Let’s cut to the chase. Gjelina is a perversion of a restaurant. It is insidious and offends me. It is a trite scenesters’ parlor masquerading as a genuine restaurant, which is why its rank misappropriation of the voguish “Farmer’s Market cuisine” label is so bothersome. Los Angeles, on the strengths of its endless demographic diversity and access to California’s agricultural bounty, is clawing its way to culinary self-respect. (The automobile is also a crucial factor; by comparison only the most intrepid and dedicated New Yorkers are going to take a 70-minute ride on two subways to try some esoteric restaurant.) But this growth cannot rest solely on the shoulders of Suzanne Goin, Jaime Martin Del Campo and Ramiro Arvizu, and Sarintip Singsanong and Suthiporn Sungkamee. There must be some depth, and Gjelina fails to provide it, that is, assuming it even cares.
Graciously invited to a dinner by SinoSoul, the affable, frenetic, prolific, fearless and droll trencherman, and accompanied by the Gastronomyblog.com duo and Miss Insider, we (or at least I) relished ridiculing Gjelina’s lack of identity throughout the evening. The restaurant’s main dining room is rife with communal seating, a practice which should have been retired after New York’s Mercer Kitchen tried it over a decade ago. The restaurant’s spacious rear patio is festooned with a silly architectural scheme that is intended to signify stylish intelligence, but just irritates the eyes. Specializing in the cuisine of at least three large European nations, the menu sprawls over 30 dishes, excluding charcuterie, cheese, and oysters. A.O.C offers a similar number, and even with the illustrious Ms. Goin at the helm and its philosophically more concise menu, it also fails to achieve a high degree of consistency. (Still, A.O.C., unlike Gjelina, would not deign to serve both pizza and cassoulet and is capable of greatness, though not at our dinner there last Tuesday.)
The party split several dishes, including the grilled eggplant with roasted peppers, white anchovy, and pecorino. There was no evidence of any anchovy in the dish, which was just as well, because the combination of white anchovy and any form of cheese is incoherent. Pizzeria Mozza, the local standard bearer on such issues, currently offers two pizzas and one sandwich with anchovies, and none includes cheese. This technicality aside, the eggplant was tasteless and perfunctory.
Gjelina, following yet another local trend, fancies itself as a pizzeria and allegedly possesses a wood-burning oven left over from a former tenant. (Where have we heard this before?) We settled on the margherita, which is the only way to test a pizzaiolo’s chops. Since a margherita consists only of the pizza dough, mozzarella, tomato, and basil, the ingredients and preparation must be pristine. There is no margin for error. Gjelina’s manager, who dropped by the table to check on us, agreed that the margherita is the benchmark for pizza, although he probably regretted it after C told him that Gjelina had no business serving pizza. The manager put up a lame defense, asking whether we had the mushroom pizza, his favorite. (He actually asked if we had the funghi pizza, as Italian is pretentiously spoken in this Venice.) The manager’s query was moot, however, because Gjelina’s dough had more in common with Arabian Joe’s pita bread from Trader Joe’s than good pizza dough. Moreover, the sauce reminded me of gussied up Hunt’s Tomato Puree. Like a slice joint catering to 2am inebriates, Gjelina’s pizza was so flaccid that when holding a slice by the cornicione, it drooped anemically. At this point in the meal, I stopped caring. Gjelina had devolved into a joke.
We labored on with the grilled Peruvian octopus with white beans, arugula and smoked paprika. I don’t know why Gjelina sought fit to tell us that its cephalopod is of Peruvian descent, but I do recall seeing Peruvian octopus on Craft’s menu a year or so ago. I guess if Gjelina is going to steal unabashedly, Tom Colicchio and Nancy Silverton are not bad places to start. (After the weak conclusion of Top Chef 5, I’m not sure I’d steal from Colicchio any more.) Gjelina’s contribution to the dish was overwhelming blandness, a distinction it also brought to the Prince Edward Island mussels in a white wine broth, emasculating the chorizo in its midst. So much for the restaurant’s exhortation to “eat local.” Surely there must be some quality mussels and octopus somewhere along the West Coast.
The dinner culminated in a feckless insult to cassoulet, a Gallic classic and one of my favorites that when prepared correctly, such as at Yountville’s Bistro Jeanty, captures French cuisine’s nonpareil lustiness. (While the San Francisco Chronicle last December documented Jeanty’s purported decline, the Ever Sagacious Primipara pointed out that we have never had a non-sublime meal at Jeanty and were there as recently as last summer.) Gjelina barely followed the basic contours of the dish: crispy duck leg (though not confit de canard), lamb sausage (foolishly, instead of pork), braised greens (irresponsibly), and flageolet beans. Whatever chef Travis Lett’s intentions were, there was no trace of guttural, carnal pleasure here. This cassoulet was unobtrusive and polite. My only conclusion is that Lett, a veteran of hackneyed Tengu, the self-proclaimed “hottest Asian fusion and sushi restaurant” in Los Angeles, should not be permitted to cook in a restaurant east of Doheny. I suppose what he does on the West Side is his business.
1429 Abbot Kinney Blvd.