When Erven opened a year ago, it was exciting for those of us who had admired chef Nick Erven's cooking at the much-missed Saint Martha. But the concept was a little odd, given the chef's previous cooking: Erven would be vegan. Erven himself is not vegan, and some of his most thrilling food at Saint Martha was decidedly meaty.
"When we opened the place, we were hoping to bring vegan and non-vegan diners together," Erven told me last week by phone. "For a chef, it can be exciting to put yourself in a box."
But as of today, the chef is breaking out of that box. While some of Erven's most popular dishes will remain on the menu (and remain meat-free), there will now be meat and seafood dishes as well. So, why the change?
Erven admits that the restaurant isn't as busy as he'd like it to be. But creatively, he'd hit a bit of a wall. "It's hard to be anything more than, 'I'm a vegan chef.' It's pretty limiting. I found myself wanting to do more." He says that putting his name on the restaurant when he himself isn't vegan also ended up feeling a little false.
All of this rings true with my own experience of Erven when I reviewed it in January:
I'd like to have seen more of what Erven could do before he limited himself so severely. It's true — and great — that some of the food he's making now is as good as anything he's done in the past, when he wasn't constraining himself to veganism. But there's also a fair amount that seems clumsy in comparison with the weird elegance of Saint Martha.
Limitations are certainly capable of spurring creativity. But sometimes they're just limiting. Erven the restaurant is worthy on its own terms, particularly for those guests who actually are vegan. But I do hope to see a broader, caveat-free effort sometime soon from Erven the man.
That caveat-free version launches this evening, with dishes such as smoked trout dip with pastrami-spiced beet churros, or fried chicken thighs with ricotta polenta, mushrooms, hazelnuts, spicy greens and pickled blueberries. The fantastic vegan chickpea fritter with black garlic and yuzu stays, and there's still plenty on the menu marked with a little green "v" to advertise its plant-based designation.
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Erven hopes the mixed menu will help to achieve his original goal of bringing both meat eaters and non–meat eaters together. And he hopes it will bring him back to a less ego-driven form of cooking. "We were losing the fun of the whole thing," he says. "We were becoming slightly snotty, like, 'Look at how badass we are.' It's been humbling to find out how hard it is to be badass without the tools you're used to. I want to get back to the fun of cooking."
514-516 Santa Monica Blvd., Santa Monica; (310) 260-2255, ervenrestaurant.com.