It must have been bad timing. That’s what my I told myself after wrapping up this month’s print issue (A Guide to L.A.’s Best Japanese Food) early last month and watching a few days later as one of the city’s hotly anticipated Japanese restaurants finally debuted in Venice, just as the final pages were being shipped off to the printer. Perhaps I should have taken out a missed connections ad on Craigslist.
Not to take away from the awesomely talented chefs and craftspeople that were featured in the issue (go pick up a copy!), or to throw a navel-gazing pity party, but in the case of MTN (pronounced mountain), Gjelina chef Travis Lett’s long-awaited izakaya along Abbot Kinney, I felt a sting of remorse knowing that a restaurant with the potential to shift the conversation around the city’s Japanese food scene hadn’t been included somehow.
I had reached out to Lett on several occasions in the prior month, as any half-rate journalist would, hoping to include some preview of MTN, but hadn’t heard back. This was not surprising—Lett is renown for ducking press coverage, not to mention the fact that he was in the throes of launching a massive project, one that had consumed him for the past three years at least. But as MTN’s debut became imminent, the radio silence made me fidgety. I reached out to one of the restaurant’s executive sous chefs, Erika Aoki, hoping to score some juicy details on what they were up to. But by the time Aoki was able to return my call—amazingly and graciously, I must say, after working a 90-hour-plus week during the restaurant’s soft opening—the issue was out the door.
Of course, it would be easier to console myself if MTN wasn’t the restaurant that it is. If it were merely a white hipster chef (albeit one with a James Beard Award nomination) doing expensive Asian food in a hip neighborhood, or a middling fusion spot incorporating “California flavors,” then its lack of inclusion would hardly be worth fretting over. But despite how over-the-top trendy the restaurant seemed—the all-black interior, the uncomfortable stool and counter seating, the lack of reservations, the chilly service—it was no Portlandia skit. After my long and frank phone conversation with Aoki, and a handful of visits to the restaurant, it became readily apparent: MTN was attempting something special.
Take, for instance, the $10 pickle plate (listed on the menu as Erika’s Pickle Plate), a gorgeous ceramic dish mounded with miniature piles of fermented crunchy things: shoyu-soaked mustard greens, koji-fermented daikon radish, cucumber nukazuke, cabbage kimchi, eggplant cured in tangy plum vinegar. Expensive? Yes. Worth it? Absolutely yes.
Lett, Aoki and their team, which includes long-time Gjelina chef de cuisine Pedro Aquino, make an astounding amount of their Japanese goods from scratch: everything from those stunning pickles to buckwheat noodles, dashi stock and natto (fermented soybeans); red miso paste and gochujang (fermented chile paste), kimchi, shio koji, ponzu, tofu, and pickled plum umeboshi. I can only imagine how long their daily prep list is. And while it’s true that a handful of high-end Japanese (and non-Japanese) restaurants also make those same ingredients in-house, few if any have made it a functioning ethos in the way that MTN has. Combine that with produce sourced from third- and fourth-generation Japanese-American farmers across the state, seafood pulled from local waters (the grilled Channel Island squid will forever change your view of cephalopods), and wagyu beef from a Southwestern ranch, and MTN begins to appear less like a Japanese-Californian restaurant and more like a straight-up rural izakaya that happens to be located in the easternmost prefecture of Los Angeles.
“Our food is pretty freaking ambitious,” Aoki told me over the phone. “It’s deeply Japanese, but we also wanted to make it our own.” Born and raised in the suburbs outside Tokyo, the half-Japanese mother of two and self-described “hippie mom” has spent the past four years working the line at Gjelina, while on the side helping develop the menu for the restaurant group’s long-fermenting izakaya concept. She brings what she calls a “native familiarity” to compliment the technical skill provided by Lett and Aquino, both of whom developed their Japanese prowess at the now-closed Tengu in Westwood. Aquino, in particular, spent nearly a decade training under sushi chefs. Lett grew up eating a Japanese-inflected macrobiotic diet in New Jersey, and spent a significant amount of time traveling to Japan while the restaurant was being built out. You couldn’t accuse anyone at MTN of cutting corners.
I can’t say I’ve sampled every dish at MTN, but the ones I have struck me with their rustic simplicity and deep, soulful flavors: exquisitely grilled saba (mackerel) marinated in ponzu, charred sweet potato with miso butter and katsuboshi, pork cheek skewers glazed with white miso, crispy hand rolls stuffed with shiso leaf and natto, and a gently salty seaweed salad made from a tangle of kelp pulled from the Big Sur coast.
It is, of course, Lett’s prerogative whether or not he wants to push a grand narrative for his restaurant. He’s earned the right to let his food speak for itself, and I doubt he has to emphasize that his $20 pork bone shio ramen is made with heritage breed pigs and organic buckwheat noodles to get butts into stools. MTN is already packed most nights, a mere month into business. But it does irk me slightly to see the place being written off as an overpriced Japanese spot from a culture-appropriating chef, a label that belies the diverse talent behind the scenes and the insane amount of effort the staff pours into the menu. Does that make it among the best Japanese restaurants in Los Angeles? It is probably too soon to tell, but the attempt alone is worth recognizing.
One of the more heartening trends I noticed while working on our Japanese food issue was a new wave of chefs looking to combine the seasonally-driven spirit of Japanese cuisine with California’s best products; specifically Niki Nakayama of n/naka, and David Schlosser of Shibumi. Much like French or Italian cuisine a few decades ago, the hazy evaluation of “authenticity” has become less meaningful in Los Angeles. Japanese restaurants are no longer judged solely by how many ingredients they import, or how long their chef worked in Kyoto. A great Japanese spot isn’t merely the one that makes you feel like you’re in the home country.
What makes MTN interesting is that it pushes this notion of culinary dissonance to the absolute extreme: the food is steadfastly rooted in Japanese tradition and technique, yet it still manages to feel like the most insufferably and unmistakably Venice Beach restaurant ever. Aren’t we Angelenos weirdly fortunate to be able to experience both worlds at once?
1305 Abbot Kinney Blvd., Venice, 424-465-3313 or mtnvenice.com