Review: Gjelina, Venice CA

“You can stand over there by the wall,” the hostess says cheerily, pointing to a cramped, narrow path along the edge of the dining room behind a packed, boisterous communal table. “Or else you can wait outside on the sidewalk.” Several people are already crowded against the wall, single file (which is all the space allows), like scolded children, hands in their pockets as they stare longingly at the thin-crust pizzas, still bubbling-hot from the wood-burning oven, being set upon a table practically under their noses. “Something should free up in about 40 minutes,” the hostess says, “but it might be sooner because I think a few people might have just given up and left.”

I sulk over to the time-out zone and squeeze into the line as I wait for The Redhead to arrive. At the communal table in front of me, there’s an empty stool calling my name. I consider claiming it, to rest my tired feet for a second, but I immediately catch the glares of others in line, so I nonchalantly abort that maneuver and lean against the cement wall like I was told to do.

Gjelina (pronounced Ja-LEE-Na) is currently one of the hottest reservations in the city, probably tougher at the moment than Cut or the Mozzas—if you wish to dine between 6:45pm and 8:45pm.

My first time around, on a Friday night, I dined at 6:30pm, which was the best I could finagle with only seven days’ notice. My second time in, on a Tuesday with four days’ advantage, I settled for a 9pm slot—and I scored one of the best tables on the patio. On my third visit, though, I stupidly waited until Monday to try to get a table on Wednesday. There was nothing available, but I was told we could try walking in for a chance to sit at the first-come, first-served communal tables—which explains why I’m currently wondering if I’m really going to have to watch these pizzas go by for 40 minutes without being able to take a bite of one.

Gjelina isn’t a pizza parlor, but the little pizzas that emerge from chef Travis Lett’s wood-burning oven are some of his menu’s highlights. They are cracker-thin and never overburdened with unnecessary ingredients or too much cheese. The crusts seem to have gotten thinner with each visit, to the point where they’re now bordering on lavash. As soon as I’m seated, it’s the first thing I want to order.

Moments after The Redhead arrives, about 15 minutes into my holding pattern, the hostess approaches, bearing great news. A table has unexpectedly opened up in the dining room, and it’s ours if we want it. We bolt for it.

The dining room is small, accommodating only about 30 seats at proper tables and approximately 20 stools at the two large communal troughs. The patio holds maybe 30 and is by far the most coveted place to sit. There’s a casual, DIY-ish, granola-chic vibe to the good-looking décor. Recycled wood planks line the ceiling. Fun, homemade chandeliers—one fashioned from wine bottles, another from a pot rack and random shapes and wattages of lightbulbs—look like the sort of urban folk art you might find at a garage sale in the surrounding neighborhood. Bowls of ripe tomatoes rest atop the charcuterie and cheese bar, as if just picked from a nearby community garden. The tabletops are naked but for some banged-up, second- hand silverware and the sturdy kitchen towels that serve as napkins. Shelves behind the bar are filled with decent wines that will neither break the bank nor ever win a Wine Spectator award. The lights are turned down low, especially on the patio, where a few random floor lamps and a central fire pit barely emit enough light for anyone to notice that the surface underfoot has been cobbled together using fantastic old bricks.

As soon as the hostess has shown The Redhead and I to our unexpected table, we immediately start debating which pizza to order. We’re famished—and can’t imagine how hungry we would have been if the wait had actually lasted 40 minutes instead of 15. But by the time our waiter shows up, we’ve reached the 40-minute mark after all.

We tell the waiter we want to order a couple of things immediately because we’ve already started chewing on our hands. We’ll have the mushroom pizza, we tell him. And then we ask for his advice. “Should we have heirloom tomatoes with burrata, or the burrata with marinated artichokes and…” Suddenly, actress Camryn Manheim shows up, grabs our waiter by the arm and pulls him away. An obnoxious lovefest ensues between them: “Oh, it’s so good to see you again.” “Oh, I was wondering where you’d gone.” Kiss, kiss… yawn.

The waiter steps back to the table, and I’ve already eaten three of my fingers, but he doesn’t seem to notice. “OK,” he says, “so, you want the mushroom toast and… What else was it?”

My face is turning red, I’m sure. “Um, no. We want the mushroom pizza, and we were asking you a question about the burrata.”

“Oh. Right,” he says. “We’re out of burrata. Do you guys know Camryn Manheim?”

The staff on each of my three visits exhibited an air- headed ditziness that is unrivaled by any other restaurant in L.A. There’s a head shop directly across the street, and I can’t help but wonder if there’s a connection.

Baked or not, the waiter doesn’t surprise us by assuming we had wanted the mushroom toast. It’s one of Lett’s finest and most popular dishes, an exact replica of something he served at NineThirty several years ago. If I remember correctly, it’s a recipe he inherited from the chef who preceded him there. No matter—it’s the quintessence of Lett’s mostly seasonal, California-harvest cooking: a thick slice of country-style bread, slightly smoky from the grill and topped with a musky fricassee of mushrooms, heady with truffle oil and sweetened with a tinge of crème fraîche.

Keep your eyes peeled for the chef. Lett is the handsome, twentysomething surfer dude with the disheveled blond hair, five-o’clock shadow and unbuttoned chef’s jacket who occasionally wanders into the dining room but mostly keeps to the kitchen, where—as seen through the patio window—he’s constantly tasting this or that. I’m wondering, though, if he tasted the same thing I did when I ordered the hamachi crudo appetizer: an overbearing dose of pickled jalapeño that completely obliterated any presumption of flavor the fish itself might have once held. It could have been week-old fish, or maybe it was caught that morning. Who could know the difference?

These two dishes illustrate the kitchen’s struggle to keep it together: Some dishes hit the bull’s-eye while others ricochet wildly off the dartboard. The fried egg atop an asparagus salad was so overcooked, the yolk could have been used as a doorstop. Kobacha squash tortellini were vastly undercooked, chewy and bland. A rib-eye steak was as thin as a Zagat guide and just about as tasty, yet a much less expensive, lower-expectation hanger steak was brilliantly cooked and supremely satisfying. So was an appetizer of pork belly, braised to a crisp in apple-cider glaze and served with pungent mustard greens. Salmon was woefully undercooked (read: hardly cooked at all), while the grouper was textbook-perfect—its skin roasted to an audible crisp, its flesh heavenly delicate. One night, my table receives three prawns to an order, while the table to my left receives four, prompting newfound friends to also compare the sizes of our wine pours. It’s as if there are two separate kitchens, and you never know which one your food will be coming from—the exception being dessert. All desserts come from the kitchen without a clue.

Would someone please put away the bong? Or else pass it this direction.

1429 Abbot Kinney Blvd., Venice

2 stars

Sun.–Thurs., 5:30pm– 10:30pm; Fri.–Sat., 5:30pm–11pm. Brunch, Sat.–Sun., 10am–3pm.

The Perfect Birthday Table
There’s an awesome patio table, sequestered in its own super-sexy, chandeliered alcove, that seats 12 comfortably.

What to Wear
Flip-flops, snug designer t-shirts, nighttime sunglasses, skinny ties with short-sleeve shirts, rock-star hair and long-sleeve dresses.

About the Name
Gjelina is the name of one of the owners’ mothers.

About the noise
Indoors, sign language will come in handy. But the decibel level on the patio is pitch-perfect.

Where to Park
There is a free and easy lot behind the restaurant.

What it Costs
Small plates and oysters, $8–$28; pizzas, $12–$14; entrées, $17–$35; desserts, $8.

What the stars mean:
0 = poor, unacceptable
1 = fair, some noteworthy qualities
2 = good, above average
3 = very good, well above norm
4 = excellent, among the area’s best
5 = extraordinary in every detail
Reviews are based on multiple visits. Ratings reflect the reviewer’s overall reaction to food, ambience and service.

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