – the culinary scene in Manhattan Beach would perhaps most aptly be characterized as “family friendly.” Perfect if you like Pitfire Pizza, less so if your preferences skew toward street food, fusion or small plates.
But Manhattan Beach really does encapsulate the Southern California lifestyle, or at least what many people outside Southern California would imagine our lifestyle to be. It’s mostly white, mostly rich, mostly sunny, mostly upscale, mostly clean, mostly successful, and mostly USC alumni. It exemplifies the relaxed affluence that is more closely associated with Southern California than with anywhere else. You’ll spot an off-puttingly muscular forty-something year old man strolling down Manhattan Beach Boulevard with impossibly adorable children, his bronze arms bursting from Rip Curl t-shirts, salt-and-pepper hair cut close, smiling through his Maui Jim sunglasses at the cards life dealt him. And just when you think you might live a life like his one day, you see the glint of the alabaster dial on his $20,000 watch as it catches the sun just so, and you’ll remember that this is not your place.
In spite of being inaccessible, though, I can’t shake the feeling whenever I’m in Manhattan Beach that there’s something missing there (besides minorities, I mean). It’s a city that lacks a certain je ne sais quoi. It’s beachy, it’s Californian, there’s a Marine Layer, and the schools are top-notch, sure, but it feels fundamentally anti-urban. It’s oddly devoid of genuine culture. It’s an ecosystem, not a city.
If you’re looking for a B(a)esha Rodell-approved break from the blocks upon blocks of suburban ennui (and you are lucky enough to find a parking spot), you might stop in at Michael Fiorelli’s Love & Salt. Chef Michael Fiorelli’s food is described by the restaurant as Italian-inspired, but “with a California soul.” It may be that soul animating the splash of salsa verde on the grilled octopus, or (depending on how forgiving you feel) the presence of gluten-free pasta. Good-natured ribbing aside, the food here is good. The cocktails are excellent as well. It may not be the most innovative menu in the world, but come on; this is still Manhattan Beach.
One item for which Love & Salt has become quietly regarded is a burger, which was inspired neither by Italy nor the restaurant’s soul, but rather by a particularly intransigent regular customer who persisted in ordering a burger in spite of there not being one on the menu. Chef Fiorelli finally relented and, using what ingredients he had on hand, he served what is now known as the Downlow Burger. It recently received sterling plaudits from local tastemakers, so I predictably felt compelled to sample it. In the spirit of its origins, the Downlow Burger remains off the menu (as in, on the down low) at dinner, but they make a limited run of twelve per day during weekend brunch. Calling ahead to request a set-aside is advisable. Kelsey, Kristen, Tristan and I did just that, and took in a Saturday brunch there.
The Order: the Downlow Burger
The Price: $16
The Downlow Burger consists of two substantial black angus beef patties, fontina cheese, caramelized onions, housemade pickles, and a tomato aioli, all on brioche. Probably the highest praise I can heap on this burger is that it presents like a cousin of Petit Trois. It’s a saucy, paradoxical thing: minimalistic but indulgent, familiar but challenging, understated but brazen. Like Ludo’s masterwork, it eschews typical garnishment in favor of fewer, bolder flavors, assembled purposefully to complement one another.
The beef is the anchor, and though it was overcooked (and therefore a touch gritty), it was juicy and bursting with savor that stabilized every bite. The fontina cheese added a lightly botanical quality, while its fruit and nut notes seeped into the meat, giving it a subtle sweetness that interacted well with the caramelized onions, the residual tang of which, in turn, married nicely with the delicate sourness of the pickles. The buns hold everything together, but don’t impress too much in their own right.
The really impressive choice here was the tomato aioli. While the tomato flavor was the right call, ketchup would have been too ham-fisted, too obvious, too sharp, and it wouldn’t have fit in the context of this burger, which decidedly is aiming for gourmet status. By presenting the tomato as an aioli, Fiorelli manages to present the right flavor, but with a softer touch. It’s a really sophisticated, thoughtful, creative stroke, and it elevates this burger and preserves a balanced flavor profile. It’s no bordelaise sauce mounted with foie gras, but come on; this is still Manhattan Beach.
Flavor: 9.20 / 10.00
Freshness / Quality: 9.50 / 10.00
Value: 8.40 / 10.00
Efficiency: 8.70 / 10.00
Creativity / Style: 9.20 / 10.00
Bun: 8.20 / 10.00
Patty: 8.70 / 10.00
Toppings: 9.50 / 10.00
Sauce: 9.80 / 10.00
Balance: 9.60 / 10.00
Total: 90.80 / 100.00