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Sweet tea-brined pork chop with date mostarda

South Bound!

by Lesley Balla | Photography by Andrea Bricco | Angeleno magazine | June 26, 2013

There’s no doubt Los Angeles is having an affair with Southern cooking right now. Throw a pat of butter in any direction and it will likely land on a buttermilk biscuit. Hometown chefs are elevating down-home dishes, like chicken and waffles and shrimp and grits, and serving up plates of country ham as if it were imported Italian salami. Add to this landscape convivial Willie Jane, which picks up in the same space where the now shuttered Lilly’s—the beloved French bistro that bid farewell to Abbot Kinney after 13 years on the Venice strip—left off (amazing patio included). 

Many lament the loss, but Willie Jane—home to icy-cold bourbon cocktails and chef Govind Armstrong, whose updates of old family recipes boast a modern, SoCal sensibility—fills the void with warmth and a Southern menu, which is just as much a credit to co-owner Brad Johnson, who has been running L.A.-rooted enterprises like famed nightclub the Roxbury since the ’80s, and opening and operating others such as BLT Steak. A couple of years ago, he and Armstrong debuted Post & Beam, a seasonal California eatery in the culinary wasteland of Baldwin Hills that brought hand-stretched pizzas topped with fresh-from-the-restaurant-garden vegetables, artisanal spirits and a good wine list to a shopping center surrounded by fast-food joints. Cue the swift ascension.

Now with Willie Jane, named for Johnson’s 100-year-old aunt, the pair is treating bustling Venice to a little Southern hospitality. Though the recipes are inspired by Armstrong’s culinary roots, he knows his customers (he’s been cooking in L.A. since he was a teen, having started out in Spago’s kitchen and riding the wave of acclaim to the likes of Chadwick, Table 8 and 8 oz.), and brings a local, seasonal, fresh and often light touch to the table. And, yes, Willie Jane proves it’s possible to make light of Southern cuisine—at least on the palate.

Though you can sit in the front of the restaurant at the bar or along one of the communal tables for a bite and a drink (one night I stopped in for a quick nibble and felt right at home with the chatty neighborhood locals who’ve already made Willie Jane their regular Friday night hang), ask for a patio seat—especially during L.A.’s long hot summer. It’s undeniably one of the loveliest settings, with blue metal chairs and sparsely adorned tables sprawling toward the back. The whole thing is lined with leafy plants and trees, and accented with weathered wood shutters and vintage sconces that add elemental appeal.

On another visit, my friend and I can’t decide whether to share one of the “larger plates” or order a few entrees and sides. Our helpful and friendly server explains that the seafood and grits—a pile of Santa Barbara spot prawns, mussels, clams, shrimp and more—is all we’ll need, that it easily feeds two or more. If we get the curried oxtail, with its tender meat falling off the bone, and grilled plantains, we can also go for a couple of appetizers and a side dish. Said server has his favorites, and really helps guide us through the menu. Because we want to try a little bit of everything, we opt for entrees.

What I like about Armstrong’s menu is its simplicity: Dishes are straightforward, all made with a few twists to keep things interesting. Instead of chicken and dumplings, there’s grilled quail and petit cornmeal pillows in rich gravy. There’s quinoa, but here it’s mixed with charred frisee and a green garlic puree. As for the chicken, it’s cooked in a cast-iron pan, rendering the meat meltingly tender and the skin slightly crisped, and served with panzanella made with cornbread cubes (rather than day-old rustic bread) and an interesting collard greens pesto.

Still, there is a little something missing from a few dishes. We immediately order biscuits, as does everyone else around us, and they come out fast. The butter is rich and creamy with a hint of sweetness. It all seems fine until the women seated next to us send theirs back to the kitchen. “They’re too doughy in the middle,” they say. “Like they didn’t rise. And they’re cold.” But when we see their replacements—hot and fluffy, with steam rising from their middle when sliced open—I realize that our biscuits are also cold and doughy. We want theirs, but make do.

I love the trout with Brussels sprout slaw. The fish is nicely cooked with a cornmeal crust, though the slaw could use more punch—perhaps a hit of lemon, mustard seed or even just a dash of salt. The mussels should be warmer when they arrive at the table; some of ours have a little sea funk, but the Tasso ham adds great flavor to the broth (just what our biscuits need). The winning dish is the sweet tea-brined pork chop, which is super-moist, flavorful and grilled to tender perfection. The sweet date mostarda and wilted greens, meanwhile, make the perfect accompaniments.

Dessert sort of makes up for the misses, as I’m a sucker for anything peanut butter and chocolate. (If you’re going homey, you go big, right?) Rich and decadent, chocolate-peanut butter pudding devil’s food cake, topped with soft whipped cream and honeyed peanuts, is a sweet finish.

For any minor hiccups, there’s still something to be said for this Southern belle. If I’m on Abbot Kinney craving bourbon and a great pork chop, I know where to go. And that patio is a huge draw, especially for a lingering brunch, when you’re fanning off the sun and slurping mimosas until someone screams “uncle”—or in this case, Aunt Willie Jane.

Willie Jane
1031 Abbot Kinney Blvd.,
Venice, 310.392.2425,
williejane.com

Open for breakfast weekdays, brunch on weekends. Lunch: Daily, noon-3pm Dinner: Mon.-Thu., 5-11pm; Fri.-Sat., 5pm-12:30am

Appetizers: $15-$28
Entrées: $26-$45
Desserts: $10-$12

What to Wear
Cool, breezy sundresses and wedges for her; dark jeans, plaid button-downs and loafers for him

What to Drink
There’s a great Old Fashioned for whiskey lovers. For everyone else, the Coal Miner’s Daughter with ginger and lavender honey is a kicky alternative.

Brunch It
Although Willie Jane is new to the brunch club (servings of the midday fave started just this past May), we’re hungering for the buttermilk waffles with bourbon-glazed bananas, smoked trout Benedict served on biscuits and grapefruit brûlée with minted seasonal berries.

Garden Fresh
Armstrong tends a garden at his other restaurant. Toque note: Same-street chefs can use it too.