Lamb fat is a tough sell. Where other fats tend to become magical as soon as they've been rendered or crisped, the thick, lanolin-tinged grease that even a well-roasted lamb leg produces is harder to swallow. There's a skanky edge to its flavor and a suffocating slick to its texture. Even for those of us who adore the barnyard game of the lambiest lamb, pure lamb lard might seem questionable.
But that's exactly what you'll find on Jason Neroni's dinner menu at the Rose Café: a plate of roasted sugar snap peas with a dollop of thick, white "lamb lardo" plopped in its center. The dish gets a vibrant green broth poured over it, made from parmesan and more sugar snaps, and its garnish of mint and pea tendrils brings extra brightness. And yes, the lamb lardo is just as funky and mouth-coating and bold as you'd think it might be — but somehow, in contrast with the exultant freshness of the other ingredients, it works. It doesn't just work, it's fantastic. And clever.
How many things are wrapped up in this dish? It's a meditation on spring and its ingredients, as well as a play on the classic Easter dinner of lamb with mint and peas (without really looking or tasting like that meal at all). At the same time, it fits comfortably into more than one modern L.A. restaurant trope: a vegetable-driven small plate; a new way to manipulate meat and charcuterie. It's just one example of how Neroni continues to make himself stand out in a market quite saturated with this type of food.
Of course, Neroni is in part responsible for the charcuterie/handmade pasta/vegetable plates obsession currently enveloping our city. He wasn't the first to do these things, or even the first to do all of these things in one place, but when Superba Snack Bar opened with Neroni as chef in mid-2012, he showed a tremendous aptitude for the style that Superba, along with Gjelina and the Tasting Kitchen, embodied — a type of new Venice cuisine that felt vital. It was all sunny, modern California goodness with an enthusiastic nod to Italy, the country that gave Venice its name. Superba Snack Bar was an integral part of the transformation of Rose Avenue as well, from a quiet, hippie-ish enclave to an extension of the creeping boho-chic gentrification happening on Abbot Kinney.
It was a surprise when Neroni left Superba in the summer of 2014 to partner with Sprout restaurant group on a revamp of the Rose Café, just up the street. Superba struggled without him despite the talents of other very good chefs, and it eventually closed in January.
At the same time, the reimagining of the Rose Cafe provoked huge controversy in the neighborhood, where it was seen as a staple and had been around since 1979. Longtime employees (many had worked there for decades) were told they'd be welcome to jobs at the new Rose, but given the nine-month closure for renovation, the reality seemed to be that a lot of people would be out of work. (There are now six of those former employees working at the Rose Café.)
And of course, like almost everything happening in the vicinity, the revamp signaled just one more step away from the weirder, older neighborhood Venice used to be — and one step closer to a stylish theme park built for young, rich techies. That the homeless encampment a block to the east has ballooned and solidified over the year that the new Rose Café has come to life serves as a bash-you-over-the-head illustration of the quandary of Venice as a whole.
The new Rose Café, which reopened its doors in November, is a breezy fantasy of California living and eating. The massive operation has the capacity to hold 240 customers in a variety of scenarios. It's a bakery and café and bar and restaurant with multiple seating areas and patios. Inside, the bakery case gleams, the bar bustles, live plants and orb lighting hang from the ceiling on tasseled ropes. In the main dining area — a giant, covered patio — you sit on molded green and white chairs and eat off of wooden tables flanked by walls of ivy under giant wicker light shades. It all feels effortless and beautiful and so very, very Venice. (New Venice, that is.)
As for Neroni, the Rose is more evidence of his talent as a chef, and not just the cooking part. One of the secrets of the restaurant industry is that talent is only a small part of being a successful chef, and that's more true the larger the restaurant. Management and organization are just as (if not more) important, and here Neroni must manage a team serving breakfast, lunch and dinner to up to 2,300 customers a day, plus a full-scale bakery operation. It's not as if he has no help — he brought on a team of talented bakers to make bread and pastries, and Julian Cox and Nick Meyer built the bar program. But there's a level of ambition in the pure scale of this place that's new for this chef.
What's not new is the ways in which he continues to shine, and those mainly appear in the Cali-Italian wheelhouse that made Superba so irresistible. Neroni's pastas are up there with the best in the city, and many diners who ate at Superba will recognize his decadent smoked buccatini carbonara, as well as his particularly deft hand with the more pungent ocean creatures and their rightful relationship to noodles.
Neroni has gotten better at charcuterie (and he was pretty good at it to begin with), and the butcher's board is a wonderland of bouncy rabbit mortadella topped with a fried quail egg; chicken liver pâté almost smoky in its meaty depth; various pâtés; a silky, funky porchetta di testa pastrami served with rye toast and pickles; and a feathery pile of "country prosciutto" served with "whipped pimento cheese." There again comes that cleverness, the pimento in question being the Spanish kind, whipped into cream cheese, both the ham and the spread finding punny middle ground between Spain and the American South.
Entrees are beautiful to look at. The charred eggplant puree that comes daubed around a plate of lovingly cooked duck breast doesn't appear quite as elegant when it's become a black smear across your plate (like the scene of a dainty oil spill), but the flavor and inventiveness are pretty in their own right.
Meals at the Rose grow in quality and excitement as the day progresses, which isn't to say that breakfast isn't good, just that it's more utilitarian in its aims. In Venice, that means egg whites nestled with braised greens, yams, seeded guacamole and shaved turkey. It's a tad too austere, but you give the people what they want. (To be fair, there's plenty of fat to be found on the breakfast menu; it's just not as thrilling as the fat available at night.)
In the bakery, there's a more casual breakfast service, where you can get granola and yogurt or a bagel with lox. Lunch provides grain bowls, some pretty good pizzas and a saucy meatball sandwich that only suffers when you compare it to the one around the corner at Gjusta. I can't tell you what magic makes Gjusta's superior, just that it is. But on certain days I'd forgo the pull of Gjusta for Neroni's pastas, which appear on the lunch menu and are just as good in the middle of the day as they are at night. And if a small, $7 pineapple, ginger and cucumber juice sounds like your jam, they make a fine one here. Part of the allure of this place, especially in the daytime, is just how Venice-y it is.
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All of this, of course, depends on the version of Venice that you want to experience. The Rose is a triumph of New Venice, and I'm not going to say whether that's a bad or good thing. What I can tell you is that Neroni is still cooking at the very top of his game, making the tough sell of gentrification a little more palatable — and the tough sell of lamb fat downright delicious.
THE ROSE CAFE | Three stars | 220 Rose Ave., Venice | (310) 399-0711 | rosecafevenice.com | Tue.-Thu., 7 a.m.-10 p.m.; Fri., 7 a.m.-11 p.m.; Sat., 8 a.m.-11 p.m.; Sun., 8 a.m.-5 p.m. | Entrees, $19-$52 (for a chicken for two), more for market-price meats | Full bar | Valet and street parking