A Foodie Adventure in Venice
From Blue Star Donuts to The Cook’s Garden, Avital Tours tracks the trendy and delicious
By Christina Campodonico
For Avital Ungar, food and curiosity make a perfect pairing.
The founder of Avital Tours, which begins offering culinary walking tours of Venice and downtown L.A. this weekend, fell in love with fine cuisine while living in the South of France.
“When you’re traveling you have this sort of curious mindset. You look at everything from a new perspective. You try something old, but in a new way,” she says. “When you live in a city you don’t act as a traveler or have that same mindset.”
Ungar, 30, began giving food tours of San Francisco five years ago and recently invited The Argonaut to preview one of several possible Venice routes. On a rainy Saturday, she guided me and a small group of food bloggers through rain-soaked streets and alleys for a four-course progressive meal.
The tour began outside boardwalk hotspot the Venice Alehouse.
“Our story is going to be food as art,” began Ungar who went on to discuss Venice as an enclave for visionaries, artists and innovators, from the days of Abbot Kinney to the beatniks of the 1950s and ‘60s to the CEOs of today’s hot tech startups.
Ungar next led us to new-kid-on-the-boardwalk Dudley Market, where we were greeted with a deliciously sweet and effervescent German Gilabert Cava from Northeastern Spain and teacups filled with gorgeously green and glistening olives. Then came an appetizer of gnocco fritto — puffs of fried dough with a slice of scallop on top and a red-orange Calabrian chile sauce thinly smeared on the bottom.
Celebrated restaurant critic Jonathan Gold recently praised Dudley Market’s gnocco frittos as “pure exhilaration.” I found the scallops’ fishy taste to be too overpowering, and the pastry puff underwhelming — tough to cut and bite into without anything rewarding on the inside. The dish might have made a zestier statement with a more generous dollop of the Calabrian sauce, but I was a touch disappointed after reading such fanfare.
My mind didn’t linger on that for long, however, because I immediately struck up a conversation with my fellow diners. The beauty of a tour like this is that not only do you get to try new dishes in your own backyard, you also meet new people.
My taste buds were happier at our second stop — Plant, Food + Wine — with a carrot ginger soup that magically combined curry and cream into one beautiful bowl. A red streak of paprika oil swirled in the thick French curry-based soup, while sesame seeds and candied almond shreds added a nutty and sweet textural element that I enjoyed massaging between my teeth and tongue in between sips of the spicy broth. While the soup began with a kick, it finished smooth, satisfying my stomach’s yearning for something savory on this wet and rainy afternoon. I was also delighted to discover that the restaurant has a lovely olive-tree covered outdoor dining area and garden, which would make for a perfect lunch or dinner spot on a cloudless day.
En route to Gjelina we passed the now-shuttered Joe’s Restaurant. That we walked by the former Michelin Star restaurant without even stopping to talk about its 24-year history on Abbot Kinney Boulevard
seemed to speak to the neighborhoods trajectory toward ever-trendier horizons.
We did stop however at The Cook’s Garden on Abbot Kinney Boulevard, where gardener Geri Miller talked about how the garden works with local chefs to grow ingredients for their restaurants. Each of us sampled a rattail radish picked fresh from the vine. True to its name, the thin and spindly vegetable did look like a tail, but also more like a slim peapod, and it had a refreshing bitter zing to it.
Then we took what I thought was a slight detour into a little alleyway, where a low table and plastic crates awaited us. While Avital’s website says the tour includes a stop at Gjelina, we actually ate at Gjelina Take Away (GTA), the trendsetter’s little sister for to-go options. The seating arrangement may have been unexpected for the uninitiated, but the pizza was piping hot, delicious and more than made up for it.
We were offered two types of pizza — one piled with chunks of lamb sausage and confit tomato, the other covered by a bed of arugula with bottarga (pressed and dried fish eggs) sprinkled on top. The bottarga, a popular seasoning grated onto pasta in Sicily and other Mediterranean countries, added a salty spike to the pizza, but the jalapeno hidden beneath the arugula’s leafy tendrils and a layer of mozzarella was the real surprise. It provided a subtle smoky spice to the slice that was delightfully unexpected. Being a devoted carnivore, however, the lamb sausage pizza was my favorite and I couldn’t help but take two slices.
We then walked across the street, passing the soon-to-close legendary Westside gay bar Roosterfish without comment, to pick up our dessert at Blue Star Donuts. A Portland brand by birth, the Abbot Kinney location is known for its Mimosa Donut, a heavenly ring of fried dough coated in a sweet, Champagne-flavored glaze with crystallized orange shavings on top. The pastry had a sugary crust that gave way to a wonderfully soft yellow center. Yum!
Taking our donuts to-go, we ended our tour next door at the record store Vnyl, where we could peruse the shop’s offerings before catching an Uber home or a shuttle back to the boardwalk — but not before exchanging business cards, emails and following each other on Instagram.
Those fond of old Venice may find this tour short on local culinary history, but take it and you’ll have to admit that new Venice is quite tasty.
Avital Tours of Venice begin on Sunday, April 24. Tickets start at $88. Visit avitaltours.com for the tour schedule.