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My husband, Vic and I I finally checked out the newest hot spot on Abbot Kinney in Venice, Gjelina, which opened over the summer. We walked in without a reservation at 7 p.m. on a recent weeknight and had no trouble snagging a seat the the communal table. (If we had arrived an hour later, we would have been among the masses hovering behind us … waiting.) I enjoyed the rustic communal table because we actually got a chance to meet and mingle with some of our neighbors. In fact, the couple sitting next to us offered us a slice of their gruyere, arugula and carmelized onion pizza, which was delicious. Not Mozza delicious, mind you, but tasty nonetheless. “Very French onion soupy,” as Vic put it.
In fact, everything we tried at Gjelina was satisfying, and I loved the experience of the place almost as much as the food. It was full of artists, casual chic Venice hipsters, even a couple families with kids. One of the guys down at the other end of the communal table compared it to AOC. It reminded me of being in New York. A real neighborhood spot. The design of the place is gorgeous. The floor is made of brick, while the ceiling is reclaimed wood from a barn. The walls are painted and decorated with a delicate, laser-etched design. There’s a beautiful back patio with a fire pit and a window onto the kitchen. Next to that is a tiny nook of a lounge with a lamp made from wine bottles. Even the bathroom fixtures are cool. Guys behind the bar chop vegetables plucked fresh that day from the farmer’s market and make salads beneath an unusual lamp featuring an variety of odd-sized lightbulbs. The restaurant is mainly lit by candles in the evening, giving it a nice glow.
We started with a bottle of organic French Syrah, a Chateau Messiac Minervois from 2006. At $42, it was actually the least expensive bottle on the list. The only bottle they offered for less ($38) was sold out. In this economy, they really should have a few more affordable bottles (and glasses) for those who have seen their 401Ks cut in half. The restaurant is still doing such a brisk business, they probably don’t feel the need to cut anyone a break. (Note to Gjelina, it’s tough to stay the hot spot forever. We’re in an economic crisis. Wake up, and help us out a little, here.)
For dinner we ordered the grilled raddichio, bacon, fontina and tomato confit pizza from the wood-burning oven. A guy sitting at the far end of our communal table described it as “a saltine of a pizza,” and I must admit, it did have an impossibly thin crust. I could practically see through it, and I suspect that even the strictest low-carb dieter could eat this pizza. It was served with a side plate containing small piles of crushed red pepper, grated Parmesan cheese and dried oregano. The flavor was wonderfully smoky, both from the bacon and the wood-burning oven. (Beware: The couple sitting next to us mistook a woodchip from the embers that made its way onto their plate for a French fry and bit into it.)
Vic and I also shared the Sonoma duck leg confit with cavalo nero, lentils and currant vinegar. The duck was sweet and juicy and the lentils quite vinegary. It was an unusual combination, but it worked. When we finished, Vic was still hungry so he tried to flag down the waitress to order more. By then, the place was so packed that it took at least 10 minutes to find her. We capped off the evening with Jidori chicken livers and onions on grilled bread. It’s not the traditional way to end a meal, but Vic is carniverous and needed a little more meat on his bones. He actually grew up eating liver and onions, and while I find chicken liver a little mealy, he gave the dish — and the entire evening — a big thumbs up.
We made our way back for a second Gjelina visit last week, when my parents were in town. This time, our group of six arrived even earlier and took over most of the communal table. My sister looked at the menu and complained that there wasn’t a single item except the pizza that contained a word she didn’t know. Pretentious, was her thought. Personally, I don’t mind an interesting menu because I like to ask questions and learn something new. But she does have a point. There’s also no sign outside the restaurant, which always seems pretentious to me.
Starting with the charcuterie plate (pictured above), we enjoyed duck prosciutto, sweet soppresatta and bresaola that were all so thinly sliced, they melted on your tongue. Split between six people, the portions could have been more substantial, although we ordered so much it didn’t matter. We followed that with a divine salad of arugula with marinated tomato, bacon and ricotta salata. All I can say is, yum. This is not your typical skinny gal salad. Next we tried three more pizzas: a margherita with gioia mozzarella and burrata, another with mushroom, goat cheese and truffle oil, and finally one with lamb sausage, zucchini, tomato, asiago and pecorino. Mom’s clear favorite was the mushroom (pictured below), although I thought the smell of truffle oil was so overwhelming that the taste was almost a letdown compared to the scent. The lamb sausage was my top pick, and Vic chose the margherita. So you pretty much can’t go wrong with the pizzas.
On to the vegetable section of the menu, the braised collard greens with smoked tomato were too salty for Mom, although just right for someone with a salt tooth like myself. In fact, on the second visit to Gjelina, I realized one of the reasons I liked the place so much is that almost every dish is finished with a liberal dash of sea salt. The grilled raddichio with balsamic and sea salt was a smoky, salty winner all around. Even our decadent butterscotch pots de creme for dessert had sea salt on top to cut what otherwise would have been a cloying degree of sweetness. For those who are salt sensitive, prepare for swollen ankles.
My sister’s favorite dish of the night was the roasted beets with greens, walnut oil and goat cheese — pungent and vinegary. My father and my sister’s boyfriend voted for the PEI mussels (tiny, but nice and plump) with chorizo, tomato, white wine and grilled bread. The dish had a garlicky bite, and again, the flavor combinations were a little odd, but that wasn’t a bad thing. I also enjoyed the wood roasted brandade — one of those pesky words that needed an explanation. It was basically a salt cod dip with cream and potato whose flavor the waiter described as similar to clam chowder. This comfort food dish was a bit heavy for some on Thanksgiving week, but I enjoy anything that’s the food equivalent of a soft blanket. We washed it all down with a 2005 Red Rhone and capped off the evening with a cranberry apple tartin that had firm chunks of fresh fruit. Not too cooked and not too sweet.
I’d be remiss not to mention that my mother thought our server was extremely appealing. “Did you get a look at our waiter?” she asked halfway through the evening. “Soooo cute!”
“I didn’t think he was so cute,” my Dad huffed. Nevertheless, we all walked out feeling fat and happy.