By Jonathan Gold
Los Angeles Times Restaurant Critic
November 24, 2012
We are second to none in our admiration for pie, which, at its best, marries homeyness with elegance. It is the great American dessert. But we don't make it athomenearly as often as we should, because the crust, at least the right crust, is kind of a pain. This is why we love ordering pie in restaurants — somebody else has done the rolling and the chilling, worried about the correct shortening and performed the rituals of blind baking that too often leave us with burnt or shrunken dough.
Pie in a jar, on the other hand, is not pie, no matter how delicious, no matter how many homemade Nilla Wafers are arranged around the top, no matter how artisanal the Mason jar may appear in the light cast by dim fruit-crate chandeliers. It is pudding.
MessHall, a summer-camp-themed restaurant at the top of Hillhurst Avenue in Los Feliz, is a pie-in-a-jar place. A notice on the menu emphasizes the dining room's origins as Willard's Chicken Inn, a Los Angeles fried-chicken restaurant opened in 1929, but neglects to mention its rather longer incarnations as a Brown Derby, a Louise's Trattoria and Michael's Los Feliz Inn. The old walls are newly decorated with a display of stylized merit badges and a mosaic of metal cafeteria trays. There is a logo on the china, an elongated conifer that resembles the tree on Stanford gear. The glassed-in fire pits out on the patio — very nice, by the way — look less like artifacts from Boys' Life than like something you might run across in Dwell.
It is an exercise in aesthetics, this kind of adaptive re-use, engineering an old restaurant to look old and feel old but not quite be old — experienced at bars like Cole's, the Edison, La Descarga and Little Dom's — as a reflection of the speak-easy era.
As you'd expect, MessHall has an important cocktail program, overseen by Erik Lund, and the daiquiris and mint juleps are first rate, as are the slightly skewed takes on the martini and the Manhattan. As you might also expect, you will find kale salads and hoppy, handcrafted beers; house-made pickles and fried calamari; corn fritters; baby beets dressed with yogurt; and macaroni and cheese spiked with chunks of Maine lobster.
Chef Keith Silverton is cooking glammed-up 1940s dinner-party food, like James Beard with a membership in a CSA. Grilled artichoke hearts with nubs of the odd Roman broccoli called romanesco? Grilled salmon on lentils with charred escarole? Fried oysters with vinegary mayonnaise? Steak tartare "tacos" stuffed into shells made from grated, griddle-toasted cheese? If you like your food seasoned with a bit of ironic distance, Silverton's got your back.
MessHall may not be a destination restaurant, and you probably wouldn't drive up from Long Beach for a crack at the seared sea scallops with succotash, but it is where Los Feliz goes when it wants its "hog chops" served with undercooked grits and stewed mustard greens, house-smoked tasso with eggs Benedict on the weekends or slightly overcooked chicken seared under a brick.
Like so many of the new crop of Los Angeles dining rooms — Picca, Mo-Chica, Sotto, Short Order and the new Bestia — it is, in part, a project of restaurant magnate Bill Chait, who tends to open themed restaurants whose themes include a veneer of authenticity meant to reassure customers who have never experienced the real thing. Chait is not a gels and foams dude, and he does not see it as his mission to convert you to pigtails, fish kidneys or the essence of fermented birch. He wants you to drop in and have a good time.
So there are hamburgers then, really good ones, with the smack of aged beef and a bit of sharpness from decent cheddar, and a small butcher's steak — sometimes called hanger steak — with some of the gamy richness associated with that cut. The French fries are excellent, perfectly crisp and almost vanishingly airy, because you just have to have great French fries at the moment. The sweetish bread and butter pickles are made in the kitchen, as is the ketchup, which is given a slight barbecue-sauce tang from smoked tomatoes. A pretty similar sauce ends up on the smoky sliced brisket, which is remarkably well-done for barbecue from a non-barbecue restaurant. Part of the front counter is taken up by an oyster bar, and the freshly shucked kumamotos and such are dependably fine, served with another variation on that smoky ketchup but also with snowy drifts of grated horseradish.
And then there's that banana cream pie. With crisp vanilla wafers. In a jar.
A summer-camp-themed restaurant, MessHall boasts important cocktails and glammed-up 1940s dinner party food.
4500 Los Feliz Blvd., Los Feliz, (323) 660-6377, http://www.messhallkitchen.com
Appetizers, $5-$12; salads, $8-$11; main courses, $15-$26; desserts, $7.
Open for dinner, 5 p.m.-midnight Monday to Wednesday, 5 p.m. to 1 a.m. Thursday to Saturday, 4 p.m. to midnight Sunday. Open for lunch 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Friday. Open for brunch 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Credit cards accepted. Full bar. Valet parking.
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