SALT COD BRANDADE BENEDICT
In that fleeting moment when the ocean air still hangs thick over Venice before dissolving into a golden haze, the city slows to still life. Cars shudder to a stop, gulls flap fruitlessly against the wind and waves fall silently upon the shore. At Sunny Spot, the six-month-old restaurant from Kogi mastermind Roy Choi and Westside impresario David Reiss, that moment is meant to last forever, a picture both of California cool and Caribbean fantasy. This is where you come to imagine those wasted days on a white-sand beach, a slug of rum and a plate of jerk chicken your only itinerary.
Sunny Spot is Choi’s first restaurant that doesn’t directly deal with his cosmopolitan vision of the Angeleno appetite. Back in 2008 when Kogi’s bulgogi tacos and kimchi quesadillas sent legions groaning hungrily into the night, Choi created a cuisine that perhaps more accurately reflected Los Angeles than a census ever could. Choi didn’t simply capture the city’s zeitgeist; he became it.
It wouldn’t be wrong to attribute that success to a providential sense of good timing. But there’s also something to Choi’s fanciful cooking. His dishes at Kogi as well as Chego and A-Frame often feel as if they’re composed with a kind of surrealist automatism, flavors extracted from the culinary subconscious and assembled on the plate without any measure of restraint. What results is sometimes sloppy and not always successful, but it often is exactly what Angelenos want to eat.
At Sunny Spot, Choi sends us to the Caribbean to snack on gloriously fatty fried pigs feet and papaya-mango salads sluiced with lime juice and honey. There are of course dishes bestowed with the kind of goofy names you’d expect at one of Choi’s restaurants, like the “cash money” fried calamari ($10). Marinated in coconut milk, the rings of squid are fried in a barely-there tempura batter, tossed with shards of chilies and paired with a passion fruit-mint dipping sauce. It’s a bracing dish, one unworthy of anything even remotely resembling the Guy Fieri lexicon.
Your server—undoubtedly outfitted in a V-neck T-shirt—will attempt to spin the menu as a parade of small plates. But Sunny Spot operates instead in a kind of free-flowing, mid-sized family style. As such, food arrives mostly as it’s cooked, which can be maddening if you’re planning on enjoying the excellent yuca fries ($4) with, say, the reimagined Cuban sandwich ($11) bursting with rustic pork rillettes, prosciutto and pickled jalapeños. Still, the fries are great, potato-like lengths of tuberous yuca fried to a wonderful crisp and accompanied with Filipino-style banana ketchup laced with Thai basil.
The butter lettuce salad ($11) seeks a bitter balance: peppery arugula, biting radicchio, tiny bits of charred cauliflower, wedges of grapefruit and nubs of goat cheese all slicked with a mild chile vinaigrette. If you can manage to gather all the ingredients into a single bite, the salad yields a graceful medium. But a lot is lost in the oversized and disproportioned leaves of butter lettuce. The mofongo ($6), a starchy Puerto Rican staple, has no such problem. Here the plantain mash is transformed into a sort of loose stew fortified with bacon, garlic and black pepper—the mofongo’s porky quintessence and tropical sweetness exist in ideal equilibrium.
Eventually you’ll find yourself fixated on Sunny Spot’s interior. The place is deliriously colorful, a riot of mismatched shabby chic furnishings that looks as if it were assembled during a malarial fever dream. Amber pendant lamps cast an orange glow onto one wall; turquoise beams frame another. Tableware seems dredged up from the Caribbean’s colonial past with plates ringed in fine filigree and forks and knives burnished to a brassy sheen. There are three separate spaces: a sunny, high-walled patio, an airy, aqua-stained bar and a more reclusive back room. The latter is the only area for which Sunny Spot accepts reservations. All that unites the three are the subtle echoes of Desmond Dekker and Bob Marley.
Soon, entrees arrive. The Scotch Bonnet short ribs ($17) aren’t without charms (principally the sauce of Scotch Bonnet chilies, ginger, citrus and garlic that stays with you for days) but it takes a bit too much force to separate beef from bone. The Jamaican roasted lamb ($18), however, melts on contact. Wrap a piece each of stewed lamb and fresh mango inside a wedge of lettuce and revel in the lamb’s natural muskiness and the mango’s mediating sweetness.
Ample attention is also paid to seafood. The broiled hamachi collar enrobed in garlic-thyme butter ($14) is better than many of its izakaya equivalents. And groups daring enough to crack through a boatload of shellfish will inevitably eye the pound of langoustines scattered with lime, chopped herbs and mounted with clove butter ($50).
At Sunny Spot’s new weekend brunch, there’s no finer place to be than the breezy patio. And there’s no better way to start than with the festival bread ($8), savory beignets sprinkled with salt and paired with three dipping options. The best bite combines them all: a dab of creamy goat butter, a smear of guava jam and a drizzle of rum-infused honey—perfect. Still, the salt cod brandade benedict ($14) is what you really want. There’s just no replacement for the joy of when those poached eggs rush down the griddled fish-and-potato patties and flood the puddle of brilliantly subtle coconut hollandaise below.
But it’s only during dinner that you can try pastry chef Beth Kellerhals’ sweet potato tart with toasted marshmallow ice cream ($7). This is certainly one of Sunny Spot’s best dishes, warm and homey and just the right amount of refined. The tart is excellent; the ice cream is even better. It tastes as if it were churned over a campfire, rich with that distinct flavor of blackened marshmallow struggling to contain its oozing, molten center.
While Sunny Spot is often quite good, the restaurant is sometimes more concerned with cultivating a Caribbean state of mind than it is crafting a cohesive meal. But such an imagined vacation is not a bad place to be, especially given Sunny Spot’s fairly spectacular list of rums and cocktails created by Brian Butler. Sip a Dry Harbour ($12) or two—pot still rum, lime, absinthe and habanero-pineapple shrub—and before long you’ll feel that white sand between your toes.
Sunny Spot 822 Washington Blvd., Venice, (310) 448-8884, sunnyspotvenice.com. Dinner Sun.-Mon. 5 p.m.-10 p.m., Tues.-Wed. 5 p.m.-11 p.m. and Thurs.-Sat. 5 p.m.-Midnight. Brunch Sat.-Sun. 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Credit cards accepted. Full bar. Street and valet parking.