On the sidewalk in front of MTN, a blond tanned dude is holding a cardboard sign at waist level. It obscures his very short shorts and makes him appear to be naked. The sign reads: WILL MODEL YOUR BRAND. Beside him is a box for donations. This is panhandling in the most cravenly capitalist way possible: I am young and hot and do not need charity, but I'm willing to sell my soul, so gimme your money. It's begging as (bad) performance art, an oh-so-Venice act that makes it hard to keep your eyes from rolling right out of their sockets.
MTN, on its surface, also could fit comfortably into that oh-so-Venice genre. Pronounced "mountain," it's the fourth restaurant from Travis Lett, the chef who brought us Gjelina, Gjelina To Go and Gjusta. Lett has had a hand in creating Venice's current culture, in all its laughable upscale boho glory. Blond and bearded, he gives off a bit of a '60s cult-leader vibe, and his employees tend to speak of him in hushed, reverential tones. "We ask that you don't do that," a manager said to us one evening at MTN when my dining companion went to snap a photo of the dark wood–bedecked room. "Travis doesn't like it." Where past Lett projects have been firmly in the modern Californian genre (Gjelina in particular has helped to define that genre), MTN turns to Japan's izakayas for its inspiration. There's edamame. It costs $10. There's also $20 ramen.
Did your eyes roll right out of your head? I can hardly blame you if they did. Here's another unmarked restaurant, one that doesn't take reservations and has a 45-minute wait at 6 p.m. on a Tuesday. Here's another white guy (Lett is originally from New Jersey) cooking Asian food, but with a California spin. He's not the first and he won't be the last, but it does start to feel a little ... tiresome? I know plenty of people who might use a stronger word.
But there's more to MTN than meets the eye roll. It's a project that's been almost a decade in the making — Lett's business partner, Fran Camaj, obtained the lease on the property, which at the time was a condemned building, nine years ago. In the meantime, Lett spent a lot of time traveling to Japan, and more recently the food has become a collaborative project among Lett, chef de cuisine Pedro Aquino and sous chef Erika Aoki. Aquino is originally from Oaxaca, Mexico, but he spent years working in Japanese restaurants before joining the team at Gjelina, and Aoki was born and raised in Japan. And there's a level of ambition to what these three chefs and their team are doing that's somewhat astonishing.
If I told you that Lett and co. are making almost everything in-house, that would be technically correct but it would undersell the effort. It's one thing to make your own bread. It's another thing entirely to attempt a broad Japanese menu and start from scratch, making everything from red miso to ramen noodles to shio koji. The choice to make things rather than use tried and true Japanese products is about more than an ego-driven DIY ethos; it's about making food that is true to its place, even as it channels Japanese flavors, taking lessons from Japan and overlaying that knowledge on the here and now.
The most obvious example of this is a salad of sea vegetables from Big Sur. The jumble of sea palm and mermaid's hair and other marine treasures, mixed with crunchy daikon and the light sting of shiso, is not like any seaweed salad you've had before. It hints at those flavors and textures, but it has the distinct taste of the California coastline, not just the ocean but our ocean.
It would be easy to dismiss the vegetables portion of this menu as Gjelina in Japanese drag. Here is all that bright seasonal produce with contrasting flavors and elements that made Lett famous in the first place, but rather than olive, tomato and pine nuts on the okra there's ume, sesame and myoga, which adds a bright gingery prickle to the dish. At Gjelina you can get corn with tomatillo butter and chile de arbol; here it comes shot through with shoyu butter, its brightness coming from sudachi rather than lime. The most straightforwardly Japanese vegetable preparation I tried was the charred Japanese sweet potato with miso butter, showered in scallions and lightly waving bonito flakes. Everything else tasted like California summer, layered with ingredients borrowed from Japan but made or grown here. Whether you look at this as the creation of something new or the co-opting of something traditional, it's hard to argue that it's anything but delicious.
The food coming off the robata grill is simple and beautifully cooked, generally a fish or meat with one or two contrasting elements. It's a preparation designed to showcase the flavor of the main ingredient: a whole, sweet-fleshed sardine, for instance, or three tender bouncy squid, kissed at the edges with smoke and char.
And the $20 ramen? Again, it's almost a thing unto itself, so much a product of its time and place that it's hard to compare it to other ramen. Lett and his crew cook down the bones and head of a whole Peads & Barnetts pig, but it's not a thick, milky tonkotsu broth — it's much, much lighter yet still manages to pack an incredible amount of pork flavor into each sip. The bowl comes with komatsuna (mustard spinach), fermented black bean paste and pickled Fresno chilies. There's a clam version that tastes so purely of the ocean it borders on magical. The ramen noodles, which have a chewy, firm structural integrity, are made from artisanal wheat and buckwheat. Are the bowls beautiful and heavy and rustic? Of course they are. They probably came wearing a sign that read: WILL MODEL YOUR ARTISANAL BUCKWHEAT.
All the seating is on backless stools, at the bar or window counter or around communal tables. The drinks list of beer, sochu, sake and wine is fairly short and quite fun, and I guess it somewhat mimics the function of the casual bar that "izakaya" implies, in the same way that Gjelina is just a pizza place.
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But there are lots of rules and more than a pinch of pretension in the way those rules are enforced. That's to be expected, I suppose, but warmth and welcome are two of the ingredients I'd like to see more often in Lett's restaurants in general.
A friend and fellow food thinker pointed out to me that when Gjusta opened, all anyone wanted to talk about was the fact that there was nowhere to sit and that the place was full of fabulous people eating expensive sandwiches off of milk crates. It took the city a while to digest the idea that Gjusta was breathtaking in its scope and quality: all that bread, all those desserts, the house-smoked fish, the house-cured meats, the sheer volume of astonishingly good food being pushed out of the kitchen. My friend guessed that something similar will happen with MTN. People will spend some time scoffing at the prices, the customers, the very idea of Japanese food with a Californian terroir. But eventually, people will come around.
Lett is notoriously media-averse: MTN had no opening announcement; the group has no PR team. Requests for information or interviews are generally declined. There's part of me that respects that, but it also allows people to form their own narratives of what this group is all about, and it means that the talent Lett nurtures is perhaps given short shrift. Wouldn't it be nice if the narrative of MTN included the story of a New Jersey/Californian, a Oaxacan/Californian and a Japanese/Californian all coming together to make something fascinating, something with all kinds of roots, something that blooms thanks to hard work and talent and diversity? Because that (and not stylish boho excess) is the true promise of MTN — and of California.
MTN | 1305 Abbot Kinney Blvd., Venice | (424) 465-3313 | mtnvenice.com | Tue.-Sat., 6 p.m.-mid. | Plates, $10-$25 | Beer, wine, sake and shochu | Street parking