Richard Foss

Mar’sel is more than a pretty view

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Mar'sel chef Andrew Vaughan's explorations continue a reliance on hyper-local ingredients

Photos by Brad Jacobson (CivicCouch.com)

by Richard Foss

This week, I went to a restaurant with a spectacular view of the ocean, but sat where I couldn’t see it. Instead, on our most recent trip to Mar’Sel my wife and I dined at the bar.

That’s not what we planned to do, though in retrospect it’s hard to apply any words that involve thinking in advance to that particular afternoon. We were in the area, it was a lovely day, so we decided to drop in and see if we could get a table. In the past I have been able to do this because many locals forget that Mar’Sel is there, a natural effect of its hidden location inside the Terranea resort.

Chef Andrew Vaughan’s signature Lobster Burrata, made with Maine lobster burrata cheese, uni, handmade pappardelle pasta, butternut squash puree and golden raisins. Finished with cape gooseberries and basil from Terranea Resort’s herb garden.

On this visit we could tell we might have a problem as soon as we arrived because the entire terrace was beautifully decorated for a wedding reception. The hostess informed us that the dining room was booked too, and apologetically offered seats for dinner at the bar.

I can understand that, because it’s a very different environment from the dining room or terrace. Those are full of light by day and have a moonlit sea vista by night, while the bar is in perpetual twilight and only offers views of some dark wood paneling. As much as we enjoy the views and visuals of the elegant dining room, we decided that we’d see what the experience was like at the bar.

We were greeted by Julie the bartender, who doubled as our server for the evening, and were given a paper menu for the food and a tablet with the wines and other beverages. One of the advantages of this seating as we discussed the first order of business was, of course, cocktails. Julie knew them all, chapter and verse. After we told her our preferences (alcohol-forward, not overly sweet), she counseled us wisely. We had a “Dreamer’s Tonic” (Lillet Rose, Botanist gin, St. Germain, orange bitters, and Prosecco) and “Sole Fashioned” (Amontillado, genever, Demerara syrup, and bitters). The current theme in their cocktail program is to experiment with wine in cocktails, and in both cases it was successful. Adding sherry to the old fashioned gave it an extra dimension of wood and nuttiness, and if you like that classic you’ll appreciate this riff on it. As for the tonic, I’ve had other cocktails with gin and elderflower, but this was one of the best, the layers of gentle floral and herbal notes with sparkling wine a great summery splash.

Julie proved to be a fine guide to the food selections, too, which is not surprising. Good mixologists construct drinks with the same mindset as chefs creating entrees. We needed that guide because so many things on this menu involve unusual and intriguing combinations. Chef Andrew Vaughan took over from Michael Fiorelli about a year ago and has taken the restaurant in a slightly different direction. The emphasis on hyper-local and fresh items is still there, but the menu is a little more eclectic, a little less Mediterranean.

Chef Vaughan obviously likes to experiment with combinations of meat with fruit and nuts, an aesthetic popular in Renaissance Italy that has been coming back into favor. The fig and burrata salad with green zebra tomatoes, arugula, toasted pistachios, carrot essence, and pork cracklings intrigued us as a modern take on that idea. To go with it we considered a crab salad with apples, pecans, and grilled avocado. But after a conversation with Julie we were swayed to Spanish octopus with squid ink naan, chickpea puree, mustard greens, and smoked paprika aioli.  

I’m a big fan of fig and cheese salads and order them often during the short season when the fruit can be obtained fresh, but the carrot essence, pistachios, and cracklings were a novel take. The only thing about this that didn’t entirely work was the cracklings, (called grattons on the menu, as they are in Vaughan’s native Louisiana). The idea of including them was fine, but they were served in giant chunks when they would have been better crumbled so the flavor could be mixed in more evenly. As it was, you got a mouthful of crunchy richness or none at all.

The grilled octopus had a finer balance. Though the squid ink naan was something of a novelty, the dark purple bread added to the presentation, picking up the color in the greens, and the caramel-colored smoky sauce on the tender octopus added more visual interest. The flavors all harmonized: slightly bitter greens with rich seafood and smoky, slightly spicy sauce. There were more grattons on the side as a garnish, but we found this item fine without them.

We asked Julie for wine suggestions and she called over the sommelier, who recommended a Glatzer Gruner Veltliner with the salad and a Qupe Syrah with the octopus. Both were sound choices – Gruner is becoming known as a spicy, fruity, lightly acidic alternative to Sauvignon Blanc, and it’s superb with seafood.

By this time we trusted Julie enough to let her talk me out of the lobster, uni, and squash pasta that had interested me and into ordering Atlantic salmon with bok choy, trumpet mushrooms, tomatoes, eggplant, brown butter, and macadamia nuts. I hadn’t considered it because I can get salmon in plenty of places, but she was emphatic about how good this was. She was right. This  was a marvelous piece of fish, a slight herbal crust crisp over meat that was so rich it was almost liquid. It was a simple item perfectly cooked, alongside a very interesting vegetable mix that put together fruity, funky, and slightly bitter flavors and made it all work. I wouldn’t have picked brown butter with lime as a sauce for these vegetables, but I’m glad Chef Vaughan did.

My wife ordered a pork tomahawk, a pork chop so large that it looked like it could be used as a deadly weapon, over Napa coleslaw with what was described as pretzel-cheddar spoon bread. This wasn’t like any spoon bread I have ever seen, as they’re usually moist and puffy within – this was a bread pudding in all but name, crunchy on the outside, chewy pretzel textured with veins of cheese within. As for the chop, pork this thick can be tricky to cook, but this was moist through and through, and the mild slaw was a nice companion to the richness of both meat and bready cheese goodness.

The sommelier came through again with selections from the by-the-glass list. We were both bewitched by the Catalonian Embruix, a red blend with rich spicy and berryish notes. (And I had to write that sentence after I found that the name of the blend, embruix, means bewitched. It’s well named because we really did find it enchanting.) We were similarly impressed by a Westerly “Happy Canyon” red blend from Santa Barbara, which had a little more cherry and dried fruit and a little less spice. We very happily shared tastes to sample each with both main courses.

We had planned to order a chiboust, a pastry crème based dessert that I hadn’t tried before, but the full house had decimated the selection and they were out of the items we most wanted to try. We will certainly return and hope that they have it next time, because after seeing what they do with savories I must try the sweets.

Dinner for two was pricey at about $230, but worth it. As we left I noticed some diners taking pictures of each other with the last bits of sunset in the background. Mar’Sel has a superb setting and has used it artfully, but as we found, you can have a great time here even if you never glimpse the ocean.

Mar’Sel is at the Terranea Resort, 100 Terranea Way, Rancho Palos Verdes. Sun – Thu 5 – 9:30 p.m., Fri.-Sat. 5 – 10 p.m., Sun. brunch 10 a.m. – 2 p.m. Full bar, corkage $40. Wheelchair access good. Menu at terranea.com/marsel. (310) 265-2836.