The bar at Venice’s Sunny Spot
Sunny Spot, Roy Choi and Dave Reiss’ new island-style restaurant, is pretty spectacular during the day. Not just because the turquoise blues and bright colors pop in the breezy, indoor-outdoor space when it’s actually sunny. It’s because of the festival bread. And also because of the goat’s milk butter and guava jam that come with those wonderfully savory doughnuts. We tried it on everything, and it turns out that life is just much better with goat’s milk butter.
Festival bread is a brunch staple at the restaurant, and one of the more delicious things you can get on the menu. I love a good brunch, but normally don’t rave about it. The menus are often standard and lazy, both for the kitchen and the customer. But Jamaican oxtail stew, salt cod brandade Benedict, and Johnnycakes with spiced maple syrup are worth lingering over on any Sunday afternoon. Add a Bridgetown Swizzle, a potent rum concoction over a tower of shaved ice, and now you’re talking.
This is the second collaboration for the Korean-American chef and the restaurateur, or the third if you count the period when Choi served Kogi tacos and quesadillas out of Reiss’ Alibi Room. Their last project, A-Frame, Choi’s version of an L.A. picnic, was our Best New Restaurant winner for 2011. Sunny Spot is a great continuation of that partnership: Choi cooks with soul and lots of big, bold, spicy flavors, and Reiss lets him.
Day or night, the space is definitely cheery. The color palette—pinks and reds, blues, gold and greens—will put a smile on anyone’s face. Pretty colored glass lanterns sparkle during the day and glow at night. Even the back dining room, where no one wanted to sit during the restaurant’s former incarnation as Beechwood, soaks in warm, island hospitality. You feel good here. Thankfully the music isn’t always reggae.
For this spot, Choi finds his inspiration from all over the Caribbean, from Jah and from reggaeton. He throws in a touch of Jamaica, some Puerto Rico and a few dashes of Cuba, but it’s still an eatery after Choi’s own heart and very L.A. Like at all of his restaurants (Chego) and trucks (Kogi), the chef definitely has fun naming dishes for the menu: “cash money” fried calamari, “what a jerk” wings, “muh-f*k*n” mofongo, bacon-studded mashed plantains. It wouldn’t be a Choi joint without Papi Chulo’s hip-hop vibe and sense of humor.
He calls this “roadside” food, something to really dig into. It’s very much in the same vein as A-Frame, where he managed to get Brentwood housewives to put down their utensils and share beer-can chicken with strangers. Even if some dishes don’t look like much at Sunny Spot—especially the stews, which aren’t particularly visually enticing—the flavors are serious.
Fruit and spice is everything nice, whether it’s the chile-salted pineapple lollipops or the crunchy hearts of palm salad with melon cubes, pickled shishito peppers and a colorful, slightly sweet carrot-coconut purée. For such a meat-heavy menu, there are plenty of vegetables to offset it. Another great salad is simply made with arugula, radicchio and butter lettuce tossed with charred cauliflower, grapefruit and goat cheese.
Still, Choi hasn’t met a cut of meat he doesn’t like. There are some dynamite smoked, jerk-rubbed baby back ribs, and crisp and fatty sugarcane fried pig’s feet. I, along with just about everyone else, am crazy for the saucy roast lamb. It looks humble accompanied by an iceberg lettuce wedge and pickled mango, but throw the three together and it’s pure magic. The Cubano sandwich is turned on its head with pork terrine replacing roast pork, prosciutto instead of ham, and provolone instead of Swiss cheese. Traditionalists might scoff, but they’d still polish off the whole thing.
The diablo prawns are a bit deceiving—there are simply a few shrimp sitting in a pool of red sauce. But that deeply hued broth has a kick, so be prepared. And maybe order a side of yellow rice, which is delicious. Rules don’t really exist here, so when you order a side of yucca fries with banana Thai basil ketchup (amazing), they’ll show up at any point in the meal. The servers might remind you or might not, so don’t be surprised. Order in waves if you want certain things at certain times. No one’s rushing to get you out, which is a nice surprise, even on a packed Saturday night.
The first time we went, we opted for another round of rum-soaked cocktails for dessert. It was brunch on a sunny, breezy day. Another time, we couldn’t wait to get at the sweet potato tart, which isn’t too heavy considering what it is. The toasted marshmallow ice cream is a lovely touch.
What I like about Choi is that he takes risks. He is, after all, the guy who put kimchi on a short rib taco and served it out of a truck, starting a food revolution. This is probably his most ambitious restaurant—mostly because he’s always bounced around various L.A. neighborhoods, not the streets of Kingston. But he gets it right, grabbing new ingredients that truly inspire him and adding them to his repertoire.
Sunny Spot feels like the first stop on this globe-trotting flavor exploration, and we’re happy to go along for the ride. There’s no better way to holiday.
822 Washington Blvd., Venice
Dinner: Sun.-Mon., 5-10pm;
Brunch: Sat.-Sun., 11am-3pm
Smalls and sides: $7-$12
You can get the amazing “two-fisted” burger for a mere $6 at happy hour. Add a Red Stripe and you’re set.
What to Wear
Anything you picked up on Abbot Kinney
Where to Sit
If you want to be in the middle of the action, definitely choose the patio or open-air room with its bar and skylights. The dining room is still pretty lively, but more hidden.
What to Drink
Continuing with the Caribbean theme, there’s a fine selection of rum behind the bar. What we’ll be drinking all summer: The Bridgetown Swizzle (Barbados rum, Averna, Falernum, lime, bitters) over a pile of crushed ice.