Saturday, September 25, 2010

Gjelina: Worth the hype (and the pizzas)

Gjelina, Venice Beach's golden child, is still popular after two years. It's still on many Top Restaurant lists, you'll still need a reservation to score a table and it's still crowded on a regular weeknight. Even though its located on Abbot Kinney alongside a stretch of restaurants, Gjelina still shines. There's no famous Batali-like chef in the kitchen. The service isn't known to be impeccable (in fact, some claim the front of the house sometimes borders on rude). They're strict on their no-modifications-to-the menu policy. They don't serve up an exotic, sexy menu. They just serve really darn good food with local and seasonal ingredients. That's it. That's the secret to Gjelina's success. And they can actually get me to enjoy pizza.

The restaurant is easy to miss. There's no valet out front and no signage.

The main dining room is lively and dark, almost like a cool, trendy bar. Communal tables are set up in the center so you can be seated beside the Venice hipsters or the wealthy couple with the house on the canals. That's how Venice Beach is. It's a very eclectic neighborhood. If you're loving the casual industrial room, wait till you see the back patio with it's funky chandeliers, couches, fire pit and views of the open kitchen.

They have a respectable wine list, a couple craft beers and two cocktails.

The Visionary (Champagne, Sherry, Bitters) smelt stronger than it tasted, The Long Walk Home (Bordeaux, Bitters, Citrus) reminded me of a bubbly sangria, and the Maredsous 10 Tripel Belgian Ale (Belgium) at 10% ABV was strong.

We later ordered a couple glasses of wine throughout dinner. Antico Borgo Di Sugame, Sangiovese (Chianti Classico, Italy ‘08), Antoine Sanzay, Cabernet Franc (Saumur Champigny, France ‘08) and Chateau Guibot, Merlot/Cab Franc (Puisseguin Saint-Emilion, France ‘05). Surprisingly, the Chianti was the clear winner at our table.

Grilled Mission Figs with Prosciutto, Burrata, Radicchio & Arugula
This was the perfect marriage of sweet, caramelized figs with a soft chewy center, salty fresh prosciutto, bitter greens, creamy burrata and a nice drizzle of balsamic and a sprinkle of sea salt. You could taste the freshness of the ingredients in this dish.

Crispy Monterey Bay Sardines with peperonata
The sardines were fried with a crispy skin and flaky meat. Although it did have its signature fish flavor, it wasn't as intense flavored as some might fear. I liked the roasted stewed sweet peppers which was necessary to cut through the flavors of the fish.

Gjelina is known for their pizzas, but I was nervous to try it. It's no secret that I don't eat pizzas because I don't like cheese (especially gooey, melted, greasy cheese). In addition, I knew that they wouldn't let me modify it to a cheeseless or very-light-on cheese pizza. But I was ready to take a gamble. Maybe I'll only have one slice. Much to my dining companions' chagrin, I ended up eating every slice of my apportioned amount. It's that good.

Confit Tomato, Fresno Chilie, Garlic, White Anchovy & Arugula
I loved the cracker thin crust, you don't see that around much. I much prefer it to the thicker crusts that end up filling you up with starch. The confit tomatoes were sweet and worked well with the salty anchovies. The pizza also had a spicy kick from the fresno chile. I liked that the pizza has very little cheese, so the focus was really on the quality of the toppings.

Housemade Chorizo, Tomato, Cream, Fennel, Chili & Basil
This pizza had a bit more cheese but still wasn't overwhelming. I liked that the toppings were distributed judiciously. You really don't need a pizza littered with chorizo because it's very heavy and salty. The fennel was also scattered sparingly so you didn't get an offensive licorice flavor. Sausage and fennel work so well together.

Pizzas were served with oregano, fresh pepper flakes and parmesan. You gotta get down and dirty and use your fingers to grab some to sprinkle on the pizza. It's not for the OCD of diners. They had very intense flavors so even one tiny speck of pepper flake provided a fiery heat.

Hen of the Woods Mushroom Toast with Creme Fraiche & Truffle Oil
Best dish of the night. There was a generous amount of earthy mushroom that topped the toast. I liked the slightly crunchy texture of the mushrooms which were cooked in a creamy luxurious sauce that was infused with the slight restraint of truffle oil. The creaminess reminded me of an indulgent carbonara. I also loved as the toast absorbed the rich sauce.

Crispy Niman Ranch Pork Belly with Soft Polenta, Bitter Greens & Apple Cider
The pork belly was fatty but it could have been a bit more tender inside. With pork belly dishes being popularized on menus all around town, this didn't particularly stand out. The polenta on the other hand was buttery and rich.

Seared Jidori Chicken Livers with Concord Grapes, Sherry and Polenta
The livers were cooked perfectly, and not dry or rubbery. This was definitely a very heavy dish with the meaty livers, rich polenta and hearty sauce.

Dessert yogurt panna cotta with coffee macerated dates
The panna cotta looked plain but it was anything but. It seemed to resemble a few desserts. It was soft like burrata yet creamy like a very good creme brulee. It also resembled a flan with the syrup all around. I liked that the dessert wasn't overly sweet. In fact, I enjoyed the tartness of the yogurt and the slight bitterness of the coffee sauce. I also liked the crunch and the strong nuttiness of the pistachio.

I can see why this place was packed to the brim on a weeknight. The food's good! From the simple burrata and fig dish to the delectable hen of woods toast, every plate was delicious and done just right. They got me to eat and enjoy more than my customary one slice of pizza. I don't care if they have no menu modification policy. I wouldn't change a single thing. Except maybe next time, I'll order the mushroom toast all for myself.

Hits: food, patio
Misses: no valet, can get crowded
Rating: ***1/2

1429 Abbot Kinney Blvd.,
Venice, CA 90291
(310) 450-1429


Banana Wonder said...

I've always wanted to go to Gjelina - and those pizzas look nice (and not ouzing with queso). Good stuff!

stuffycheaks said...

Anna - yeah.. i thought i might not enjoy it because of expeactations (everyone raves about it) but I was very very pleased with the meal