Review: Jonathan Gold finds Travis Lett’s izakaya MTN to be Peak Venice — and pretty Japanese too
Dungeness crab ramen from MTN restaurant in Los Angeles’ Venice Beach neighborhood.(Ashley Randall)
Jidori chicken and yuzu ramen from MTN restaurant.(Ashley Randall)
Natto and kanpachi temaki, house pickled ginger from MTN restaurant.(Ashley Randall )
Simmered Saba, daikon oroshi from MTN restaurant.(Ashley Randall)
Erika’s house-made pickle plate from MTN restaurant.(Ashley Randall)
Daikon salad, ume shiso dressing from MTN restaurant.(Ashley Randall)
Sous-chef Erika Aoki, general manager Oscar Lusth, chef Travis Lett and sous-chef Pedro Aquino from MTN restaurant.(Ashley Randall)
Pre-shift with chef Travis Lett and staff from MTN restaurant.(Ashley Randall)
Sous-chef Pedro Aquino and chef Travis Lett from MTN restaurant.(Ashley Randall)
Is there a more Venice restaurant than MTN, the throbbing izakaya on Abbot Kinney? Well yes, there’s Travis Lett’s other restaurant Gjelina, a few steps south, but MTN — pronounced Mountain — is pretty close, a welter of man buns and chunky jewelry, a soundtrack (turntable, DJ) that is apt to dip from Joni Mitchell into Sonny Rollins, an open kitchen and a retractable roof, and bowls of Big Sur sea vegetables, harvested by a surfer and served straight up in all their slippery glory.
Oysters, shochu and bottles of kombucha? You don’t even have to ask.
I occasionally grumble about Gjelina, which is the one restaurant that New York food people insist on dropping into when they’re in town, probably because it does such a good job of exemplifying what certain visitors expect from Los Angeles: fire pits, Bloomsdale spinach, and television actors picking at wild nettle pizza. MTN is a little like that too — the grilled chicken wings, the precisely poured glasses of craft beer and the snap peas with shiso remind everyone of their first trip to Tokyo, maybe that one quick supper grabbed late in the Golden Gai. It’s not a fusion restaurant.
But in this historical moment, it is hard to look at a place like MTN and not think at least a little about cultural appropriation, of a non-Japanese chef taking on the tropes of Japanese drinking food as casually as he might slip on an A Bathing Ape hoodie.
He stuffs some temaki, Japanese hand rolls, with uni or smooth, cool hamachi, but others with charred pork and a slosh of fermented chile sauce. He serves slips of Wagyu beef from Lone Mountain in New Mexico tataki-style, blackened on the outside and raw in the middle, but also wrapped like dumpling skins around a clump of enoki mushrooms. His pork belly chahan, a fried rice dish at the heart of the Chinese-Japanese kitchen, is dyed black with squid ink and tossed with aromatics including fish sauce, lemon basil and a squirt of pungent sudachi lime.
Japanese cookbook writer Nancy Singleton Hachisu, who knows more about these things than practically anybody, recently told a friend that she thought MTN was the most Japanese restaurant in the United States. Lett is fond of curing fish and fermenting vegetables; yuzu kosho and toasted seaweed; miso, shiso and cod. Still, I think if MTN were mysteriously transported to Harajuku, it would be the most Californian restaurant in Japan.
So what is an izakaya? There are a lot of different kinds, but generally they tend to be informal restaurants based around alcohol and shared small plates that taste good with alcohol, places designed for talking, drinking and improvisatory meals that might include grilled meats, noodle dishes and vegetables. The draft beers at MTN come in small 10-ounce glasses and the sake in short 3-ounce pours — you will be ordering a lot of them. You can get one plate of food or a dozen, all at once or ordered one at a time. Your vegan friend is going to do just fine.
There is an airy puff of housemade tofu with grated daikon and chrysanthemum leaf, tiny roasted beets with shiso and a dab of wasabi, kombu ramen with shiitake, and that Big Sur seaweed salad, drizzled with tart ponzu, that you will find amusing for two or three bites and then forget about for the rest of the meal.
As you might expect from a Lett restaurant, the vegetables tend to be lovely. I liked the sautéed first-of-season sweet corn with scallions, tiny cherry tomatoes and a dab of soy-infused butter, as well as the spinach with sesame and dried skipjack shavings; the grilled cabbage with sweet potato vinegar; and the Japanese sweet potato itself, blackened over the coals and served whole and split, with a smear of miso butter.
And finally, there is ramen — soft, buckwheat-enhanced housemade ramen, which is kind of rare in Los Angeles — perhaps served in a light chicken broth with sliced thigh meat, shimeji mushrooms, and a subtle but piercing fragrance of yuzu zest, or tossed dry with ground pork and black sesame. The pork ramen — not tonkotsu-style, insist the servers — is made by boiling Peads & Barnetts pork bones for a day and a half, and includes a slab of what is probably the best, soft-crispy roast pork belly (chashu) you’ll find at any local ramen restaurant. I especially like the crab ramen, vibrant and spicy, thick with chunks of fresh Dungeness crab.
I have visited MTN on nights when I could have sworn I was the only person in the restaurant not on a Bumble date. I have also been there on evenings when everybody else seemed to be winding up some kind of business meeting. The maze of counters — everybody seems to be sitting on a stool of some sort — seems at first to be a little too communal, but the din and the alcohol set up what are in effect invisible curtains of privacy, and when the room is humming late on a Thursday, the coziness can be almost magical.
Chef Travis Lett’s Venice izakaya
1305 Abbot Kinney Blvd., Venice, (424) 465-3313, mtnvenice.com.
Vegetables $10-$18, rice and dumplings $13-$22, grilled dishes $12-$24, ramen $20-$24.
Dinner 5:30-11 p.m. Sundays to Thursdays, 5:30-midnight Fridays and Saturdays. Credit cards accepted. Beer, wine and sake. Street and nearby city lot parking.
Homemade tofu; charred sweet potato; kasu black cod; beef-wrapped enoki mushrooms; crab ramen.