Capped teeth, kale salad, movie studios and high-speed chases aren’t the only things that give Los Angeles her indefinable culture. It’s the sheer diversity of influences that make this bewildering collection of neighborhoods more of a patchwork quilt than a matching sheet-and-sham set. And no other hood shows off its bohemian flair with more swagger than Venice. In and amongst a row of quirky bistros and cliquey wine bars, former Bâco Mercat toque Kevin Lee has opened one of the newest (and easily the hottest) tapas joints called Makani. (And by “hot” I’m referring less to popularity than to spice. Be warned, Makani is a very proud purveyor of pepper.)
Raised in California by Korean parents, Lee sees his kitchen as a reflection of the city’s diverse population and therefore defines his cuisine as “Angelino!” As I try to get my head around whether that’s actually a thing or not, I notice Korean influences up and down the menu with kimchi, ssam and gochujang. But, faster than a crowd can gather around a celebrity citing, the menu swerves south for chicharrones, chipotle and aji amarillo with a dabble or two in the Middle-east for some za’atar and lebni. But unlike a United Nations policy debate, the pan-global menu seems to work together remarkably well.
The same is true for the unashamed substitutions of rum for every other spirit on the cocktail list, creating some rather imaginative and delightful combinations that satisfy adequately for the duration of an al fresco evening on Rose Avenue, but probably won’t challenge the loyalty of a Vodka/Gin/Whisky/Tequila/Bourbon purist.
Stellar standouts include something called Eggplant & Nurungji which is a dark puddle of salty, tangy, umami, smoky deliciousness to be spread on woefully too few broken bits of spicy puffed-rice crackers. Romanesco is a slightly less piquant option of stir-fried mini florets in a heavenly citrus, basil and pistachio sauce. The magnificent Manila Clams are served in an almost chuggable zippy broth of chilies and basil with a couple of toasted ciabatta slices to dip and dunk.
The entire Grilled Whole Fish arrives on a wooden board like an LAPD crime scene. Head, tail and spine still very much intact, the victim, a Branzino of average height, strangled to death by flavorful bunches of thyme, mint, basil, pickles and sharp shards of seared lemon, is perfectly flaky, fluffy and buttery.
While most of the waiters (and about half of social media) rave about the Crispy Duck Confit with kimchi bacon rice, I all but lost myself in a tender slither of Braised Short Rib beached atop a dune of chestnut puree, surrounded by an utterly delectable soy-flavored au-jús.
Up to this point, the service had been fresh, jocular and spirited, but just as we were anxious to learn about desserts, we were somewhat soberly and rather quizzically presented with the bill instead. Is it just three-month jitters, or could a case be made for a slightly overtaxed wait staff? While we wait for the answer, be sure to save some room for the magnificently soft, moist and scrumptious Olive Oil Cake, crowned with a dollop of mascarpone and a scattering of strawberries and nuts.
After careful introspection, reflection and digestion, I’m still not entirely convinced that chef Lee’s cooking can be labelled Angelino per se. I’m probably more in the Schizo-fornia camp, if you ask me.