Gjusta pairs new-school culinary ideas with the hustle and bustle of an old-school market

By Richard Foss (richard@richardfoss.com)

Gjusta’s mixed gravlax platter is served with cream cheese, tomatoes, capers, cucumber, dill, red onion and freshly baked bread Photo by Richard Foss

Gjusta’s mixed gravlax platter is served with cream cheese, tomatoes, capers, cucumber, dill, red onion and freshly baked bread
Photo by Richard Foss

My family comes from Baltimore, and on almost every trip back to that city I visit the cavernous Lexington Market to browse the food stalls. The vast warehouse-like building is packed with produce vendors, bakers, butchers, cheesemakers and prepared-food sellers of every kind. It’s visually stunning. In fact, sensory overload can be an issue — you smell food cooking, hear the constant hum of commerce, get jostled as busy people do their marketing.

It was strange to feel an echo of that environment on a side-street in Venice, but that was exactly what came to mind on my first visit to Gjusta. The bakery and café is in a long, weathered hall. The mind-boggling array of fresh products is alluringly displayed. And even when you visit midweek between breakfast and lunch, the bustle can be frantic.

When our group arrived at 10 a.m. on a Thursday there were lines at several registers spread over at least 30 feet of breads, meats, smoked and pickled fish, and other delicacies. To figure out what we wanted, we had to weave around people as we alternately peered into glass cases and looked up at terse menus posted overhead.

Only after we got to the front of one of the lines did we discover that you can’t order everything at every register — there are separate lines for the baked goods, the deli items and the hot beverages, though cooked items and cold drinks from the case can apparently be ordered at any of the three. If this had been posted then the three of us
could have waited in different lines to speed up the process as the fourth in our party staked out a table in the small patio dining area.

Luckily, the meal that we assembled across three counters and scrambled for a place to eat was worth the effort. From the pastry counter we got a raspberry snail, babka, and a fig-and-cheese Danish; from the deli, a plate of mixed gravlax; from the kitchen, a “porridge waffle” and a breakfast sandwich called a Risky Biscuit.

The pastries were very good, the flaky crust on the Danish and babka particularly light, buttery and airy. In case you haven’t run across a babka before, it’s a Polish cinnamon pastry that is yeast-risen for a moist, airy interior and a crisp exterior. They’re not easy to make well and are often overly sweet, but this one nailed it. The cheese-and-fig Danish also had very little sugar in the cheese, the better to contrast with the sweetness of the fruit.

The granola served over yogurt was on the sweet side, but the addition of toasted sesame seeds to the mix balanced it very well. It was served with peach slices and tart raspberries, and would have been a great grab-and-go breakfast.

So would the fish plate, though one decision here was questionable. The fish came with cream cheese, tomatoes, capers, cucumber, dill and red onion — all traditional accompaniments — but the bread it was served with had been liberally topped with olive oil. Who puts olive oil on bread that will be topped with oily salmon and cream cheese? It was a strange choice that detracted from the flavor of the seafood.

Gjusta offers a pastrami-seasoned gravlax, which I expected to be a novelty, and we got it along with a traditional version with dill. I’d happily have either again, as both were delicious.

The only shaky part of the meal was the two kitchen items. The porridge waffle, actually a standard waffle with a high percentage of whole grains, was a bit undercooked and arrived at our table not hot enough to melt the butter that was already on top of it. But the flavor was fine, and I think I would have liked it if it had been in the iron a few minutes longer.

The Risky Biscuit was more of a disappointment, a sandwich of homemade sausage topped with white cheddar, an undercooked and very runny fried egg, and barely a wisp of the harissa ketchup that presumably was supposed to add some excitement. It was a strangely dull item when we were hoping for
a risky one, and we wondered if we happened to hit the kitchen on an off day.

A variety of juices, teas, smoothies and kombuchas are available, but we stuck with the very good coffee from the beverage counter. (Refills are included on standard drip coffee, which we appreciated.)

The prices at Gjusta are higher than the ones at Lexington Market, not surprising when comparing an old inner-city location with one three blocks from the beach in Venice. Our lavish brunch ran about $20 per person, but it was absolutely worth it.

There are culinary discoveries to be made here in an atmosphere that echoes another era but offers the best of contemporary ideas — and it’s an exciting place to be morning, noon and night.

Gjusta 320 Sunset Ave., Venice (310) 314-0320 gjusta.com