The first time I visited the Hearth & Hound in Hollywood, not long after the restaurant opened in December, I was happy to find icy oysters zapped with sorrel, whole roasted beets smeared with creamy blue cheese, Moroccan-ish roast lamb with carrots and black lime, and possibly the best chicharrones I had ever tasted outside Baja. The wine list included a page — Diggin' in the Crates! — of Burgundies and such from the cellar of Beastie Boy Mike D. Some of the vegetable plates included snips of roots and tops, which struck me as the plant-kingdom equivalent of garnishing a rabbit sauté with its own kidneys. There was a white-chocolate flying saucer, glazed with a mosaic of passion-fruit seeds vivid enough to induce panic in even a casual trypophobe, and a fancy kind of banana bread. "Top Chef's" Tom Colicchio was yakking with friends a couple tables away.
April Bloomfield is a wonderful chef.
Still, I had difficulty processing my thoughts about the meal. This was only a week or so after the sexual misconduct allegations against the restaurant's co-owner, Ken Friedman, had been reported by Julia Moskin and Kim Severson in the New York Times. It was hard to avoid the idea that to dine there was in some way to endorse the supposed reprehensible acts of Friedman, who is on an indefinite leave from his restaurants.
Yet Bloomfield, who seems to have taken full control of the restaurants, is a force in American cooking at the moment, and her aesthetic of powerful small-plates cooking, simple yet so full-flavored that it often borders on the transgressive, has spread to restaurants all over the world. She is a product of the most formidable female-run kitchens in Britain (London's River Cafe) and the U.S. (Chez Panisse). She started the gastropub craze at New York's Spotted Pig — you can probably blame her for the deviled eggs and fancy cauliflower at every beer bar on Ventura Boulevard — and she turbocharged the modern steakhouse at the Breslin.
I will never quite forget my first taste of her fried pig's ear, her lamb with parsley or her lovely sheep-cheese dumplings moistened with a bit of browned butter. At the Spotted Pig, Bloomfield is the kind of chef who can persuade you to order a plate of roast kidneys even if it is the sort of thing you wouldn't eat on a bet, and even if you discover that you still don't like them, you at least understand why.
So, if you boycott the Hearth & the Hound to express your distaste for Friedman's alleged acts, are you silencing an important woman's voice? Does the ineffectiveness of Bloomfield's responses to Friedman make her complicit in his alleged misconduct? ("I know that it wasn't enough,'' she posted on Twitter.) Or could she have been as fearful of the wrath of a powerful industry figure as were the former employees who spoke out against him? Is it more important that she apparently brushed off complaints about Friedman, or that she did the proper thing and referred some of the women to outside labor counsel? Did she need to quit her job? If you had built an empire through your imagination and sweat, would a partner's alleged misbehavior cause you to dissolve it?
In a way, these are questions better suited to philosophers than to restaurant critics. Even then, it is difficult to plug your ideas about the dilemma into W.V. Quine's web of belief and expect to come up with a perfect answer. I have friends who refuse to set foot in the place, and I respect their values. I think it may be more important that Bloomfield's talent is heard. But I'm a white dude — this line is not mine to draw. And whichever side of the question you lean toward, it is hard not to feel queasy at the result.
The Hearth & Hound is a handsome place, a dark, sprawling den in the shell of the old expat pub Cat & Fiddle, with hunting prints on the walls, rough wooden tables and an unusual spaciousness — it was designed for people who may not want to be disturbed, and the dining patio out front is as large as the restaurant proper. The Cat & Fiddle was said to be haunted; it is hard to see where a ghost might hide in the renovated dining room. It was rumored that bits of "Casablanca" were filmed here, but any signs of Ilsa Lund and Capt. Renault have pretty much been erased too, unless they're flicking around the ashes from the huge wood-burning grill.
Surprisingly, the Hearth & Hound is nothing like a gastropub, although a lot of the activity does seem to cluster around the cocktail bar and the snacky stuff is limited to the odd pickle plate, fluffy dinner rolls whose recipe may include Jerusalem artichokes, and salty, finger-size stripes of whipped cod roe on toast that would seem to be the ideal accompaniment for a dry martini. If you are here looking for the dripping burgers, oozy beef tongue or devils on horseback for which the Spotted Pig is known, you're going to be out of luck.
In a way, the menu at the Hearth & Hound may be a little timid. Bloomfield had originally planned to open a Middle Eastern-ish restaurant in Los Angeles, and a lot of the plates lean that way: a coarse steak tartare with soaked kamut and harissa presented as a riff on Syrian kibbeh nayeh; sauteed spinach with house-made tahini sauce and a handful of smoked chickpeas; and a lovely plate of soft, sweet roasted squash buried under a pile of bitter greens cooked down with a dash of the North African spice mixture baharat. Tiny potatoes are scored halfway through in the manner of Hasselback potatoes, crisped, and served with chewy braised chard.
(You will find a certain similarity here to multiculti dishes on the menu at places like Kismet and Bäco Mercat — Bloomfield has clearly studied the rhythms of the local scene. You will also find a decent grilled hanger steak with black cabbage and a perfectly crisp flattened chicken seasoned with far too much salt.)
A basic salad of bibb lettuce leaves is much better than you'd think it might be, sprinkled with poppy seeds and slicked with a fresh, lemony emulsion the waiter identifies as "fermented ranch dressing." And my favorite dish in the restaurant is a wedge of steamed, lightly pickled cabbage flavored with meaty beef drippings and slumped onto a puddle of a briny oyster puree — the dish tastes like a marvelous sea creature you have never before encountered but can't wait to taste again.
Might your personal web of belief be expansive enough to include fancy banana bread after the cabbage instead of a slab of pork with quince? Professor Quine, I believe, would approve.
The Hearth & Hound
Chef April Bloomfield's Hollywood restaurant showcases her vegetable-centric cooking.
6530 Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles, (323) 320-4022, thehearthandhound.com
Starters $12-$21; vegetables $12-$16; meat and fish, $28-$36.
Dinner 6 to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 6 to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday. The bar opens at 5:30 p.m. Credit cards accepted. Full bar. Valet parking.
Whipped cod roe on toast; charred chicories with fromage blanc; cabbage with oyster emulsion; chicken with green peppercorn jus.