If you were going to design a restaurant representing the new Venice Beach, the one where postmodern mansions crowd next to crumbling apartment blocks, and the narrow alleys sometimes resemble the streets near the Rialto, you might well come up with something like Dudley Market, a sleek, minimal storefront a few steps from the beach.
The building was once a convenience store, and you can still stop by for provisions, if your idea of groceries extends to Rancho Gordo beans, exotic salts and Apricot Lane eggs, which cost $18 per dozen but have yolks as vividly yellow as a late Matisse. They kind of take reservations, but not really, unless they do, and unless you have a secret parking spot — I like the metered lot a few blocks away on Rose Avenue at Main Street — you are going to spend a lot of time circling the neighborhood or pay a fortune to a nearby valet.
Even at lunchtime, when people stop in for a plate of really good eggplant caponata, or pork hash filled out with more kale than meat, Dudley Market is a beachy restaurant where nobody seems to have actually come from the beach. You may think you are stopping in for a beer and a burger, but you will end up with a soft-shell crab omelet and a glass of Ribolla Gialla from the easternmost corner of Friuli. (If you are a wine drinker who tends to reach for Poulsard before Chardonnay and Lagrein before Merlot, the wine list, especially rich in delicious oddball whites and wines from Italy's northeast, will delight you.)
Dudley Market is the domain of chef Jesse Barber, who ran the kitchen at the nearby Venice restaurant Barnyard and cooked at the Tasting Kitchen before that — two vaguely Northern Italian restaurants where the food can seem like a random stroll through a pantry until you taste it and realize that the flavors and crispnesses are heightened in ways you scarcely could have imagined. Barber, one of the lights in California urban rustic cooking at the moment, can make a plain slice of toast seem as substantial and fulfilling as a $97 slab of A5 Wagyu beef.
Gnocco fritto, the puffs of fried dough often served with prosciutto in Northern Italy, are sandwiched between slices of scallop and served with a smear of the Calabrian chile sauce you can buy in Italian markets — the contrast between softness and crunch, marine gaminess and fermented heat is pure exhilaration. Steamed mussels are showered with grated cauliflower that has the appearance, and almost the umami punch, of Parmesan cheese. Roasted marrow bones are heaped with crumbled feta dyed pink with Campari, a combination that sounds faintly revolting until you realize the way the liquor's bitterness works with the numbingly rich marrow. What looks like a random pile of endive and pink Treviso leaves hides a couple of salami slices and a handful of fried chickpeas, like an Italian aperitif platter disguised as a salad. Nobody in Los Angeles is cooking like this at the moment.
At Barnyard, Barber introduced Angelenos to risotto alla pilota, rice-miller's risotto, which is a rice dish from Mantua, usually made with fried crumbles of pork, that is at its best when it is reheated the next day in a hot pan and allowed to develop a crust. (Barber's risotto alla pilota is always the crunchy, chewy, second-day kind.) At Dudley Market, the rice is black, tossed with chanterelles and chile instead of meat, and showered with smoked ricotta salata, a firm, barely pungent young cheese. If you show up on the right day, there is sometimes a version of the risotto served in a sea urchin shell, buried under lobes of sea urchin roe. It is expensive — actually, almost everything here is a little expensive — but you will feel well-served by life. The thin, firm, tagliarini noodles tossed with a kind of pesto made with stinging nettle leaves are a wonderful first taste of spring.
The menu at Dudley Market tends to be pretty seasonal, so the plump, wintry boudin blanc with Brussels sprouts and apples is served with asparagus tips and reduced berry juice in spring, and the seared black bass with beets becomes seared black bass with citrus and avocados. I loved a March vegetable entrée of spring onions with tiny roasted turnips and kale leaves on a rough mash of green peas enhanced with a kind of pea jus.
And those fat slices of cured salmon belly, a special one night, were arranged on a painterly stripe of puréed beets, dotted with wisps of crème fraîche, and flanked with thinly shaved mushrooms dehydrated almost to the consistency of kettle chips. The fragrant earthiness of the beets tamed the fat fish into something like sweet cream, a flavor combination that seemed inevitable but that I never had quite experienced in this way. The airy crème fraîche was less rich than tart. I still haven't figured out exactly what the mushrooms were supposed to add to the dish — an extra dash of forest floor? — but the composition was delicious; food as satisfying to think about as it was to eat.
Chef Jesse Barber brings his urban rustic cooking to a new Venice Beach restaurant.
9 Dudley Ave., Venice, (424) 744-8060, dudleymarket.com.
Appetizers $12-$22; pastas and risottos $17-$19; main courses $19-$42.
Open daily, 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. Credit cards accepted. Beer and wine. Difficult street parking only. (Best bet may be a pay valet lot on Speedway near the end of Rose Ave.)
Gnocco fritto with scallops; mussels with cauliflower; bone marrow with feta and Campari; black risotto; nettle tagliarini; boudin blanc.