Change has been good for the Rose Café, less weird but more wonderful

By Richard Foss (

Rose Café diners can watch as bakers prepare fresh baguettes from scratch Photo by Richard Foss

Rose Café diners can watch as bakers prepare fresh baguettes from scratch
Photo by Richard Foss

I first went to the Rose Café in the 1980s, when Venice was more than a little dicey and bohemian. Back then it was an avant-garde hangout that was open early and late — full of art that was sometimes challenging and sometimes just inexplicable, and populated by people who matched that description. I stopped going after having several meals of erratic quality served to me after inexplicable delays. The dining scene in Venice had changed for the better by then, and there were plenty of other options.

The Rose Café’s recent remodel, new ownership and new chef was intriguing enough that I recently returned for breakfast for the first time in at least 20 years. I found a much different environment: hip rather than artsy or bohemian, and much brighter and cleaner than I remembered. We had a good view of the stuff in the bakery and deli counter while we waited, and that gave us a clue about what to expect. Beautiful people were buying beautiful pastries, with not an art weirdo to be seen.

We were seated on the street-side patio next to planters of fragrant rosemary (a nice touch) and got our first look at the menu. The prices for some basic items are almost absurdly high — two eggs with bacon and fried potatoes will set you back $17. Oddly, some more complex items with a higher perceived value are the same price or cheaper.

We braced ourselves for a wait at the restaurant and had already fortified ourselves with coffee, so decided to live large and enjoy cocktails. The Rose Cup of bourbon, lemon, lime, mint, cucumber and strawberry was a refreshing cooler in which a splash of Bonal herbal liqueur made all the difference, adding spice and complexity to what would otherwise have been a simple fruit punch. It tasted like it had less alcohol than it probably did. The Rosé All Day was similarly successful, a mix of wine, gin and Pisco brandy, with lime and grapefruit juices and orange bitters.

A helpful and friendly server named Kirstyn arrived and took our drink orders, then gave us some guidance about the different menu items. We had heard that some plates were petite and decided to throw caution to the wind and order both starters and entrees. For starters we chose a plate of grilled Italian eggplant tartine and fried sunchokes with pickled raisins and green garlic aioli.

Sunchokes are one of my favorite vegetables, but not as popular as they might be because of their odd appearance. The edible root of the sunflower is irregular, bumpy and a blotchy brown, but when properly prepared it has a delightful flavor that resembles a cross between asparagus and artichoke. These particular sunchokes were cut into chunks and fried so that the interior was almost liquid, and the pairing with raisins and aioli was perfect. These are the best sunchokes I have ever had, and a perfect introduction to the vegetable for those who haven’t tried it before.

The eggplant was strange but no less successful. Splitting an eggplant and stuffing it with mozzarella, vegetables and marinara before roasting is standard practice, but this one was stuffed with tomato-cocoa jam, smoked feta, pinenuts, olives, caper-mint pesto and arugula. This sounds like it should be out of balance, but it wasn’t. The pesto and olives added tart pickled flavors to the vegetable richness, and though the cheese looked sparse there was enough to add a gentle creaminess. Count this as a modern reimagining of a rustic dish.

For entrees we had chosen one item that looked conventional, fried chicken with biscuits and gravy, and one that seemed to take a traditional favorite for a ride, a breakfast burrito that added peanut-poblano mole sauce to the usual fried potatoes, bacon, cheese and eggs.

To my surprise the chicken was the standout. Two skinless and boneless thighs were coated with a mildly peppery batter and nicely fried, then put on the plate next to superb biscuits topped with sausage gravy. I’m used to doughy biscuits topped with bland gravy, but these were perfect flaky biscuits with a gravy that was spicy and herbal and had specks of green onion to round out the flavors.

The breakfast burrito was curiously muted by comparison, and the only unsuccessful item of our meal. Though the housemade juniper bacon along with eggs and potatoes showed the quality of the ingredients, the burrito was rather wet and the poblano sauce curiously bland. It wasn’t bad, but paled by contrast to our other selections.

Our lavish meal for two ran $99 — not what I’d spend for breakfast every day, but we left very full. We could have dispensed with one of the starters and still been replete, but if we had we would have missed a fantastic experience.

The Rose Café is in a stage of superlatives right now, with excellent staff serving the best food and drinks ever in this location, albeit charging the highest prices. Something has been lost and something gained as this venerable place caught up with the mainstream, but I like it better as it is than as it was.

Rose Café 220 Rose Ave., Venice (310) 399-0711