Leona was also the former name of Washington Boulevard back in the day, so Chef Nyesha J. Arrington (formerly of Melisse in Santa Monica and a Top Chef contestant) and her team are honoring Venice's past in name with their Washington Boulevard location (formerly the Canali Café), while looking straight toward the future with her wonderful dishes and the very now feeling space.
Everyone was warm and welcoming right from hello, and when I shared that we were there in celebration of our late Grandma named Leona's 115th birthday, everyone was even cooler. They didn't have to think it was special like we did, but they truly seemed to care. Perhaps that's because in Chef Arrington's bio it said she was deeply influenced by her Korean Grandmother (as was I by my little Norwegian Grandma), so they get it about Grandmas.
They get it about everything, really. The hostess gals were friendly and adorable (and one was named Joy!), and set the tone from the outset. Our server Ryan was great, and when he said, "I'm so excited for you guys to try the food, it's great!" it was fully genuine, like when a pal tells you about something new and great. And Ryan was completely right, as each bite we had was wonderfully delicious.
We began with a gorgeous, colorful crudité plate, compliments of the Chef. It was so bright and healthy, served with a tangy hummus and pomegranate seeds. We kept saying, "Mom would love this." And she will the next time she comes to visit.
I'm not big on taking food photos (and just not that good at it), but my chicken "Brick" and my brother's black cod were both picturesque and super tasty, just trust me. The brick was one of the weirdest dishes I've had in a while, and I say that in the best way possible. I've just never really had anything like it. It was really a brick shape, with succulent bits of chicken molded together between two crispy strips of chicken skin, served with blackberries and shishito peppers. YUM.
This is one of those spots that will take multiple visits to sample all the different items on the ever-changing menu that says it's, "seasonally driven, ethically harvested, and globally inspired. We're proud to share our passion for the mosaic of the Golden State." And they certainly do.
Chef Arrington came out to greet us, and I gushed all over her. What a cool and talented lady, leading a cool and talented staff. We're all gonna be good friends, I can tell. Like when the GM Matt came out with a complimentary (and the best thing ever!) dessert, saying, "This is for your Grandma Leona", as he'd heard the story I told everyone. I almost cried it was so kind and sweet. We ate that chocolate sea salt lavender shortbread bar (!) and toasted our Grandma Leona with some bubbly. I'd been thinking of her so much all day, and this just felt like the nicest possible way to toast her memory. I'd like to think she knew.
What a welcome addition to the Venice dining scene Leona is! They're doing it just the way a new spot should in Venice ... honoring the history of the place with its name and creativity (down to the fuchsia velvet chair in the ladies room), throwing out all pretension and scenester attitude (looking at you, Scopa, etc ...) and simply welcoming and serving their customers as if we're all family friends. That is the way to bring in the people that live here, the way that they will all want to spread the word, and the way that will keep us coming back for more of all the goodness.
Welcome to Leona, and CHEERS for doing everything just right (down to recycling the old paper menus to be the paper liners for the fries - sustainable!). Thank you for showing us such a lovely time, and for helping us to honor our Leona along with you.
123 West Washington Boulevard