So I took a vegetarian to a steakhouse. I wasn't trying to troll him or anything — he showed up with his dad — but he was there just the same. The rest of us ate grilled prime rib-eye, smoked short ribs and beef heart tartare. He had cabbage, carrots and broccolini. And unless I'm reading the meal wrong, I think he may have eaten better than we did.
A year ago, you never would have gone to a steakhouse for the carrots, but in 2016, when more of us are aware of the dense pleasures of a vegetable tossed directly onto the coals to char and sweeten, the situation is beginning to change.
Charcoal Venice is the newest restaurant from Josiah Citrin, a Westside local best known for his swank French restaurant Mélisse. Mélisse has the pomp and shine you expect from a restaurant of its ambition. Charcoal is a more casual place just a few blocks from the beach, a modern, glassed-in rectangle, with an open kitchen, lots of bar seating and a soundtrack that veers toward dad rock. There are the craft beers you expect from a new restaurant, a modest list of genial wines from France and California, and slightly ambitious cocktails — the Chophouse Martini, made with smoked vodka, smacks of Weber grills and leaping flames.
The theme of the restaurant, as your server will remind you 30 seconds after you have settled into a banquette, is Backyard Barbecue — the smell of sizzling meat, the rush of side dishes and the warm feeling of contentment that comes with meat and alcohol near the shore. The condiments are explained: barbecue sauce, chimichurri and a pale gold liquid identified as "J1," Citrin's take on steak sauce.
"When you have two Michelin stars," the server explains, referencing one of the many accolades that Mélisse has earned, "you can name your steak sauce anything you want."
So there are charred carrots with sheep ricotta and a touch of honey; burnt broccolini with sliced potatoes and toasted breadcrumbs; and crisp-edged blackened Brussels sprouts with wheatberries and a fried duck egg. You can get mushroom-and-beet tartare as well as the slightly more conventional model made with the lean chopped beef heart, bits of celery and pickled mustard seeds.
The grilled chicken wings are good enough — they really do taste as if they were plucked off a backyard grill — but what you may remember best are the mickeys, Yukon gold potatoes tossed into the coals until they resemble a geological specimen, then served with an upscale take on the usual fixings: crème fraîche, aged gouda, and Normandy butter. I like the yellowtail sashimi — it is apparently stroked with a live coal in the kitchen, which gives it a hint of smokiness — and the sweet grilled lamb ribs, but not as much as I do the collard greens salad with a bit of cheese and a sweet-sour raisin vinaigrette.
The best dish in the restaurant may be the wedge cut from a whole cabbage roasted on the coals, outside leaves burnt and crumbling, inside steamy and sweet. The cabbage is served with tart yogurt and sumac, but the overall effect still manages to be more Mitteleuropa than Middle East, its char and wine-like complexity alluding to something like a Romani campfire dish best enjoyed in the bitter cold.
And the meat? It's, y'know, meat: well-sourced, carefully grilled and served sliced, as if meant to feed a crowd, possibly more interesting in the form of rich, ruddy skirt steak or the lean rumpsteak called pavé than as expensive rib-eye or New York strip. The meat is likely to be brushed with chimichurri or sweet barbecue sauce, in the manner of backyard barbecue, except for the slices of 35-day aged lamb shoulder, tough and a little dry, although tasty, which are brushed with honey and coriander instead.
If the duck is offered, you should probably go for that — the crunchy, salty, charred skin is delicious, almost completely rendered of its fat, and the flesh of the dry-aged animal is as bloody, dense and full-flavored as you've always wanted duck to be.
Unless you're vegetarian, in which case: More cabbage all around.
A fine-dining chef opens a live-fire restaurant where veggies shine.
425 Washington Blvd., Los Angeles, (310) 751-6794.
Starters $10.50-$18; meat and fish $25-$145; vegetables $12.50- $14.50; desserts $12.50.
Dinner 6 p.m. to 11 p.m. Sun.-Thurs.; 6 p.m. to midnight Fri.; 5:30 p.m. to midnight Sat. Credit cards accepted. Full bar. Valet parking.