Venice’s Leona: California flavors with a hint of Korean pizzazz

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Squash soup – Photo by Jill Weinlein

Strolling along the canals in Venice, built in 1905 by developer Abbott Kinney, is a relaxing experience. It’s a charming area with its eclectic architecture, the bridges tha span the canals and the graceful white egrets that fly overhead.

Located next to a canal and just a block from the Pacific Ocean is Leona restaurant. Owners Kristian and Breegan Vallas brought the former bakery and cafe back to life with the help of Scott Morris Architects and Executive Chef Nyesha J. Arrington’s dynamic menu offers progressive California cuisine.

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Venice Canal in California – Photo by Jill Weinlein

Arrington started cooking when she was five years old at the side of her beloved Korean grandmother. They rolled wontons together and made interesting dishes with bulgogi, octopus and homemade kimchi. This talented chef integrates flavors from around the world into appealing dishes at Leona.

Arrington previously worked nearby at the Jonathan Beach Club in Santa Monica and with the classically French trained Josiah Citrin at Mélisse. She appeared on Bravo’s “Top Chef: Texas” and Food Network’s series, “Chef Hunter,” where she won.

At Leona, her menu focuses on California cuisine with some Korean influences. She is well known at the Santa Monica Farmers Market, where she selects ethically harvested produce.

Karina and manager of Leona's Hershey - Photo by Jill Weinlein
Karina White with Hershey, the affable manager of Leona – Photo by Jill Weinlein

My niece Karina joined me for lunch recently and we opted to sit on the patio to enjoy the beautiful, warm weather. The interior dining room has a modern Restoration Hardware décor with orb lights, white brick walls, dark wood and caramel leather colored banquettes. Photographs from the Venice Historical Society are displayed in the dining room and large bar area serving beer, wine and mixed cocktails.

Our server recommended we order the freshly made cucumber passion fruit agua fresca. It was refreshing and not too sweet. The flavors change throughout the week and include blood orange catctus, sugar cane verbena and hibiscus pomegranate.

The cool cucumber passion fruit beverage paired nicely with the bulgogi chicken wings. She must have been inspired to put these on the menu from her days cooking in the kitchen with her grandmother. The glossy wings offered the essence of soy sauce, sugar, sesame oil, garlic, pepper, scallions, and ginger. In the evening she dresses up her short ribs in this sensational sauce.

My favorite dish of the day was the heirloom squash soup with flash fried sage leaves, bright red pomegranate and pepita seeds in the center. It was a gorgeous combination of colors, textures and flavors. The earthy squash was bedazzled with the sweetness of the pomegranate seeds. The pepitas squash seeds added a delightful crunch to the smooth pureed soup. Sunflower and grain bread accompanied the soup, perfect for dipping.

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Squash soup – Photo by Jill Weinlein

A foodie friend sitting next to us declared Arrington’s burger is the best in L.A. It’s served on a grilled brioche bun with white cheese and a side of arugula, sliced red peppers and a house-brined pickle.

I ordered the turkey meatloaf sandwich and wished I had ordered the lighter roasted turkey sandwich. The meatloaf was very dense, yet I did like Arrington’s housemade chips. The turkey sandwich looked appetizing on grilled grain and nut bread with pickled shallots, cranberry mayo and butter lettuce.

Healthy salads - Photo by Jill Weinlein
Healthy salads – Photo by Jill Weinlein

My niece ordered the Cali quinoa salad mixed with wild arugula, sliced apples, crunchy almonds, and cubes of avocado and dressed with housemade apple cider vinegar.

Chef Arrington elevates a Reuben sandwich by wrapping it with melted Swiss cheese, spinach, and her housemade fennel kefir kraut. She spices it up with her own Gochjang Island dressing made with Korean red pepper paste. Its dazzling zip tingles your tongue.

The smoked salmon pizza was piled high with watercress leaves and crumbled hard boiled egg and had a sprinkling of black sesame seeds along the crust.

A few of these items are served on Leona’s brunch menu. I will need to come back one weekend to try her brown butter pancakes with whipped coconut and a sea salt-vanilla butter. She also makes a Korean latka with creme fraiche and sliced scallions. It’s a tantalizing fusion of traditional potato pancakes with house-made kimchi served on a wooden board.

Locals bring their kids for lunch, brunch and an early dinner from the children’s menu featuring a vegetable plate, turkey Sloppy Joe, fish sticks, and cheeseburger.

Photo by Jill Weinlein
Photo by Jill Weinlein

The day we dined, Arrington had just opened a new cookie window which opens onto the sidewalk and attracts pedestrians on their way to the beach. Chef Arrington’s sweet cookies include a crunchy miso brown butter chocolate chip, zippy ginger macadamia nut and coconut macaroon. They are an ideal snack to pick up before or after a day at the beach or to nibble on while exploring the Venice canals.

Lunch is served from 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., weekend brunch is 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. and dinner is served from 5:30 to 10 p.m. every Tuesday through Sundays. The cookie window is open from 11 a.m. to closing. Leona’s is closed on Mondays. $$ 123 Washington Blvd. (310)822-5379.

This article was featured in the Beverly Press and Park LaBrea News on February 25, 2016.

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