Going to Leona is like going to a friend’s house for dinner. The Venice Beach restaurant by Chef Nyesha Arrington is warm and inviting and feels like home.
Located on Washington Boulevard, the space is high-ceilinged with long leather banquettes. There is a long bar with stools that face the open kitchen. And the patio, which is along Washington Boulevard, is cosy and intimate.
From the moment we walked up to the hostess stand, I felt welcome. The hosts greet everyone with smiles and there is a sense of familiarity between them and the guests. We took our seat on the patio and started to review the menu. Serving progressive California cuisine, we were intrigued by the menu. Utilizing Central Valley produce and coastal seafood, there are international influences ranging from Asian to Mediterranean. Luckily I was with another “foodie” friend which means that we have a tendency to over-order, and over-eat. But that is why we have so much fun.
We started with Hibiscus Cured Hamachi with pomegranate ponzu and shiso leaf. A colorful dish that is light and perfect to start with, it was a bit on the salty side but I loved the accent from the pomegranate.
Our eyes lit up when we saw the Lamb Belly Wontons with crispy salsify, tat soi and orange zest on the menu and the dish does not disappoint. The crispiness of the salsify added a lovely texture to the tender wontons. And the flavorful broth was so good that my friend stole the bowl from me and started eating it like soup.
The Crispy Smelt with Kennebec potato crisps and chile de arbol house malt vinegar are fun little snack foods, although too big of a portion for just two of us to finish. The little fish are in a super crunchy batter that is not oily and greasy.
We got an order of the Kenter Canyon Farms Bread made with Sonora wheat and served with kabocha squash butter which we slathered on the bread.
One of the dishes that caught our eyes was the Bacon and Eggs and it was amazing. A potato crusted duck egg with smokey bacon broth and thyme, it was rich and savory, very fragrant and a mix of textures from the delicate broth to the crunch potatoes to the poached egg. As we enjoyed this dish at dinner, we thought about how it would be the perfect brunch dish.
What was all the more exciting was when Chef Nyesha Arrington came out to pour the broth on the Bacon and Eggs. As a former contestant on Top Chef and a Knife Fight winner, Arrington has worked at some prestigious Los Angeles restaurants, including JiRaffe under Raphael Lunetta and Mélisse, under Josiah Citrin. She was executive chef at Wilshire most recently before opening Leona.
With a large, genuine smile on her face, Arrington is friendly and warm. She seemed excited to share her dishes and was happy to engage with us as we asked her some questions about the dish.
For our main dishes, we selected the Dumpling Squash made with tapioca risotto, burrata cheese, red wine reduction, crispy black quinoa. I was intrigued by the tapioca risotto which was creamy. While the burrata was also creamy, it had a lighter texture. The squash had an earthy flavor to it. The crispy quinoa added crunch and the pomegranate added tartness. This dish is food art.
The Bulgogi Braised Short Rib with roasted bone marrow, Weiser Farm potatoes and MGrath mustard frills was another favorite. So tender you could eat them with a spoon, the short ribs had a beautiful outer crust that added texture to the tender meat. Add a little of the roasted bone marrow and I was in heaven.
As we finished our meal, the only dish we did not completely finish was the crispy smelt. Our lovely server was so impressed that we, two women, managed to each as much as we did. We were full by then but she insisted that we try dessert. We had the brown butter streusel cake with tangerine, cranberry, chestnut chutney. After all, brown butter is a magic phrase so how could we say no.
After dinner, I could not wait to return. So, I did just that when Leona started serving lunch. The lunch options are full of flavor but healthy and rather light at the same time.
Heirloom Squash Soup, Sage, Seeds and Toast
If you are in a rush and just want a quick snack, swing by the cookie window. Pick up a home-baked cookie, such as miso brown butter chocolate chip, ginger macadamia nut and a CocoLoco coconut macaroon and wash it all down with a selection of aguas frescas.
123 Washington Boulevard