At the newly opened Lemonade, on the corner of Abbot Kinney and Venice Boulevard, Chef Alan Jackson is filling a gap that has existed in the Venice dining scene for a surprisingly long time: thoughtfully prepared, picnic-perfect food for all ages and appetites that can be can be taken to go or eaten in house.
Chef Jackson’s decision to name his micro-chain of restaurants Lemonade and to print the restaurant name in careful grade-school penmanship on lined paper is both sweet and calculated. He’s inviting us all back to our childhood (or the childhood we wished we had) that was filled with simple pleasures: fresh squeezed lemonade, oatmeal cookies, home cooked meals and school cafeterias that were run like real kitchens instead of fast food joints.
He’s also capitalizing on a dining trend that emphasizes comfort over sophistication, value over extravagance and convenience above all else. Lemonade is the type of eatery suitable for a wide range of occasions and appetites. You can feed your kids at Lemonade or you can impress a date with a gourmet picnic. You can stuff yourself silly (try the sinfully good short rib and mac ‘n cheese sandwich) or opt for something lighter (snap peas with edamame and sesame vinaigrette). The menu choices, offered in a cafeteria-like setting, overwhelm at first but your indecision should be eased by the knowledge that it’s hard to go wrong.
As you slide your cafeteria tray down the line, you’re likely to think at first glance that the two-dozen or so cold options displayed behind glass are salads. Do not be fooled. “Salad” is not an adequate word to describe these filling and complex ingredient combinations. Chef Jackson clearly enjoys playing with contrasting flavors and in most cases the blending of sweet, savory and acidic elements works quite well. Mint vinaigrette tastes surprisingly good over rice spiked with bits of sweet nectarines and salty, sharp Grafton cheddar. The hearty grain faro can drag a dish down, but when Chef Jackson combines it with delicate threads of spaghetti squash and a sweet-tart pomegranate vinaigrette, it becomes a lot more interesting. Less adventurous choices also abound — avocado with cherry tomatoes and pine nuts looked especially refreshing on a recent hot day, as did a combination of green beans and garbanzos with feta. Even with the seemingly healthy ingredients, however, most of the cold options on the menu are decidedly heavy. In many cases, the creative use of flavors is muted somewhat by the liberal use of oil, giving some of the dishes an unfortunate uniformity in flavor.
The cold entrées ($4 a portion) can be bulked up with protein ($5) options like buttermilk baked chicken breast, bay shrimp ceviche and citrus poached salmon. Lemonade also offers what they call “semi-traditional” sandwiches, which means combinations like corned beef with sauerkraut, gruyere and mustard aioli on rosemary bread and roasted turkey with pickled onions and avocado on whole grain. The sandwiches ($8) are toasted to order and travel well to the beach.
Even more tempting are the stew pots filled with braised pork, turkey, brisket, short ribs and lamb. Few home cooks today have the time and patience required to achieve the intense level of flavor and melt-in-your mouth texture that less-expensive cuts of meat are capable of when simmered for hours. Lemonade, however, has no qualms about doing it all for you. On any given day, they’re serving everything from Basque chicken with artichokes to turkey pot roast with sage gravy to beef stroganoff ($9). While these types of stews and roasts can be immensely satisfying, they also become too much rather quickly. Your best bet is to share a portion, which also leaves open the possibility of saving room for other goodies.
Remember when you were a kid and no dessert was too sugary? Lemonade still bakes with that motto in mind. Chocolate strawberry Ding Dongs, pecan brown sugar sticky bars, caramel frosted brown sugar drop cookies and all-American desserts like banana layer cake are generously displayed by the register.
Lemonade does not serve alcohol, but a glass of their homemade lemonade ($2.75) is a pleasurable substitute. Four flavors are offered daily and while the fancy blends of watermelon and peach ginger were tempting, I stuck with classic lemonade. More tart than sweet and ice-cold — it did not disappoint.
Lemonade’s high ceilings create a spacious and airy feel, although when the cafe is crowded those same high ceilings magnify the noise. The retro-décor blends the elements of a grade school cafeteria and classroom into a surprisingly stylish setting that will appeal to both the kid and adult in you.
It is through the comfort food that Lemonade serves, however, not the décor that the nostalgic atmosphere Lemonade is trying to create feels the most genuine. The employee’s old-fashioned uniforms are cute and the school cafeteria atmosphere is fun but it is the home-cooked aroma of pot roast filling the air that makes me want to come back.
Jennifer Meier is a culinary school graduate who has worked for restaurants and wine and cheese shops throughout Los Angeles. You can visit her Web site at busygirlscookbook.wordpress.com.