Eight years ago Ilan Hall — an immature guy with horn-rimmed glasses and a hedgehog haircut — won the second season of Top Chef. He was born in Great Neck, Long Island of immigrant Jewish parents; his father hailed from Scotland, his mother from Israel. And in 2010 he parlayed that unusual ancestry into his first restaurant, The Gorbals. Named after a Glasgow slum on the southern bank of the Clyde River, the frowsy place was located in Los Angeles' aging Hotel Alexandria, and the opening was long-delayed by technical problems.
At the time, the menu raised eyebrows with its ungainly (and perhaps un-Godly) pairing of Jewish and Scottish fare, as seen in bacon-wrapped matzo balls, pork belly braised in cheap kosher wine, and chicken thighs stuffed with haggis. Was he trying to celebrate his heritage or destroy it? Jonathan Gold called the food "confrontational," noting that it "challenges your belief systems about what cooking should be," and seemed designed "to alienate as many people as possible." But he also begrudgingly admired parts of the menu, enough so that he included the Gorbals in his "99 Essential Restaurants" of Los Angeles in 2011.
Now a second branch of the Gorbals has opened on a mezzanine overlooking the third floor Men's Department of the new Urban Outfitters in Williamsburg. Entering the restaurant involves traipsing through a store decorated with frayed beige ropes and besmeared subway pillars. The dining room has a synagogue-basement quality to it, with nicely spaced plywood tables — as if, for once, square footage was not at a premium — barely shielded from the store with a salvaged collection of wire glass panes of the sort seen in old buildings.
Faced with colorful tiles, the open kitchen stands out along one side of the room. On Saturday when a friend and I made a first visit, Hall was working with three other cooks, ostentatiously chopping away with his chef's knife as if we were the studio audience of Top Chef, feeding the wood-fired oven with various animal parts. Though aggressively unshaven, he radiated a stolidity absent during the show, when he became known for his heartless pranks. Illustrating the benefits of an early visit, we also saw the inspiration for the original menu — his elderly parents — ceremoniously ascend the stairs and take their place in the dining room.
[Bacon-wrapped matzoh balls]
A handful of dishes have been retained from the West Coast establishment. The bacon-wrapped matzo balls ($9) still have the power to shock. When they arrived, they looked like red-skinned potatoes. But gradually the encircling presence of thick strips of bacon became apparent. The toughness of the bacon and softness of the matzo balls guarantee you must deconstruct the dish before eating it. Both components are good, but are they good together? The answer remains "No."
[Banh mi poutine]
Another throwback to the Los Angeles restaurant are the excellent french fries, here reconfigured as a faddish banh mi poutine ($14). My Vietnamese companion took exception to the description, exclaiming "Banh mi just means bread and there's no bread here!" Though the presence of cilantro and pickled carrots conferred a certain commonality with the famous Vietnamese sandwich, and the generous gobs of smoky pulled pork meant that the dish could easily serve as an entrée.
[Peas many ways]
The menu is oddly divided into four sections: Field, Barn, Stream, and Coop, with Barn being by far the most profuse, making Hall's affection for meat — and comparative disdain for vegetables — instantly apparent. Nevertheless, though the vegetable dishes we tried from the Field section were failures in the long run, it was not for lack of trying on the chef's part. The "peas many ways" ($9) featured a tour-de-force assemblage of baby sugar snaps, snow peas, pea puree, and pea powder spread across a bluish-gray plate. It made a pretty picture, but the tangle of stringy pea shoots made it nearly impossible to eat.
[Fermented celery broth]
Another failure was a clear soup of fermented celery broth ($6) with a parmesan crouton suspended above it like a scaffold over a sump, the cheese platform heaped with a micro-dice of green apples. Once again, the components were pleasant enough and painstakingly executed, but the dish left you wondering, "Why?"
[Rabbit with cherries]
But the rabbit with vinegar-cured cherries ($15) tasted great. You've never had bunny so tender or with so much woodsy savor, and the kick of the tart fruit was French in attitude.
The chicken schnitzel ($17), too, was perfectly executed, two pieces pounded so that they were still identifiable as breast and leg-thigh. The leg still had the talon attached — uselessly it turned out, because it hadn't been cooked in a way that would allow you to eat it. (The Chinese prefer braising or steaming.)
The best dish on the menu, and the one I'd climb up those stairs again for without hesitation, with Robert Plant screaming in my ears from the store's all-Zep soundtrack, was pickled mussels ($8). Each shell sported a little reservoir of salty saffron broth, served cold on a bed of refrigerated pebbles. Showy? Yes. But the bivalves shone in a way rarely seen with mussels, refreshing without being cloying.
As with all chefs who've achieved a singular sort of fame based on their Top Chef performances, the menu at the Gorbals seemed more designed for the camera than the stomach, with the components intended to shock rather than soothe. Nevertheless, as in L.A., the restaurant is a worthwhile addition to Brooklyn's roster of places-of-the-moment. But can it persist? Hopefully, the answer is "Yes." But only if Hall continues to tinker with the dishes that are almost there, but not quite yet.
· All Coverage of The Gorbals [~ENY~]
· All posts by Robert Sietsema [~ENY~]