There’s no question now whether Manhattan Beach is a bonafide dining destination. It is, a fact made apparent by the string of lauded restaurants that line Manhattan Avenue and the surrounding area: Little Sister, Fishing with Dynamite, Manhattan Beach Post, The Strand House. Hoping to join its successful neighbors is Love & Salt, an Italian restaurant from chef Michael Fiorelli (mar'sel at Terranea Resort) featuring small plates (of course) and pizza, pasta and “Odds & Ends” like a corned lamb tongue panini and crispy pig ears. There is work to be done here, from service to seasoning. But Love & Salt is off to a decent start which, when surrounded by superstars, is not a bad place to be.
I did not try the lamb tongue panini, but I did order the crispy pig ears—fried, tossed with pickles and flanked by a spicy buttermilk aioli. “I can see the cartilage; this is not going to happen,” said my friend, who is becoming more ballsy with food but still draws the line, it seems, at rubbery textures. If you can handle calamari, though, you can handle these pig ears, and you can especially handle the spicy aioli that is milder than it claims to be. Not as adventurous? The English muffins are a safer bet, and before you raise your eyebrows at muffins as a starter, consider this an upgrade to your standard bread basket. The warm, airy discs of dough come with a housemade rosemary butter, and I’d like to have these every morning, thank you very much.
The dish that seems to be hogging most of the spotlight at Love & Salt is the duck egg pizza, a white pie topped with pancetta and thin slices of potato, along with mozzarella and panna and parmesan. A duck egg cracked tableside and glopped on top adds a rustic, sweet layer; a flick of rosemary makes this pizza even more earthy. It’s a good pie with an excellent crust, but there are better gourmet pizzas in LA, which is also how I felt about a plate of bucatini. This pasta has all the characteristics of comfort food: thick, chewy noodles; fennel sausage; a heavy hand of parm. But it is also doused in breadcrumbs, giving the noodles an unwelcome gritty texture when it would have been just fine without it. Plus, both the pizza and pasta felt like it needed more seasoning (salt, perhaps?).
Truthfully, the best dish we had was some wood roasted squash atop squash puree, with pumpkin seeds and watercress and a drizzle of saba surrounding the roasted vegetable. Most of the small plates at Love & Salt are vegetable heavy—there's the Freekehlicious salad, the roasted baby cauliflower, the California endive—and you could probably have a delightful, filling evening with a few of these plates and some cocktails (and those muffins, of course). Maybe even end it with an almond caramel tart, the crunch of almonds countered by a scoop of soft gelato. But maybe, also, give the restaurant some time. There are better eateries in the area, and I think Love & Salt can catch up—it just needs a little more love, a little more salt, and less breadcrumbs.
What to Eat: The homemade English muffins ($6). The duck egg pizza ($18). The wood roasted delicate squash ($14).
What to Drink: “The Dirty Blvd or the Jimmy Conway?” I asked our bartender, debating between the two rye whisky cocktails on the menu, and she emphatically steered me to the Jimmy Conway ($13). Along with whisky, the drink includes rabarbaro zucca, amaro nonino and walnut bitters. It’s strong and silky, and paired well with the crispy pig ears we started with. For a sweeter option, the Bootsy Collins ($13) combines citron vodka, crème de mure, mint, blackberries and ginger beer, and tastes like something you'd want beside you at the pool.
Where to Sit: “It’ll be 30 to 40 minutes,” the hostess told us when we walked in, and encouraged us to grab a drink elsewhere while we waited. Yet five minutes after we left—and after we had ordered glasses of wine at Hennessey’s Tavern next door—she called saying a table was ready. So we downed our wine and walked back to Love & Salt, only to wait another 15 minutes for a seat at the bar, despite her telling us a spot at the communal table would be available. The bar, where you can order from the full menu, isn’t a bad space to sit (just be sure you’re not right by the door), but it’s better to grab a booth or one of the tables by the window. Oh, and make a reservation.
Conversation Piece: Love & Salt makes their own wine—a Dolcetto-Refosco blend that pairs well with most of the menu. It’s a safe bet if you feel any anxiety when picking out wine.