I wasn’t sure how to react when we first read the news last year on Eater LA about Chef Travis Lett developing a new Izakaya (Japanese Pub) in Venice. Chef Lett is the Chef-Owner of the ultra-popular Gjelina, and the fantastic Gjusta. (Full disclosure: I’m a member of the FTC Gjusta Club, but we’re still at the Bronze Tier. I hope one day to make it to Baller Tier to join our venerable @PorkyBelly @bulavinaka @A5KOBE @Bookwich @CiaoBob @paranoidgarliclover @wienermobile @Bigmouth Sgee and many others.)
In all seriousness, while we love Gjusta and Gjelina, what would Chef Lett’s take on Japanese Izakaya cuisine be like? We weren’t sure. Then reading PorkyBelly and @J_L’s early reports, made us hesitant to go, but we finally decided to try it.
Situated right in the heart of Abbot Kinney, MTN has no signage, and is probably easiest to spot by looking for the crowd of people waiting to get in (in both of our visits, it was at 100% capacity with people waiting for open tables huddled outside).
The decor is sleek, modern but still features warm wood accents.
Erika’s Pickle Plate:
This was a selection of the latest farmers market sourced produce, pickled and presented in a Japanese-inspired preparation. My favorite were the Pickled Cucumbers and Tomatillos. But all 5 selections were pretty bright and refreshing.
In a bit of a crazy upcharge (and the cost of doing business on Abbot Kinney I guess), MTN charges $6 for Tea(!). It’s one thing if it was amazing Tea, but their Hojicha tasted pretty watered down and it was lukewarm.
Aji Sashimi (Japanese Jack Mackerel) (Ginger, Scallion, Yuzu Ponzu):
We have been utterly spoiled by Aburiya Raku’s gold standard Sashimi, but we tried our best to just enjoy it as is. Besides the janky knifework, the Aji itself tasted relatively fresh, but a touch bland. It was fine, but nothing like the stellar offerings from Raku (or LA’s top Sushi bars).
Ume Cucumber (Shiso, Gomashio):
Their Cucumbers with Japanese Plum (Ume) were fragrant with Shiso Leaf (which is wonderful), enhanced by Black Sesame and Sea Salt.
Peads & Barnett Pork Bone Shio Ramen (Dashi, Komatsuna, Bean Sprouts, Black Pepper Chashu, Pickled Fresno, Fermented Black Bean Paste, Tamago):
Chef Lett’s Ramen arrives, and visually, it looks like a serious bowl of Ramen. There are interesting characteristics that stand out immediately, like the Black Sesame Seeds, pretty, multi-colored Chilies, and firm stalks of Japanese Mustard Spinach.
The Chashu is thick sliced and charred. It looks gorgeous, but the actual taste, while fresh, is a bit more meaty & chewy than ideal, like you’re eating thick slices of a charred Pork Chop (off the bone).
The Tamago (Egg) is wonderfully liquid-centered and not overcooked.
Then you get to the Ramen Noodles themselves: It is admirable that Chef Lett decided to make the Noodles by hand, in-house. However, he’s chosen a healthy mix of Buckwheat and Wheat for the Noodles, and no matter what the servers call it, these are Soba Noodles, not Ramen Noodles.
It tastes like you’re eating Soba in a Ramen Broth. It’s not “bad” or “awful,” but it throws off the taste and your perception of what you’re eating.
Finally the Broth is a robust Pork Bone base, but it’s not as super-porky / overwhelming as many of the popular Ramen spots around town. It is surprisingly lighter in many ways (which is nice), but the actual merging of flavors - when you take a sip of the Broth, a bite of the Soba-like Noodles, some of the fresh, yet chewier, meaty Chashu, and some of the veggies - results in a “Soup Noodle” that’s just not “Ramen.”
Finally, at $26 for this bowl of Pseudo-Ramen, it might be the final deal-breaker for many people debating on whether to try it or not.
The first visit was rather underwhelming, so we decided to wait and take some time between visits. 2nd visit…
MTN showed no signs of slowing down, being totally packed throughout our dinner (with folks waiting for a table outside).
Tedorigawa - Iki na Onna - Daiginjo Sake (Ishikawa, Japan):
It was a surprise to find a new entry from Tedorigawa (makers of the excellent value and tasting “Kinka” Sake - thanks again @beefnoguy!) at MTN, no less. Iki na Onna is a pleasant, easy-sipping Daiginjo Sake, sweet on the palate, but with a relatively dry finish. It went pretty well with many of the dishes this evening.
Daikon Salad (Shiso Dressing, Toasted Nori):
This was very refreshing and crunchy. The mix of Daikon Radish with Kaiware (Daikon Radish Sprouts), with Toasted Nori (Seaweed) was a nice idea, but there might’ve been just a touch too much Rice Vinegar. Otherwise, it was rather tasty.
Big Sur Sea Vegetables (Daikon, Kaiware, Goma, Ponzu, Olive Oil):
If there was one dish that finally captured what Chef Lett might be doing with MTN, it would be the Big Sur Sea Vegetables plate. It sounds pretty basic, but it was absolutely delicious!
It starts with a foundation of locally-foraged Sea Vegetables (our server mentions this forager shows up at the local farmers market from time-to-time), which taste incredible… there’s a real crave-worthy savoriness, it’s got body, but still tender, like some of the best Konbu you’ve had, but different.
Then the refreshing Daikon slices, Sesame Seeds for aromatic nuttiness, some of the peppery Kaiware Sprouts, Marinated Cucumbers, and a Housemade Ponzu + Olive Oil Dressing…
Best Bite of the Evening.
This is the type of new creation, that still hearkens to a familiar dish that made us fall in love with the great offerings at Gjusta or Gjelina. But now with an eye towards Japan.
Hokkaido Scallop Sashimi (Finger Lime, Yuzu Kosho):
These were relatively fresh, silky and tender. The citrus and spicy spark in each bite was invigorating, but they were just a touch below the super bright offerings at places like Mori Sushi and Shunji, most likely a sourcing & timing issue.
Baja Kanpachi Temaki (Avocado, Cucumber, Shiso, Yuzu Kosho):
So this is an interesting change: The menu has drastically changed since our 1st visit (and from @PorkyBelly’s visit), the middle section of the menu (that used to have a lot of Meat / Protein / Skewers, etc.) is now dominated by Temaki (Hand Rolls), which clearly feels like the Venice local crowd dictating what they’d rather eat. There are now only 3 Skewers on the menu(!)…
And 5 different Ramen bowls.
The actual Baja Kanpachi Temaki are fine. The Nori (Seaweed) is slightly crisped, the Kanpachi tastes relatively fresh, but it’s not anything markedly better than eating Hand Rolls at a local, respectable Sushi Bar, let alone the top places.
Peads & Barnett Pork Belly Gyoza (Kimchi, Negi, Ginger):
This sounded wonderful, and we were really excited to try these Housemade Gyoza. There was a nice browning (with a couple of them slightly burnt). The Dumpling skins were of medium thickness and the filling was tasty. However there wasn’t anything about them that screamed “Peads & Barnetts Pork Belly!” So, paying $21 for 5 small Gyoza Dumplings might be another contentious point for some as well.
Dungeness Crab Ramen (Saikyo Miso, Crab Broth, Tosaka Seaweed, Confit Tomato, Pickled Fresno, Shiso):
After trying MTN’s homage to the “classic” Ramen flavors on our last visit, we decided to eschew that and go for the offering that was most unique-sounding, their Dungeness Crab Ramen.
And we’re glad we did.
This was very good, with a beautiful brininess, sweet chunks of Dungeness Crab, and it matched the Saikyo Miso Ramen Broth quite well. It tasted nothing like a typical Ramen you find around town, but instead feels very much like something the Chef-Owner of Gjusta & Gjelina might offer.
This is the type of interesting spin we hoped to see more of at MTN. A piping hot, wonderful California Seafood Rame… I mean, Soba.
And yes, even with the beautiful flavors in this Dungeness Crab Ramen, the Handmade Noodles still made it taste like you were eating Soba.
Service was fine, no complaints. However, like Gjelina, they charge an automatic 20% Service Charge. Prices range from $8 - $24.
So what is MTN? During our 1st visit, I couldn’t confidently answer that. It felt like a hesitant, half-wanna-be Japanese homage, half-California interpretation spot. But after this most recent visit, it looks like it’s finding some footing, and the flavors are starting to come through.
With dishes like their Big Sur Sea Vegetables and Dungeness Crab Ramen (in an excellent Saikyo Miso Crab Broth), these feel like the spirit of Gjusta & Gjelina coming through and really paying tribute to Japanese cuisine, but through the lens of California & Chef Lett.
But then seeing the changing menu, now with mainly Sashimi, Temaki (Hand Rolls), 5 bowls of Ramen, and a couple Rice Bowls & Gyoza, it feels like it’s now catering to what the local Abbot Kinney clientele might want, compared to what Chef Lett might’ve originally wanted for an Izakaya. If the dishes continue to be more like the 2 standouts, then MTN feels like a pricey, but different break if you’re in the neighborhood. Currently, there’s not enough to warrant a return visit.
1305 Abbot Kinney Blvd.
Venice, CA 90291
Tel: (424) 465-3313