By Richard Foss (Richard(at)RichardFoss.com)
Anyone who uses a GPS to get somewhere knows the frustration you feel when it insists that you go the wrong way on a one-way street, take a closed off-ramp or otherwise do something impossible. I can’t actually blame Google Maps for my most recent navigation problem, though — it took me right to the address I wanted, but my destination was hidden around the corner. The problem is that the strip mall at the corner of Washington Boulevard and Marr Street has an address on Abbot Kinney, which runs behind it. This may have made sense in some previous street configuration, but it is bewildering now. To top off our confusion on arrival, the restaurant we were heading for has a black sign that is unlit after dark.
The momentary confusion was worth it because our destination was South End, a fairly new restaurant with a very old strategy: do a few things very well rather than be all things to all people. South End is a collaboration of the chef from Mozza and the sommelier from Café Piccolo, and if you guess that a lot of pizza and wine is served there, you are right. In fact almost nothing else is on the menu — there are four salads, plates of either cheese or charcuterie and two items described as tartes, more about which comes later. The rest of the food menu is pizza — eleven different kinds, some using boutique products but all Italian in concept. You’re not at CPK, and Thai chicken and similar fusions are nowhere in sight.
We were seated at the bar, which I usually regard with dismay because it’s often the most cramped and noisy seating. I quickly realized that here it’s an asset, because you get personal service from sommelier Mario Vollera. When we asked for wine selections, Mario inquired about our preferences and poured tastes of his recommendations. We felt honored by his attention. His instincts were right, too: the glasses of Picpoul and Viognier were admirable companions to our salad.
We had decided to start with an arugula, gorgonzola, apple and pecan salad that was simply dressed with lemon and a dash of balsamic vinegar. The salad arrived as an impressive mound of greens, but the irregular nature of arugula magnified the size — what looked like a salad for four was a good starter for two. The many gaps in the arugula also led to the nuts and cheese going to the bottom, so I’d have liked this salad better if the arugula had been chopped a bit so that the ingredients could be more easily combined.
Our next item was a tart with caramelized onions, Brie, pureed dates and a bit of balsamic vinegar. This wasn’t a tart you’d expect for dessert, or a tarte flambé (an Alsatian version of pizza on a flakey crust), but a dense pastry made with octopus ink so that it’s a dark purple. Think of a savory, thick cracker and you’re close. The base was good by itself, and with the always-winning combination of Brie, cooked onions and a sweet fruit it was delicious.
The arrival of the second item started another round of wine tasting, this time of reds that would be appropriate with our pizza. After much consideration we decided on a Chateau Latour Bordeaux and a Montepulciano, with which we were very content. We took the first sips while enjoying the atmosphere of the dark, clubby room. The music was a pleasing mix of eclectic oldies, and something about the acoustics here accented the bass lines so that as each song started we made a game of who could recognize it first. The room is loud but not oppressively so, though it was sometimes a challenge to sort out what Sam Cook or Creedence song was playing.
Our pizza arrived to the delicate strains of the Monster Mash, and it was a beautiful thing to behold: a puffy, slightly irregular crust topped with mozzarella, tomatoes, olives, marjoram and balls of heritage pork sausage. My wife, hitherto a fan of thick crust pizzas, marveled over a thin crust with so much body and flavor, and it was easily one of the best pizzas I’ve had in California. My only quibble was that I would have liked the sausage meatballs smaller so that I didn’t need to worry about one rolling off the crust and into my lap.
No desserts were mentioned, but we were pleasantly full from dinner. Our food ran $41 plus tax, astonishingly moderate for a meal of this quality, and the glasses of wine were between $10 and $14 each.
The menu may be limited here, but the artisanship in the kitchen isn’t. Along with the personal service, that makes South End a place to treasure.
South End is open from 4 to 11 p.m. on weekdays and from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. for brunch and 4:30 to 11 p.m. for dinner on Saturdays and Sundays. Dinner menu online.
South End 2805 Abbot Kinney Blvd., Venice (corner of Marr Street and Washington Boulevard) (424) 228-4736 southendla.com