By Richard Foss (Richard@RichardFoss.com)
I decided to surprise a friend by taking her to a restaurant that it seemed unlikely she would know about on Abbot Kinney Boulevard in Venice. “Oh Marla’s,” she responded when I mentioned the name. “At the studio where I work we get food from there once a month, and everybody figures out an excuse to be at work that day.”
So much for surprises. Marla’s is very well known in the local film community as a caterer, though some people who enjoy their food all the time have never visited the place. And if you are right now saying to yourself “Hey, I drive down Abbot Kinney all the time and have never seen the place,” you aren’t alone. Marla’s is on the section between Washington and Venice boulevards, which seems to get about a hundredth as much traffic as the stretch just north of Venice.
If you’re dining in, don’t go to the front door, because that’s the catering office and kitchen. The restaurant entry is on Victoria Avenue, a residential side street, and at first it doesn’t resemble a restaurant either. Instead, it looks like a whimsical interior designer and a florist needed a place to put their stock, and they did so around some tables and chairs.
In fact, this isn’t too far from the mark – our server informed us that this space was originally where they stored catering equipment, and when they decided to make it a dining area they used set pieces from years of film studio catering. The spangled curtains, massive potted plants, butterfly kites, and garden statues create an atmosphere that’s just plain fun.
The menu is less over-the-top than the décor – they serve stylish comfort food; items like pork ribs, grilled steaks and seafood, pastas and sandwiches. We decided to start with pupusas, Salvadoran corn-flour turnovers, and a Mediterranean salad (which by any other name would be called Greek). Our server brought spice-dusted flour tortilla chips and pico de gallo to snack on and glasses for our wine – Marla’s doesn’t serve alcohol but allows you to bring yours for a $5 corkage fee.
Salvadoran food is not generally highly spiced, and the pupusas were appropriately mild, tasting mainly of chicken, corn kernels and mozzarella cheese – the dusting of powdery cotija cheese adding a little tang to go with the crisp, toasted corn flavor of the wrapper. It was served with a very mild guacamole – I usually prefer a bit of heat and onion in guac, but this was an appropriate complement.
The salad was standard in ingredients but well made, with fresh heirloom tomato, Persian cucumbers, a moderate amount of onion and plenty of feta cheese. Greek salads are designed to show off good produce, and this did just that. Also noteworthy were the excellent rolls that came with it – fluffy, buttery things with notes of herb and garlic. I don’t usually like this kind of roll, but these won me over.
For main courses we selected lamb chops with mixed vegetables and onion rings, and an order of chicken Parmesan with wilted spinach and sautéed mushrooms. The chicken was an enormous breast nicely cooked and layered with cheese, but on the day we were there the sauce was watery and turned the breading soggy. We had chosen our sides from an expansive list and were satisfied with those –both were lightly cooked so they maintained the natural flavors and textures. The mushrooms had a delicate dash of paprika and garlic that made them a standout – I’d order these again any time.
That goes double for the lamb chops, though they were loin chops rather than rib chops, and thus a bit more difficult to get the meat off the bone. The flavor was fantastic – lightly smoky, with a sweet-and-sour sauce made with garlic and what I’m guessing was pomegranate juice. The menu mentions that there are two chops, which sounds like a small portion, but these were quite meaty and an ample main course. The vegetables were a mix of green beans, zucchini, snap peas, carrots and mushroom, and the onion rings were crisp and fresh, so all in all it was a splendid repast.
Several desserts were offered, among them black and white cookies. We were considering ordering these when our server mentioned that they were complimentary, which made that decision easy. The cookies weren’t what we expected – instead of the deli style half black and half white, we received a cookie with nuts in the dough that also had both black and white Ghirardelli chocolate bits. I’m not a big white chocolate fan but liked these just fine.
The bill for a long, leisurely dinner for two in peaceful surroundings was just under $85, and would have been much more if this restaurant was a few blocks north. Marla’s is an odd little gem, a peaceful oasis on the Westside with quite a bit of style, very good food and worth a visit.
Marla’s is at 2300 Abbot Kinney Blvd. in Venice. Open Mo 11:30 a.m. – 4 p.m., Tue-Fri 11:30 a.m. – 3 p.m. and 4:30 – 9 p.m., Sa 5 – 9 p.m. Dog-friendly, corkage $5, wheelchair access OK. Menu at marlascafe.com 310-827-1843.