Wonho Frank Lee

The versatile chef opened a vegan restaurant in Santa Monica last year, and now he’s serving confit karaage wings in Koreatown.

Andy Wang
November 16, 2017

L.A.’s Nick Erven is a chef who can cook anything.

At St. Martha, a modern American restaurant in Koreatown, Erven served both bone marrow beignets and Champagne sabayon that looked like a fried egg alongside steak-and-oyster tartare.

After St. Martha closed, Erven headed to Fundamental L.A. in Westwood, where he made all kinds of market-driven dishes but became best known for his elevated take on a fast-food burger with ground chuck, short rib and brisket accompanied by American cheese, caramelized onions, bread-and-butter pickles and thousand island dressing.

The chef then went on to open Erven in Santa Monica, a vegan restaurant with fried tofu sandwiches and onion bread pudding as well as big, bright plates of produce. It was named L.A.’s best new restaurant of 2016 by both Los Angeles magazine and Thrillist. Then this summer, Erven announced he was adding dairy and meat to his eponymous restaurant.

We bring all this up because Erven just re-did the bar menu at Koreatown’s The Venue, a subterranean lounge with cocktails from respected barman Devon Espinosa. And the menu, as you might expect by now from Erven, is full of original creations but also familiar, comforting flavors.

“The cocktails are dope and I was like, ‘How do we create good drinking food?’” Erven says. “If I’m coming here and I want to get wasted and eat something delicious, what does that look like? It’s basically bar food, but it’s fucking delicious bar food.”

Wonho Frank Lee

Most of the time when Erven creates a menu, he’ll write down dishes that he’s never actually cooked before. The double-fried tofu nuggets at The Venue started when Erven jotted down the words “chicken-fried tofu” because he thought it sounded cool.

“You marinate chicken in buttermilk, so I marinated the tofu in buttermilk,” Erven says. “Tofu’s Japanese, so we put some togarashi on it.”

Erven likes fried chicken with maple syrup and correctly decided that a soy-maple caramel sauce would work well with his fried tofu. 

“It’s sort of these two worlds that shouldn’t really work together, and you sort of take pieces from each and put this weird Franken-menu together,” Erven says.

There’s also some cilantro and jalapeno with the fried tofu because Erven loves the fact that Mexican and Asian food both use a lot of cilantro and chiles.

The Venue’s fried “ramen egg” exists because Erven’s favorite part of ramen is the egg. (He doesn’t have noodles or rice on his menu because he’s not trying to compete with all the Korean restaurants in the neighborhood.) Erven soft-boils an ajitama egg for six minutes. He then marinates it and coats it in a mix of flour, egg and Panko before frying it for 30 seconds. The result is an egg that’s crispy on the outside while still perfectly runny on the inside. This is serious #eggporn. Also, there’s creamy, briny, luxurious uni on top.

“We put uni on it because it just sounded decadent,” Erven says.

What Erven has done with the egg, which also comes with furikake and MSG-rich Kewpie mayo, is construct an umami bomb.

“I use Kewpie mayo a lot because it’s the greatest thing that’s ever happened,” Erven says.

A guest eating the egg tells Erven that she loves the mayo.

“It’s probably the MSG,” he says with a smile. “I think we should just have MSG shakers on the table. I think that’d be a nice touch.”

I think he’s joking, but this would no doubt make customers drink more.

Wonho Frank Lee

Other dishes at The Venue that reflect Erven’s experiences cooking and eating around L.A. include confit karaage wings with yuzu and nori; a little gem lettuce salad with tomato, pork belly, egg, avocado and blue cheese dressing; striped bass with ponzu butter, bok choy and king oyster mushrooms; and a popular skirt steak with salsa verde, roasted tomatoes and crispy fingerling potatoes.

“I have no cultural heritage that I’m holding onto,” says Erven, who grew up eating a lot of boneless, skinless chicken breast (which would come out of the freezer), iceberg lettuce and beefsteak tomatoes in Wyoming. “This is just how I cook, through this L.A. lens. There are all these different influences that sort of get put into a blender, and there it is. That’s what I’ve naturally been drawn to. It’s what I like to eat.”

Erven moved to Fresno when he was 16 and ended up in L.A. a few years later. He had never really cooked. But one night he was stoned at 2 a.m. and decided he should go to culinary school. He says he doesn’t get stoned anymore now that he’s the father of a young daughter, but he’s still a chef who’ll impulsively think of something and then make it happen.

If something sounds good to him, he just starts figuring out how to cook it. Lucky for L.A., Erven is talented enough to follow through on his big ideas, whether it’s proving that a non-vegan can make crowd-pleasing vegan food or creating over-the-top bar food that makes you want to order another drink.