Nyesha Arrington says she is “one with this neighborhood” — the neighborhood being Venice, her home of the last 15 years (except for some time spent dabbling in Santa Monica) and the location of her first restaurant, Leona.
“I love the vibe, man,” she says. "I just love the Venice Beach vibe."
Arrington paid her Westside dues to secure — with the help of entrepreneurs Kristian and Breegan Vallas — Leona's prime 2,000 square feet on Washington Boulevard, just a few blocks from the water. Her first kitchen job was at Raphael Lunetta’s JiRaffe (he also gave Arrington her first surfboard), and while at Mélisse she met her mentor, Josiah Citrin, a Westside local who's about to open a restaurant down the block. She was exec chef at Wilshire and spent time with the inimitable Joël Robuchon at L'Atelier and the Mansion in Vegas.
Many know her from her appearances on Bravo’s Top Chef, Food Network’s Chef Hunter and Esquire Network’s Knife Fight, but her most intriguing brush with fame might be her time spent on tour with Stevie Wonder as his personal chef. All of that, plus a stint as a chef in the Virgin Islands, led her to this moment, to the dream she’s had since childhood: running her own restaurant. “I feel like this is 110 percent where I’m supposed to be in my life,” she says.
Set in a high-ceilinged space that’s almost more living room than restaurant, with long leather banquettes and bar stools overlooking an immaculate open kitchen, Leona offers what Arrington calls progressive California cuisine. Given her ties to Los Angeles (she’s a native), it wouldn’t be a stretch to call it "New L.A. Cuisine," the kind of fare that wraps the multicultural Angeleno experience in a cloak of precisely executed, all-American eats.
That means lamb belly wontons, bulgogi-braised short rib and local black cod for dinner, and coctel mixto, hemp vanilla porridge and Korean latke for brunch. Arrington’s creative, global menu reflects her biracial background, in particular the influence of her Korean grandmother, who helped deliver a counterpoint to the more typical childhood food experiences of cheeseburgers and chicken fingers.
“We’d go to grandma’s house and we’d cook,” Arrington says. “We’d cover all of the tables with newspaper and roll dumplings. Every holiday that’s what we did, roll hundreds and hundreds of dumplings." They’d also eat dishes less familiar to the Americanized palate, like octopus and foods with spicy sauces and complex bases.
She may have dreamed of cooking for a crowd at her grandmother’s (and while watching Julia Child on TV, a childhood passion), but she learned the trade the old-fashioned way, in the sweaty kitchens of L.A.’s elite chefs. “I came up in the realm and the era and the life of chefs like Nancy Silverton, Josiah Citrin, Michael Cimarusti. These guys super paved the way for young chefs like myself. Days off when I wasn’t in a restaurant, I’d go work in any of those restaurants for free.”
She also took to the rigor and discipline of French-minded, Michelin-starred restaurants, where she’s worked for most of her career. “I really feel like, honestly, in a past life I could have been an old Frenchman.”
At Leona, Arrington is her own chef, balancing a respect for classical French technique, a dedication to global inspiration and a desire to “find a health benefit or sneak in some kind of nutrient in somewhere,” even if it’s dessert.
Which brings us to one of the most intriguing dishes on the menu, Adult Frosted Flakes. They came to Arrington in a dream when she was neck-deep in the planning stages of Leona and sleep-deprived.
“I’m not joking — I woke up and I felt the dish. I understood what it was to eat this dish before I created it.”
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The dish — which she describes as a dessert trying to hug you from the inside — is built on the intersection of cold, hot and crunchy. It starts with a layer of warm jasmine rice mixed with hemp milk and cream. Then there's a layer of lightly crushed toasted corn flakes, and topping that is a froth of ice-cold condensed milk that’s been buzzed with a hand mixer. It’s finished with rum, because why not?
Perhaps such high-minded stoner food is the perfect dish to bridge the gap between old Venice and new Venice. Arrington has a foot in both worlds. To her, old-school Venice “is really about love and respect and caring for one another, and while people think it’s seedy and gnarly, really people watch out for each other here.” It’s something she says she feels on Washington, which lacks the pretension of Abbott Kinney. Yet her restaurant, with its chicken “brick” and crispy curry chickpeas, is no boardwalk pizza stand, either.
What she wants Leona to be is the grown-up party her idealistic skateboarding, roller-skating, snowboarding self wants to attend.
“You come in here and you should feel like you’re at your friends house. For me it’s a big dinner party and I’m hosting it.”