The James Beard Award-nominated chef balances traditional Japanese technique with an undeniably Californian energy at his new izakaya.
MTN, pronounced “Mountain,” is James Beard Award-nominated Travis Lett’s effortless new izakaya venture in Venice, California. Even before your first bite, the seduction of MTN begins. There’s no discernable sign outside—or if there is one, we missed it. Sitting on Abbot Kinney’s beachside strip, the space is just a charcoal black building with textured walls. You double check the address on your phone before entering.
Inside, everyone is beautiful (and seems to have spectacularly glossy hair.) The whole thing space looks like a Kinfolk magazine spread. If it’s a Thursday night, you’re lucky if you can sit at the bar—for thirty minutes only, because that’s when the next reservation is coming in.
Place settings include rough-woven napkins in forest green—they’re just textured enough to be artisanal, but precious enough to retail for $20 a pop, we imagine. Much of what you see at MTN and at Gjelina and Gjusta, Lett’s other iconically L.A. restaurants, can be bought at GjustaGoods, a lifestyle store that sells daydreams of Venice: cracked and pebbled shino-glazed cups offer themselves up to your fantasies, ready to hold a single delicate stem.
It’s not that Lett commissions artists to make these goods for his restaurant. They’re in-house employees of Gjusta, Gjelina, and, now, MTN, crafting tableware and napkins under the restaurants’ characteristic aesthetic. At the restaurant, the most mass-produced items are the bar glasses—they’re imported from Japan. Even the bar scuppers—the metal fixtures next to the bar counter that allow for liquid drainage—are patterned brass and custom-made.
One can only imagine, then, the level of attention devoted to the food. And it doesn’t disappoint. Lett’s previous successes at Gjelina and Gjusta with reimagining quintessentially L.A. cuisine is undisputable—think vegetable-forward plates with smoky char and showerings of dill and chive and zatar, Mediterranean-inspired and fresh. However, he raised the stakes with MTN. Avocado toast is one thing; ramen, another. To make miso in-house, and the noodles as well—crafted with Anson Mills buckwheat—was an ambitious move, one not taken by many respected Japanese restaurants in the city.
To say MTN is "Japanese-inspired" wouldn’t quite be accurate. It is Japanese cuisine, but translated, unabashedly, intentionally, with the flavors of California. On the menu, for example, is a plate of Big Sur sea vegetables. The dining room smells faintly of ocean water, in the most romantic and nostalgic way.
Lett, who has been thinking about this restaurant concept for over ten years, took trips to Japan where he met with farmers and fish purveyors at Tokyo’s Tsukiji market. (The restaurant's effortless vibe, clearly, is hard-earned.) The $10 pickle plate, for example, sports a carousel of four deeply distinctive pickles and a kimchi. The standout is the fat disks of cucumber, extremely salty and balanced with sesame oil. So balanced, in fact, you could feast on a whole bowl of just those.
The ramen, however, is the true barometer of the restaurant. For the pork bone shio ramen, Lett uses a whole pig from Peads and Barnetts Farm, north of San Diego. One pig—head to tail—yields about 100 quarts of the ramen broth, which is thinner than your classic milky tonkatsu. At $20 a bowl, it’s probably one of the most expensive bowls of ramen in L.A. And there are many bowls of ramen in L.A..
But that’s the magic of Lett, and of MTN—his food manages to faithfully purvey flavors of a certain cultural context while making them surprising and, of course, grounded in California style.