One of our favorite vegan restaurants in Los Angeles right now is Matthew Kenney’s Plant Food + Wine in Venice. We don’t usually make it that far west very often, but, when we do, we end up there 80% of the time (the other 20% of the time belongs to Gjelina, who does amazing things with vegetables). The restaurant opened up not too long ago after Kenney shuttered his old nearby Santa Monica outpost M.A.K.E, which was equally impressive and raw, which is saying a lot in our book (you can see 2014 write-up of M.A.K.E. here on the journal).
A little while back, PF+W announced that they’d be doing an eleven day pop-up of Matthew Kenney’s Asian-inspired Belfast, Maine culinary incubator project, Arata. Our friend and Director of Culinary Operations, Scott Winegard, had been hard at work at the Maine project, so we were somewhat aware of what they were doing. As they put it: “Arata, which is Japanese for fresh and new, offers plant-based ramen noodles, steamed buns, small plates, desserts inspired by Far East flavors, and an original cocktail and organic wine program.” All of that’s right up our alley, so, despite the truism-ism of east-siders never traveling west and west-siders never coming east, we’d been meaning to buck the trend and come by since the July 28th opening.
Alas, packed schedules and snarling traffic delayed our westward venturing up until the very last night of Arata’s Venice residency, this past Sunday. But we finally made it over, and, man, are we glad we did.
Winegard and company have taken traditional Japanese and pan-Asian dishes and transformed them using bright, vibrant, ultra-fresh local farmers produce and a shit-ton of creativity. The result’s almost as satisfying to adoringly behold as it is to eat. Another aspect of this menu that Scott pointed out to us when we were there—this is one of the first times a Matthew Kenney restaurant has employed soy, in this case in the form of fresh tofu + tempeh from a Bay Area organic soy farm.
The starters were our favorites—two sets of soft, fluffy buns (or bao), one filled with smoked king oyster mushrooms, cashew hoisin, scallion, and cucumber, the other with grilled tofu, mustard miso, pickled chile, and napa cabbage. Then we got kimchi pancakes with sesame-chile sauce and some really fucking great crispy fried maitaki (sometimes known as hen-of-the-woods mushrooms) with a sweet soy dipping sauce.
The noodle dishes and bowls were pretty great too though, with the ramens employing a lighter, thinner broth to showcase and highlight the vegetables used in the soups. We ordered Chile Ramen—smoked tofu, charred chiles, and red pepper purée—and the Spicy Udon—a broth-less noodle dish that actually used flat rice noodles rather than rounded wheat udon noodles and was far from spicy but really good nonetheless, tossed with a sichuan tempeh, radish slices, and a creamy cashew sauce that struck us as almost linguine-esque. We got a good look at (but didn’t eat) the Arata Ramen too, which was chock-full of pulled mushrooms, bak chop, dulse seaweed, and accented by a corn purée.
Sadly, as mentioned above, the short-lived pop-up has now left the west coast, but who knows—maybe they’ll seek a repeat performance given the response. Or maybe we’ll make it to Belfast, Maine some time?