No Reservations

Mr. Sexton took me to dinner at Joe’s on Abbott Kinney for my birthday some years ago, back when we were first dating. At that time, I was still in what my friend Adam memorably called my “faux-heiress stage” (when one pretends one has a trust fund when one, uh, decidedly does not).

Mr. Sexton took me to dinner at Joe’s on Abbott Kinney for my birthday some years ago, back when we were first dating. At that time, I was still in what my friend Adam memorably called my “faux-heiress stage” (when one pretends one has a trust fund when one, uh, decidedly does not).

I was living in various cities, on various couches, out of a carry-on suitcase while waiting for my New York brownstone to be renovated and had zero intention of staying in Los Angeles. But I do remember thinking Abbott Kinney was nascently cool in a way that Williamsburg, Brooklyn once was, and I surely was impressed by Joe Miller’s cooking.

Fast-forward eight years, and Abbott Kinney has changed as much as I have. It’s now one of the hippest culinary streets on the Westside, as a crowd of other restaurateurs has followed Miller’s early lead. Predictably, the Bugaboo strollers and Priuses have also arrived, and the home prices in this part of Venice make it hard for non-natives to believe it was once plagued by crime. The rising affluence of Abbott Kinney’s denizens implies disposable dining dollars; scoring a table at the hottest of the hotspots, Gjelina (“juh-leena,” after the owner’s mother), is difficult enough to make one believe the recession is officially over. Because a wide swath of people of differing backgrounds had recommended Gjelina to me, I was especially interested to see why it appeals to such a cross-section of diners. And while it’s unusual for a working mom like me to have time to repeatedly dine at the same location, I did manage to eat dinner at Gjelina on three separate occasions, though each time without a firm reservation. (The hostesses often suggest you walk the neighborhood in the hopes that a table will open up.)

If you caught Gjelina’s Executive Chef/Owner Travis Lett in his recent two-page Vogue spread, you’d worry about his talent-to-looks ratio; in an era of telegenic chefs with little skills, it’s hard to believe that anyone that easy on the eyes is that good in the kitchen. And he is good. My first visit to Gjelina was a spontaneous one with Mr. Sexton and my daughter. We were graciously given a little corner table by the window without a reservation, with the understanding that we had just an hour to dine before another party needed our spot. No problem — I like it when hostesses are savvy instead of snooty, because everyone then wins and revenue also rises. Gjelina was jumping, even at 5:45 P.M. on a Tuesday night, and the energy was contagious. I loved the hip salvage-yard feeling of the décor, with mismatched chairs and cheerfully odd light fixtures thrown together against concrete and stainless steel. For a quick dinner with our little one, we knew pizza was on the menu. Chef Lett inherited the wood-burning stove from the restaurant’s former incarnation and has put it to good use with pies that run the gamut; we adored the hen-of-the-woods mushroom pizza with beet greens and taleggio, while our toddler dug into the charcuterie and cheese plate. (Currently, our daughter prefers “baby pickles” or cornichons above all else — weird, huh?) We added a superbly simple little lettuce salad with pomegranate and radishes, along with our appetizer course, and then split a surprisingly tender hanger steak for the main. The service and the food flow were well-timed, and we left within the appointed hour, excited to come back again.

Our second visit to Gjelina was sort of a blind date; in this case, we’d opted for a date night out sans kids with a nice couple from our daughter’s preschool whom we didn’t know all that well. We’d have enjoyed their company more if only we could have understood anything they were saying. On this occasion, we dined at 8 P.M. on a Thursday in the communal table area at the front of the restaurant, and the noise was utterly deafening. I have never, ever dined in a louder restaurant, perhaps acoustically due to all that concrete and metal and to the huge crowd of hopefuls lounging around an entirely over-booked restaurant on the edge of spiraling out of control. Don’t bother dining in this communal area if you want to have a conversation; it’s completely impossible. Dine solo with your iPod earbuds and read a book there — you’ll be happier.

A more positive note from our second dinner was the bottle of ’04 nebbiolo from Cantalupo that was a steal at $65. The wine list at Gjelina is packed with interesting gems from quirky places like the Wahluke Slope in Washington State and the Niagara Peninsula in Ontario to bottlings from Uruguay, Slovenia and beyond. It’s a passionately curated, fairly priced wine list with something for everyone and every budget.

My final dinner at Gjelina redeemed it entirely for me. I run a tight ship these days as a small business owner and now mother-of-two, so it’s a rare treat for me to have dinner with a girlfriend. Fortunately for me, one of my very best girlfriends here in LA coincidentally also happens to be my assistant, and if ever anyone deserved a terrific dinner out, it’s her. We thought it was very nice of Gjelina to provide us not just with an exceptionally handsome, articulate server but with Lenny Kravitz too. (I think it must be in the water over there — it’s the Land of Pretty People.) Michele and I sat at the quiet, cozy back patio right by the fire pit and sipped indulgent glasses of Champagne Chartogne-Taillet, super yummy grower-produced bubbly that rocked the house at $17 a glass.

Culinary highlights included some perfectly pillow-y gnocchi and a crispy duck leg cooked confit with the best brussels sprouts I’ve ever had. Chef Lett has a real talent for letting simple vegetable and protein combinations shine by not being overly fussy with his sauces and plates. It’s straight-up delicious food prepared (and priced) correctly and carefully, a food aesthetic that is taking this Abbott Kinney neighborhood spot from the local to the national stage quite quickly. Don’t let the growing hype or the cacophony daunt you — Gjelina is very worth your time and your dime. I know that I am looking forward to visit number four sometime very soon.

Gjelina
1492 Abbot Kinney Boulevard
Venice
310-450-1429, gjelina.com
 

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