At Charcoal, Josiah Citrin’s sleek steakhouse straddling the border of Venice and Marina del Rey, it is unlikely that your server will suggest fresh bread and French butter to start, although it sits at the top of the menu. Instead, they’ll say, consider the cabbage.

It reveals a lot about the current state of cooking that the first dish you’re offered at a steakhouse — even one operated by a chef with two Michelin stars — is a $9 quarter wedge of cabbage charred on smoldering embers. Its blackened outer shell gives way to warm, soft layers underneath, intended to be swiped through dollops of yogurt perked up with crushed sumac and lemon. It’s pretty good, despite the smoky flavor not penetrating far into the steamed interior, and when you’re facing a lusciously bloody hunk of porterhouse later in the evening, you may be grateful you opted to start with healthy roughage rather than carbs.

Josiah Citrin, the L.A. native and chef-owner of Mélisse, is a chef preceded by reputation. His elegant, modern French restaurant in Santa Monica has long been a beacon of hope for those who decry the city’s dearth of fine dining, a special-occasion place to drop a few hundred dollars on tasting menus gilded with truffles and caviar. Charcoal is far more casual by comparison, though it would be a stretch to label it a casual restaurant (imagine owning a Ferrari and then buying a Mercedes-Benz as the “family sedan”). If there’s an obvious analog, it might be Odys + Penelope across town, where fine-dining veterans Quinn and Karen Hatfield opted to open a relaxed, family-style joint centered around grilled meats and big platters of roasted vegetables.

Although it’s billed as Charcoal Venice, the sleek, blond-wood-and-concrete dining room vibes more with the upscale condos of Marina del Rey than it does with the boho Craftsman bungalows a few blocks away. At its core, this place is a steakhouse in the revivalist sense, one whose kitchen is equipped with a bathtub-sized Green Egg — the domed grill and smoker that’s something your dad might buy himself as a retirement gift.

At the bar, the handful of cocktails skew simple, including a solid margarita tinted jet black with activated charcoal and a Venice Negroni, whose name is literal in the sense that it is indeed a standard Negroni served in Venice. There are craft beers, too, but you’d be most rewarded by poring over the intensive Cal-French wine list, which is short on by-the-glass options (four red, four white) but contains gems such as a cool, earthy Cabernet Franc from Santa Ynez.

Most of the dishes here, as your server will explain, draw inspiration from Citrin’s own backyard barbecues. Does that include the beef heart tartare? We hope so. Speckled with pickled mustard seeds and crowned with an egg yolk, it was silky and lush — exactly the kind of thing you’d expect from a serious French kitchen. Equally stunning was a pair of baked oysters swimming in warm brine, dressed with butter and horseradish and served on an ornate bed of seaweed. 

Not everything demonstrates such precision, though. A bowl of chicken wings, saturated with smoke and rubbed liberally with chili, fit the weekend barbecue theme better, but they were simply too dry. Grilled rings of calamari tossed with snappy green beans and lemon zest make for a brilliant combination of textures, but that smoky char so prominent on the wings was all but nil here.

Beef heart tartare, speckled with pickled mustard seeds and crowned with an egg yolk, was silky and lush.; Credit: Anne Fishbein

Beef heart tartare, speckled with pickled mustard seeds and crowned with an egg yolk, was silky and lush.; Credit: Anne Fishbein

If you decide to forgo meat altogether, Charcoal is more than accommodating — though you shouldn’t expect to dodge the usual steakhouse premiums. A salad of raw collards tossed with shaved cheddar and sweet potatoes is satisfying, but for $14 you might expect the greens to be softened a bit, the way a home cook knows to massage bunches of kale to mellow their bitterness. Coal-roasted potatoes — blackened on the exterior until they resemble actual lumps of coal — seem like a genius idea out of the Francis Mallmann playbook until you realize the acrid shell is all but inedible. Scraping out the fluffy insides, enhanced by a liberal dose of creme fraiche, aged gouda and butter, is blissfully decadent, but it’s hardly an improvement over the standard steakhouse baked potato.

Many of the vegetable dishes — coal-roasted carrots drizzled with honey and peppery ricotta or grilled endive with slivers of roasted beets and duck egg gribiche — can leave you dreaming of the ones at nearby Gjelina, where each plate seems like a miniature world of contrasts. Here they just feel safe.

Where Charcoal shines most shouldn’t come as a surprise: damn good meat. A thin cut of lamb shoulder, gamy and crusted with char yet succulent underneath, was a surprise hit despite the waitress warning our table of its possible toughness (“Do you usually like lamb?”). We picked up the steaks, lacquered with caramelized honey, mint and coriander, by hand and tore off hunks like hungry wolves. Even better was the smoked short rib: decadent, fatty strips of meat as soft and smoky as Franklin brisket, though unfortunately basted with a bit too much sweet barbecue sauce.

Coal-roasted carrots drizzled with honey and peppery ricotta; Credit: Anne Fishbein

Coal-roasted carrots drizzled with honey and peppery ricotta; Credit: Anne Fishbein

Speaking of sauce, each table is topped with a trio of them — that sweet barbecue sauce, a loose chimichurri and a mustard-y steak sauce dubbed “J1.” The steak sauce is especially vibrant, but you might regret dabbing any amount on your skirt steak, a perfect specimen that arrives in the most primal state of beefage despite its status as a lower-tier cut. Lean and mineral-y with a hint of aged funk (a glowing glass meat locker sits in a corner of the dining room), it needs no embellishment. There might be no better steak at this price on the Westside.

Yet as much as fire and smoke and sizzle help buttress the meat section, the same applications fall flat on dessert. A play on banana s’mores arrived as a campfire experiment gone awry: A tooth-shattering slab of graham cracker was slathered in chocolate creme, layered with warm and mushy bananas and topped with a skewer of grilled marshmallows. It looked and tasted like a mess.

It’s clear that there is a great deal of skill in this kitchen, yet a meal at Charcoal can seem hard to decipher. It aims for progressiveness, but its strongest dishes lean toward tradition. It aims to be a neighborhood restaurant, but once the bill arrives it’s hard not to crunch the numbers and realize that you’ll hardly spend less than you would on the tasting menu at Mélisse.

If indulging in a well-sourced, beautifully grilled steak and a nice (pricey) bottle of wine sounds like your kind of evening, Charcoal is a fine option on an otherwise sleepy section of Washington. And even given Citrin’s illustrious track record, it might be unfair to expect him to reinvent the classic steakhouse trope — though convincing the expense-account crowd to start their meal with a $9 grilled cabbage is its own small act of transgression.

CHARCOAL | 425 Washington Blvd., Venice | (310) 751-6794 | | Mon.-Thu., 6-11 p.m.; Fri., 6 p.m.-mid.; Sat., 5:30 p.m.-mid.; Sun., 5-10 pm. | Full bar | Valet parking

Credit: Anne Fishbein

Credit: Anne Fishbein

LA Weekly