Chef Travis Lett’s $20 ramen is worth every penny

Live it up like an Eastsider with the dark satire of “Thoroughbreds” and hipster chic of MTN

By Angela Matano

Living on the Westside, I’ll admit a bit of an inferiority complex around those who live (smugly) on the so-called Eastside. Sure, we have cooler weather, cleaner air and miles of internationally renowned coastline, but do we get cultural street cred? Not really — at least not on the other side of La Cienega.

As much as I may envy the attitude, style and overall righteousness of neighborhoods like Echo Park, this covetousness does not overcome my greater fear of traffic. Terror, actually. So what’s a Westside girl to do?

For those of us with a little imagination, West L.A. contains multitudes of approximations of far-flung locales, from English pubs (Ye Olde King’s Head) to high-class French restaurants (Melisse). That said, creating an ersatz Eastside isn’t all that unfathomable. Venice easily earns the superlative of coolest enclave, and the chillest local restaurateur has got to be Travis Lett, of Gjelina and Gjusta fame.

Not content to rest on his laurels, Lett opened MTN last summer. Unlike the granola-tinged, vegetable-forward, modern California cuisine of Gjelina and Gjusta, MTN veers left to showcase ramen and Japanese pub food (izakaya).

Like the beginning of any true poseur night, my meal at MTN began with a line. Even at the senior-friendly hour of 5:30 p.m.,
just before the joint opened, the line snaked around the block. And this was a Tuesday.

As should be expected in any situation brimming with “It Factor,” a certain amount of discomfort greets you — in this case, bar seating and communal tables. Because, let’s face it: Comfort just screams complacency.

I found myself blinking a bit in the dark dining room, its dim interior enhanced with charcoal walls, tables, even dishes. Strong aesthetics. But I appreciate the audacity of it all. The specificity. MTN looks, sounds and tastes like no other place in this ’hood.

Attention to detail also extends to the food. The relatively pared-down menu focuses on doing a few things very well, and the small plates cry out for sharing … and BTW, is “small plates” the new “family-style”? A Southern California version, perhaps, where tiny amounts of food get divided among too many people, creating a communal experience of pleasure and dieting together in one meal?

For a true dinner, order a bowl of ramen. Much has been made of MTN’s $20 version of the Japanese staple, but for me the pleasure of it justifies the cost. The soup feels nourishing, and I didn’t leave hungry. The two pork versions, dripping with umami, just skirt heaviness. Additions like nira (garlic, chives, fermented black bean paste), and komatsuna (a spicy, leafy green) lend freshness and depth of flavor.

What kind of film pairs well with MTN’s precision of style and flavor? An indie movie, of course! And not just any kind of nonconformist anti-studio film, but a black comedy, dripping with irony, sarcasm and wit.

“Thoroughbreds,” the debut film by writer-director Cory Finley, picks up what films like “Heavenly Creatures” and “Heathers” dropped. Violent, mean and wickedly funny, the story focuses on two teenage girls who bring out the worst in each other. Both exhibit sociopathic, even psychopathic tendencies that left unchecked lead them down the garden path toward criminal behavior.

What makes “Thoroughbreds” work, pulling back from the edge of exploitation, is the juxtaposition of the girls’ vision of the world with that of the adults surrounding them. The privileged Connecticut suburbs — toxic with marble kitchens, dressage lessons and in-home tanning beds — showcase the self-absorption of Americans in general. A sea of grown-ups whose hobbies consist of maintaining and grooming their own bodies, as if warding off death, is at the forefront of the girls’ brains at all times. I defy you not to laugh and cry at the same time.

While a night of dark satire and hipster chic may not be the most comfortable evening, it will splash a little metaphorical cold water on your face. Sometimes you have to take off the yoga pants and put on actual clothes.

“Thoroughbreds” screens this weekend at the AMC Classic Marina Marketplace 6 and ArcLight Santa Monica.

MTN is at 1305 Abbot Kinney Blvd., Venice. (424) 465-3313; mtnvenice.com

 

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