The first thing anybody is going to tell you about the Hart & the Hunter, the restaurant in the new Fairfax District Palihotel, is that you should get the biscuits, which come four to an order and are served on a board. And you should get the biscuits, which are really pretty extraordinary, as light and delicate as the angel biscuits you sometimes find in the best Southern households, but also flaky at the extremities, and layered — they naturally separate into two or three finger-burning strata, which you are going to need if you want to butter them properly.
I have been making biscuits since I learned how at my mother's knee, and I get my biscuit flour flown in from the last water mill in Kentucky. I can talk to you for hours, if you like, on the differences between biscuits made with supermarket butter or European butter, home-rendered organic lard or globs of Crisco. I once talked about the finer points of biscuits on stage at Caltech with Shirley Corriher, who is to biscuits what Edison was to light bulbs, until visions of protein molecules danced in my head.
What I'm trying to say is that I've never made biscuits like these. My mother never made biscuits like these. I've never tasted biscuits like these, which combine the best of what I've previously thought to be incompatible schools of the art. And when they come this scorchingly hot on a plank that also holds a spoonful of pimento cheese, a smear of good butter and a few blackberries that taste as if they have just been plucked from a preserver's pot, there is really nothing else you could want.
The Hart & the Hunter is the project of Kris Tominaga and Brian Dunsmoor, who used to cook at a Southern-themed Venice pop-up called Wolf in Sheep's Clothing (and who are unassociated with the new place currently bearing that name), and before that at Joe's. The restaurant is named after an Aesop's fable with the moral "we often despise what is most useful to us" — the moral in this case being a set of skinny legs, if you wish to see the restaurant's existence as a kind of hipster allegory.
The plates are mismatched, although they all look as if they were somebody's grandmother's company dishes, and the paintings on the tiled walls may well have been rescued from a hunting lodge. The wine list is rich in slightly wild California natural wines in the $50-to-$60 range, like Donkey and Goat Grenache Blanc and Giornata Aglianico, which are served in juice glasses. The glassed-in kitchen appears to be nearly as large as two old-fashioned phone booths placed side-by-side. And the party — the restaurant takes no reservations — often cannot be contained by the small dining room, spilling into the hotel lobby outside.
As music writer Jessica Hopper recently noted, it is a Mumford Mumford Mumford world we live in now. Looked at a certain way, the Hart & the Hunter could be the restaurant equivalent of a drummerless band in vests, the South filtered through the not-South, especially when you are handed a plate of fried chicken skin served with a little bottle of handmade Tabasco, especially when you realize that the thin curls of La Quercia ham from Iowa, the smoked trout with avocado and capers, and the raclette cheese melted onto new potatoes are all served with great piles of white toast.
It's not as if the place exists completely outside the Los Angeles restaurant mainstream. You will find a kale salad, after all, with bits of apple, cheese and nuts, and there is the requisite hand-chopped steak tartare, a version of which seems to be at two-thirds of the new restaurants in town. The only hart you will come across is in the form of a plate of venison carpaccio with pickled garlic and horseradish cream.
If it weren't for the dominance of the biscuits, the best dish on the menu might be the salad of slivered Brussels sprouts tossed with peanuts, bits of cheddar and a bacony vinaigrette, which sounds like something you might have served at your first dinner party in your college apartment, but it comes together in an inexplicable way.
But then you notice that your table is covered in little bowls: They hold black-eyed peas cooked down with bacon and sausage; sprouting broccoli tossed with chile and garlic; charred shishito peppers. You pass the Low Country shrimp boil, which may be more andouille than shrimp, and dig into the puddly, plain cheddar grits. Little bowls of things: It doesn't get much more Southern than that.
And then you look forward to the lemon ice-box pie.
The Hart & the Hunter
Go for the biscuits, stay for the Brussels sprouts.
In the Palihotel, 7950 Melrose Ave., Los Angeles, (323) 424-3055, hartandthehunter.com
Snacks, $3-$10; larger dishes, $11-$21; desserts, $6.
Breakfast 7 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. daily, lunch 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. daily, dinner 5:30 p.m. to about 11 p.m. Tuesdays to Sundays. Credit cards accepted. Beer and wine. Valet parking.
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