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Sunday, July 29, 2012

Sunny Spot in Venice: A Ray of Sunlight Among Roy Choi's Other Duds

I was somewhat apprehensive about Sunny Spot by Roy Choi of kogi fame because I never liked those galbi tacos. There, I said it. Love the idea. Hate the execution. I much prefer my braised oxtail tacos if I may say so myself. Then there was rice bowl joint Chego, which was ok but not great. He started expanding like crazy with A-Frame, which was highly disappointing. Thankfully, Sunny Spot was a pleasant surprise.

The vibe and decor of the place immediately made me feel like I was on vacation at some warm and humid Caribbean island with crystal blue water. There was outdoor seating and an overall relaxing, welcoming and eclectic atmosphere. Can I also say I LOVE the seating policy of not having to wait for the entire party to arrive to be seated? Kudos on the customer-oriented policy that other restaurants should follow.

This was a type of restaurant whose cocktails would be interesting, since it had a pretty serious selection of rums and when I think Caribbean, I think yummy cocktail. Ok, and I had a long week. I wanted something citrusy but not too sweet and went with Field & Stream recommended by our server, which had Haitian rum, Orgeat lemon and angostura. And yes, I had to look up Orgeat and Angostura because I'm no Caribbean cocktail expert.

It wasn't a bad cocktail but I must say, I didn't love the almond undertones. I love munching on almonds but I hate the syrup version of it used in drinks or baking.

The best dish by far was the lamb stew. It pays to check out what message boards say so you find the dishes that got the most raves on average and sure enough, we scored. The slow roasted lamb was super tender, of course, and didn't smell too strongly of lamb, which is usually what turns me off to lamb that's not fresh or of great quality. The lamb was seasoned just right, salty with enough kick to warrant calling it a respectable "Jamaican lamb stew," as the menu called it. The chef added his own Korean twist by adding iceberg lettuce wraps and pickled mango on the side to make Korean-style wraps called ssam.

I'm no fan of iceberg lettuce (it's nothing but water!) but tried a few wraps and they were ok but I didn't think the combination worked so well. The lamb tasted best solo and enhanced with some full-bodied red wine.

The calamari was done Thai style, marinated in coconut milk with a passion fruit dip and topped with slivers of bright red chilis and green mint leaves. It definitely made for a pretty picture on a plate and the calamari was good but it wasn't as creative or novel as the other dishes. My favorite calamari done Asian style is at Burma Super Star in San Francisco's Clement Street. They are downright ethereal.

The next nice surprise was the modified mofongo, which is a mound of mashed plantains seasoned with garlic and spices that I first had in Miami at a Puerto Rican/Dominican joint. It was a tad dry when I had it then and this version was anything but. It didn't look like the traditional mofongo -- more like an Indian dal made of lentils and spices topped with fresh cilantro.

The flavor was on the sweeter side because of the plantains but the tiny chunks of bacon gave the dish more substance and a nice balance of savory against the sweet.

The yucca fries were piping hot, crispy and...skimpy. All of six fries to an order. They came with a so-called banana Thai basil ketchup that didn't have too much flavor.

Now let's get to the somewhat ugly. Message boards raved about the burger and being a total burger snob, I was curious yet skeptical. The verdict: downer. Some swore it was the best burger they'd ever had, which can only mean one thing -- that they've never been to Houston's. The burger that came with arugula, herb mayo and tomato jam was a flop. The bun was decent enough -- soft and fresh albeit on the dense side. But the patty? Oh, the patty. It was all the wrong texture -- not evenly ground with some areas being too chunky and others being mushier. More importantly, the flavor was nowhere to be found. The worst offense of this burger was the addition of the all-too-sweet tomato jam that overpowered everything and was the nail in the coffin. It was a more ambitious attempt than the sad, anemic burger I had at A-Frame but still, not nearly a halfway decent burger.

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