Saturday, December 18, 2010

The Gorbals - Defying Definition Downtown

The biggest draw for most people at The Gorbals is chef Ilan Hall, winner of Top Chef season 2, though the chef's philosophy and concept for the restaurant rails against celebrity as one of the reasons for dining there (and against pretty much all conventions in general). 

Inspired by his Scottish / Jewish / Eastern-European heritage and international travels, Ilan's first restaurant in the historic Alexandria Hotel downtown is deliciously irreverent, offering dishes with a nodd to his heritage, but defying any categorization or easily accessible labels.  This is reflected in his choice of venue (historic as a euphemism for the very old, rundown Alexandria Hotel - though beautiful with lots of character, especially in the adjacent Palms Court ballroom - decidedly not the type of place you would immediately associate with Top Chef caliber talent), and in his menu, neatly embodied in his tongue-in-cheek signature dish - a traditional Jewish comfort food, matzo balls, wrapped in bacon (when pork is forbidden under Jewish dietary laws). 

So of course, the Bacon-Wrapped Matzoh Balls with Horseradish Aioli ($5) was the first dish we had to try when we stopped in after this month's Downtown LA Artwalk (The Gorbals is centrally located within Artwalk and a convenient casual dining place to have a great meal after a fun night of gallery hopping!).  As a devout baconist, and a huge fan of matzo balls, this seemed to be a match made in heaven for me, and I wanted to love it to pieces.  In concept this should have been amazing, with the salty flavors and crispiness of the bacon contrasting nicely with the subtle flavors of the soft mealy matzo balls.  The bite-sized 'rolls' turned out to be a little on the dry side, and the bacon flavors somewhat overwhelmed the denser-and-chewier-than-expected matzo - the aioli intended to sauce up the whole contraption and add a kick of flavor did not come together cohesively with the other two elements of the dish for me.  The only thing I can think of is maybe to infuse the matzo ball with bacon flavors before wrapping the whole thing in bacon, and maybe using a tiny bit of lard or soup stock to make the dish a little less dry.  I still really like the concept, and at $5 not a bad deal for a very original appetizer - I just didn't love it as much as I thought I would (so maybe this is just a product of overblown expectations).


The next dish we tried was also off the "Pork" section - in fact, I think we ordered nearly all the pork dishes on offer.  As my brother and his wife are from Montreal, I did not want to take up a dish with the poutine - but I have an awesome family and they wanted me to try it!  So an order was placed for the Bahn Mi Poutine ($12).  Based on the name of the dish, I really at first thought that it would involve some sort of Vietnamese baguette sandwich (banh mi) stuffed with fries, gravy and cheese curds (basic ingredients in poutine).  But the server was right on the money - this is not your regular poutine - but really a whole new take that I would not want to simplify as a 'fusion' dish, but essentially combines Vietnamese flavors inspired by banh mi sandwiches(lemongrass with shredded pork, carrots and jalapenos) with a French Canadian concept (fries loaded with gravy and cheese curds).  Simply amazing.

Next up was the Pork Loin, Creamed Turnips ($14) - the pork was tender, juicy and perfectly cooked, with fresh slices of spring onions adding crunch to the weightiness of the meat and smooth creamy turnip puree underneath.

One of our favorite dishes of the night was the Confit Beef Tongue, Romesco, with Pumpernickel Croutons ($12) - hands down, this was the best tongue I've ever had.  Perfectly tender pieces are simply dressed with spring onions and placed on a lake of romesco sauce - the simplicity of the way the tongue itself was prepared allowed its natural flavors to come through, while the romesco sauce added a splash of peppery goodness that was skillfully balanced with the meat. This one had us licking our lips! ;)

Our  next dish were the Potato Latkes, with Smoked Applesauce ($7) - the smoky-sweet-tangy applesauce was a nice pairing with the great, crispy and warm potato pancakes.  This dish, though not a standout, was a great one to round out the meal.

Though we were beyond full, we had to make room for the Sticky Toffee Pudding, Ice Cream, with Maldon Salt ($7)  This was my first Sticky Toffee Pudding - so without any frame of reference - I thought the flavors were great, but the toffee turned tough very quickly, making it a little difficult to chew through along with the bread pudding - not the best experience for someone who enjoys lighter desserts with creamy textures. 

That would be one of my notes for The Gorbals, that if they could offer just one more dessert option to give people a choice, that would be fantastic.  True to its irreverent spirit, there are two items listed under "Sweet" - and though I was quite amused by the other item in this category:  "buy the kitchen a round of beers" ($10) - would have loved to see one more pastry item, especially since Ilan has a certification in Baking and Pastry Arts from Culinary Institute of America (CIA)!

Three more things I want to mention that I loved about The Gorbals on my post-DTLA Artwalk dinner last week - LOVE that Ilan was very visible in the restaurant throughout the night, not cheesily 'working the room' as other celeb-chefs might do (or when many others may not be present at their namesake restaurants at all), but hanging out at the kitchen counter chatting with his staff.  At one point, he walked through with his bike - in our overactive imaginations we liked to imagine that he might regularly bike down to a local store to pick up last minute items like spices and/or herbs, just because he likes to do it.  I also loved the live band that started up towards the end of our meal  - The Petrojvic Blasting Company, whose music has a swing feel to it, and that LAWeekly described as "Street Sonic", were fantastic and added a lot of personality to the already great cozy casual chic ambience of the space!  And then the inimitable JGold walked in just as we were having dessert!  (Couldn't help imagining being at the table next to his - to hear his thoughts on the meal that night!)  After greeting his guests, Ilan immediately disappeared into the kitchen we presume to personally prepare the meal!

Anyways, having satisfied my curiosity about the place and food offerings, I wanted to know more about the name of the restaurant, as Gorbals is not a word I had ever heard of.  A quick Google search found that The Gorbals is an area south of the River Clyde in Glasgow, Scotland. According to Wikipedia - "the name could be related to the Latin word "garbale" (sheaf) found in the Scottish term "garbal teind" (10th sheaf), a tithe of corn given to the parish rector." Accuracy aside, I found this appropriate to the restaurant - after my dining experience there, I would gladly deposit 10% or more of my income to this temple of culinary creativity.

All in all, a great experience at The Gorbals that I'm looking forward to repeating, next time I'm in Downtown LA.

On a 7 point scale:
Flavor - 6 bites
Presentation - 5.5 bites
Originality - 5.5 bites
Ambience - 6 stars
Service - 6.5 stars
Overall experience - 6 bites
Price - $$ (2 bite marks)
Probability of return visit - 98%


The Gorbals
501 South Spring Street Los Angeles, CA 90013
Ph: 213.488.3408

OpenTable:  Look for reservations

The Gorbals on Urbanspoon

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