Abbot Kinney in Venice, with its design and architectural firms, its antique and furniture boutiques and growing number of good restaurants, is truly a bobo’s paradise -- a burgeoning bastion of tasteful bourgeois bohemianism. Here, where artists once rented studios for pittances determined by the neighborhood‘s general dereliction and crime rate, a sleek new commercial corridor would seem to fulfill their vision of a prettier, artier, classier world -- only somehow, we didn’t expect it to be quite so pricey and, well, slick.
Bobos themselves, well-dressed, fit, self-expressive -- altogether great-looking, and prosperous -- fill the tables at Wabi-Sabi, a new sushi bar and restaurant just north of Venice Boulevard, across the street from a specialty tile store and the long-lived, comparatively rustic-looking Capri restaurant. In a long, skinny storefront, the designers exposed the building‘s wood trusses, spiffed up its old bricks, and painted new walls celadon and a pretty lacquer red. A long sushi bar takes up half the first room; wall-hugging tables fill the other half. A small outdoor patio is warmed, when needed, by gas heaters. A calm, quiet back room is my favorite place to sit.
In a city with three restaurants by Nobu Matsuhisa and multiplying Sushi Rokus, Wabi-Sabi will seem familiar -- another hip sushi bar augmented by a full dinner menu, with starters, salads, small plates and entrees. This is a versatile concept -- customers can drop in for a big bowl of soup, a stint at the sushi counter, or a drawn out multicourse meal. This means, of course, that the bill can run anywhere from $15 to $50 per person.
Sushi is the real stunner here -- and it should be at these prices; most two-piece orders run $5, with toro (fatty tuna) a plump $16. But the fish is fresh, beautifully cut and presented. I recommend the translucent, delicate shiro maguro (albacore) and the hokkigai, the pink-tipped, pleasantly obscene-looking surf clam. A lobster roll, bursting with the springy, sweet white meat, is one of the more delicious rolls I’ve ever eaten. The Wabi-Sabi roll, however, with its pale orange cross-section of mashed cooked salmon and clever soy-paper wrapping, is a mistake, especially at $13.50.
Tuna sashimi -- fresh and fine -- is presented as a dark mauve rose, with salmon roe for stamens and shiso leaves for greenery. Tempura comes two pieces to the order, but it‘s over-battered, undercooked, and soggy.
The rest of the menu hits many familiar Cal-JapanesePacific Rim notes. I’d start any meal (except maybe that big-bowl-of-soup meal) with the excellent, robust miso soup, crunchy with tempura-batter croutons, redolent of scallions. The small plates include very good versions of miso-marinated sea bass and stir-fried eggplant in miso sauce, and an unexceptional fried calamari (here dubbed ”calamari tempura“) that‘s served with lime and a wasabi-spiked mayonnaise. Steamed mussels are more unusual; they’re served on chewy rice noodles with such a sweet, rich Thai curry sauce it‘s borderline cloying.
Except for assorted seafood, the ”seafood bouillabaisse“ bears little resemblance to the roux-based French fish stew. This is miso soup with a big crunchy rice cake (that holds its appealing crunch despite the dunking) and mussels, a shrimp, a raft of garlic-sauced halibut -- a terrific one-bowl meal.
We regretted ordering the soft-shell crab salad; although the chopped vegetables and seaweed ”greens“ were tasty, the crab tasted as if it had spent the past few months in a freezer. (What were we expecting, anyway, ordering soft-shell crabs in February?)
Salmon encrusted with ground coriander and cumin is a surprisingly good idea, but I wish the accompanying plum-wine sauce (which also soaked the roasted yams and sauteed spinach) weren’t quite so sweet. The grilled filet comes with a delicious roasted garlic miso sauce, fresh baby bok choy, and a kabocha pumpkin puree that tastes a little too much like pumpkin-pie batter. Entrees in general had too much sugar for my taste.
In the tradition of most Japanese restaurants, desserts are dicey. Those recommended by the wait staff -- a hot chocolate ganache cake with coconut ice cream, and a green-tea creme brulee -- are both weird inventions. The ”cake“ is a bowl of hot, half-cooked brownie batter, and the brulee, an awful green, is simply wrongheaded and vile.
Wabi-Sabi is a young restaurant, and at times (as with the desserts) a certain lack of finesse cracks the attractive, gleaming surface. The staff is always friendly, but one night, although we had reservations and arrived on time, we were offered the worst table in the house; another night, the waitress taking our drink order had no idea what‘s in a sake martini. (”I don’t drink,“ she explained.) Also, it was an ongoing struggle to hang on to our plates -- the bus people and waiters kept trying to clear them before we were done.
But you see, we wanted that last bite of bass, that last drib of garlic miso sauce, that last luscious piece of lobster roll.
1635 Abbot Kinney Blvd., Venice; (310) 314-2229. Open daily for dinner. Full bar. Street parking. Entrees, $12.50 to $18.
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