Jonathan Gold finds Kettle Black's eccentric Italian illuminating. Try the octopus salad.

How many Edison bulbs hang from the ceiling at Kettle Black? So many Edison bulbs. I got to the mid-70s the night I counted — there are more — but I got distracted by the 17-foot-high back bar, the weathered wood floor and the industrial-steel undercarriage of the stools. The restaurant occupies a former bank, and you don’t even have to ask if the heavy metal of the vault is still in evidence. The pocket patio out front is low on Edison bulbs. Its wall bristles with potted spiky plants instead.

There are also, as you might have guessed, tiny potted succulents on each table. The warning signs of gentrification are sometimes hard to spot, but spiky plants, flatiron steaks, live DJs and well-crafted Vieux Carré cocktails are certainly among them. So are wood-burning ovens and octopus salad. The octopus salad is very good, by the way, flavored with sherry vinegar and plenty of mint. I recommend it.

Kettle Black is a new Italian restaurant from Beau Laughlin and his team, who also own Sawyer and the juice bar Clover on the block. Sawyer also has weathered floorboards and craft cocktails, but the metal undercarriage of those stools is painted white; it’s more of a corn chowder and kale kind of place. I think Sawyer is supposed to be the yin to Kettle Black’s mildly transgressive yang. Kettle Black is a restaurant, but also a bar you might stop at on the way to another bar, splitting a bottle of Friulian Pinot Grigio and a tricolore salad before you wind up at the club.

The chef at Kettle Black is Sydney Hunter III, whom you may remember from Superba Snack Bar, Bastide, L’Orangerie or most of the iterations of the pop-up restaurant LudoBites. He has been cooking in Los Angeles for 15 years or so, many of them at the right hand of Ludovic Lefebvre. Hunter was probably best-known as the chef de cuisine of Petit Trois — he was the guy with the Snidely Whiplash mustache behind the counter, handing you that plate of snails. I have always thought of him as a specialist in French cooking, although he was the chef at the Santa Monica outpost of Fraiche which, despite its name, served mostly Italian food.

Still, as you might expect, Hunter’s Italian cooking is eccentric, hewing to no particular regional cuisine and slightly edgy in its way, favoring a sweet-sour flavor palette, lots of crunch and chiles used as much for fragrance as they are for heat. In his hands, the Tuscan bread salad panzanella becomes essentially an arugula salad with a triple portion of crunchy croutons — an approach I’m not sure I don’t prefer to the usual soggy-bread version, but certainly not traditional. His crudo involves slices of sea bream sprinkled with crushed pink peppercorns and tiny crisp tangerine segments, which perch on the fish like Sunday hats. 

The best dish here may be the fat purple slices of Japanese eggplant passed through the fire just long enough to add a bit of smokiness. The eggplant is drizzled with a bit of oil and a few drops of the wine syrup called saba. The skin is fragile and crisp; the flesh soft and luscious. His cauliflower is blackened in the oven and dressed with pine nuts, plumped raisins and puréed anchovies — vaguely Sicilian?

The waiters encourage you to treat Kettle Black as a small-plates restaurant, and that may be the way to go: a succession of salads and vegetable dishes, plus maybe a charred, wet-centered pizza topped with meatballs and a few burnt crumbles of spicy ’nduja sausage.

The roast chicken is blasted to a twisted, blackened hulk in the hot wood oven, although if you are a friend of crunchy skin, you may not mind a bit. The branzino fillet is beautifully crisp, glazed with a not insignificant quantity of buttery lemon-caper sauce, and is laid over a bed of sautéed escarole mixed with mashed potatoes. If you were phobic about foods touching on your plate when you were a kid, the escarole-potato thing may spark a flashback — it is a vegetable dish that should come with a trigger warning — although it is comforting and in its way delicious. 

But the kitchen is better at fresh pasta than you may have any right to expect at a restaurant like this, making garganelli with a meaty, long-simmered Bolognese, pappardelle with sautéed maitake mushrooms and little zucchini-filled agnolotti that are genuinely tender, with the proper bite. The cheese-saturated cacio e pepe pasta is good too.

Does the pappardelle come with nasturtium butter? The pappardelle comes with nasturtium butter. Although you wouldn’t notice if the menu didn’t point it out to you.

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Kettle Black

An Italian small plates restaurant in Silver Lake, helmed by a Ludo Lefebvre protégé

LOCATION

3705 Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles. (323) 641-3705, kettleblackla.com.

PRICES

Antipasti $11-18; pizzas $13-$18; pastas $15-$19; entrees $23-$26; desserts $8-$10.

DETAILS

5 p.m. to midnight Sunday to Wednesday, 5 p.m. to 2 a.m. Thursday to Saturday. Full bar. Valet parking. Credit cards accepted. 

RECOMMENDED DISHES

Roast eggplant with saba, roast cauliflower with anchovies, garganelli Bolognese, capellini cacio e pepe.

 

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