Which is why, when expectations are heightened about Gjelina, the hottest culinary outlet on Abbott Kinney, the boulevard for artists, critics and wanderers, what happens?
When we came by Los Angeles on one of our hyper frequent trips, Gjelina was a must-try, having craved a spot on its wait list and tough reservations line for months. However, perhaps to our own ambitious appetite, we opted for it as dinner number two on a heavy nightlife evening of Los Angeles. Thankfully, it catered to night owls who, dressed in finery, did not wish to descend on the burger and fries hogging crowds, and preferred the likes of this farm-to-table modern American bistro with an artsy vibe. Much like a recent Chicago escapade into the Girl and the Goat, which also boasted of longstanding reservations and seductive late night ambiances for those with a certain level of swagger.
We were somewhat stumbling when waltzing into the wooden textured, open windowed place, overlooking the staple of Los Angeles people watching, albeit with translucent linen drapes swaying in the chilly air. The first thing that we noticed was the tiny, all caps print on the bustling menu, full of dishes that sounded like inventive takes on cool-food staples. Pity, since neither the candlelight nor the sensibility allowed us to gauge what was reputable and what not, so we went on to order numerous platters, none interconnected, and mostly recommended.
Known for their wood fired pizzas, we opted for the one that seemed least pizza like, with zucchini, cherry tomatoes, burrata, Parmesan cheese and squash. For you see, pizza is not my favorite of foods, eaten less times a year than fingers on a single hand. However, when I do indulge, it has to be something deep dish like from Chicago, or extraordinarily and wildly creative from San Francisco. Expecting a salad, it arrived as a fairly hefty, New York style size. The charred edges were sumptuous to look at, and the abundance of greens was a refresher from the gooey slime that I was frequently used to. While perhaps not the best of pizzas I’ve had, it was well made, with a brittle crust and a distinct set of cheese, sauce and vegetable layers that made for a hefty bite.
The wood roasted squash arrived with bits of cauliflower, garlic, chili and vinegar, brimming in an almost burnt black sauce, with beautifully charred edges on the crisp vegetables. The smoky, charred taste was the best part of an otherwise single note dish, since the vegetables, spice and watery sauce were homogeneously spicy. While I usually like spicy foods, I would have liked this one to have a balance of sweetness, or a textural crunch, or perhaps served on a plate with a more rigid sauce.
With a penchant for squash blossoms and a liking for fennel, a favorite in Indian cuisine, we got the squash blossoms with confit tomato, caramelized fennel, Asiago cheese, green onions and spicy fennel. The processing was again courtesy of the wood-firing, which gave everything a bitter aftertaste which I (likely in minorities of the world) had grown to adore. The plate itself, while a notch high on salty notes, retained the fennel flavors as the most dominant, and most sumptuous. The vegetables were fresh, almost uncooked in a sense, making this more of a wet salad.
Overall, with a mixed bag in service and a wild inconsistency in tastes and textures of the dishes, it came back down to my own expectations. With a menu so elaborate and extravagant, could one really justify a spot based on one seating? And that too, on a high pedestal of being the finale of consumption in the night?
For Venice and for people watching, I would return to this acclaimed staple in Californian nightlife.