VENICE RAMEN

The set­ting in­flu­ences the broth that meticulous Gjelina and Gjusta chef Travis Lett is mak­ing at his lat­est res­tau­rant on Ab­bot Kin­ney, the iza­kaya MTN.

Los Angeles Times - - SATURDAY - BY GIL­LIAN FER­GU­SON food@la­times.com

Travis Lett has been think­ing about broth a lot lately. The James Beard-nom­i­nated chef is 21⁄2 weeks into ser­vice at MTN, his new iza­kaya, where hearty bowls of house-made ramen an­chor a sea­sonal, Ja­panese-lean­ing menu, and broth, he is well aware, is “the cen­ter­piece of mak­ing ramen.” MTN, pro­nounced Moun­tain, is the 38-year-old’s fourth res­tau­rant in Venice. If you drive down Ab­bot Kin­ney Boule­vard you can’t miss the husky jet-black build­ing, which looks as though some­one waved a blow­torch over the fa­cade (it’s ac­tu­ally just painted mush­room wood). Lett’s first two projects, Gjelina and Gjelina Take Away, sit two blocks south on the same side of the street, and his last open­ing, Gjusta, is a 10-minute walk to­ward Gold’s Gym in the other di­rec­tion.

In con­ver­sa­tion Lett will mod­estly de­scribe the restau­rants as a pizze­ria, a sub shop and a deli — but to­gether they’ve come to de­fine a cer­tain brand of South­ern Cal­i­for­nia cui­sine that is metic­u­lously sourced, de­cep­tively sim­ple and deeply crave­able. MTN aims to be no dif­fer­ent.

Con­sider the pork bone shio ramen. In­stead of us­ing noo­dles from Sun Noo­dle, L.A.’s in­dus­try stan­dard, Lett makes them him­self, with ar­ti­sanal wheat from Cen­tral Milling and a small per­cent­age of An­son Mills buck­wheat, which gives the noo­dles a dis­tinct, sandy color.

Each batch of broth is made from the bones of one Peads and Bar­netts pig — the feet, head, tail and bones. It’s a nod to the sus­tain­ably minded nose-to-tail ethos that Lett is known for, and the fin­ished prod­uct comes out leaner than the rich, milky tonkotsu stocks that have dom­i­nated the ramen scene in re­cent years.

“There has been this culinary one-up­man­ship about who can make a fat­tier pork base,” Lett says, “and that type of ramen makes sense in Hokkaido, where there is 15 feet of snow on the ground, but we opened in sum­mer in South­ern Cal­i­for­nia.”

Nail­ing a broth that achieved in­ten­sity in f la­vor, with­out clob­ber­ing you with eight ounces of pork fat, was a chal­lenge that took months. “Ramen is some­thing that has quite a bit of depth, soul and al­most mythol­ogy to it,” he says, and, as a New Jersey-born, blond, blue-eyed chef, he un­der­stood the tightrope he was walk­ing.

The idea for an iza­kaya was sparked nine years ago, in the early days of Gjelina, when Lett’s busi­ness part­ner Fran Ca­maj took on the lease for a con­demned build­ing down the street on Ab­bot Kin­ney with the in­ten­tion of open­ing a res­tau­rant. Lett, who was raised on

a mac­ro­bi­otic diet of rice, miso and pressed veg­eta­bles, and later spent three years helm­ing the now-de­funct Tengu in West­wood, sug­gested they open a sea­sonal iza­kaya in the vein of Gjelina, with ramen and gy­oza in place of pizza and pasta.

It took the duo nearly a decade to bring the idea to fruition, dur­ing which Lett be­gan trav­el­ing to Ja­pan — where he surfed, vis­ited farm­ers and pro­duc­ers, and de­vel­oped re­la­tion­ships with fish pur­vey­ors at Tokyo’s Tsuk­iji mar­ket, who al­lowed Lett a rare, mini-ap­pren­tice­ship at their stalls, cut­ting fish and hon­ing his tech­nique.

In Venice, Ca­maj con­tended with a ris­ing tide of anti-devel­op­ment sen­ti­ment, go­ing so far as to build a park­ing lot on the roof of the build­ing when he was told that a 65-seat res­tau­rant would re­quire nine ad­di­tional park­ing spots. He claims the name MTN doesn’t have a deep-rooted mean­ing or a clever ori­gin story, but it’s hard not to see a metaphor in the up­hill bat­tle that went into open­ing it.

MTN’s chef de cui­sine, Pe­dro Akino, spent 15 years in Ja­panese kitchens be­fore he met Lett, and the res­tau­rant’s sous-chef Erika Aoki (the name­sake of “Erika’s pickle plate” on MTN’s menu) was raised in Ja­pan, where she lived until her mid-20s. Both spent years in the Gjelina kitchen.

The res­tau­rant’s in­te­rior, which reads like a Ja­panese surf shack iza­kaya, is the do­main of Shel­ley Kleyn, who signed on as the Gjelina group’s direc­tor of op­er­a­tions af­ter open­ing Soho House prop­er­ties in Los Angeles and the U.K. The din­ing room is made up of bar and counter seat­ing, lined with back­less stools oc­cu­pied by the usual Venice crowd, hun­kered over bowls of noo­dles and del­i­cate ce­ramic plates of sashimi. Like Gjelina and Gjusta, the veg­etable of­fer­ings are ex­ten­sive and care­fully sourced by Max Dorn­bush, the group’s full­time buyer who per­suaded farmer James Birch to grow ko­mat­suna ,a type of Ja­panese mus­tard spinach, for MTN’s pork shio ramen and kamo, a Ja­panese eg­g­plant va­ri­ety that shows up in the gy­oza. If you man­age to score a seat at the bar, you can watch koji-mar­i­nated duck breasts or miso-lac­quered bone mar­row come off the ro­bata grill through the glassed-in kitchen.

At night the ocean breeze en­ters from a stretch of ex­posed rooftop that sucks in cool salty air like a f lue im­bu­ing the din­ing room with a beachy feel, and mu­sic is played from an ac­tual record player, which means gen­eral man­ager Os­car Lusth may run to flip the record af­ter ex­plain­ing the sake list.

As is stan­dard for any good iza­kaya, the drink­ing is as se­ri­ous as the food, so glasses of cold beer are avail­able, as is a solid se­lec­tion of shochu. And be­cause it’s South­ern Cal­i­for­nia, there are at least five white wines by the glass, am­ple tea and a house-made yuzu soda too.

On a re­cent evening dessert of­fer­ings in­cluded a bowl of chilled Green­gage plums and a house­made sweet po­tato and shoyu ge­lato that tasted of Werther’s Orig­i­nal candy. Un­fa­mil­iar as the fla­vor com­bi­na­tion may seem, it wasn’t re­mark­ably dif­fer­ent from the but­ter­scotch pot de crème served at Gjelina down the street.

“What I like about an iza­kaya is that it can be any­thing — grilled stuff, raw stuff, nabe, rice dishes, it all kind of fits,” Lett says. “An iza­kaya is sort of a bar first and food sec­ond, but I don’t think it nec­es­sar­ily means that the food is not se­ri­ous. Some of the best food I’ve ever had has been stand­ing up at pin­txo bars.”

Ash­ley Ran­dall

PORK ramen with black pep­per chashu is served at MTN, where Travis Lett makes a leaner broth than oth­ers on the scene — we are in South­ern Cal­i­for­nia, af­ter all.

Ash­ley Ran­dall

TRAVIS LETT, known for meticulous sourc­ing and pre­cise prepa­ra­tion at Gjelina and Gjusta, has opened MTN, a sea­sonal, Ja­panese-lean­ing res­tau­rant near his oth­ers on Venice’s Ab­bot Kin­ney.

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