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Sunday, January 20, 2013

The Hart and the Hunter: Bountiful Brunch at the Palihotel

Wolf in Sheep's Clothing was the name of the pop-up in Venice, now closed (not to be confused with the recently opened permanent restaurant of the same name), whose chefs birthed The Hart and the Hunter.

Both restaurants' names seem to have their origin in Aesop's fables. I have not had the opportunity to get the scoop from chefs Kris Tominaga and Brian Dunsmoor on how these intriguing fables apply to the culinary realm  - so I may be completely over-reaching here.  But the fable of The Hart and the Hunter is about a deer who was admiring his own reflection: in particular, his 'noble' antlers, and despising his unsightly legs, when a Hunter approached and shot an arrow his way. While the Hart's legs nimbly carried him nearly out of line of fire, his antlers got caught in some low hanging branches, which allowed the Hunter to catch up with him. The moral of the story? We often despise that which is most useful to us.

My guess as it applies to food: in an uber-image-conscious town, where often (for non-foodies anyway) it's more about what NOT to eat, could the guys mean that we often despise ingredients (like animals with fat, butter, etc.) that make food not just something you consume to be alive, but a reason to stay alive, and to enjoy it?  And that basically, we should be celebrating, not despising because it is what fuels our lives (and souls)?

On a sunlit Sunday before the holidays, dorkyfoodie and I decided to go check out The Hart and the Hunter for brunch, which they had just started serving that weekend.

Nestled inside the chic-lodge-style Palihotel on Melrose, The H&H is a tiny nook of a space whose layout is more laid back cafe than buzzing hotspot of a restaurant that it is. There is the counter in the very back where you place your order, then go to seat yourself in the front dining room,
whose walls are covered in pale blue tiles, in a yet airy space awash in sunlight, with a few carefully decorative items to evoke the hunting theme - like the bronze deer centerpiece at the communal table, and the 'gold' rabbit statues at each of the 'booth' tables.  
I rarely drink coffee (love the smell and taste, but unfortunately prone to caffeine headaches) but couldn't resist when I saw Handsome Coffee Roasters beverages being served...by the barista from Handsome Coffee Roasters.  Dorkyfoodie got a mocha, and I got the Eggnog Latte - both delicious, and served in massive bowl-like mugs. 
The food here has been described as Californian meets modern Southern fare.  At brunch you can order from either the Breakfast or Brunch menus: both feature a few fan favorites from dinner, so if you're not one for crowds or long waits, brunch may be the way to get your fix of select signature items.

We started with the Smoked Trout ($5) a perfect example of how the dish titles here may be deceptively simple - while the food is anything but. Incredibly fresh, tender smoked fish is layered with fresh avocado, capers, herbs and pops of pink pickled onion for a complex yet unfussy interplay of smokey, salty, sweet, sour, juicy, crunchy deliciousness - on hefty pieces of bread.
This dish is held up as a crowd favorite, and justifiably so - it's also a great portion size for $5.
Next up was something from a category I normally despise: salads, but ended up like The Hart, learning otherwise. Thankful dorkyfoodie was there to school me. Roasted Cauliflower & Brussel Sprouts, Arugula, Golden Raisins, Turmeric Vin ($8) - which was supposed to be served with almonds, but the chef wasn't happy with the almonds they had that day, so they asked if they could substitute hazelnuts instead, which worked perfectly. There was slices of radish in there too for a different type of crunch.  I was so in love with this dish I couldn't believe there was no seafood or meat in there. It really just tasted like The Best of Mother Nature - every element tasted like it was just plucked from the ground moments before it ended up on your plate - elevated with skillful hands, playing with textures and flavors until the perfect balance was achieved.
Then another crowd favorite and The Dish that You Cannot Leave H&H Without Trying: the again simply named: Biscuits and Condiments ($6).  These might be the best (buttery-est, golden-brownest, flakiest, lightest yet most substantial, most flavorful) biscuits I've ever had.  And the accoutrements that come on the plank with them are also fantastic - pimento cheese, persimmon preserves and honey/maple butter.  Of the three, my favorites were the honey/maple butter and persimmon preserves. Everything though again tasted farm fresh.

With the score at 3 for 3 'on target' thus far, we couldn't wait to try the Grilled Steak Bowl, Roasted Vegetables, Arugula, Salsa Verde ($12) - which closed out the meal in top form.  It was a celebration of nature's bounty, in a beautiful real china bowl (have I mentioned how much I loved the very southern formal diningware?).  The steak was perfectly cooked (medium/medium rare), super flavorful, and in perfect proportion to the amount of roasted veggies. Underneath them was a bed of farro and super juicy mushrooms : grains to catch the rich juices from the steak and veggies, and mushrooms to add element of earthiness and sweetness. We almost wanted to lick the bowl clean.
Unfortunately we loved the main meal so much we didn't leave enough room for dessert, but H&H does have a nice selection of pastries which I would love to try when I go back - from apple dumplings (with option to go East Coast style with cheddar!), lemon bars and more.


We walked off our meal - no, not in the nearest forest, but the jungles of Melrose vintage boutiques and wildly festive Christmas sweaters -then swung back to hang out and chat on the narrow but relaxing open patio outside H&H for a while, glutted and self-satisfied that we (at least for the time being) can keep ourselves from bemoaning what's perceived as lacking, but revel in all that we have, and are.  Awesome time and I hope to be back again very soon!!!

On a 7 point scale:
Flavor - 6.5 bites
Presentation - 6 bites
Originality - 5.5 bites
Ambience - 5.5 stars
Service - 6 stars
Overall experience - 6 bites
Price - $$ (2 bite marks)
Probability of return visit - 100% 
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The Hart and The Hunter

Palihotel 7950 Melrose Ave., Los Angeles,CA 90046
Ph: 323.424.3055

Parking: Street meters

Website: thehartandthehunter.com
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