The hottest, most popular restaurant in Venice is also the most puzzling. I have been avoiding this two-year old eatery for some time because I heard so many conflicting reports, but when a young woman whose judgment I respect, Jenna Rose Robbins of Fiji Water, told me of her passion for it, and even arranged a hard-to-get reservation for us to dine there two weeks in the future, I acceded and agreed. Dutifully noting the address, I proceeded west on Venice Blvd. to Abbott Kinney, made a right and found a parking lot on an adjacent block, then walked up and down Abbott Kinney Blvd. looking for it. No number on the door, no sign, no nothing. Then I remembered Irene Virbila writing that she had once told her guests to meet her there across from the Green House smoke shop ... so I crossed from that and found this madhouse on the corner called GJELINA (1429 Abbott Kinney Blvd, at corner of Milwood, Venice (310) 450-1429).
Arriving early, the rude host at the door told me there was no place to wait, suggesting I walk around outside until my reservation time arrived. There were two large communal tables in the center of the room, with a few seats open, but he didn't offer me a spot there, a glass of wine, anything. Utter bedlam inside, unbearably noisy and hectic, kind of sexy. I stood against a wall and marveled at the scene ... then asked the host if I could take some pictures of the room, and would he please tell Chef Travis Lett that I would like to shoot a photo before the evening was over. No, and no. No pictures without the owners' permission and she wasn't here tonight. Her name is Fran Camaj, and the restaurant is named after her mother. You don't pronounce the "G", so it's ja-lee-na.
The other partner is veteran restaurateur Robert Schwan. After checking, he told me the chef didn't want his picture taken. (Although he has a nice picture in the January Vogue plating some food,) I was ready to leave when my friend arrived and they seated us at a small table in the front window. My companion said there was a quieter terrace in the rear, but they don't take reservations for it (When I go back, which I will, that's where I will sit....with its fire pit and twinkling lights). The interior of the restaurant is like the food, very rustic and simple yet kind of hip and modern -- brick walls and floors, a wood planked ceiling. Somewhat dark, with signature electrical fixtures in all sorts of odd shapes over the bar.
Chef Travis Lett was the opening chef at Nine Thirty at the W Hotel in Westwood, which I had favorably reviewed. Here seasonal food with a Mediterranean influence ... lots of small plates, vegetables, charcuterie and salads. Noted for their thin-crusted pizzas, we ordered two pies while deciding on our dinner -- the Hen of the Woods Mushroom, with Beet Greens and Taleggio ($15) and the Classic Margherita ($13, with an added $3 charge for prosciutto.) Yes, the pizzas were thin-crusted, made in a wood-fired oven, with quality toppings. Served with a small plate of scanty toppings: crushed red pepper, finely-ground Parmesan and dried oregano, a nice touch.
My companion said that the MushroomToast ($12) with créme fraiche and truffle oil was 'orgasmic,' and she should know. I was unwinding and getting less uptight about the place. Fascinating wine list ... no Laetitia, but a large, rather expensive selection of wine by the glass and beer-and-ale on tap. Ordered a Belgian La Chouffe Triple ($8), fruity beer, interesting for a few sips. List featured several very special vintages, including an '86 Chateau Margaux from Bordeaux for $895! Lots of vegetables on the menu, all $8, all excellent. Charred Brussel Sprouts with dates, bacon, and vinegar ... sprouts were tender but had a nice bite. Sauce a nice sweetness from the dates, balanced by the bitterness of the sprouts and the vinegar, plus of course bacon added the final touch. Baby artichokes roasted in the oven, with Parmesan. Charcuterie ($12) comes with toasts, mustard, preserves and pickles...salami, sopressata, prosciutto with red beets, pickled cucumber and onions, two types of mustard and toast. Nothing special.
The neighboring table was eating a half-dozen Malpeque oysters ($16), two dollars less than Bouchon. My friend raved about the cheese platter: Artisan cheeses ($13) with marinated olives, honeycomb, Membrillo and toasts. Again, okay, nothing special. Shared lots of other small plates: Grilled local Monterey Bay squid ($11) with a warm lentil salad and salsa, quite crunchy and good. Wood-roasted cauliflower with garlic, chile, parsley and vinegar. PEI (Prince Edward Island) Mussels ($11) with housemade chorizo in the sauce of confit tomato and white wine. Everyone had suggested the Pomegranate-lacquered Quail ($24), with its wild rice, sausage, mushrooms and roste chesnuts. Yes, it was moist and succulent, somewhat small for the price.
My favorite dish here was the Pan-roasted Atlantic Cod ($24), served with a delicious romesco sauce that was tangy, slightly spicy: a mixture of roasted garlic and tomato, with almonds, vinegar, red wine and chili. Some provocatively interesting dishes yet to be tried: Jidori Chicken Livers, Pork Belly, Lamb Shoulder. Most expensive item on the menu was the Seared Niman Ranch Bistro Rib Eye ($28) with green peppercorn sauce, cippolini and arugula. One dessert over all others has been repeatedly mentioned, the Butterscotch Pot de Créme, a coffee mug with sweet pudding topped with a layer of sea salt crystals followed by a dollop of créme fraiche, salted caramel drizzled over the top. Yes, excellent, although I do prefer the same dish at Pizzeria Mozza. I had a decadent Banana Chocolate Bread Pudding with fresh cream and caramel. Excellent espresso. Great coffee shop, Intelligensia, almost next door, so coffee must come from them ... also served with a glass of sparkling water.
The service was professional and efficient, considering the din. Never felt rushed ... much to my surprise. Some things to note: the menu specifies, "Changes or modifications politely declined," which means no sauce on the side, no omitting any ingredient -- kind of arrogant, although being so busy, I can understand their reasoning. The Chef told Vogue he is building a vegetarian annex upstairs. Will I return? Yes, of course, Any place this hot deserves a more thorough investigation of the phenomenon of their success, although I have found several other Venice hotspots which are also worthy of several visits: Lilly's French Café, for one, as well as the hot and well-reviewed Tasting Kitchen, and of course the ever-reliable Joe's.
If noise and buzz doesn't phase you, I do recommend a visit or two to Gjelina. You will feel young and hip and enjoy a decent meal of interesting dishes. But try for a table on the terrace and get that orgasmic Mushroom Toast.
Gjelina is open all Monday to Friday from 11:30 a.m. to midnight; weekends open from 10:30 a.m. to midnight, with a special Brunch until 3 pm.
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