It was about the time the waitress set down our plate of squiggly cavatappi pasta and scooped an entire femur's worth of bone marrow onto it that my husband stopped complaining. From the second we walked into Love & Salt in Manhattan Beach, he'd been exuding grump, the type of dark energy that feels like pure danger.
“This is ridiculous,” he said three seconds after we set foot in the door at precisely 5:37 p.m. He was surveying the dining room and bar, which already was mainly full. We initially had arrived at 5:05 due to lack of a reservation, hoping to grab a seat at the bar. But the place didn't open until 5:30, so we went next door to a tired beach dive and drank a beer. Our seven-minute delay in getting back to Love & Salt meant that we'd missed all the bar spots, much to my man's annoyance. The hostess found us a seat at the long communal table, though, and all was not lost.
And yet: He rolled his eyes at the menu, which looked so very much like every other restaurant that has opened everywhere else in town. Small plates, pizzas, pastas, large plates. “The rabbit porchetta looks good,” he said during a rare moment of positivity. “It costs $75,” I said, pointing out that it was meant to feed two to four people, and the black mood came back.
And so it went. His Vieux Carre cocktail was too sugared (it was); my drink, which I chose based mainly on the great name (the Dirty Blvd.), was too discordant, a mixture of rye and Aperol with a giant dose of celery bitters, giving it a vegetal edge that clashed mightily with its sweet whiskey base. He was not impressed with the cauliflower leaves (“scraps,” he called them) atop an intensely cheesy polenta appetizer. The leaves had been roughly chopped and did indeed look like the stuff on the edge of the cutting board that you throw away after preparing cauliflower. That they were crunchy and lightly bitter in a wholly pleasing contrast to the lush polenta barely mattered.
It had been a long week. And a long drive in Friday afternoon traffic to Manhattan Beach.
But when the bowl of pasta arrived and the server took the large bone and scooped out all that marrow, and when she dumped the ramekin of bread crumbs, parsley and cheese into the bowl and advised us to stir it all up, his mood began to shift. This was different and odd and, yes, kind of brilliant.
Bone marrow is an ingredient of the moment, and many chefs use it to ramp up steaks and other dishes, to prove their cheffy bona fides by piling it on things that may or may not actually benefit from its wobbly, musky fat. But here it served as more than a corpulent ego boost — it made the dish strange but in a very cool, very original way. The end result almost reminded me of escargot, the combination of the marrow and pasta and bread crumbs and garlic forming a bouncy, earthy, weirdly delicious amalgamation.
It was but one in a long line of pleasures, dishes that sound on the menu much like what every other chef is doing but in reality tend to be far more deeply flavored and therefore transcend all that other noise.
Love & Salt makes its home in what was once Cafe Pierre, the upscale French restaurant that sat in the heart of Manhattan Beach for almost 40 years before closing last April. Former Cafe Pierre owners Guy and Sylvie Gabriel are behind the new restaurant, along with chef Michael Fiorelli and chef de cuisine Rebecca Merhej. The space has been overhauled completely, the front opened up to become a wall of windows, the room brightened with enough light wood to make it beach-appropriate yet still hint at a rustic Italian underpinning.
Fiorelli imbues the menu with humor but also serious technique, evidenced by whimsical dishes such as a mortadella hot dog on a brioche bun, piled high with a finely diced pickled-vegetable relish. For $45 you can order a roasted glazed pig's head, and it comes out just like that: a whole pig's head along with condiments and toast. It's a brand of macho meat fetishism that doesn't really appeal to me (I love head meat, but that's not to say I want to stare the beast in the eye as I enjoy its face), but hey, whatever floats your boat.
If there's one complaint about the place that's actually justifiable, it's the absence of normal entree-sized plates. This is a problem mainly because it prevents smaller parties from taking part in dishes such as that $75 rabbit porchetta, which is disturbingly delicious, the buoyant rabbit meat rolled up with prosciutto and Swiss chard, splayed out over a stewy combination of black rice, farro, pine nuts and currants. The serving is enough to feed four people easily, but more of us could bask in its glories if it were simply a smaller, less expensive portion.
The large-format dish is a trend that shows no signs of slowing, but that doesn't mean I have to like it. Why would I pay $65 for a huge branzino that I have to share with the whole table (even if it is served — as is the case at Love & Salt — with lemon confit and tomato-braised sweetheart cabbage) when there are so many beautiful $25 branzinos around town that I can have for myself? With a menu as large and diverse as this one, blowing the whole meal on one fish is out of the question.
Speaking of diversity, the chewy, charred pizza crust that comes out of the kitchen here is one of the better ones in town. The topping on a bucatini dish is so generous that the pasta ends up seeming like chewy garnish to the tangy fennel sausage, black kale and bread crumb accompaniment rather than the other way around. It's a role reversal that's quite fetching.
Plate after plate, the food was better than expected, more carefully composed, just straight-up surprisingly delightful. There is a lot to love at Love & Salt.
Enough, thankfully, to lift even the grumpiest grump out of a serious Friday night funk.
LOVE & SALT | Three stars | 317 Manhattan Beach Blvd., Manhattan Beach | (310) 545-5252 | loveandsaltla.com | Mon.-Thu., 5:30-10:30 p.m.; Fri. & Sat., 5:30-11 p.m.; Sun., 5:30-10 p.m. | Plates, $4-$75 | Full bar | Street parking