View more photos in Anne Fishbein's "The Tasting Kitchen" photo gallery.
The Tasting Kitchen, a newish trattoria down on Abbot Kinney, feels more like a project art collective than a proper restaurant, a place at once both strange and familiar, where servers drift in and out like characters in a dream, where details that seemed minor at the beginning of a meal take on enormous proportions by the end of it — perhaps after a 90-minute discussion of Apulian earthquakes or the history of apiculture with strangers at a communal table. As with a surrealist museum show or a performance of García Lorca, you come to experience something unsettling, or at least to parse what is meant by “hen bread pudding.’’ The dining room is a study in social interaction that just happens to involve food. At the moment, the Tasting Room, which is not cheap, is perhaps the toughest reservation in Venice.
The restaurant seems to center around Casey Lane, a veteran of Portland’s clarklewis who was hired as the chef here after the demise of AK in the same space, and who immediately surrounded himself with a group of his Portland friends. It’s a new-breed, Oregon-style restaurant injected into the shell of a vaguely Scandinavian predecessor, blond wood and clean, Swedish-modern lines rendered vaguely sinister in the obsessively reflected firelight; the candles multiplied by 20, the happy tunes replaced by post-rock and do-me R&B. The menus, which mutate daily, look like the kinds of typed-on-carbon-paper menus you used to find in Roman trattorias.
Lane’s style is simple, and over the course of a few meals you will notice an emphasis on toasted bread, strong cheese, braised meats, unaltered seasonal vegetables, a Northwest leaning toward nuts and the distinct, bitter taste of char.
If you’ve arranged things correctly, food starts to appear in the middle of the table in no particular order, La Brea Bakery bread with house-made pickles or strawberry jam, tempura-fried green beans served like French fries, or a clump of blackened escarole scented with garlic and anchovies. Somebody glides by to describe a bitter, slightly fizzy red wine from Piemonte, and you end up with a glass of it; a few minutes later, somebody else lets you know about the G&T made with tonic water brewed just that afternoon, and you try a glass of that too.
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The basic impression is of Italian cooking translated into an odd American dialect, not quite California dude-speak but something from an odd corner of the coast, where bruschetta of roasted figs and creamy fromage blanc or melted fontina with bacon and trumpet mushrooms come on airy slabs of grilled bread rather than on thin slices of baguette. And where grilled anchovies are laid so beautifully on the plate that you rather suspect there’s an art director. An ounce of sliced, acorn-fed Iberico ham is arranged with an obsessive exactitude usually associated with people whose line of work involves gram scales. Fried chicken wings may have all the usual characteristics, but the crackly skin is glazed with an oddly tart tincture of apples, and the sweetness of the flesh somehow becomes the focal point of the dish. Pastas — tagliarini with capers and shrimp, rigatoni Bolognese — are correct. Whole seared orata, a Mediterranean sea bass, is all juice and crunch.
The Tasting Kitchen has prepared some of the most delicious food I’ve eaten all year, including sliced, dead-rare flatiron steak served with creamy blue cheese and toasted maitake mushrooms; a simple dish of rare grilled scallops with grapefruit; and a cool heap of juicy, intensely porky rillettes, which were by far the best I have ever tasted outside the Languedoc. The restaurant also has a tendency to be uneven, and when the kitchen attempts to build flavors — cod fillet with chorizo and piquillo peppers; a fist-size chunk of lamb with nettles and walnut aillade — the results can be muddy and indistinct.
The wine list, mostly Italian, is written in a kind of code, stripped of vintage years, appellations and even capital letters, so that while advanced wine geeks may recognize “sangiovese | tuscany | castell’in villa’’ as an ultratraditional Chianti from a small maker known for aging its wines for decades before release, I suspect the average customer will be baffled, and it must be the only list in town with more frappatos than pinots noir. Even a sommelier might have trouble placing susumaniello, which is a juicy, tannic grape found only in a few vineyards near the port town of Brindisi. You will not be able to choose a wine without consulting your waiter, which may be the point. The menus are printed with a number indicating the day of service — which may remind you of a convict counting the days left until parole.
The Tasting Kitchen: 1633 Abbot Kinney Blvd., Venice. (310) 392-6644, thetastingkitchen.com. Dinner Tues.-Sun., 6-11 p.m. All major credit cards accepted. Full bar. Valet parking. Starters $11-$16; pastas $18; main courses $21-$30; desserts $8. Prix fixe “regular dinner’’ $40. Recommended dishes: figs withfromage blanc and grilled bread; French fries with sage; pork rillettes; flatiron steak with maitake mushrooms; coffee semifreddo.