Love & Salt

The Place
Love & Salt
317 Manhattan Beach Boulevard
Manhattan Beach, CA 90266

Love & Salt
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 Burger
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.

The Ratings
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

Fritzi

The Place
Fritzi
814 Traction Avenue
Los Angeles, CA 90013

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I remember when Give Up by the Postal Service came out.  I was a sophomore in high school.  It was before winter formal.  That particular winter formal was to be a rare triumph for me in the romance department.  I took one of the prettiest and most popular girls in the freshman class.  Unfortunately, as it turned out 1) I wasn’t very attractive (please indulge my optimistic use of the past tense), 2) she was out of my league, 3) I’m inveterately and painfully awkward, and 4) teenagers are a heartless sort.

The result: she bolted as soon as we arrived, and spent the entire evening with confident, attractive junior alpha males who played sports and got bad grades.  Meanwhile, I, the archetypal beta male, sat on a bench staring into a swimming pool, waiting for high school to end, and playing various tracks from Give Up in my head to pass the time. This admittedly depressing scene was interrupted when I was rescued by my friend David and his date Sara (incidentally, about halfway through “Clark Gable”).

I still wonder why that album came into my head, especially considering my tortured relationship with it.  I hated to like Give Up.  See, some Death Cab for Cutie fans were nervous when Give Up dropped (these were the Sub Pop days, when Death Cab fans were less numerous and more proprietary than today’s breed).  Publicly, we worried side projects portend artistic restlessness, or worse, stagnation, that they threaten to reveal a beloved artist reduced to repackaging old ideas instead of presenting new ones.

Privately though, we’d admit that our real issue wasn’t artistic; it was that side projects have the whiff of infidelity.  Death Cab fans liked to envision Ben Gibbard poring over ragged spiral notebooks scribbling the lyrics to the next “A Lack Of Color,” not seeking new modes of expression.  Him having another band felt like a betrayal.

What an odd feeling. It’s not as if I didn’t love Ben Gibbard just because Give Up came out.  It’s just that the release of Give Up made me face all facets of that love, even the ugly ones: affection, loyalty, fear (of change and of loss), comfort, complacency, possessiveness, jealousy.  The only thing more frightening than watching someone you love change is the prospect of getting left behind somewhere along the way.  So I listened, with layered trepidation.

I find these feelings have survived in me, and they resurfaced again recently when Neal Fraser diverted his attention from Redbird to give Fritzi the full sit-down restaurant treatment.  When Fritzi became something more than a whimsical pop-up or a window at Arts District Brewing, that familiar proprietary jealousy, that envious dogma of mine, was impossible to escape, even though culinary side projects often work out just fine.

The Order: Fritzi Burger

The Price: $11.50

The Burger
Maybe you’ve never heard of Fritzi.  It would be hard to fault you, actually.  It first surfaced as a pop-up, then soft-opened as a practically nameless take-out window nestled in a corner of Arts District Brewing, where everyone from the merely buzzed to the blacked out could partake in some high-class, high-carb hangover prophylaxis.  The only signage to speak of was a large marquee above the window that glowingly admonished all passers-by: “DON’T FORGET TO EAT.”

By the time Fritzi actually opened a dining room directly next door to Arts District Brewing (serviced by the same kitchen as the take-out window; the two spaces are less adjacent than they are interlocked), it would have been easy to not notice.  There was almost no fanfare; besides, we’d been eating off that menu for months.

But Fritzi commands attention.  It is the brainchild of Neal Fraser, who ranks among the most deadly serious chefs in the city.  The fare is fast-food inspired and fundamentally uncomplicated.With quintessentially Arts District pretentiousness (i.e., trying far too hard to project a laid-back, industrial Bohemian charm), Fritzi will tell you they serve “artisanal nosh.”  That means no of-the-moment crudo, no robust and hearty braised goat gemelli, and – sadly – no peri-eponymous (I can’t resist making the epunymous joke) tray of veal.

Nothing here is a signature dish.  This is an off-duty project, a glimpse at what Neal Fraser might make at a cookout – nothing too high-minded…but, well, he’s still Neal Fraser.  As such, expect sophisticated, subtly reimagined classics.

The Fritzi Burger is, for lack of a better term, so Fraser.  Each component of the conventional burger is rethought, elevated.  This burger offers a hybrid patty (Nueske bacon and beef) that is given ample (viz., nine hours) sous vide time; a generous smear of Fontina fondue which offers a gooey, honeyed nuttiness; a sweet Calabrese relish with a whisperingly slow-hot finish; a fresh salve of mild thousand island; and iceberg lettuce to add cooling textural contrast.

The patty is a masterstroke, a subtle, intensely flavorful execution of an idea that sounds excellent in theory but often is butchered grotesquely in practice.  The Nueske bacon imparts a smoky, marbled dimension to the beef, evoking the faintest thoughts of a Texan barbecue pit.  The fondue creates a sumptuous, almost silken coating around the patty, mild and comforting.  Both sauces are excellent, and work well enough in concert with one another.  They offer a few redundant notes, but ultimately elevate the entire experience.  I was glad for the lettuce, if only because it offered a bit of complexity in a burger that otherwise verges on textural monotony.

While Fraser excels in reimagining individual ingredients, he sometimes almost loses sight of the forest for the trees.  It’s fine to reshape each piece of a puzzle, especially if you improve each one; but change them enough, and they won’t fit together.

In the case of the Fritzi Burger, that’s just a distant threat – this burger hangs together well, never veering into incoherence.  But it also is a mildly unsettling dish, because – as a whole – it doesn’t always feel completely intentional.  But existential niggling aside, this burger is stellar, not to be missed, and yet another shining example in a litany of Neal Fraser’s innovative genius.

Ultimately, no matter how rabid a Death Cab fan I was, I listened to Give Up.  I couldn’t help myself.  In my more honest moments, I recognize it as a superior product to solidly (maybe conservatively) 85% of Death Cab for Cutie’s oeuvre.  But even short of that admission, I know I put aside my feelings of betrayal on behalf of Gibbard’s bandmates because I wanted to understand what was compelling enough to divert his creative focus.  I didn’t really listen because I wanted to.  I listened because I had to.

So if you felt similar vicarious betrayal when Chef Fraser took time away from Redbird to launch Fritzi, you probably also feel a similar morbid curiosity regarding what Fritzi is all about.  Succumb to it.  This burger may not be better than 85% of the menu at Redbird, but it is too good to be missed owing to proprietary hipster envy.

The Ratings:
Flavor: 9.60 / 10.00
Freshness/Quality: 10.00 / 10.00
Value: 9.00 / 10.00
Efficiency: 8.40 / 10.00
Creativity/Style: 10.00 / 10.00
Bun: 8.40 / 10.00
Patty: 10.00 / 10.00
Toppings: 8.10 / 10.00
Sauce: 8.70 / 10.00
Balance: 8.90 / 10.00

Total: 91.10 / 100.00

Stout

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Alexandros Kagianaris and Charles Lew are pretty serious about casual dining. They envision neighborhood joint Stout as being a place where – to quote their website – “club goers meet the culinary elite for burgers and beer.” Leaving aside the fact that I’m not sure who fits into either of those groups, the thrust seems to be that they’re aiming to appeal to a broad swath of people. It’s one of those restaurants that’s trying to please foodies and philistines alike. They do it by using high-quality beef, and assembling burgers with interesting (but not too challenging) toppings.

Regardless, Stout has received its fair share of accolades. L.A. Weekly called its eponymous burger the ninth best burger in Los Angeles. And if there’s one thing we know, it’s that ninth is the new first. Anyhow, Stout has three locations: Hollywood (on Cahuenga), Studio City (on Ventura), and Santa Monica (on Santa Monica).

McKenna and I went to Stout’s Studio City location to put its bona fides to the test. Our trip was not without adventure: She got a burger with an over-easy egg on it; as she picked it up, the yolk split and spilled out of the bun like lava over the rim of a volcano, completely drenching her hands. It bears mentioning that she survived the explosion and took down the burger like a champ (even if it meant having hands so covered in yolk and sauce that she had to drink her beer through a straw. Which she did. Also like a champ).

For her trouble – or maybe just for her scintillating personality – our server really took quite a shining to McKenna (probably because she didn’t hear all the shit McKenna was talking about the evening’s playlist). They bonded over the course of the night, not always (albeit quite often) at my expense. But a dose of well-intentioned derision is a small price to pay for seeing someone’s hands coated in egg yolks like a vegan’s ideation of Jack the Ripper.

I’m digressing. The TL;DR version is that we went and ate burgers. One exploded. Beer was sipped through a straw.

The Place
Stout Burgers & Beer
11262 Ventura Boulevard
Studio City, CA 91604

The Order: The Imperialist (roasted tomato, ketchup, aged cheddar, mustard relish), cooked “pink” (as opposed to “not pink” – the other choice)

The Price: $11.00

The Burger
Let’s get this out of the way: I don’t know why they call it the Imperialist. I’m also fully aware that I didn’t eat the flagship burger at Stout, the one for which it earned such acclaim. Obviously, I will be back to Stout for its namesake burger, but I was jonesing for something a bit on the subtler end. So obviously, I ordered a burger called the Imperialist.

Like I said, I don’t know why the call it that. But I have an idea. I think it’s because they took a perfectly good, perfectly functional, perfectly traditional ingredient combination – cheddar, ketchup, and mustard – and invaded that tranquil space with some weird newfangled addition. Listen, roasted tomato is a dicey proposition in any context. Put it all up in the shit of a classic burger, and it’s just invasive (not to mention arbitrary).

It was aggressively smoky and then concentratedly sweet. The ferocious – almost saccharine – back-end of the tomato bled into the ketchup, brought out the sweetness of the (excellent) bun, and really accented the notes of fruit in the cheddar (simultaneously blunting its acidic and nutty quality), making a sunburnt sweetness the dominant element of the early part of every bite.

Both McKenna and I noticed that the patty was a little dry. This probably had something to do with the fact that it was coarse and loosely packed, which gave the meat’s juices room to escape. The bottom of the patty was coated in mustard relish, a weird but very pungent sauce that pretty much overwhelmed the finish of every bite.

My brown person bias maybe coming into play here, but I’ve never been a fan of imperialism. One of my friends – who shall remain nameless and blameless – argues that imperialism gave the backward masses of the developing world a sense for administrative efficiency and built us roads and rail (mind you, he’s 84% joking when he says shit like that). Be that as it may, I think the colonial footprint is a harmful one. Stout’s Imperialist, sadly, is no more successful.

The Ratings
Flavor: 6.10 / 10.00
Freshness/Quality: 8.40 / 10.00
Value: 8.10 / 10.00
Efficiency: 8.00 / 10.00
Creativity/Style: 6.10 / 10.00
Bun: 9.00 / 10.00
Patty: 7.00 / 10.00
Toppings: 6.20 / 10.00
Sauce: 5.20 / 10.00
Balance: 6.90 / 10.00

Total: 71.00 / 100.00

Pie ‘N Burger

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Everyone on Yelp went here after Pie ‘N Burger was featured on Food Network as the third best burger in the country. Needless to say, it got a ton of hate from the insufferable masses (“Whatever, it’s not that good. I’ve definitely had better…I won’t name a better place right now, because that would require me being constructive and actually hazarding an affirmative opinion, but I totally could if I wanted to, because I know a lot about food. Find me on Instagram!”).

I don’t trust Yelp, and I’d respectfully submit that you shouldn’t either. In the main, it’s a morally bankrupt market distortion factory. No, seriously. But like actually though. But the real problem (or well, the other problem besides Jeremy Stoppelman doing his best Frank Costello impression) is that Yelp is really just full of people with shitty opinions. People who depend on someone else’s interface to get exposure for their crappy opinions. People who lack the courage to just run a failing blog.

Right, I’m done shitting on Yelp. For the moment. But it does suck. So there.

Okay, I’m really done. Promise.

Anyway. For those of us who grew up in Pasadena, Pie ‘N Burger isn’t that place we read about last week and rushed to so we could look discerning by posting about how overrated it is. It’s a place we grew up with. A place we went to on occasion. A place we liked, but with which we weren’t obsessed. I went to school literally blocks away. It’s familiar. Look, I’m trying to establish editorial credibility. Just let me have this.

So yeah. Kevin, Shanil, and I stopped off this morning for a breakfast of burgers and a shared pecan sweet bun (yes, shared).

The Place
Pie ‘N Burger
913 East California Boulevard
Pasadena, CA 91106

The Order: Cheeseburger

The Price: $11.45

The Burger
Pie ‘N Burger is younger than In-N-Out by fifteen years, but you’d never guess that after stepping inside. From the Formica countertops to the clientele, this place is old. It doesn’t have the slick, spit-shined aura of efficiency you find at In-N-Out. But then, that’s not really the vibe they’re going for at Michael Osborn’s Pasadena staple. No, Pie ‘N Burger focuses on food. That focus comes largely at the expense of, well, everything else: you know, things like ambience, modernity, attentiveness, thorough dishwashing, and basic human friendliness.

Needless to say, Kevin, Shanil, and I were the slickest, youngest, most debonair things in the room. Which may or may not surprise you depending on your estimation of us (be gentle). In spite of that, it took a minute (or eight) until the server deigned to come over and take our order. Once she did, though, things moved pretty quickly. The burgers came out wrapped in wax paper. The severely, wonderfully charred patty (I ballpark it at a third of a pound, but it may well have been heftier than that) herniated out from between the buns, a yellow film of cheese still melting on top. Short, thin introns of grilled onion swam in a sumptuous pink matrix of creamy, tangy, house-made Thousand Island. Besides that, there were a few pickles and basically an entire lettuce patch.

The patty is absolutely excellent. The exterior is blackened into a delicious, savory crust containing the surprisingly juicy, flavorful interior. It’s arguably a touch overcooked, but only enough to offend personal preference, not enough to compromise the objective quality of the burger. By which I mean I like a burger a little more rare, but this patty wasn’t cooked to the point of dryness. There was plenty of flavor remaining to satisfy.

The grilled onions were another highlight. Left to stew in Thousand Island, the flavors interacted beautifully, creating a cool, wonderful complement to the patty. The flavors were linked nicely by the shared grill flavor, but otherwise brought different personalities to the burger: the patty was crackling and savory, the sauce cool and sweet. The pickles picked up where the Thousand Island left off, adding a fresh, sour little snap. The buns were standard white, but toasted until their rims were black. This gave them a nice crispiness at the edges, but it softened as you went in, giving the burger a kind of textural arc.

Weirdly, all three of us shared the same major gripe: the lettuce. Don’t get me wrong, it was fresh, crisp, and wonderful. But there was just way, way, way too much of it. By the time I’d eaten all the beef, there was still a pretty enormous amount of lettuce (and bun, for that matter) left. The sheer magnitude of lettuce upset the balance of the burger, and was by far its weakest attribute. On the bright side, it wasn’t a depressing, wilted mess.

So don’t let the absurdly shitty service or the old-timey vibe fool you. Pie ‘N Burger is a standard for a reason. They make a damn good burger. It may not be the third best burger in the country, but it’s also much better than you might guess if all you did was read the propaganda on shitty Yelp. It is definitely worthy of recognition, and of your time. If you find yourself hungry for a burger in Pasadena, this is a compelling option.

The Ratings
Flavor: 9.30 / 10.00
Freshness/Quality: 9.30 / 10.00
Value: 8.60 / 10.00
Efficiency: 8.80 / 10.00
Creativity/Style: 7.50 / 10.00
Bun: 9.60 / 10.00
Patty: 9.30 / 10.00
Sauce: 9.00 / 10.00
Toppings: 8.70 / 10.00
Balance: 7.00 / 10.00

Total: 87.10 / 100.00

The L.A. Weekly Burger Battles

I owe Shannon for the tip on this one. She managed to reach me through the thick, noxious, mind-altering fog of bar exam preparation (which is also what I’m offering by way of an excuse for the lack of reviews lately), and apprise me of something of which I was shamefully unaware.

So apparently, LA Weekly is running a burger bracket. They’ve put sixteen burgers in Los Angeles into categories (“divisions”), and they’re putting them up in a head-to-head, winner-advances tournament. It’s not clear how they chose these sixteen burgers. There were some on the list that really didn’t belong, and others that were undoubtedly snubbed. The first round is over, and here are a few quick thoughts heading into Round Two (the “elite eight”):

  • Ledlow beating out Belcampo Meat Co. is the most ridiculous miscarriage of justice since, well, this. Or this. Or this. Or this. God, that last one really hurt.
  • Actually, the whole “Fancy” bracket kind of sucks. Not only were both matchups incorrectly decided, those burgers decidedly, well, just aren’t that fancy. Though I suppose fancy is relative.
  • It’s not clear what the “New School” Bracket actually is, considering some of those places have been around longer than, say, Ledlow, and are decidedly classic burgers (I’m thinking the Oinkster).
  • I don’t know how these sixteen burgers got their feet in the door. This is arbitrary as shit.
  • If the final is anything besides In-N-Out v. Plan Check, this bracket is a crime on par with…well, this. Which isn’t to say that Plan Check should even be in the final, because…ugh, where do I even start?

Now, your humble correspondent was snubbed for an invitation to judge the competition. I’m as perplexed as you are. However, I’ve decided to do the next best thing and offer you my suggested votes for the next round. Do with this information what you will.

Fancy Division: Pick Petit Trois (because you can’t pick Belcampo (because Gillian Ferguson’s tastebuds apparently are less functional than the cuff buttons on an rented tuxedo)).

New School Division: Go with Plan Check. Neither of these places really represent the best of what I think of as “New School” burgers in Los Angeles, but it’s the better of the two.

L.A. Originals Division: Close, but it’s got to be Father’s Office. But the even closer call would be “Which of these places offers a more unpleasant dining experience?” That’s a genuine toss-up.

Fast Food Division: If you have to ask, we’re obviously not in one another’s lives. It’s In-N-Out. By a marathon of country miles, it’s In-N-Out.

This is one to watch closely. In the meantime, you definitely should go do your civic duty.