Counter Intelligence: Roy Choi's Sunny Spot goes to the Caribbean
The new Venice restaurant from the Kogi BBQ truck founder resides in a vaguely Jamaican world. Pass the rum and roast lamb, and groove to the reggae beat.
One of the more elaborate dishes served at Sunny Spot is the pound of langoustines with lime, chopped herbs and Allspice butter. (Michael Robinson Chavez, Los Angeles Times / May 12, 2012)
As Beechwood, this space felt slightly generic, a loungy Playboy After Dark kind of place centered on its fire pit. As Sunny Spot, it booms with reggae and supports both a serious cocktail crowd and a multitude of lobster-red beer guys fresh from an afternoon on Venice Beach. It's grounded by a Caribbean-inflected menu from Roy Choi, whose Kogi fleet transformed the idea of cuisine in Los Angeles into something that might well be served from a truck window in a bar's parking lot, and whose A-frame, tucked into a former IHOP, introduced the aesthetic of Hawaiian picnic food to the Los Angeles restaurant scene.
FOR THE RECORD:
Sunny Spot: In the May 19 edition of Saturday, a review of Sunny Spot restaurant did not include the restaurant's weekend brunch hours. It serves a brunch-only menu 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. —
You could do worse than to stop by here after a day at the shore for a plate of rum-glazed prawns, some plantains and the manliest daiquiri in town, made with leathery, extra-potent Smith and Cross rum.
Choi's heart may be in Kogi's kalbi tacos or A-frame's zaftig interpretation of Honolulu picnic feasts, but his groove works just as well on the breezy patio of Sunny Spot, amid the bottles of Red Stripe and the Old-Fashioneds made with Nicaraguan rum, the yucca fries and the skewered pineapple wedges dusted with chile powder. When a hoagie stuffed with pork terrine, sliced jalapeños, prosciutto and cheese seems to take its inspiration in equal parts from the Cuban sandwich, the Italian hero, the Mexican torta and the Vietnamese banh mi, you know you're in Roy Choi country.
Sunny Spot is nominally a Jamaican restaurant, and the pounding reggae, the rum drinks and the breezy nautical palette would seem to point you in that direction. But there may not be a single recognizable Jamaican dish on the menu, neither curry goat, nor ackee and salt fish, nor escovitch. The dish with the most recognizably Jamaican flavor, a plate of saucy, lusciously spiced roast lamb, is designed to be wrapped in lettuce with a bit of pickled mango, like an island version of Korean ssam.
Sunny Spot, one suspects, may be the first of Choi's restaurants to be less a passion project than a nicely executed work-for-hire, where recipes come from travel and research rather than from the secret, kimchi-marinated recess of his soul. As much as he is the godfather of L.A.'s culinary underground, it wasn't all that long ago that he toiled in the trenches of cuisine — the sort of hotel dining rooms and corporate-owned restaurants where the concepts change from Mediterranean to Pacific in the time it takes to sponge-paint the walls, and the chefs are as interchangeable as the interior design. Choi knows how to do this stuff, and it's not a bad skill to have.
So here are thin pork chops in a pineapple-tinged gravy that brings to mind Hawaiian lunch trucks; fried calamari that sing of coconut and chiles; and thick, sloppy cheeseburgers that ooze garlic mayonnaise and tomato jam. You may be expecting to gnaw on bones when you see brown-sugar scotch-bonnet short ribs on the menu, but what you get are the sheets of laterally sawed meat that Koreans call L.A. kalbi, but sauced with a mean, spicy vinegar sauce instead of sticky soy.
Mofongo, a take on the famous Puerto Rican side dish of mashed plantains, rocks with smoky chunks of diced bacon. Sugar-cane-fried pig's feet, bony, crunchy-skinned things, are served with a little bowl of spicy vinegar — but the island being referenced here is probably Luzon, and the dish is closer to Filipino crispy pata than it is to Jamaican pig foot.
There's a lot of rum here, dozens of fine bottles from Trinidad, Jamaica and Guatemala, among other places, but all is not necessarily happy in Sunny Spot land. "What a Jerk" wings are properly crusted in allspice but have little of the complexity you might associate with the best jerk. The most expensive item on the printed menu, langoustines cooked in a thin, spicy butter that resembles what New Orleaneans use with what they call "barbecue shrimp," are beautiful creatures, miniature lobsters right down to the claws, but the meat itself is mushy — nearly dissolved into the sauce. This could be an aberration — shellfish can be enzymatically challenged in unpredictable ways — but when a restaurant charges $50 for a pound of them, the onus of perfection is pretty much on the kitchen.
If you're determined to drop serious coin, Sunny Spot is happy to accommodate you. The whole roast snapper is a formidable fish, crisp-skinned but still steamy and moist, scented with ginger. And the gargantuan grilled porterhouse is one of the better steaks in town, well-marbled, sluiced with fresh garlic and Cara Cara orange, caramelized but not quite charred and served on its bone. Is it worth a hundred clams? That part is up to you. But it is easily enough for four — the time I tried to tackle a Sunny Spot porterhouse with only one other person, the leftover steak weighed in at almost a pound and a half when I put it on a scale at home.
You will be encouraged to order the sweet-potato tart with toasted-marshmallow ice cream, and you might as well. There aren't many flavors on Earth more congenial to a mellow snifter of rum.
A Caribbean-inspired joint from chef Roy Choi, with rum cocktails, tropicalia and a reggae soundtrack.
822 Washington Blvd., Venice, (310) 448-8884, sunnyspotvenice.com.
Appetizers, $4 to $12; larger plates, $12 to $18 (and way up for special dishes); desserts, $4 to $8.
The kitchen is open 5 to 10 p.m. Sunday and Monday, 5 to 11 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday, 5 p.m. to midnight Thursday to Saturday. Credit cards. Full bar. Valet parking.