To understand Red Hill, Jason Michaud and Trevor Rocco's newish place in a converted Chinese bakery just north of Sunset, you could do worse than to look at the bread-and-butter plate, a once-free nicety that has evolved into an item of competition in L.A.'s new surge of small-plates restaurants.
Red Hill's bread is dense and multigrained, a slightly refined version of the loaves your mother may have baked if you grew up in a household with the Moosewood cookbook on the shelves. The pale gob of butter tastes freshly churned from sweet cream. And the plate is rounded out by a motley collection of pickles — one of the walls is lined with pickle jars on shelves, giving the dining room a slightly deranged farmhouse feel — that includes identical stacks of spicy and non-spicy cucumber dills so that you never know quite what your next bite is going to be. Crafty, folky, a bit clumsy and subtly manipulative, it's Red Hill summarized before the first appetizers even arrive.
Red Hill is the latest step in the Brooklynization of Echo Park, a modern restaurant to go with the vintage clothing stores and well-frequented boutiques. Until a few years ago, the area was probably best known for its picturesque hillside stairways, for bars that bloomed into life after games at Dodger Stadium and for an urban ambience expressed in films like Allison Anders' superb "Mi Vida Loca." Now it seems to be the default destination for writers, indie filmmakers and men with interesting facial hair, all of whom can be seen in the Red Hill dining room on a Saturday night.
The restaurant takes its name from a prewar nickname for the neighborhood, when the steep, narrow streets were known for their concentration of radicals and freethinkers. Nation editor Carey McWilliams lived in the neighborhood; so did Woody Guthrie, Marilyn Horne and the teenage Jackson Pollock. Architect Harwell Hamilton Harris began work on an artists' colony he called Fellowship Park. (His house, up one of those pedestrian stairways, is a monument of Midcentury Modernism.) Local documentarian Carl Byker has called his production company Red Hill for years — the notion of the area as Red Hill is beloved.
Still, Michaud and Rocco are bringing quinoa salad, crunchy roast duck with roast grapes and pickled cherries, and beets with farro to an area better known for pupusas and sopa de siete mares. And you have to wonder whether a chef calling his restaurant Red Hill is expressing his earnest fondness for lefty communalism or doing it for the same reason a college student might wear a trendy T-shirt emblazoned with Che.
The restaurant's energy is bound up in the same kind of contradictions, between wholesome, farmers-market-oriented vegetarian (but not vegan) cooking and gently transgressive dishes with meat; between heirloom carrots in a brown-butter vinaigrette and crisp, fluffy beignets glazed with melting slices of lardo and tossed with pickled mustard seeds that pop between your teeth. Whether you are on Team Kale Salad or Team Venison Meatball, whether you fancy flatbread with eggplant and fontina or roast chicken with dandelion greens, the kitchen is on your side.
So dinners here oscillate between blackened nubs of cauliflower baked with oregano and roasted yams carmelized in duck fat; buttery ricotta gnocchi with figs and leaden pappardelle in a sweetish pork ragu; burrata with chick peas and fat asparagus and arancini, fried rice-balls, stuffed with squash blossoms and oozing Taleggio cheese. (The pastas, especially the gluey noodles with sausage or with vegetables at lunch, may not be the way to go.)
An order of mussels turns out to be yin and yang in a bowl; half shellfish, half crisp French fries. The mussels are perhaps not the best you've ever had, tending toward rubberiness and overwhelmed by housemade sausage, but the fries are excellent and the broth is spicy, and you will see the bottom of the bowl either way.
The best dessert, oddly enough, is a bouncy olive oil cake: split, filled with lightly sweetened tomato sorbet and garnished with juicy slivers of tomato peel; summer expressed in an unexpected way.
If you're around at breakfast time, you'll find evolved diner food: blintzes, delicate latkes, gluten-free pigs in a blanket, and (dryish) yam biscuits smothered with bacon, an honest mole sauce and what have to be some of the best hash browns in town. Restaurants don't survive long in this part of Los Angeles without palatable vegan breakfasts: You can get avocado and vegan cream cheese on your everything bagel if the layers of bacon and scrambled eggs won't do and vegan mozzarella on the tofu scramble.
Have you ever been to a restaurant furnished with three-legged chairs? Because at Red Hill the other afternoon, seconds after I noted the handsome ironwork of the brand-new chairs, the woman sitting next to me tipped alarmingly, the boy across from me slammed straight into the floor and I probably would have followed if I hadn't maintained a deathgrip on the sturdy wooden table. The giggling woman high-fived the kid. The waterglass she knocked over cascaded into all of our laps. I can only imagine how the chairs might tumble late at night when the patrons are into their third Brouwerij Saison or their second bottle of Washington state Semillon.
The latest step in the Brooklynization of Echo Park, it's crafty, folky, a bit clumsy and subtly manipulative.
1325 Echo Park Ave. (just north of Sunset Boulevard), Los Angeles; (213) 482-0886; redhillrestaurant.com.
Snacks, $4-$10; appetizers, $9-$12; main courses, $13-$20.
Breakfast and lunch, 9 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. daily; dinner 6-10 p.m. Sunday to Thursday, 6-11 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Major credit cards accepted. Beer and wine. Patio. Lot parking.