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

Tyler’s Burgers

The Place

Tyler’s Burgers
149 South Indian Canyon Drive
Palm Springs, CA 92262

No reservations
Bar: Beer and wine
Cash only

You’re eight years old, maybe nine.  It’s the height of summer—say, early July?  You’ve settled comfortably into your vacation, and your dreaded return to school is not yet on the radar.  You can’t really tell the days apart; they blend together into an undifferentiated mass of weekdays and weekends and friends and sunburns and beach days and day trips and sun-warmed pools.  You bask in the delicious swelter of the long summer days.  You feel invincible, ageless.

On one of those days, a day quite literally like every other early July day, your parents take you to a cookout at a friend’s house.  You walk into your friend’s backyard, grass brushing against the sides of your feet left bare by your sandals.  You hear laughter and beer cans opening.  You smell freshly-cut grass soaked in lemonade spills and sprinkler spray, the delicate cloud of sweet summer sweat, chlorinated water, and—above all—the smell of smoke, charcoal, and crackling grilled meat.

Hold that picture for a moment.

Diana Diamico started a restaurant based on that kind of picture.  Two decades ago, she set up shop in a sixty year-old building on the main drag in Palm Springs.  It used to be a Greyhound Bus depot.  Her goal was to recreate a burger that her mother used to sling way back when at a burger stand on the boardwalk in Venice Beach.  That burger, so firmly rooted in Diamico’s memories of childhood, “became the foundation of knowing the difference between mediocrity and the best.”  It also became the foundation stone of her business.

Diamico’s burger, then, is a nod to the past, to a time when things felt—were?—simpler.  Maybe that’s an excessively romantic way to think about a burger (especially if you’re one of those cynical millennial types), but nostalgia is a powerful emotion.  It affects not only what we like, but also—not least in the case of Diamico—what we do.  Tyler’s is a business built on memories.  It’s also been held that you can’t get a better burger in Palm Springs.  Well, Kelsey and I were out there for the long weekend, so we went to give it a try.

The Order: Cheeseburger, bacon cheeseburger

The Price: $8 (cheeseburger), $9.50 (bacon cheeseburger)

The Burgers
It might seem odd that I’m reviewing two burgers at once—and it’s true; usually I don’t do that.  But these two offerings weren’t different enough to merit separate reviews.  If you’re like me, your instincts would guide you towards ordering the bacon cheeseburger, because bacon.  Now, while it’s hard to say that ordering the bacon cheeseburger is flat out misguided (especially if you’re into that sort of thing), I can’t endorse it.  To my mind, the bacon is more of a distraction than a complement here—albeit a delicious, delicious distraction (especially if you’re into that sort of thing).  But that isn’t an indictment of the bacon cheeseburger so much as it is a veneration of the standard cheeseburger.  I think the order is the regular cheeseburger with American cheese and grilled onions.  Hold the tomato for bonus points (I had it on the bacon cheeseburger, and it didn’t add much).

Go back to that picture in your head.  You’re at the barbecue and you’re handed a hastily arranged burger.  The garnishes are simple: an oozing sheet of American cheeese, crisp lettuce, bright pickles, succulent tomato, maybe some sweet, charmingly flaccid rings of grilled onion.  The sauces are conventional, unfussy: ketchup, yellow mustard, and a thin glaze of mayonnaise mixing into some unnamed but familiar metacondiment the color of a sunset.

Tyler’s has done a pretty good job of recreating that burger.  It’s not necessarily this burger that’s memorable.  It’s that it evokes really fond memories.  If you’re like me, this burger will around feelings of nostalgia in you. It’s the taste of a summer barbecue.  It’s the taste of being told to wait a half hour before swimming.  The patty is substantial – seven ounces at least.  Were I to complain that it was a touch overcooked, that would only be a matter of taste.  The outside of the patty is deliciously crackled by the flat top, the inside juicy and savory enough.  The sponge bun is the stuff of In-N-Out dreams, but slightly thicker.  That’s okay, given the thickness and heft of the patty.

The toppings are all solid, but the cheese is the standout.  It completely covers the patty in a thick, dripping sheet.  Swiss is an option, but I can’t imagine it topping the American I chose.  I’ll readily stipulate that American is perhaps the most sophomoric of all the cheeses, but my gracious, it was indulgent, rich, and creamy.  And for as unfussy an expression as this burger is, it was the ideal complement.  The grilled onions were a fabulous addition too, sweet and grill-burnt.  They sank into the quicksand-like cheese until the two almost infused one another.  Stellar stuff.

As I ate the cheeseburger (which, to bring it full circle, probably deserves the mantle of best burger in Palm Springs), I glanced over to the bar and saw a family sitting together, presumably on a Memorial Day vacation.  Their young son couldn’t have been older than ten.  He was holding his cheeseburger aloft when I looked, to eat a hanging disc of pickle.  He had ketchup on his face.  His hands were a mess.  His too-big blue t-shirt had escaped stains for the moment, but I found myself doubting that would last as I watched him attack his burger with the gleeful abandon that summer engenders in everyone of that age.  And as I bit back into my own burger with the neat and proper sobriety of adulthood, that age felt a little closer.

The Ratings
Flavor: 9.50 / 10.00
Freshness/Quality: 8.60 / 10.00
Value: 9.40 / 10.00
Efficiency: 8.00 / 10.00
Creativity/Style: 7.00 / 10.00
Bun: 9.00 / 10.00
Patty: 8.90 / 10.00
Toppings: 8.80 / 10.00
Sauce: 8.00 / 10.00
Balance: 9.50 / 10.00 

Total: 86.70 / 100.00

Miro

The Place
image
Miro

888 Wilshire Boulevard
Los Angeles, CA 90017

Reservations: 213.988.8880
Bar: Full bar (plus this…gracious)

The weird thing about modern urban renaissances – well, one of the weird things – is that they all have an inflection point.  Before that point, things are cheap, and gems are hard to find.  And while it’s never entirely clear precisely when a given neighborhood reaches that point, after it is reached it matters less how good your chilaquiles or fatty tuna or octopus salad or burger or whatever is, and more how good your relationship with your investors is.  Take Ari Taymor’s iconic and beloved Alma: shuttered in spite of fawning praise from critics and customers alike.

I don’t mean to hate on rich folks funding restaurants (to the contrary – keep them coming), but even the most successful restaurateurs have their ups and downs.  What’s more, when investors define a restaurant’s identity, sometimes the focus can shift from the meat to marketing.  When image starts to trump the product on the plate, places run into trouble.  This tends to happen more as neighborhoods gentrify and it becomes harder for people to open restaurants without investor backing.  Tricky business.

Which brings us to Miro, an aggressively trendy new restaurant, which seems to cater to downtown power brokers who yearn to be farm-to-table foodies.  Reclaimed wood abounds, the servers have hair and vests pulled straight from the roaring 20s, and the menu is a sprawling exploration of current food scene obsessions.  Don’t have time to get the crudo at Wolf and the house-cured charcuterie at Chi Spacca?  Can’t pencil in time for craft cocktails at The Fiscal Agent and garganelli at Union?  Not a moment to spare for biscuits at the Hart and the Hunter and the pork chop at Salt’s Cure?  No problem – come to Miro and get it all.  To call it the refuge of the dilettante might be a little harsh (especially in light of the fact that it has the best whiskey bar in California, which is a connoisseur’s paradise), but it wouldn’t be entirely inaccurate either.

Anyway, one entry on Miro’s – ahem – *diverse* menu was a burger.  Johnny and I took some summer associates for lunch, and I tried it on the firm’s dime.  Is Miro the first sign that Downtown Los Angeles has passed its inflection point?

The Order: Grass-fed burger

The Price: $15

The Burger
The burger really embodies what Miro is trying to do – for better and worse.  Onion jam and bacon (made in-house!) are ostensible pride points, but they are lost in the shuffle.  You may detect a whisper of one or the other amid the bitter, charred swirl of the flavor profile, but only just a whisper, and it will not overwhelm you.  The bacon was cut thick into slabs, fatty and without taste.  The onion jam was so difficult to detect that I’m not even certain it was there at all.  Same with the aioli and cheese, while we’re on the topic.  Much of what is on this burger is swallowed by two ingredients: the arugula and the beef.

The grass-fed patty is well-intentioned but overcooked.  It’s big enough; easily a third of a pound, and with a promising, estimably charred crust.  But it is cooked well past medium until brittle and bland.  There is some residual juice left to keep things from getting too dry, but unfortunately, the final product is even less flavorful than the grass on which the poor cow subsisted.  To cook a patty that much, you have to justify it with a blend of meats.  Miro failed to do so, leaving us with little more than fancied up chuck, which doesn’t forgive overcooking.

Grass-fed though the patty may have been, the fine folks in the kitchen at Miro seem to have felt it was starved for roughage.  At least, that’s the most plausible explanation for the Chugach-worth of arugula (one supposes, a ham-fisted tip of the cap to Father’s Office) asymmetrically heaped atop the patty.  It spills out of one end of the bun like a Kardashian out of an Herve Leger dress that’s one size too small, and is barely present at all on the other end.  If all it did was add a (too-heavy) dose of  fresh bitterness to the burger, it wouldn’t be so bad.  But in this case, it masked the remainder of the flavors at work, obfuscating an otherwise intriguing suite of ingredients.

So you won’t taste the subtle interplay between still-melting cheese and bacon drippings.  You won’t taste the sweet matrix of onion jam flirting with the creamy aioli.  You won’t even get to enjoy how the delicious – if slightly dry – bun holds it all together.  You’ll get overcooked meat and an impenetrable thicket of arugula.  For all this burger’s ambitions, it winds up being a poorly executed, unbalanced affair, where the two most pedestrian ingredients outshine the more interesting – though, admittedly, a bit try-hard – additions.

The burger reflects the restaurant that serves it.  A lot of sizzle without much steak.  Miro is swanky, modern, eclectic, and has all the features you’d expect to find in a trendy, delicious restaurant.  Similarly, the burger looks great and features a slew of really of-the-moment ingredients.  Ultimately, though, it just doesn’t deliver.  It looks better than it is.  It’s too trendy for its own good.  It puts image above execution. Is this a portent of things to come in Downtown? Hopefully and probably not.  But it’s hardly encouraging.

The Ratings:
Flavor: 6.20 / 10.00
Freshness/Quality: 8.50 / 10.00
Value: 5.10 / 10.00
Efficiency: 7.90 / 10.00
Creativity/Style: 8.40 / 10.00
Bun: 9.00 / 10.00
Patty: 6.80 / 10.00
Sauce: 7.00 / 10.00
Toppings: 6.00 / 10.00
Balance: 6.00 / 10.00

Total: 70.90 / 100.00