The best restaurants often are those with a defined sense of place: Even if you were blindfolded and deposited there after an international kidnapping, you could walk into the room and know where in the world — city, state, neighborhood — you'd arrived.
Superba wins the avocado-on-toast competition
Of all of L.A.'s neighborhoods, Venice might have one of the strongest brands. Its personality is as well-defined as it is fought over. But only a few of its restaurants manage the trick of embodying the neighborhood's beachy, Bohemian abandon; fewer still do it and then deliver food that lives up to that breezy magic.
When Superba Snack Bar showed up on Rose Avenue two years ago, however, it did both. It may not have been the first restaurant to properly rep the neighborhood, but it certainly was a trailblazer, and it changed the vibe of the north end of Venice permanently. Restaurateur Paul Hibler (who also owns the Pitfire Pizza chain) and chef Jason Neroni created a destination that felt then — and continues to feel now — like the embodiment of Venice's best attributes. Casual but grown-up, it came across like a wealthy friend's beach-house dinner party, if that friend happened to be a whiz at cooking Cali/Italian food.
Hibler has expanded the Superba brand, with a large new restaurant a few blocks away on Lincoln, at Marco Place. A former auto body shop, Superba Food and Bread has been opened up and glassed in so that it feels as if the building is made of pure air and light — an accomplishment made all the more impressive by the jumbled urban streetscape just outside its door. The bones of the building and the materials used for infrastructure provide almost the only decoration, though presiding over the room is an image of Stevie Nicks and Mick Fleetwood — the photo from the cover of Fleetwood Mac's Rumours album, which takes up an entire wall.
Superba Food and Bread is an all-day affair, unlike the dinner-only Snack Bar. Neroni was a consultant on the project and, thanks to his penchant for making everything in-house, Superba Food and Bread is necessarily an ambitious enterprise. It's not just a restaurant — it's a cafe, a patisserie and a bread bakery, as well as a pretty great place to grab breakfast, lunch or dinner.
All kinds of talent and fancy machinery are deployed to make this a reality. Superba Food and Bread employs a chef, Jason Travi (also of Littlefork in Hollywood), as well as a head baker, Jonathan Eng, and a pastry chef, Lincoln Carson. Carson previously was corporate pastry chef for Michael Mina, and Eng is an alumnus of Le Pain Quotidien.
There's a massive Bassanina bread oven on-site, which Eng is using to bake bread of remarkable quality for Superba, as well as Hibler's other projects. Carson's pastries are reason enough to visit on their own, especially if you're interested in, for instance, chomping on a flaky, smoked-duck croissant for breakfast. (And if you aren't, what's wrong with you?)
It's interesting that Travi is here, a place that works in part because of its loving devotion to California, when his other project, Littlefork, is dedicated to East Coast seafood. At Littlefork, some great seafood is on display, but the New England theme sometimes feels forced, and Travi's cooking isn't always better for it. At Superba, where he's not as constrained by theme, his food shines brighter.
There's nothing mind-blowing here, no great leaps forward in culinary innovation. Travi is simply cooking the kind of food we want to eat at a breezy Venice cafe, and cooking it very well.
Of all the tarted-up bánh mì in town (and there are many these days), Superba Bread's lunch-only version might be the best, made with a garlicky, house-made pork sausage and pickled veggies, served on the intensely crusty house baguette.
Travi uses the place's bread prowess to great effect, even beyond lunch. The appetizer selection is dominated by things on toast: pain au levain topped with burrata and a walnut-pomegranate paste (perhaps inspired by the Persian stew made of the same components), or supple, thinly sliced, uber-piggy testa with hot pepper jelly.
In addition to bánh mì, Superba also wins the avocado-on-toast competition — another dish that's suddenly popular with new restaurants. The trick here is pickled Fresno chilis and sea salt, which give the creamy avocado enough tang and prickle to elevate it beyond basic snack.
At dinner, there are only four entrees, along with a daily special that rotates throughout the week, from a gourmet take on a Big Mac on Mondays to a $99 rotisserie rib-eye for two on Saturdays. Travi is making great use of that rotisserie, cooking lamb, chicken and (on Tuesdays only) whole ducks on the twirling apparatus.
The rotisserie chicken comes with a slightly underwhelming panzanella salad, but the juicy chicken, which you can slather in a sherry pimenton aioli, makes up for it. Seared arctic char is beautifully cooked, paired with snap peas and rhubarb.
You shouldn't skip the sides — roasted and raw sunchokes, or roasted potatoes with schmaltz, sage and rosemary, are often the best part of a meal here.
Service — whether at the counter for pastries or by the waitstaff at tables — is as friendly and laid-back as you might expect from a restaurant trying to channel the soul of Venice. You're likely to be greeted by Ashley Ragovin, who runs the floor and the beverage program here. Previously at Mozza, then Animal, then Trois Mec, she's an exceedingly gracious host, and her wine list is a thing of wonder, though I do wish there were a few more bottles for less than $50. At its best, Superba Food & Bread is gloriously casual — it'd be nice if the wine prices felt that way, too.
While it just opened in April, the place has caught on as a fabulous lunch spot, and a place to linger and work and sip coffee (did I mention the excellent coffee program, from Handsome Coffee co-founder Tyler Wells?) or wine throughout the afternoon. But it has been bafflingly slow at dinner, even on weekend nights. I don't expect this to last, to be able to pull right in and snag a parking spot and a table for five at 7 p.m. on a Saturday. Thus far, it has added to the effortless feel of the place, the aura it exudes, which is the opposite of stress.
And if we had to sum up the fantasy of what Venice embodies, wouldn't that be it? Superba Food & Bread has taken the legacy of the original Superba and extended it — to the east, to breakfast and lunch, and to an otherwise graceless expanse of Lincoln Boulevard. If your international kidnapping ended here, you'd be very, very lucky.
SUPERBA FOOD AND BREAD | Three stars | 1900 S. Lincoln Blvd., Venice | (310) 907-5075 | superbafoodandbread.com | Daily, 7 a.m.-11 p.m. | Entrees, $22-$29 | Beer and wine | Lot and street parking