I think the word most often used to describe Gjelina is “iconic.” It’s the most famous restaurant in Venice Beach. For years, it has appeared on every LA food bucket list as that restaurant that everyone’s heard about.

But in the words of The Infatuation, “When perfection is even briefly achieved, suddenly any other result feels inadequate. Everyone expects more of you.” We did expect more from Gjelina, but sadly, the restaurant didn’t live up to its reputation.

mushrooms on toast
mushroom toast

Mushroom toast

This was the best dish of the night. Rich and buttery and creamy, with the perfect mix of mushrooms, it was indulgent without being too heavy to finish. If every dish had been this good, it would have been a satisfactory meal. Not outstanding, but at least I’d be happy spending what I spent on a fancy dinner.

grilled orange kabocha squash, pomegranate arils, mint pesto
grilled orange kabocha squash, pomegranate, mint pesto

Kabocha squash, pomegranate, pesto

So pretty, so promising, and yet so bland. For the most part, this dish tasted like a big mouthful of squash. Cooked, unseasoned squash. When I got a bite with lots of pesto and a few pomegranate arils, it helped. It tasted intriguing, at least, and there was some variety to break up the big glob of squash. But there wasn’t enough pesto to go around, the char from the grill didn’t add anything except bitterness, and I felt like I was eating a steamed squash with a little olive oil.

brussels sprouts and walnuts in a white dish
charred brussels sprouts, cilantro, walnut, chili lime vinaigrette

Brussels sprouts with chili lime vinaigrette

This was one of the better Brussels sprouts dishes I’ve had that didn’t contain bacon or balsamic vinegar. That being said, that’s a lot of qualifiers. While good, it wasn’t that memorable. I liked the chili lime vinaigrette—it was a lighter take on the usual balsamic-laden sprouts, and the whole dish was bright and citrusy instead of the usual rich and earthy. The walnuts added a nice crunch and contrast to the sprouts. Cilantro—eh, I didn’t really notice it.

But really, give me some depth in there. It doesn’t have to be bacon. It just has to be something substantial enough to stand up to the strong vegetal flavors of a bowl full of Brussels.

rigatoni pasta with meat sauce and whipped ricotta on top
einkorn rigatoni, wagyu beef cheek bolognese, whipped ricotta

Wagyu beef cheek bolognese

This was probably the most disappointing dish of the night. ‘I usually like a beef cheek,’ I thought. ‘And it’s wagyu? It must be a really rich, melt-in-your-mouth kind of bolognese.’ I’m a sucker for ricotta, too. Sign me up.

The wagyu beef cheek bolognese tasted like… any other red sauce made with ground beef. It stuck to the pasta, but just barely. There didn’t seem to be enough sauce to coat the dish. Pasta was al dente—maybe a little too al dente? There was a lot of chew to that rigatoni. The whipped ricotta was good, but not nearly enough to save the dish.

The overwhelming feeling we had upon tasting this bolognese was, ‘I could have made this at home.’ It was nothing special. We didn’t finish the pasta, and we didn’t box up the leftovers to take with us.

This may have been my imagination, but even the wine pours seemed smaller than usual. If I’m paying $14+ per glass, I expect more than a couple sips. Maybe that was a trick of the light, or my own bias, but they seemed a little on the small side. And they automatically add 20% gratuity to your bill. Yes, we should all be tipping around 20% anyway, and I usually do. But when it’s added for you, on top of the already-stingy dining experience? Not a great look.

Overall, Gjelina over-promised and under-delivered.

I will say that everyone who ordered pizza seemed very happy with their food. Walk by Gjelina on any night and you’ll see people sitting on the bench outside, cardboard box in hand, stuffing their faces with takeaway slices. Maybe next time—if there is a next time—I’ll opt for the pizza and play it safe. On principle, though, I think a restaurant with as much acclaim as Gjelina should be able to do everything else on their menu equally well, and that just wasn’t the case.

Read more…

3 Days in Venice Beach

My itinerary for a long weekend of eating and sightseeing in LA’s Venice Beach neighborhood.

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