100 Terranea Way, Rancho Palos Verdes CA 90275 (map); 310-265-2836; terranea.com/marsel
Cooking Method: Griddled
Short Order: The fine dining restaurant at the beautiful Terranea Resort re-imagines the SoCal-style burger and creates what might be the burger of the year
Want Fries with That? Yes; the delicate, slim-cut spuds get a hint of earthiness from the skins to create a perfectly balanced fancy fry
Prices: The Down-Low Burger (w/fries), $20
Consider this an early Christmas gift; or Hanukkah, or Kwanzaa, or Bhodi Day, or whatever you celebrate. You see, a great burger, like all great things, has no religious affiliation and shouldn't be secret long. So here is the gift unwrapped: Mar'sel at the Terranea Resort located at land's end of the Palos Verdes peninsula is making one of the best burgers I've come across in a very long time, and you won't find it on their menu.
What I'm giving you is merely a stand-in for the experience that is the true gift: eating chef Michael Fiorelli's Down Low Burger. This fact is what has made this review one of the most difficult to write. I can dismiss amateur burgers in a few hundred words or exalt a properly cooked patty with a few recognizable turns of phrase without much anxiety. But Fiorelli's accomplishment goes beyond that. He's created a dish that defies ordinary expression. His is a burger that transported me to that magical place where eating slips into the emotional. Where I become consumed by act of consumption. A place that is at once familiar and utterly new—and is a challenge to properly express.
But despite feeling insufficient to the task of properly narrating just how much I enjoyed my meal at Mar'sel, I'm still going to try.
There are so many places to start this particular burger story, but let's start with the start. Fiorelli came to Terranea after years of training in serious kitchens (including Susanna Foo, Patrick O'Connel, Mark Militello, and Kerry Simon) and found his way to Mar'sel. It functions as the fine dining restaurant at the resort, but he is committed to making it accessible with respect to both food and atmosphere.
This means you can show up in jeans (though I prefer dressing up a little for a place as nice as this) and when a regular customer asks you to make a burger you don't blink. In this case the customer was local dentist Dimitri Bivoumis, who makes his own wine (I enjoyed his Oneira Pinot Noir) and drops off fresh vegetables from his garden at the restaurant just because. At first Fiorelli wasn't keen on the idea of mocking up a high-end burger, but then he was determined to make the best damn burger Dimitri ever tasted. Of course, when you're making burgers in Southern California that means taking on the purest expression of Post War commercial cookery: The In-N-Out Double Double.
Fiorelli puts together each element of the classic with an obsessive, bespoke aesthetic. His bun is made in house and crafted as a brioche. The onions are labored over on a low flame until they get a cinnamon brown hue that announces an intense and complex sweetness. American cheese is replaced with an aged white cheddar and the pickles are homemade from fresh cucumbers from the garden that grows just few yards form the restaurant entrance. His Thousand Island takes shape from an oven roasted tomato purée that is mixed with a homemade mayonnaise.
Then there is the meat. Fiorelli chooses to use freshly ground scraps from the various cuts of the steak entrées on his menu (sirloin, rib eye, et al.) to build the two four-ounce patties. When he fears that his blend isn't at his preferred (and deeply decadent) 75/25 meat-to-fat ratio he adds some fatback to ensure the proper measure.
When the burger arrived, the Double Double germline that inspired it was clear, as was the trained hand of a fine dining chef. Fiorelli had created a beautiful-looking dish. Of course, it's in the eating that a burger's true worth is revealed; and this one is a revelation. The first bite was an overwhelming rush of flavor. It's the headiness of a perfect first kiss; the realization that you've lost control of your feelings. It's the burger love moment. I found myself in full eye-rolling delight. The beautiful sear on the delicate, yet rich pair of patties was perfection. The brioche bun, normally a high-end burger's Achilles heel, stood fast against the rest of the ingredients with just the right amount of sponginess. The sweetness from the onions and aioli were balanced beautifully against the sour pickle and salty beef.
Halfway through this burger I found myself in state of anxiety about how quickly it was disappearing. I wanted the experience to go on and on, yet I couldn't fight the urge to devour bite after bite without interruption. Fiorelli has made a truly special burger.
All of this and he's not forgotten to take proper measure of the accompanying french fries. They're slim cut, but he leaves the skin on the ends so that the saltiness and fattiness of the fry plays against a subtle earthy taste. These aren't scene-stealers so much as a grand supporting performance.
This could be said of how everything seems to work at Mar'sel. The entire evening was an experience in the restaurant's various elements supporting each other. I was greeted by the charming manager Neil Hedin, who directed my to a devilish cocktail with a salt and pepper rim. When it came time to choose a wine, sommelier Steven Ashworth (who was once an world-class decathlete) is so approachable, knowledgeable, and full of enthusiasm that he makes choosing a wine an adventure.
Since you won't see the Down Low Burger on Mar'sel's menu, summon your courage and ask for it. But your dinner needn't stop there—I tried numerous dishes that were actually on Fiorelli's menu and all were delicious and composed with ingredients that showed a clarity-of-purpose. A beet salad was set off by the addition of hazelnuts; a hangar steak was charred to perfection; and a charcuterie plate was graced with simply the best English muffin I've ever tasted.
Fiorelli is clearly a chef of superior talent, but it takes more than talent to make food come together like his. It's the application of that talent set against a commitment to the diligent pursuit of one's craft that turns an idle, special request into a legendary dish. It's what I'd call a gift.