Sunday, August 30, 2009

Better Than Bacon?! The Eclectic, Quirky and Sometimes Delicious Cuisine of The Gorbals

Opening a new restaurant in this economy can be a tough endeavor, especially in the City of Angels where the culinary landscape is crowded to say the least. To stand out in an already crowded market is probably the greatest challenge facing new chefs these days. So when I read the initial reports on Eater LA about The Gorbals, with its Haggis Burger(!), Bacon-Wrapped Matzoh Balls and other bizarre dishes, they had at least partially succeeded, standing out with their eclectic menu.

I confess I've never watched Top Chef, so I'm not familiar with Chef-Owner Ilan Hall's cooking as the winner of Top Chef Season 2. But the menu alone had me intrigued and I couldn't wait to try Chef Hall's dishes at The Gorbals. According to their website, The Gorbals is named after an immigrant neighborhood in Scotland. When I mentioned the restaurant to one of my Scottish friends, he freaked out, surprised that there'd a restaurant based on a "tough, tough neighborhood" that he and his friends used to avoid.

The Gorbals is located in the lobby of the old Alexandria Hotel in Downtown L.A. It's an odd location, as the hotel itself was built in 1906 (and retains a very old, rundown feel). Walking to the Alexandria, it's not uncommon to see homeless people hovering about and low-income residents resting in the lobby. It's certainly not a posh or trendy setting.

The interior of the restaurant is very spartan and simple: White walls, simple tables with a zig-zaggy bar at one end, and the kitchen entirely in view for those wishing to see what Chef Hall and his staff are up to at any moment.

Chef Hall has worked for Tom Collicchio at Craft New York, and at Mario Batali and Andy Nusser's Casa Mono. I was curious what influences might show up in the dishes here at The Gorbals.

The first dish to arrive is the Rarebit with Chicken Egg.

I'm not an expert on Rarebit (Chef Hall uses a blend of Guinness Beer, Cheddar Cheese, Worcestershire Sauce and Cayenne Pepper), but ultimately it felt a little underwhelming. The bread wasn't toasted and rather dense, and the sauce was lukewarm. Breaking the Egg Yolk adds a nice creaminess to each bite, but in the end it tastes like a slightly bitter, lightly creamy, Worcestershire Sauce-dominant piece of bread.

The next dish is reason alone to visit The Gorbals: Gribenes, Lettuce and Tomato on Rye.

It's an absolutely brilliant idea, taking the standard BLT Sandwich and replacing the Bacon with Gribenes (super-crisped, roasted Chicken Skin) for a "GLT." Taking a bite...


The Crispy Chicken Skin is honestly soul-moving in its succulence. It's lightly fatty, buttery in flavor while being so crisp. I love Bacon, but I think Gribenes may have just supplanted Bacon, at least for this dish. :) When combined with the fresh Lettuce and Tomato and beautifully soft Rye, it's truly the definition of savory! Delicious! (^_^)

Their Haggis Burger, Turnip Pickles and Highland Park Aioli is probably the wildest-sounding dish on their menu (and the first thing that caught my eye when reading about the restaurant).

Chef Hall makes this Haggis Burger with a blend of Lamb Liver, Lamb Heart and Lamb Meat mixed with Oatmeal and Onions. The Haggis Patty is a bit too crumbly and prone to fall apart. There's a touch of the metallic liver aftertaste mixed with some gaminess, but not enough of the Lamb essence I was hoping to get. The Bun is also too soft, falling apart long before the Burger is finished.

The next dish showed off some of the missteps from opening night: Cucumber Salad Zahatar.

According to the server, Chef Hall's Zahatar is a blend of Sumac, Sesame, Black Pepper and Hyssop. It sounds intriguing, but when the dish arrives, all you can taste is a simple dressing of Black Pepper and Oil. Confused, I ask the server, who says (too late) that "Oh we didn't have the Zahatar ready," so basically this was a very simple salad of fresh Cucumbers and fried Sesame Leaves tossed in Black Pepper.

The Gefilte Fish and Chips, Dill Vinegar is another interesting interpretation of a classic dish.

Whitefish mixed with Eggs and Matzoh Meal is deep-fried and mixed with fresh Dill. The result is a slightly too salty, but unique version of Fish and Chips: There's a light crispiness on the outside crust, and a light chew and meatiness inside.

The Fries are already seasoned with Dill Vinegar, which has a nice tart and herbal undertone. Unfortunately it's far too salty.

Their Manischewitz-braised Pork Belly, Clapshot and Mustard arrives next. Chef Hall marinates the Pork Belly in Manischewitz Red Wine before braising it and serving it atop Clapshot, which is a mix of Mashed Turnips and Mashed Potatoes with Butter and Chives.

The Pork Skin is a little dense and hard to chew, but the rest of the Pork Belly is delicious: It's lightly seasoned (refreshingly so), unctuous and meaty.

The Clapshot is wonderfully delicious, a nice blend of the best textures of Mashed Turnips and Potatoes, with a nice amount of Butter. Strangely, there wasn't any Mustard present anywhere in this dish.

Finally, the Lamb Breast and Mint arrives to finish off the evening.

When I first heard the term "Lamb Breast" I was curious if this was a leaner cut like Chicken Breast, but it turns out that Chef Hall uses the Lamb Breast with Bone and does a confit before finishing it off in the oven.

The Lamb Breast is very fatty, juicy, with a crisped outer crust. It's really rustic and wild, and if there was a Lamb version of Pork Belly, this would be it. :) It's wonderful and sinful, and like some dishes at Animal, best if shared with 2-3 people (just a couple bites is enough :).

For the first night, The Gorbals exhibited all the unfortunate problems of an inexperienced restaurant: Dinner took nearly 3 Hours(!) because of pacing issues. Sometimes the wait was between 30 - 40 minutes before the next dish arrived. The final dish I had ordered - Turkey Wing - never showed up; after waiting about 30 minutes, the server curtly says, "Oh, sorry, we don't have Turkey Wing tonight. I just found out." Sigh.

On the 2nd visit to The Gorbals, I was hoping that things would improve over the first visit. The first dish to arrive is the Octopus with Gizzards and Lemon.

It's definitely a strange combination, after all when was the last time you saw Chicken Gizzards and Octopus mixed together in one dish? :) But this dish felt a bit disappointing: The Octopus is overcooked, with many of its tentacles charred, the Chicken Gizzards are crisp, so moist with a light funk. It's delicious. Together, the combination feels like it's trying too hard to be "different."

Sweetbreads with Cashew and Corn arrive quickly afterward.

Sweetbreads are inherently creamy, so when this is crusted with Cashew and Flour and Deep-Fried, and then put on top of Sweet Corn lavished with Butter, it's too greasy, rich and overwhelming for my tastes. There's a great crust on the Sweetbreads, and the Smoked Paprika Butter on the Corn really makes it sing. When combined, the sweetness of the Corn is a nice complement to the Deep-Fried Sweetbreads, for a bite or two, and then it just overwhelms the senses.

Another of the more interesting sounding dishes arrives soon after: Bacon-Wrapped Matzoh Balls, Horseradish Mayonnaise.

In principle it's already a little shocking with the combination of Bacon and Matzoh Balls, but taste-wise it's simply wonderful! :) Perfectly crisped Bacon adds this lusciousness to each Matzoh Ball, and with a dab of the Horseradish Mayonnaise, it tastes like a classic combination. I would've liked to taste more Horseradish in the Mayo, but otherwise, this is excellent.

The next dish is a bit misleading: Manila Clam Omelet, Green Onions and Garlic. But I suppose it's part of the cooking without borders concept at The Gorbals.

By the name alone, one might expect a traditional Omelet, with chunks of Clams inside the mainly Egg dish. Chef Hall's version is the opposite: Mostly Clams (and Shell) with flecks of Eggs, Green Onion and Garlic throughout.

The Manila Clams are lightly briny and really match the bits of Egg, but the whole dish feels a bit meager. Perhaps it's the expectations of an "Omelet" that get in the way, but seeing a plate of ~7-8 Clams with tiny bits of Egg feels like a bit of a letdown.

Their King Oyster Mushrooms, Warm Marrow, Walnut Vinaigrette is a dish I was really looking forward to (I love Bone Marrow :). Sadly, the King Oyster Mushrooms are very tough and hard to chew. There's also a bit too much Vinaigrette, as the Mushrooms are completely saturated in an extremely tart flavor.

The Bone Marrow is very lightly seasoned and deliciously buttery and fatty. The tartness of the Vinaigrette and Mushrooms are probably meant to cut through the fattiness of the Marrow, but the tartness overpowers the dish.

Their Chilled Tomato Soup, Bread Salad also proves a bit disappointing.

Similar to a Gazpacho, Chef Hall blends in Tomatoes, Cucumbers, Roasted Red Peppers, Garlic and Olive Oil. But taking a sip, it's shockingly sour. With access to the wonderful Farmer's Market produce and with Tomatoes being in season still, these tasted like out-of-season Tomatoes.

The Turkey Wing, Fatback Tabouleh rebounds nicely.

The centerpiece is the wonderfully crispy, oven-roasted Turkey Wing: Nicely crunchy Turkey Skin and a really moist, just cooked through interior.

The Fatback Tabouleh is just outrageous in its concept. :) A classic light and herbal dish is taken in an opposite direction with the inclusion of Pork Fatback: There's this viscous, Pork Fat quality to the Tabouleh, which still retains some of its fragrant, grassy notes. The combination works pretty well here and is another standout on the menu.

The final dish of the evening is their Sheppard's Pie in Potato with Egg (sic).

Chef Hall bakes marinated Ground Beef and Mashed Potatoes in a Potato Skin, and tops it with a Quail Egg. I was hoping the Potato Skin would be crisped enough to eat, but it's really thick and hard to cut through.

The Beef, Mashed Potatoes and Quail Egg add up to a tasty if super-rich dish. The Mashed Potatoes are gorgeously buttery, add the Ground Beef's inherent fattiness and the Soft-Boiled Quail Egg Yolk's creaminess and it's another delicious dish for a bite or two before it's just too much.

The pacing on the 2nd visit was much better than the 1st: Most of the dishes came out within ~5-10 minutes of each other, except the last 2 dishes, which took upwards of 30 minutes to finally come out. Another thing to note is that The Gorbals is *loud*. With the simple walls and concrete flooring, and no audio dampening, it makes Comme Ca and Osteria Mozza pale in comparison.

Service for the first visit was challenging: The server was a bit clueless at times and failed to mention problems (no Zahatar) or missing dishes until it was too late. The second visit's service was better and adequate. Prices range from $5 - $15 per dish.

The Gorbals certainly stands out in its unique menu, from Haggis Burgers to Octopus with Chicken Gizzards, and while it's eye-catching and in theory very different, the end result in regards to the most important aspect - the taste - is a bit of a hit-or-miss. It's an extremely rich and heavy menu (despite the small portions), and one would hope that Chef Hall will add additional dishes that balance it out a bit more. While there are some disappointments, there are also some flashes of brilliance: The Gribenes (Crisped Chicken Skin), Lettuce, Tomato on Rye is simply *amazing*, the Lamb Breast Confit, Manischewitz-braised Pork Belly with Clapshot and Bacon-Wrapped Matzoh Balls all are worth trying as well. If Chef Hall can lighten up the menu and resolve the pacing and service issues, The Gorbals will soon be on its way to being a destination worth stopping by Downtown for.

Rating: 7.0 (out of 10.0)

The Gorbals
501 S. Spring St.
Los Angeles, CA 90013
Tel: (213) 488-3408

Hours: Tues - Thurs, 5:30 p.m. - 12:00 a.m. Midnight
Fri - Sun, 5:30 p.m. - 2:00 a.m.
Closed Mondays.


weezermonkey said...

Looks promising!

I'm going to try to wait bit until they work the kinks out. :)

Exile Kiss said...

Hi weezermonkey,

I'd agree. At this point it might be good to wait a bit before going.

Noah said...

Nice report! I wish my extremely Jewish grandmother were around to see this place. I'd love to see her reaction.

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Noah,

Thanks. :) Yah, I'm curious to see what the reaction would be amongst those used to certain traditional preparations.

Daniel S. said...

Great review and pics as always.

The interior, with its white walls and long communal table, looks reminiscent of a school cafeteria dining-hall. Did you get that feeling when you were in there? In general, how was the mood?

Also, I was hoping for a more positive review of the Haggis Burger since I'm looking forward to trying that. The bun does look to be in need of some added firmness; a burger like this might pair better with a toasted rustic bread. Fatback Tabouleh looks very good, as do the Bacon-Wrapped Matzoh Balls.

The competition is really heating up in this area with C & S, Drago, Bottlerock, Rivera, etc. Looking forward to trying Ilan's place very soon. Great write-up!

Food, she thought. said...

I want to wait a few weeks, but I also want to go tonight for dinner. Some of that looks funkily delicious. I ate his haggis shepherd's pie at Canele a few weeks back, and it was topped with fried chicken skin. Chicken skin has potential to be the next bacon trend.

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Daniel,

Thank you. :) I didn't really get the school cafeteria feel (except maybe the loudness factor). The mood was definitely... "rustic" to say the least. Not posh, not fancy, not romantic, not hip, not homey, not warm. Just... sorta "there"; a little indifferent.

If you do go, be sure to try the Gribenes Lettuce and Tomato as well. :) Enjoy~

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Food, she thought,

Wow, Haggis Shepherd's Pie with Chicken Skin at Canele? Nice! :)

Some of it definitely is funky and delicious; some of it just needs to be polished more or swapped out with something more conducive to better flavor pairings.

Let me know how your visit goes. :)

Anonymous said...

I'm sorry, but I really don't get it. I consider myself an open minded person and not at all a picky diner but I actually felt nauseous after reading the descriptions and viewing the pictures. The decor is very unappealing to me-beyond minimalist, The furniture design looks like picnic tables and wooden boxes. Why would someone spend their money to create this?

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Anon,

Great points. The minimalist decor arguably goes beyond "minimalist" into practically non-existent. And certainly some of those dishes were as you said in terms of just overwhelming. I'm hoping we see a balance sooner rather than later, or else I'm not sure how often anyone can eat from this heavy menu.

rick said...

wow, you went twice already! thanks for the comprehensive report (that 'glt' sounds really good right about now). we had reservations for last saturday but decided to let the restaurant iron out its kinks before sampling.

Exile Kiss said...

Hi rick,

Thank you. :) Yah, I wanted to give the restaurant a fair shake before writing about it. I hope you enjoy your visit (please report back if you do go soon, I'm curious how your visit will turn out). :)

V said...

sounds good- nice reviews. but were the buns on the haggis burger pre-packaged??? looks like they may be. :(

Exile Kiss said...

Hi V,

Thanks. The Burger Buns tasted fresh, but very soft. It could've been pre-packaged (or sourced from a local manufacturer), I'm not sure.

glutster said...

--A very underestimated cuisine.

Thanks for attending your foodblogger duties in full multi course action :)

lamb breast is usually really, really rich but the one looked balance.

I hope I get to try this place out one day

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Teenage Glutster,

Thanks. :) I haven't run into too many restaurants that serve Lamb Breast (most of the time just Maciza or Costilla), but it's good to know that it's usually really fatty and the dish I tried was better balanced in comparison. :)

Foodie Traveler said...

Hi Exile Kiss,

Thanks for this excellent review. I have been anxiously watching this place in hopeful anticipation of it being the best of the Top Chef restaurants in LA. You ordered everything I would have, and your descriptions answer all my questions about those dishes. I do think I am going to wait a bit before going - You hit a nerve when you said they have no light dishes to balance all the rich and heavy ones. I am not a fan of Animal for the same reason.

I hope Richard Blaise opens his place soon...

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Foodie Traveler,

Thanks. :) If you appreciate lighter dishes and/or a balance to the evening's meal, I would agree with your sentiment (to wait a bit) and hope they add a few more light dishes to balance it all out.

pleasurepalate said...

I was actually all set to go this Sunday with a friend, but then he got the call that Gorbols is going to be closed for a couple of weeks. I'm not sure why though. :( Oh well, maybe it's better to wait until it's got its sea legs. That chicken skin sandwich though sounds awesome. :)

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Abby,

Oh really? Bummer. I hope everything's OK over there (maybe they got a lot of experience over their opening week and want to redo some things?). Or perhaps they're remodeling (adding in some decor)? On one of the visits, my server mentioned that there were some decorations being planned in the future.

burumun said...

This is certainly a cuisine I'm not familiar with, there are so many words in your post I've never heard of before. I guess I now have to wait until they work out their bigger kink, like their water heater issue :p

Exile Kiss said...

Hi burumun,

There were definitely some things I never tried before until that night like Gribenes. I had no idea they had a water heater issue (d'oh!). Hopefully that gets straightened out soon.

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