If you were to invent a restaurant whose specialties include a cauliflower T-bone, you probably couldn't do any better than Superba Snack Bar. It occupies what looks like a corrugated shoe box sliced open at one end, a giant version of the dioramas you may have constructed for social studies in fourth grade. Superba is at the heart of its Rose Avenue neighborhood in a stretch of Venice Beach where the fixed-gear bicycles outnumber cars some afternoons and even the elderly seem acquainted with kombucha and Lululemon.
As at nearby Tasting Kitchen and Gjelina, you probably will be drinking Chignin and Frappato instead of Chardonnay and Merlot. Substitutions are politely declined, the menu says, although there is gluten-free pasta if that's the way you roll, and you will wait for a table unless you are a party of six committing to a tasting menu. The vegetable section of the menu is labeled "From Our Backyards." The restaurant's concession to chilly nights on its patio involves communal blankets rather than space heaters. It seems like a great place to dine out with your dog.
That cauliflower T-bone is a massive slice of the vegetable, seared and spackled with a puree of basil, citrus and olives, a Sicilian-esque preparation that is probably as close to hedonistic as a vegan dish can get. In cross-section, the vegetable, as thick-cut as a porterhouse, even resembles a steak, florets branching off the core in two dimensions like fleshy striations off a bone. The mildly sulfurous stink of the vegetable marries with the flecks of char at the extremities to create a fairly persuasive sensation of meat, especially as inflected by the acerbic pungency of the purée. It is as satisfying as the meat would be, and in many of the same ways.
Superba is the creation of Paul Hibler, who owns the Pitfire chain of pizza restaurants, and Jason Neroni, an Orange County-born chef whose wanderings apparently have taken him through Spago, Le Cirque, Blue Hill, the better modernist kitchens of Spain, a grand tour of Alain Ducasse's restaurants, the well-regarded 10 Downing in New York and Club 33 at Disneyland. He most recently passed through Osteria la Buca in Hollywood. He seems pretty fond of the beach.
Neroni's style is what you might call abstracted Italian, which is to say that it incorporates tastes and textures associated with Italian cooking without actually duplicating an Italian dish. His "porchetta di testa" might incorporate some traditional Italian pork-roast techniques into making the head cheese, but he cures the meat to taste more like pastrami than like fennel-intensive porchetta, and he serves it on slivers of rye bread with mustard seeds and bits of dill pickle — testa alla Langer's. His salad of charred figs with burrata, walnuts and mint reads like something that might appear on a Pugliese plate but tastes like a dish that came from Provence through Berkeley. His meatballs in salsa verde taste like Bologna run through northern Mexico.
Neroni's cooking here might sound pretty complicated, but the results are sunny and straightforward: charcuterie plates of sweetly smoked bacon with a smear of the Spanish quince paste membrillo, or a salad of zucchini cut into spaghetti strands and tossed with herby garlic sauce and tomatoes, or a kale salad with pine nuts and raisins — not minimal, exactly, but not overdone. He crisps Brussels sprouts and serves them under a poached duck egg in a version of dashi made with bacon instead of the traditional dried, smoked bonito. (Bacon dashi is an invention of David Chang, of New York's Momofuku.) Everybody loves his crisply fried chicken thighs, brushed with a slightly spicy red-wine syrup — the earliest plating of the dish was on a beveled plank so that the syrup ran down onto the table in sticky rivulets, a phenomenon that delighted me perhaps more than it should have.
If the restaurant has a specialty, it is probably the pastas. They are handmade, slightly stiff and leaning toward excess — twisted casarecce with chanterelles, Parmesan and a dusting of the dried fish roe bottarga; the floppy hand-folded penne called garganelli with shell beans and shreds of pheasant; and agnolotti, like oblong ravioli, with crab and the last of the season's corn. The doughy gnocchi would probably not pass muster at a trattoria, but the sweetish toss with hazelnuts and broccoli stems is likable, what a gifted young cook might make for staff dinner. His whole-wheat rigatoni is more or less in the style of cacio e pepe, cooked extremely al dente and tossed with cheese and a punishing handful of black pepper — it doesn't quite taste like anything you'd get in Rome. It tastes like Venice Beach.
Abstracted Italian from Jason Neroni that may sound like Rome but tastes more like Venice Beach.
533 Rose Ave., Venice, (310) 399-6400, http://www.superbasnackbar.com
Charcuterie, $8, three for $18; snacks and small plates, $8-$17; pastas, $14-$18; desserts, $8-$10.
Dinner 6 to 10:30 p.m. Monday to Thursday, 5 to 11:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 5 to 10 p.m. Sunday; lunch, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Friday only; brunch 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Beer and wine. Credit cards accepted. Reservations for six and more only. Street parking only.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times