Since its unveiling in 2008, seemingly every major food writer in LA has hit Gjelina; thus, it became a spot to explore during my recent West Coast adventure. A wonderfully popular restaurant in the Los Angeles suburb of Venice, Gjelina runs under the direction of executive chef (and co-owner) Travis Letts.
Ultimately, Gjelina’s popularity is derived from the food, which is widely reported to be something of a godsend to the tongue. Meanwhile, it’s supposed that you’ll often find persons on top of persons no matter what the time of day. Consequently, I’d like to emphasize that if you’re not careful, you’ll miss the aesthetic pleasures that Gjelina has to offer. In a restaurant that’s sure to be bustling during your meal, where something transcendent is supposed to show up on your table, it would be easy to miss the comforts that the space offers your eye (although not your ears).
A Keen Eye For Gjelina
Entrance into the restaurant is a nuanced play on your senses. From the floors to the ceilings to the chandeliers, if this stuff wasn’t reclaimed (aka put back into production after being used elsewhere for another purpose), I’d be shocked. Two large communal tables meld with an ample bar, and that whole getup sits opposite of a large banquette. The walkway past that row of half-booths leads up a few stairs just past an enclosed service station, a sure eye-catcher, as the spaces topples out onto a cozy deck.
The true pleasure for me was the playful nature of the space. Indoors, the floor is brick yet the ceiling is wood. A little twist on what one might expect. Outside, more reclaimed wood, ivy covered walls, and a fire-place to get cozy by invite you to stay for hours. To further this invitation, while most tables are the standard deck seating options, a few offer long couches as your relaxation location.
The unfortunate reality is that despite being a place you might want to show up at when absconding from life’s stresses, Gjelina seems far to popular to allow a person to comfortably mull about in obscurity.
A Brief Flirtation
Circumstance and a lack of stomach space prevented a full undressing of all that Gjelina has to offer. Still, Mr. Frosty and Ms. Alabama joined me for a brief little afternoon in the comfortable September sun to see if we could peek up Gjelina’s skirt just a bit.
Regardless of the time of day, Letts’ temporal menus seem ambitious. It’s too hard to categorize Gjelina’s food in any one phrase. Perhaps that’s why the term New American seems the most oft applied descriptor. Whatever the case, during our late afternoon snack, the offerings included roughly 20 pizza pies, seven salads, and four charcuterie options. I’ve seen dinner menus that count upwards of 70-items.
This concerns me for two reasons. First, the larger the menu, the more difficult it is for a restaurant to properly execute all of its dishes. Second, it can be incredibly difficult to order when that many choices are at hand. Add in the fact that all of the dishes seem to offer a slew of ingredients, and the burden of selection becomes that much more difficult.
In our case, being that we were focused something snackable, it wasn’t hard to ignore the pizza portion of the menu … so I can’t really comment much beyond my experience at other restaurants that have such large food lists: I’m not fond of huge undertakings for the reasons just stated.
But with blinders on, we were intrigued by a few of the salads, if for no other reason than they offered a variety of ways to test our palates. Our trio settled on a Dungeness crab salad ($13) with endive, beets, avocado, lemon, and a creamy horseradish sauce.
Bites rolled along my tongue as if Gjelina had wrangled the crab and the vegetables from adjoining stalls at a freakishly fresh farmer’s market. The endive cracked against the faintest pressure from my jaw, the slices of avocado split in my mouth as if cut by the sharpest of knifes, the beets screamed with juice, and the crab just softly slipped by while offering the dish a central purpose and theme. Bites were clean and well-balanced. Thanks as well to the touch of oil and reserved application of the kicked up cream sauce, this light little salad served as a series of delightful bites in the cool breeze that rolled in from the sea just a few miles away.
In the absence of the hard stuff, I availed a Calimocho, one of several beer and wine cocktails to be had at Gjelina. The Calimocho is a close cousin to the Cuba Libre. In the case of the Calimocho, the Libre’s rum is swapped for red wine. Though I’d opt for a Libre given the chance, the Calimocho served its purpose as a spiked Coke. Maybe not the best pairing for the salad on our table, if the rest of the cocktails at Gjelina function in this manner, even people steadfastly against anything other than the hardest of liquors should be satiated by Gjelina’s abbreviated twist on a cocktail menu.
Gjelina: Worth Spending More Time With
Little can be definitively said for that which can change at Gjelina. No doubt the décor will always appeal to me; meanwhile, I’m left to wonder just how well the rest of the menu and a full meal will stack up against the wonderful little dip into Gjelina’s hot tub I was privy to.
Our service was quite pleasant, but there wasn’t much to ask. Our food was excellent, but it was relegated to “just the tip” … of the iceberg. I could sit here as the consummate pessimist, expecting a slip up … but that’s not going to happen. There’s joy in Gjelina, I know because I tasted it.