The décor at Sauce on Hampton may be minimal, but the sense of flavor is exuberant
By Richard Foss (Richard@RichardFoss.com)
I’m a little tired of minimalist décor — the hard spaces, open ceilings and blank walls make it look like somebody just moved in and hasn’t figured out where to put anything yet. I’ll admit that it can be done well, so that whatever individual touches are there are magnified by the empty spaces around them, but that doesn’t always happen all the time.
Sauce on Hampton, however, does the minimalist thing pretty well. Though there are only three pieces of art in the main dining room, the restaurant has a European coffeehouse feel. I had gone there at the recommendation of a reader, who said in his email that it was a great place in an unlikely location on a side street in Venice. It is indeed hidden; I had traveled within a hundred feet of it many times and never suspected that it was there.
The menu is an interesting blend of health-conscious modern cuisine with classic diner food —you can get a breakfast burrito, burger or meatloaf, but they’ll be organic and made with premium ingredients. You can also get a citrus fennel avocado salad, local sea bass and an array of farm-to-table vegetarian dishes. The variety made it hard to decide, and the three of us changed our minds several times until our server’s arrival forced snap decisions.
We started with a bowl of pureed cauliflower-onion soup and an order of polenta cakes topped with caramelized mushrooms. Both showed that somebody here knows how to get bold expressions of flavor from vegetables using few overt spices. The thick vegetarian soup had lots of cauliflower with the right proportion of onion to balance it — not easy when one ingredient is so mild, the other so assertive. It was a fine combination of winter flavors, with just a dash of green herbs for seasoning and color.
The polenta cake was even better — cornmeal mush baked like particularly light and fluffy cornbread and topped with mushrooms that had a slightly crisp exterior and nice overtones of garlic, oregano and other herbs I couldn’t identify. The textures and flavor were delightful and raised our expectations of the kitchen.
Both starters would have gone well with a glass of wine, but they don’t serve it here so we had lemonade and a rosewater drink instead. The lemonade was pleasant, the rosewater too sweet for me; I should have gotten mint tea instead because it would have gone well with the meal.
The menu mentions that there are seasonal preparations of short ribs, and when the server told me that today’s were braised in pumpkin mole, I knew what I was having. My companions decided on a chicken schnitzel and a turkey burger “Gilda’s Garden style,” which is with grilled zucchini and avocado. Each entrée comes with your selection of sides, and we picked roasted sweet potatoes, a green salad, quinoa salad and spinach sautéed with chili flakes.
Mole, the rich sauce native to Oaxaca, always has some level of heat beneath a rich mélange of spices, usually including cumin, garlic, sesame, cloves, cinnamon and dark chocolate. The version here passed that test — the tender meat was accented by multiple layers of flavor, intensifying just a bit with each bite. The powerful chilies were used with restraint, and the dist never became assertively spicy. The spinach was much hotter, the chili and garlic liberally used to create a clean, zesty flavor that was perfect alternated with the rich sauce. The quinoa salad with vegetables was a background item by comparison, with pleasant natural vegetable flavors but nothing that really stood out.
Nothing else on our table hit the brilliance of the combination of mole and spinach, but it was all quite good. The burger was gigantic and rather messy — whoever had added the aioli and Dijon mustard had gotten a bit exuberant , and I’d ask them to dial it back a bit the next time. Besides the turkey, zucchini and avocado, there was tomato, spinach and red onion, resulting in a variety of flavors and textures. The roasted yellow sweet potatoes were excellent and filling, and we ended up taking half the burger and sides home.
The chicken schnitzel looked like the standard German variety but didn’t taste like it — the breading was more highly seasoned and had a slight peppery tang. Chimichurri sauce was provided, but we actually forgot about it because the chicken was good enough on its own.
Desserts were offered, but we didn’t partake because the dinners had been so ample. They were modestly priced, too — most entrees are $16 or less, and only two things on the menu are over $20.
The décor at Sauce on Hampton may be minimal, but the sense of flavor here is exuberant. This is one side street wonder that is worth searching out.
Sauce on Hampton is open from 8 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. daily. Street parking only. No alcohol sold, but you may bring your own (two bottles maximum) after 6 p.m. without paying corkage. A 15% service charge applies to dine-in orders. Menu is online.
Sauce on Hampton, 259 Hampton Drive, Venice (310) 399-5400 sauceonhampton.com