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AK Restaurant + Bar in Venice
It might seem that there is little as unlikely as a Scandinavian restaurant in Southern California, but for many years one of L.A.'s most celebrated spots was Scandia on Sunset Boulevard. It had closed by the time I came to town, but Gustaf Anders was still carrying the flame for the cuisine in Costa Mesa. That's gone now too, but I still remember the generous holiday buffet that went on for the entire month of December, the sumptuous platters of crayfish boiled with dill in summer and the pretty princess cake wrapped in green marzipan.
The new AK Restaurant + Bar from former Four Seasons hotel chef and Swede Conny Andersson is less self-consciously Scandinavian than either of those, but it does include a handful of traditional dishes as part of a casual bistro menu in a sleek, contemporary setting that has been happily humming along since the day it opened on Abbot Kinney Boulevard in Venice.
I naturally gravitate to the box labeled "Flavors of Scandinavia" set off from the rest of the menu. A lot of restaurants serve gravlax, but nothing like Andersson's. Cured in aquavit, it is firm and supple, sweet and salty at the same time, with the rich taste of the salmon coming through. He gives the mustard sauce a twist with a splash of espresso to set off the honey in the mustard. If you love herring, try his trio of herring -- some sweeter, some more vinegary, one in cream sauce, a wonderfully satisfying plate that also includes Swedish cracker bread and nutty Västerbotten cheese. There are also house-baked rolls and breads.
And his Swedish meatballs redeem the dish from the likes of IKEA. His are fluffy and agreeable, served with good mashed potatoes, a little gravy and the lingonberry sauce that's the Swedish equivalent of cranberry sauce, elegant and a little less sharp. It's also the bargain entree on the menu at $24.
I just wish he was less reticent about serving more classic Swedish dishes. I'm not saying the whole menu should be Scandinavian, but I'd love to see more of this neglected cooking.
Andersson's menu is really more global bistro than anything else. And his is no book learning. As executive chef for the luxury hotel chain, he's worked around the world -- in India, Egypt, the Caribbean and Bali, as well as here in Beverly Hills. And now at age 45, he has opened his first restaurant on Abbot Kinney next door to Wabi Sabi.
Built as an indoor-outdoor restaurant, AK's front room is an enclosed patio screened from the street by a stand of bamboo. In summer, the windows open up the space to the salt air; in winter, a gas fireplace framed in shimmering green tiles keeps diners cozy.
At the back is the bar with a wraparound counter and two tall communal tables. It's a warm and welcoming space that stays open until 1 a.m. most nights, serving an abbreviated bar menu. Upstairs on a sort of mezzanine overlooking the patio is another dining room, more intimate than the patio but furnished with the same ultra-comfy chairs. After some of the more excruciating seating I've endured, these chairs are sheer luxury, an invitation to linger over dinner in this handsome space.
Andersson is a seasoned chef, and it showed even in the first week, when the kitchen performed as if the place had been open for months, not days. That may seem like a small thing, but as new restaurants go lately, it's major. He has also hired an excellent staff -- from the front of the house to the sommelier, servers and runners. No worries: You can just sit back and enjoy the experience.
Though the chef has been cooking in high-end hotels for years, his food here is much more personal than what's usually required of a Four Seasons chef. Flavors are focused and not all over the map. Each dish is concise, and he knows how to plate so the food begs to be eaten. In short, he's a real pro.
The bowl of steamed blue mussels comes with duck sausage, piquillo peppers and a swirl of beautiful green pistachio parsley pesto that add pizazz to a dish that's everywhere these days. His charcuterie entry is duck rillettes, served with vibrant pickled vegetables and thick slabs of warm, grilled country bread. If you're the sort of person who likes to keep your dish all to yourself, order the sampler platter of artichoke served three ways. You get a shot of intensely artichoke-y chilled soup, a single warm goat cheese fritter and some shaved raw artichoke adorned with lemon and Parmesan. A brief yet comprehensive education on the virtues of the artichoke.
Andersson has been in Southern California long enough to pick up a serious salad habit. One I like very much is his baby frisée salad embellished with a poached egg that's been breaded and fried, the yolk a startlingly deep gold. Tucked underneath are some strips of smoked salmon in place of the usual bacon. Clever, no? And delicious.
Little Gem lettuce -- a cross between baby romaine and butter lettuce -- tossed with dark purple basil leaves, and topped with creamy avocado in a satsuma vinaigrette strikes just the right note for a first-course salad. Another combines ivory endive leaves with slices of the heirloom Arkansas Black apple and Roquefort in a perfectly poised sherry vinaigrette.
Now we're talking: bright fresh flavors. These are the kinds of salads you'd kill for after spending too much time outside California.
AK's concise menu must feel to Andersson like a luxury after cooking for so many years in hotel restaurants. The seafood is all sustainable and changes frequently depending on what's around. The fine planked salmon from one visit might be replaced by arctic char or barramundi on another evening. Preparations are smart but simple, never obscuring the basic taste of the fish. Barramundi (Australian sea bass) might be served with a tomato essence spiced with earthy turmeric and an exotic spicy coconut cabbage. Arctic char arrives with a succotash of winter shell beans and a little horseradish butter to punch up its flavors.
I'd also be just as happy coming back for the skirt steak perfumed with star anise, perfectly cooked, and accompanied with a dollop of yogurt spiked with fresh horseradish. The chef also makes a mean steak au poivre, in this case, a classic entrecôte cut with a skillfully made bearnaise sauce. Clean and simple. No menu would be complete without a couple of more predictable choices, those being a half-chicken smothered in herbs and mustard and the braised short ribs. They're fine, if that's what you want.
The wine list is only one page but the wines are an interesting bunch from around the world, a number of them under $50, a price point increasingly hard to find these days. AK has cheese too, half a dozen from France, this country and Sweden at a very fair $5 each. But if you're deciding between cheese and dessert, I'd go for the profiteroles, the best in L.A., stuffed with house-made vanilla ice cream and lavished with a dreamy warm chocolate sauce. After that, the vanilla crème caramel can hardly compete, though it's a contender in its own right.
The last year has seen a bistro revival, pizza wars and a roving bulgogi truck. It just may be time for a Scandinavian revival with Conny Andersson's smart new restaurant leading the way.
RATING: ** 1/2
LOCATION 1633 Abbot Kinney Blvd., Venice; (310) 392-6644; www.akinvenice.com/.
PRICE Dinner appetizers, $11 to $16; main courses, $23 to $36; sides, $9, cheeses, $5 each; desserts, $5 and $9. Brunch items, $11 to $15. Sunday night 3-course prix fixe menu, $35.
BEST DISHES Steamed mussels with merguez sausage, hedgehog mushroom toast, aquavit-cured salmon gravlax, trio of herring, arctic char with winter shelling bean succotash, meatballs with lingonberries, skirt steak with star anise, profiteroles, vanilla crème caramel.
WINE LIST Globe-trotting list of wines by the glass, plus a modest one-page wine list with a number of wines under $50. Corkage fee, $20.
DETAILS Open for dinner from 5:30 to 10:30 p.m. nightly, with bar menu until 1 a.m. and brunch from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Full bar. Valet parking, $5.
Rating is based on food, service and ambience, with price taken into account in relation to quality. ****: Outstanding on every level. ***: Excellent. **: Very good. *: Good. No star: Poor to satisfactory.