Superba Snack Bar is positively magnetic. There's something about the look and feel of the place, a glassed-in box that spills out onto its patio — the hum of people chattering happily, the glow that emanates onto the street — that makes you feel hungry and social and relaxed. Candles flicker on tables and along the patio wall, and blankets sit folded in case you get a chill in the evening air. It's a restaurant-as–living room, if that living room belonged to the beach retreat of breezily wealthy friends.
Superba makes its home on Rose Avenue, on the border of Venice and the Ocean Park neighborhood of Santa Monica, where small beach bungalows still make up most of the housing stock, and wet suits and bikinis are more common than suits or cocktail attire. This is a neighborhood that, strangely, doesn't have a whole lot of fantastic dining options. Superba remedies that with a menu of charcuterie, snacks, vegetable-based dishes billed as "from our backyards" and, under the heading "from our hands," pastas.
If all this sounds awfully familiar, it is. But chef Jason Neroni, who teamed with Pitfire Pizza co-founder Paul Hibler to open this place, is turning out the food of the moment, with enough of an edge to make it stand head and shoulders above much of what's out there.
Neroni is a tough one to pin down. A chef's talent is like a herd of stampeding cattle: No matter how awe-inspiring, it only goes so far unless it can be corralled. A chef can present the most imaginative, heartfelt food, but if he decamps too soon and too often, it becomes infinitely less impressive. After all, the chef's medium is a restaurant, and a restaurant requires patience. That means resisting the urge to butt things with your head, knock down fences, burn bridges and run free.
That appears to be Neroni's problem: He's a chef who likes to roam the wild plains rather than submit to a life contained. The guy has a résumé so long that it's both impressive and disconcerting — impressive because he's worked under so many great chefs and as executive chef at so many places, disconcerting because it appears he can't stay anywhere for more than a few months.
Now, after working under everyone from Dan Barber to Alain Ducasse, after receiving accolades of his own as chef at New York's 71 Clinton Fresh Foods, Porchetta and 10 Downing (where he received a StarChefs.com Rising Star award), after bouncing around the West Coast a bit and finally landing in Los Angeles at Osteria La Buca last year and staying for a mere eight months, he has landed in Venice. Dare I say it? I hope he's found a place to settle down.
Because while Superba's charm is all about atmosphere on first look, there's some damn good food waiting to back up that atmospheric promise. Pastrami made of porchetta di testa — in other words, pastrami made of rolled-up pig's face — is served on rye bread with slices of dill pickle. The couple of bites this treat provides have so many taste associations that it's hard for your brain to keep up with your tongue: lardo, in the strips of slippery fat; pepper and coriander in the pastrami cure; vinegar and dill and crunch in the pickle; mellow porcine comfort in the piles of pig.
If pig's face isn't your thing (although in this form it probably is, whether you know it or not), just as much attention and care are given to vegetables. The cauliflower T-bone — basically a slab of cauliflower cooked as you would a steak — is piled high with an orange/olive pistou and swathed in basil purée. Raw squash salad is cut like spaghetti and made creamy with a pistachio aioli, then brightened with Sungold tomatoes. There's a sense with these "backyard" dishes that Neroni is trying to coax the whole concept of sunshine right onto the plate.
Chorizo finds its way into a lot of the food, mostly in unexpected ways. Chorizo oil shows up in the sea trout crudo, which gives it a quirky kind of heft along with pickled mustard seeds, pine nuts and sesame. In the crested macaroni, chorizo tussles with mussels and piquillo peppers to give new authority to the concept of tang — this dish is so brimming with flavor it's almost overwhelming, but the ruffly pasta bears it beautifully.
Pastas are the menu's focal point, and they're almost all made nearby at the restaurant's off-site kitchen (the on-site kitchen is so small — a sliver between the dining room and the short hallway to the bathroom — it's a wonder they can even manage dinner service there, let alone prep). They range from delicate, like agnolotti with sweet corn and Dungeness crab, to hearty with an overload of richness. The smoked bucatini is made with flour that has actually been smoked, so the dusky flavor permeates the carbonara it becomes, ramping up the effect of all that egg and cream and pancetta. Crispy sardines on the plate of casarecce pasta are of the variety that might convert sardine naysayers; sweet and bracing, they leave an aftertaste on the tongue that flavors the whole bowl of pasta long after they're gone.
There's a wild streak to Neroni's cooking, which is where some of the real magic happens. A recent special of sweetbreads with quince paste and olive powder was bizarre in all the right ways, the extreme sweetness of the quince and rich creaminess of the sweetbreads reined in by the contrasting musk of the olive.
The guy obviously has an olive fascination — a watermelon salad came with candied olives, which worked in the sense that they showed that olives could potentially be treated like raisins, but not in the sense that you'd actually want to eat more than one. In fact, the entire watermelon salad suffered from scattered-plate syndrome — a condition in which the ingredients are strewn about artfully (a cube of melon here, a slick of burrata there) in a manner that's pretty to look at but totally discordant as food.
There are other things that don't quite work: Pheasant rillettes were fantastic on bite one, too salty and fatty by bite three. The spaghettini nero, a squid-ink pasta with sea urchin and squid puttanesca, veers from sweet seafood goodness and into overload — capers, squid, squid ink, etc. It's not a bad dish by any stretch, but in its quest for punch-you-in-the-face umami, it misses the opportunity to be transcendent.
But the missteps are small, and insignificant compared with what Superba achieves. Like genuinely friendly service without the shtick or script. Like the short, smart wine list that those servers are happy to discuss intelligently.
Here is a restaurant with big flavors, big heart and an exuberant staff; it's a restaurant you just want to move in with after the first date. I hope Jason Neroni agrees that perhaps this place, finally, is worth settling down for.
SUPERBA SNACK BAR | 533 Rose Ave., Venice | (310) 399-6400 | superbasnackbar.com | Dinner: Mon.-Thurs., 6-10:30 p.m. Fri.-Sat., 5-11:30 p.m.; Sun., 5-10 p.m. Lunch (starting Sept. 28): Fri., 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Brunch, Sat.-Sun., 10 a.m.-3 p.m. | Beer & wine | Walk-in only | Street parking