Victor and I had the pleasure of checking out AK Restaurant + Bar this week, another relatively new hot spot on Abbot Kinney in Venice from former Four Seasons chef Conny Andersson. We enjoyed a cool beer tasting featuring a selection of brews from around the globe paired with various dishes. I’m more of a wine gal, but Victor, given his many years as a sports reporter (and now editor of the website SportsFanLive.com), is definitely a beer guy. Beer snob may be a better term. He won’t let me touch his collection of Sierra Nevada Celebration Ales. In any case, we both thought the concept of beer pairing was an entertaining change of pace.
My favorites were the complex German pilsner Konig paired with a chilled seafood appetizer, and the Japanese Hitachino Nest white ale, a light, bright and citrusy compliment to the perfectly cooked duck breast in a black pepper honey gastrique. Vic was partial to the Cupaca Mexican pale ale, which he described as “fruity and hoppy.” The Sing Ha lager was decent, but nothing special, given that I’ve had it at dozens of Thai restaurants before. The Vietnamese pilsner Hue just didn’t hold up in this crowd when it came to flavor, strength and complexity. And the Belgium ale Maredsous 8 was too sweet when I first took a sip but tasted great with a bite of mac & cheese.
Our first reaction to AK as a whole was mixed. Given the timing of its opening, the similarities and proximity to Gjelina, I couldn’t stop myself from comparing the two. It didn’t help that it was a frigid night, and we sat close to the door, which wouldn’t close all the way on its own. We were cold. While drinking cold beer. Vic kept getting up and shutting the door himself. The overall feeling of the place left me cooler than Gjelina, even though it was hopping. Perhaps it’s the mid-century modern design. The original Earo Saarinen chairs are incredibly stylish and comfy. And the glass walls overlooking bamboo, the glass-enclosed fire feature, the communal tables in the bar are all very lovely. But I found the spare, clean lines of mid-century modernism a bit chilly on this winter night. The little upstairs nook of a terrace looks a lot cozier and more private, and I think I would have preferred it.
The food, too, was up and down. Both of our entrees were wonderful. The duck and the king salmon with grilled fennel and a honey mustard glaze were both outstanding – moist and tender. The plating was gorgeous, the flavors divine. However, the steamed blue mussels starter was disappointing. Not terrible, but again, the ones at Gjelina are such much better. The dish needed something, maybe garlic? Spanish chorizo in the sauce was a little tough and chewy, although I have to say the tiny toasts covered in pistachio parsley pesto were a great idea. The buratta cheese and prosciutto appetizer with marinated peppers is always a favorite, and the cheese was silky and smooth. But it just didn’t wow me. And while the mac & cheese with chorizo, ham and manchego was yummy, the ricotta gnocchi was just bland. The crunchy texture of the chestnuts didn’t help the dish at all. Again, I couldn’t help but compare it to Evan Kleiman’s amazing ricotta gnocchi at Angeli Caffe, which we served at our wedding. Her buttery gnocchi is so wonderful that eating it is almost an orgasmic experience. This gnocchi inspired in me a Larry David-like expression of ambivalence, which frankly, I don’t know how to spell. “Eehhhh?” That’s the closest I can get.
Of course, I’d rather have a mediocre starter and side dish than a bad entree, and the entrees definitely delivered. So did the desserts. The chocolate obsession was filled with a river of gewey molten chocolate. Mmmm, mmmm. It was almost identical to a dessert I ate at the Four Seasons in Bora Bora two weeks ago after winning a four-night stay there as a door prize at a party. (Mom always said I was lucky.) Given Andersson’s Four Seasons background, I suspect he knew he had a winner on his hands with that one. The raspberry sorbet was also delish.
I’m not going to be too quick to judge AK just yet. Andersson is Swedish, and I have yet to try his Swedish dishes, such as the meatballs and the salmon gravlax — both of which the Los Angeles Times food critic raved about in her recent review. So I’ll be back to AK, I’m sure. On a warmer night next time. And perhaps I’ll try the wine. —Jenny