A hidden island fantasy
Tucked behind a wall, Sunny Spot’s courtyard garden is a surprise setting for creative cuisine inspired by the Caribbean
By Richard Foss (Richard@RichardFoss.com)
Real estate developers spend a lot of time thinking about “curb appeal” — how to make a property look welcoming at first glance. Some restaurateurs do the same, figuring that a well-crafted exterior will indicate the ambiance to casual passersby. Anytime someone thinks, “Hey, that looks like the kind of place where I’d like to have lunch,” it’s a win for those owners.
Venice’s Sunny Spot greets visitors with a view of a block wall. There’s a sign too, and a banner announcing brunch service, but there’s no hint of whether the experience is rustic, formal or something in between. The wall does serve two purposes — it blocks the street noise that would otherwise invade the establishment, and it makes it so that visitors are greeted with a surprise as they enter the patio. That oasis of lemon trees, hanging vines and deco-colored outdoor furniture changes only slightly as you move indoors to a bright space reminiscent of a Caribbean beach bar. Inside or out, Sunny Spot is well named.
The menu here is vaguely Jamaican, but the island is an inspiration rather than a template, and in some cases the names on the menu are misleading. A case in point is the “What a Jerk” chicken wings. In Jamaica, jerk chicken is slow-roasted after being coated with an allspice- and pepper-laced rub, then sauced with a vinegar-based concoction that ups the heat further. Here chicken is breaded with a flour mix that contains hints of allspice and herbs, southern-fried and placed on a bed of that jerk sauce. It might be a disappointment to someone expecting traditional jerk chicken, but it’s done so well that you can’t help but like it.
The Caribbean connection is even further removed in the salmon ceviche — and yes, ceviche is popular on the Caribbean coast of Mexico, but salmon do not swim in that sea. The rum-laced crème fraiche marinade has mild green onion and bits of nutty quinoa, and makes it a fine, refreshing starter. The plantain chips served with the ceviche wouldn’t be my first choice — corn chips would have been a better flavor match — but on the whole it was successful.
There’s rum in more than the sauces here, with an exceptional sipping rum list and some very inventive cocktails. A mix of Dominical rum, lime, honey, absinthe and champagne was delightful, and an old fashioned that used both bourbon and rum went down easy. They have non-rum based cocktails too, and whatever your tipple there will be something to pique your interest.
The entrée menu offers more Jamaican- and Cuban-inspired dishes, and we mulled over some alluring seafood items before taking our server’s advice and ordering oxtail pasta and Jamaican roasted lamb. The pasta was quite a departure from the other things we had tried, the tender meat tossed with shell pasta and mustard greens in a delicately spiced lemon, parsley and garlic sauce. It was a dish that any Italian restaurant might proudly claim, down to the hint of red pepper that Sicilian chefs use to add zest to a mild dish.
The lamb also had its virtues, starting with a richly spicy sauce reminiscent of a Mexican mole or Trinidad-style curry. The only problem was that the sauce overwhelmed the lamb flavor to the point that we couldn’t tell that it was lamb — the meat had been cut in small pieces, so there was no way to get any that wasn’t completely coated. We ate every bit, however, because almost anything covered with that sauce would be delicious, though it would have been a better presentation and experience with the meat whole or the sauce on the side. The lamb was served with saffron rice, black beans and coleslaw for a well-balanced plate.
We finished with a marvelous dessert — made-to-order ciabatta bread pudding with pears, raisins and coconut. This takes about 15 minutes to make, so order it when your main course arrives if you are in a hurry to dine, but if you have ever liked bread pudding in your life, order it. The crisp pudding is baked in a small skillet and has a crème brûlée-type caramelized topping with fruit and spice notes. It’s as fine a way to finish a meal as anything offered on the Westside.
We spent $56 on food before tax and tip, and almost that amount on cocktails — we had ordered some of the more expensive drinks, and it would be easy to spend less. We left the restaurant all smiles and ready for a return visit. We want to bring friends to the walled garden on Washington to enjoy the surprises in store here.
Sunny Spot is open from 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. Mondays through Fridays and 10 a.m. to 11 p.m. on weekends. Full bar; corkage $15. Valet parking.
Sunny Spot, 822 Washington Blvd., Venice (310) 448-8884 sunnyspotvenice.com