Venice’s new smokehouse truly rises to the occasion

By Richard Foss (Richard@RichardFoss.com)

The trendy-for-a-reason La Reina salad, grilled oysters and a pulled-pork taco Photo by  Richard Foss

The trendy-for-a-reason La Reina salad, grilled oysters and a pulled-pork taco
Photo by Richard Foss

Ambiguity in language has its good and bad points — it makes poetry possible, but also confusion. This thought was brought to mind by the new restaurant Clutch in Venice. A clutch can be a type of lady’s handbag, a collection of eggs, part of an automobile transmission, rising to accomplishment in a critical situation or the act of holding something tightly. I could think of various food metaphors involving food that might make any of these meanings make sense for a restaurant, and decided to look at the décor for clues.

I had to ask someone to find that it’s named after the auto part. Restaurant owner Oscar Hermosillo is a big fan of old cars — his rusty ’42 GMC truck was parked outside, and the footrests at the bar here are made of exhaust tubing. The automotive references in the décor aren’t intrusive in the style of Barney’s Beanery or Café 50’s, which is good: the effect here is simply rustic rather than kitschy.

Clutch opened as a “Mexican smokehouse,” serving barbecue items plus tacos and an assortment of sides, but has become more a modern grill/barbecue place that also serves tacos, guacamole and chips, and spiced grilled corn with cotija cheese as sides. To serve either Mexican or barbecue in this space is daring — it’s across the street from Baby Blues, a destination Southern rib joint, and within a few blocks of three other Mexican places.

We took a table on the patio, which is quieter and more spacious than the interior, and got some help decoding the menu from a friendly, somewhat overworked server named Sara. Though she was handling many tables by herself she made time to explain some of the unusual items, and offered tastes of a pair of wines we were unfamiliar with. With her assistance we decided to start with grilled oysters, a pulled pork taco and a “La Reina” salad. My wife expressed dubiousness about the salad, calling the mix of kale, cress, cauliflower, cotija cheese, corn, sugar snap peas and carrot “trendy.” But there’s a reason some combinations trend — they’re really good — and that was the case here. The cauliflower had been lightly grilled and the hint of smokiness played very well with the other fresh flavors.

The grilled oysters were unusually large Kumamotos, quite tasty as is or with a squeeze of lemon. The wood fire warmed and perfumed them without making them tough, and the richness was great in contrast to the salad. As for the taco, the meat was excellent but it was not as remarkable as the other items. The red beans would have been better on the side, and the sharp, vinegary salsa would have been good with chips but wasn’t needed here. I would have liked a dab of guacamole better.

For main courses we ordered a grilled duck breast, lamb T-bones and a side of the pork ribs — the latter not because I feared the portions would be minuscule, but because I smelled some going by and had to try them.

Those ribs arrived first, and it took great will power not to eat them all and have no room left. The five meaty ribs had been dry-rubbed with a chipotle spice mix, smoke-roasted to tenderness and served as barbecue fanatics like them best: un-sauced. There were four sauces available for dipping, three standard sauces at various levels of heat and sweetness and a bitter orange sauce that I wanted to buy as soon as I tried it. They don’t sell it, but I wish they did. Based on these ribs, I want to try everything else from that smoker.

The duck breast and lamb came along shortly, and of the two I preferred the lamb. The duck was slightly overdone (I like it rare to medium-rare), and most of the skin had been removed. This made it less moist, a plus for those who think of duck as greasy but a minus for those who like the richness of the meat. The sauté of Asian mushrooms and kale that accompanied it was delicious, though. For a place that is best known for barbecue, the kitchen here has marvelous skill with vegetables.

This was reinforced by the lamb’s two accompaniments: a side of grilled asparagus on a bed of thick yellow-orange chili sauce, and mashed potatoes with cheese, spices and grilled corn. As good as the lamb was (and I’ll get to that in just a minute), the asparagus was amazing. The yellow chili was moderately hot and had plenty of body and flavor, and if I knew how they made this I’d steal the idea for my next family dinner.

As for the lamb, it was the highlight of the meal: two big, tender pieces of meat that had been marinated with Mexican herbs and grilled with a spicy, tangy guajillo chili sauce. If you like lamb even a little you should order this.

Clutch, 427 Lincoln Blvd., Venice  (310) 396-8749

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