Travis Lett has been thinking about broth a lot lately. The James Beard-nominated chef is barely two weeks into service at MTN, his new izakaya, where hearty bowls of house-made ramen anchor a seasonal, Japanese-leaning menu, and broth, he is well aware, is “the centerpiece of making ramen.”
MTN, pronounced Mountain, is the 38-year-old’s fourth restaurant in Venice. If you drive down Abbot Kinney Boulevard you can’t miss the husky jet-black building, which looks as though someone waved a blowtorch over the facade (it’s actually just painted mushroom wood). Lett’s first two projects, Gjelina and Gjelina Take Away, sit two blocks south on the same side of the street, and his last opening, Gjusta, is a 10-minute walk toward Gold’s Gym in the other direction.
In conversation Lett will modestly describe the restaurants as a pizzeria, a sub shop and a deli — but together they’ve come to define a certain brand of Southern California cuisine that is meticulously sourced, deceptively simple and deeply craveable. MTN aims to be no different.
Consider the pork bone shio ramen. Instead of using noodles from Sun Noodle, L.A.’s industry standard, Lett makes them himself, with artisanal wheat from Central Milling and a small percentage of Anson Mills buckwheat, which gives the noodles a distinct, sandy color.
Each batch of broth is made from the bones of one Peads and Barnetts pig — the feet, head, tail and bones. It’s a nod to the sustainably minded nose-to-tail ethos that Lett is known for, and the finished product comes out leaner than the rich, milky tonkotsu stocks that have dominated the ramen scene in recent years.
“There has been this culinary one-upmanship about who can make a fattier pork base,” Lett says, “and that type of ramen makes sense in Hokkaido, where there is 15 feet of snow on the ground, but we opened in summer in Southern California.”
Nailing a broth that achieved intensity in flavor, without clobbering you with eight ounces of pork fat, was a challenge that took months. “Ramen is something that has quite a bit of depth, soul and almost mythology to it,” he says, and, as a New Jersey-born, blond, blue-eyed chef, he understood the tightrope he was walking.
The idea for an izakaya was sparked nine years ago, in the early days of Gjelina, when Lett’s business partner Fran Camaj took on the lease for a condemned building down the street on Abbot Kinney with the intention of opening a restaurant. Lett, who was raised on a macrobiotic diet of rice, miso and pressed vegetables, and later spent three years helming the now-defunct Tengu in Westwood, suggested they open a seasonal izakaya in the vein of Gjelina, with ramen and gyoza in place of pizza and pasta.
It took the duo nearly a decade to bring the idea to fruition, during which Lett began traveling to Japan — where he surfed, visited farmers and producers, and developed relationships with fish purveyors at Tokyo’s Tsukiji market, who allowed Lett a rare, mini-apprenticeship at their stalls, cutting fish and honing his technique.
In Venice, Camaj contended with a rising tide of anti-development sentiment, going so far as to build a parking lot on the roof of the building when he was told that a 65-seat restaurant would require nine additional parking spots. He claims the name MTN doesn’t have a deep-rooted meaning or a clever origin story, but it’s hard not to see a metaphor in the uphill battle that went into opening it.
MTN’s chef de cuisine, Pedro Akino, spent 15 years in Japanese kitchens before he met Lett, and the restaurant’s sous chef Erika Aoki (the namesake of “Erika’s pickle plate” on MTN’s menu) was raised in Japan, where she lived until her mid-20s. Both spent years in the Gjelina kitchen.
The restaurant’s interior, which reads like a Japanese surf shack izakaya, is the domain of Shelley Kleyn, who signed on as the Gjelina group’s director of operations after opening Soho House properties in Los Angeles and the U.K. The dining room is made up of bar and counter seating, lined with backless stools occupied by the usual Venice crowd, hunkered over bowls of noodles and delicate ceramic plates of sashimi. Like Gjelina and Gjusta, the vegetable offerings are extensive and carefully sourced by Max Dornbush, the group’s full-time buyer who persuaded farmer James Birch to grow komatsuna, a type of Japanese mustard spinach, for MTN’s pork shio ramen and kamo, a Japanese eggplant variety that shows up in the gyoza. If you manage to score a seat at the bar, you can watch koji-marinated duck breasts or miso-lacquered bone marrow come off the robata grill through the glassed-in kitchen.
At night the ocean breeze enters from a stretch of exposed rooftop that sucks in cool salty air like a flue imbuing the dining room with a beachy feel, and music is played from an actual record player, which means general manager Oscar Lusth may run to flip the record after explaining the sake list.
As is standard for any good izakaya, the drinking is as serious as the food, so glasses of cold beer are available, as is a solid selection of shōchū. And because it’s Southern California, there are at least five white wines by the glass, ample tea and a house-made yuzu soda too.
On a recent evening dessert offerings included a bowl of chilled Greengage plums and a house-made sweet potato and shoyu gelato that tasted of Werther’s Original candy. Unfamiliar as the flavor combination may seem, it wasn’t remarkably different from the butterscotch pot de crème served at Gjelina down the street.
"What I like about an izakaya is that it can be anything – grilled stuff, raw stuff, nabe, rice dishes, it all kind of fits,” says Lett. “An izakaya is sort of a bar first and food second, but I don’t think it necessarily means that the food is not serious. Some of the best food I’ve ever had has been standing up at pintxo bars."