The Venice Whaler sets a new course with creative cocktails and updated classics
By Richard Foss
We probably have Herman Melville to blame for the mystique of whaling. Prior to the publication of “Moby Dick,” that profession was distinctly unglamorous. Sailors disdained serving aboard whalers, whose slippery decks stank of boiled grease, and their trade was rightly regarded as filthy and dangerous. It goes to show how popular media can transform our perceptions. I have heard that there’s a whole amusement park in Anaheim dedicated to a mouse that was in a movie long ago, but if people see a mouse in their kitchen they generally call an exterminator. But I digress …
The food aboard a whaler was the same salt beef and ship’s biscuits that were served aboard all 19th-century ships, but this hasn’t stopped The Venice Whaler from offering a much wider menu. The place started as a steak and seafood house in 1944 but was serving conventional bar food until new owners decided to freshen up the menu.
New chef Nick Liberato has cooked at high-style restaurants serving Japanese-French fusion, but you wouldn’t know that from this menu of updated and sometimes whimsical takes on American standards. There’s a wide variety of snacks and shared plates, some pizzas, soups and salads, and a menu that is heavy on sandwiches with a few entrees. It’s oddly short on seafood. Though fish-and-chips, a mussel bowl, planked salmon and fish tacos each have a place on the menu, I might have expected a waterfront restaurant to offer fresh-grilled local fish.
The upstairs room and patio is attractive and had a nice vista of the beach, but when my friend and I visited the space was rather loud — I’m told that on weekend evenings, it’s basically a packed bar scene up there — so we dined at one of the outside tables with a view of the street life.
Since we wanted to try some of the new items we decided to ask our server to guide us, and he suggested we start with the jerk chicken skewers. The meat had been dusted with dry spice before grilling rather than being doused with sauce, and it was sprinkled with green onion and served with fresh cilantro lime aioli. Real Caribbean jerk seasoning often involves a liberal hand with the Scotch bonnet peppers, but this one was mild — no more than a 3 on a scale of 10. There was enough spice to keep things interesting without overwhelming the meat, and the aioli was a good pairing.
Chef Liberato also has a background in the cocktail world, so we tried two of his new cocktails: the brandy-based “Crazy Train” and a “Rye Tai” called “My Generation.” Making a mai tai with rye whiskey instead of rum is a great idea, as the subtle spiciness of the rye adds a little herbal sharpness to a fruity tiki favorite. The Crazy Train, a mix of Armagnac, lime, almond syrup and bitters, shares a name with a tequila-based cocktail but doesn’t resemble it. It’s a citrusy sipping drink with summer flavors that still went down well on a chilly night.
For dinner we took our server’s recommendation of a banh mi Vietnamese-style sandwich, and I ordered a pizza topped with clam chowder, mozzarella and grilled shrimp just because it was weirdly compelling. In retrospect those toppings aren’t such an odd idea. There are other pizzas with white sauce and seafood, and this one closely resembled them. Chowder has thyme and some other herbs that aren’t traditionally Italian, so this wasn’t quite the standard item. What mattered was that it was quite a good pizza on its own merits.
The banh mi turned out to be an interesting take on the traditional sandwich with a deliberate change in the flavor balance. These usually have a spicy pickle flavor to balance the richness of the meat; here the vinegar flavor is muted but supplemented by a bit of tart pineapple. The kitchen had deseeded the rings of red chili pepper so they weren’t blistering hot, but there was still plenty of slow burn as I kept eating. I happen to slightly prefer the traditional version, but this is a worthy variation.
Our portions were substantial enough that we skipped dessert, though I found it hard to not order the key lime pie. I’ll get that next time, because this first experience made me want to come back for more.
The Venice Whaler, 10 Washington Blvd., Venice (310) 821-8737 venicewhaler.com