Resort Rendezvous

Our little family’s recent dining adventures included a serious southward pilgrimage that made me grateful for our hybrid SUV and for our two-year-old’s obsession with the iPod Touch.

Our little family’s recent dining adventures included a serious southward pilgrimage that made me grateful for our hybrid SUV and for our two-year-old’s obsession with the iPod Touch.

My older brother was in town to celebrate his birthday with us, and though he visits Los Angeles frequently for work, I could see him visibly wondering if we’d secretly planned to take him to Tijuana instead of PV. We arrived at Terranea, a sparkling necklace of lights strewn against the hillside, immune to its considerable charms and utterly incapacitated by hunger. I even furtively stole Goldfish crackers from my daughter, a risk to life and limb if ever there were one. She loves them even more than those iPod Touch toddler games.

We wandered aimlessly for a while trying to find mar’sel restaurant, one of several dining outposts in this mammoth resort. Once we found the tiny but enchanting dining room, we were promptly seated at a lovely round table in front of a welcoming fireplace. My husband’s mood was enhanced by a cocktail concoction called a “ginger peach” made with Woodford reserve bourbon, which was quite a bit more potent than the ginger-peach iced tea he drinks by the gallon at home. My toddler was wooed by the remarkable basket of art supplies and treats they presented — no sad pack of two lonely crayons and the back of a menu for her! They had actually tailored it with items specifically for a little girl, after calling to confirm our reservation headcount and celebratory occasion. Mar’sel, you had me with that basket, with nary a crumb of bread consumed. I mention this detail because the service was similarly gracious and impeccable throughout our meal. Whoever is running the front of the house there deserves a raise and a standing ovation.

But onto the food at mar’sel. The hybrid name of the restaurant (Spanish for “sea” and French for “salt”) is itself a lovely evocation of Chef de Cuisine Michael Fiorelli’s Continental-meets-California cuisine. Chef Fiorelli’s impressive resumé includes stints with Patrick O’Connell at the Inn at Little Washington and more recently with Kerry Simon at Simon LA, where he developed a unique “100 Mile Menu” based on ingredients procured from farmers and purveyors all located within 100 miles of LA. (Because we can and should cook like this here!) Fiorelli’s commitment to the burgeoning “locavore” idea in no way limits his virtuosity at mar’sel though.

Outstanding starters included a frothy Jerusalem artichoke soup with crispy bits of duck and a tasty little quail egg and an absolutely killer crudo made from Pacific hiramasa with fiery notes of Fresno chile. (Hiramasa is yellowtail amberjack, or kingfish as the Aussies call it.) And my brother raved about the housemade gnocchi studded with La Quercia prosciutto and pioppini mushrooms. We were off to the races and then some.

Entreés at mar’sel feature a vegetarian option that clocks in at $27 and a grilled Wagyu ribeye that will set you back a cool $42. Be sure to bring that platinum card. That said, we couldn’t resist ordering the beef if only to taste its accompanying carrots, prepared “Sicilian lifeguard style.” Our server somewhat sheepishly explained this means that they’re cooked in oil but only on one side — much like a drunken Sicilian lifeguard who falls asleep in the sun. That’s a culinary term if ever I’ve heard one and they were some mighty tasty little carrots. Another highlight was the roasted Mediterranean branzino, which I selected as ordering fish always falls to dutiful me.

Surprisingly, everyone at the table agreed that the simply prepared fish with lobster mushrooms, baby leeks, lemon confit and shelling beans was the winner of the night. Fiorelli cooks with a forthright confidence in his ingredients and his menu is blessedly free from foams and fads. That simplicity shines. The chef summarizes his approach best in his own words when he declares that his “whole cooking philosophy stems from the idea that great food needs two things: love and salt.” Amen.

The wine selections at mar’sel are carefully curated and, hurray (!), correctly described, presented and priced throughout the thoughtful list. The wine program at luxury resorts is too often a redheaded stepchild as multiple dining outlets mean that harried F+B managers do one-stop shopping for wines that often don’t fit well across all locations. At mar’sel, the focused wine list offers an appealing mix of domestic and international titles that range from affordable gems by-the-glass to blow-the-budget fancy bottles. It’s easily one of the best lists in the South Bay and I, annoying recovering sommelier that I am, did not detect a single spelling, vineyard or varietal error. Not one! Impressive, most impressive.

It’s rare that Mr. Sexton lets someone else do the driving but he was so tired and so full (and so unaccustomed to cocktails) that he actually decided to be a passenger on the way home. Catching up with my beloved big brother while peeking in the rearview mirror at my slumbering husband and baby was the perfect coda to a perfect dinner. I highly recommend mar’sel for dinner sometime soon with the people that you love, too.

100 Terranea Way, Rancho Palos Verdes

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