Get Stoked For Exquisite Fire-Cooked Foods At Charcoal Venice
Chef Josiah Citrin, well-known for the Michelin-starred restaurant Mélisse in Santa Monica, is either being coy about his aspirations for Charcoal, his new “casual” restaurant a five-minute walk from Venice Beach on Washington, or he throws one hell of a barbecue.
“This is the type of casual concept I’ve always wanted to open,” Citrin says on his website. “It’s the food that I prepare for my friends and family in my backyard on the weekend, not too fancy, just delicious food that you crave.”
If only anyone I knew had a Josper charcoal oven that could lightly crisp the panko atop succulent oysters on the half shell. At Charcoal, they’re baked on a bed of seaweed for a fierce presentation, and they come topped with a little horseradish and salted butter to complement the briny bivalve.
I’d be equally pleased to show up to a modest backyard soiree and be rewarded with cabbage cooked in embers, another of Citrin’s impressive starters. In his rendition, the almost caramelized flesh of the vegetable yields a subtly sweet taste that will have you rethinking the humble leafy green. Even the char tastes good.
Just about everything on the menu (dinner only for now) is somehow kissed by the fire, whether it be from a wood oven, over charcoal, in the coals, or from the bowels of a Big Green Egg. You do not want to miss whatever he’s doing with calamari, and even veggies (local when possible) like coal-roasted carrots with ricotta and yukon potatoes do some time under the flame.
And although there’s no scent of smoke in the air, there are nods to the fires that touch the food on that deceptively simple looking menu. The art works on the wall are done in—you guessed it—charcoal, and the woods used throughout the restaurant are those commonly used when grilling or barbecuing meats.
And about those meats. The skirt steak, delivered a textbook medium rare, has the kind of outer char you want to contrast with the just cooked flesh beneath. And though it doesn’t need any of the condiments in a trio of glass bowls on every table, you’d be remiss not to try them. The smoked paprika mustard chimichurri is an especially nice compliment, but why not dip into each one? There’s also a red wine chipotle sauce, housemade J-1 steak sauce and Basque vinegar from a bottle.
Big wallets can opt for a 48-ounce dry-aged Porterhouse or an 18-ounce aged New York striploin, but choices abound across price and protein preference categories—there’s an aged lamb leg, half-chicken, pork chop, and lobster option, among other well-executed mains.
The room’s clean lines give off a certain elegance, but the dining room veers low-key, with vaulted ceilings that remind one of an especially airy Denny’s. The best seats in the house might just be at the long bar, which give a near front-row peek into the action in the kitchen, separated only by space and glass.
Cocktails, mostly of the classic variety, soak up the fire where they can. Both the Old Fashioned and the martini have a smokey air, while a finely balanced Negroni just cuts to the chase with extra-strength Campari. The shortish wine list is a collection of Citrin’s favorites, including whites and reds from California, plus some rich French reds that stand up to the char, like a 2012 Châteauneuf-du-Pape from Domaine du Vieux Télégraphe in the Rhone Valley. You don’t have to go fancy, though. There’s no shame in ordering a North Coast Scrimshaw Pilsner or Santa Monica Wit instead of a fancy bottle of vino.
The restaurant’s inherent flexibility might be best thing about Charcoal. Sure, you can splash out with a steak and a $100-plus bottle of wine, or you can down a tartarte and salad and side it with a beer. Jeans aren’t out of place, but neither is a suit. And one thing’s for certain if Citrin ever invites you over to his house for a casual ‘que, you best clear your calendar.