Venice Beach, California is legendary for its kitsch and culture; on a typical day’s stroll along Ocean Front Walk you’re likely to encounter knife juggles on ladders, turbaned roller skating guitarists, fledgling filmmakers, breakdance and aerobatic squads, tattoo artists, and quite possible sculptor and artist Larry Bell. Bell emerged out of the Los Angeles art scene in the 1960s, gaining so much renown and popularity that his image was used on the cover of the Beatles “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” album. When friend Erwin Sokol (owner of Hotel Erwin) decided to develop property for a restaurant, he honored Bell by dedicating the restaurant to him and asked if he would lend his name (Bell obliged, designing the restaurant’s logo and donating some of his signature hats for display over the bar).
The space (designed by L.A.’s Spacecraft Group) pays homage to Bell’s signature glass cube sculpture; while maintaining a sense of artistry, it’s unpretentious, a place where you could feel comfortable popping in for a cold one on tap. For the time being, the head height glass portion of the walls allow the shore breeze in with a retractable canopy for shade, but with the cooler weather coming up Larry’s may get some more substantial winter clothes. A restaurant and bar with an artistic slant is a nice initial draw, but in a city full of giant murals and public art it won’t stand a chance unless you can deliver with the cuisine. Enter Chef Brendan Collins, the culinary genius who put his own spin on British and Continental cuisine at Waterloo and City to earn it a nomination for a 2011 James Beard award for Best New Restaurant. Collins (Los Angeles’ king of charcuterie) is most likely the hardest working man in the restaurant business, splitting his time between Waterloo and City and Larry’s. The menu has Collins’ fingerprints all over it, but featuring dishes befitting the eclectic artistry of Venice Beach – familiar items reimagined and turned inside out.
Because of Larry’s location, Chef Collins anticipated folks dropping in for a burger and beer; in fact, when they first opened they were flipping 70 to 80 burgers a day, but now that people have developed an appreciation for the more creative fare, that number has dwindled down to about 10 daily. Of course, if you still want that burger, Collins is happy to oblige with a Sonoma lamb or dry-aged beef patty nested on a crispy bed of greens that is juicy and flavorful; like the nearby Muscle Beach outdoor gym it not-very-quietly screams, “Meat!” Chef Collins has a reputation as a man with guts, and in that category he doesn’t disappoint – a firm, smoked eel foie gras terrine pays subtle tribute to the jellied eel he grew up with, but turns it up to 11. Tender chunks of eel sit suspended in a mix of piccalilli and Madeira jelly in what amounts to a veritable aquatic head cheese. Still have an offal hunger? Consider Collins’ signature smoked salmon foie gras, a creamier-than-hell gut butter that’s most likely the sexiest thing you’ll ever spread on brioche.
I mentioned familiar items reimagined, though didn’t I? My apologies, how thoughtless of me not to mention the pizza. Larry’s pizzas are a labor of love, the result months of exhausting research to develop a recipe that works; with prime near-oceanfront real estate comes the challenge of creating pizza dough using live yeast that isn’t obliterated by the salt air. Collins tried 7 types of yeast and found the stabilizing agent in the home of pizza’s drinking buddy, beer (specifically Alexander’s malt extract), resulting in a perfect crisp and toasty crust. An artisan pizza crust like this can’t be draped in just any old topping, buddy boy – we’re talking four pork (sausage, bacon, prosciutto and chorizo), wild mushrooms, arugula and burrata cheese, and the astounding – wait for it – camarónes diablo. Collins turned the fiery classic dish into the ultimate Mexican pizza with heat from roasted poblano chiles and a homemade Tabasco sauce slightly tamed by the cheese and perked up with fresh cilantro. How he was able to capture the shrimp trying to free themselves from a spicy cheese hell without overcooking them is beyond me, but I was too busy stuffing my face, crust and all, to ask questions.
Larry’s bacon-wrapped Rathmullan salmon is a pork-clad torpedo that defies whatever you thought this dish would look like when jettisoned to the table. The savory section of cylindrical seafood is warm and melty (assisted by the fat left in the smoked Allan Benton bacon); although the pork fuses with the salmon, it pulls away easily with a fork, so you don’t have to worry about ending up with a bacon streamer hanging out of your mouth. The rather odd placement of the salmon on a mini heap of beets and gnocchi with a horseradish crème fraiche and balsamic vinegar by all rights should not work, and yet the complex array of flavors make their presence known without overpowering each other or the salmon.
It’s a mystery to me how five people can attack a few tapas-style shareable plates and still top off the tank, but there was only room for a few cozy bites when Chef Collin’s turn at Mediterranean cuisine arrived in the form of a succulent osso buco lamb shank. The flesh leaned towards the strong side which can put off some diners but whereas I loves me some lamb I let the flavor take me out to the rugged Italian hillside. Collins forgoes the traditional risotto in favor of tiny acini de pepe pasta in a mix of cornichons, capers, red onion, gruyere cheese, sautéed mushrooms, mint, cilantro and a Greek yogurt dressing, which busy as it is doesn’t detract from the lamb. If you’re lucky and the marrow hasn’t percolated out of the shank bone you’ll have some additional flavor to add to the dish.
Larry’s is many things including an art space, a gathering spot after a day at the beach to knock a few back, and a platform to sample some of the innovative and creative dishes from the palette of Chef Brendan Collins. It’s been about a week since my visit and I know this may sound strange, but I want you back… hats off to Larry’s.
NOTE: This cost for this meal was provided by the restaurant. The content provided in this article was not influenced whatsoever by the organizer of the event.