When I woke up the next morning, I really thought it had all been a dream. The goth mime sniffing our wine bottle, his cohorts in white porcelain masks circling the table. The gentleman in his 50s who strode in late with three women in his wake and sat next to us at the long communal table, a crude slab of hard wood that looked as if it had just come from the sawmill. One woman celebrating her birthday with sticky toffee pudding, while on the other side, a beauty in a skull T-shirt smooched a guy with an innocent-looking face but heavily illustrated arms.
Just another night at the Gorbals. It's weird and fun and a little rough around the edges, but definitely from the heart. Prices are on the low side, portions small. But everything has real flavor.
I'd gone with friends for dinner. But as we approached 5th and Spring streets -- blocks before, really -- we saw hundreds and hundreds of people walking. Walking! Downtown! At night! Music pumped from the entrance to an aristocratic-looking building. Parking attendants waving fluorescent wands herded cars into parking lots, while a trio of food trucks dispensed tacos and pork belly sandwiches to a hungry throng and workers at a sidewalk table gave out free canvas bags touting the 2010 census.
Sure, it was the regular Downtown Art Walk, but who knew even that could bring out crowds like this?
We hadn't been able to get a reservation because the Gorbals takes them only for parties of six or more, so we decided to take the four empty spaces at the communal table. The restaurant had been mostly full other times I'd gone and gotten busier as the night wore on. If you arrive at 6, say, I imagine you can get a spot, but you might be eating all by your lonesome.
But know this before you go: The Gorbals is a peculiar, very personal restaurant from a chef with a point of view. He's Ilan Hall, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America in New York and the pastry program at the school's Napa Valley campus who has worked for Tom Colicchio at Craft and for Mario Batali at his Spanish tapas place, Casa Mono, both in New York.
His own way
He's best known, though, as the kid who won the second season of "Top Chef." But Hall seems to be a very different breed from more recent winners. Here's a cook who builds dishes from the flavor up. These are not intellectual exercises. Some of his food may challenge the limits of diners' palates, and it probably won't impress those looking for another notch in their foodie belt, but the Gorbals is fresh and fun.
Choosing that name -- for the neighborhood in Glasgow where Hall's Scottish and Israeli parents, both of Eastern European descent, grew up -- may not have been Hall's smartest move. But at least there's some honest feeling behind it.
And though it's often referred to as a Scottish-Jewish restaurant, the Gorbals is much more than that. Call it global immigrant cuisine. I'm only guessing here, but it's probably the kind of food he'd cook for friends in a garage band. Other than the small-plates concept, it doesn't have much to do with the current trends in restaurant cooking.
Hall strikes me as a guy cooking the food that he likes. And what he likes is pretty eclectic. He's got offal. He's got plenty of bacon in his dishes too, but nowhere near Animal quantities (and when he does use bacon, it makes sense, as in his fluffy matzo balls wrapped in bacon; the combination is fantastic, though in no way kosher). And if Hall ever went head to head with renegade French chef Ludo Lefebvre, he probably wouldn't score many points for polish or technique, but he just might win for overall satisfaction. His food isn't pretty, but it certainly has flavor.
"Here you are, darling," says our server, setting down a dish that combines languorous charred octopus tentacles with sautéed chicken gizzards. It's unconventional, funky -- and tasty with a squirt of lemon. There's his version of the Momofuku pork belly bun too, this one on slightly sweet dinner rolls that mimic the texture and taste of Chinese bao, with rich braised oxtail inside. And I love the split marrow bone served with a pile of sautéed oyster mushrooms, fresh walnuts and a splash of vinegar.
Butternut squash latkes instead of the traditional potato -- two to an order, served steaming, with enough chestnut cream to slather on two dozen of the tasty pancakes. His vegetable dishes, in fact, all tend to be unusual. You won't see any Beverly Hills chopped salad here. Offerings are more along the lines of braised purple cabbage with caraway seeds and walnuts or a salad of Persian cucumbers with rice wine vinegar and sesame.
And that offal? The dishes are just as out of the ordinary. One night there's tripe, cut the size and shape of French fries and fried to a deep crunch, served with an aioli for dipping. It's surprising and good, enjoyed by even the offal-intimidated at the table. Another of Hall's signature items is GLT, basically a BLT with fried chicken skin, or gribenes (that's the G), substituted for the bacon. Mmm, crisp chicken skin. On skinny slices of rye bread, it looks like something your grandmother would put together for lunch.
Yes, the menu sometimes includes haggis, that much-maligned, heady mix of various organ meats and oatmeal cooked in a sheep or calf's stomach. Here, it's homemade and appears as a delicious stuffing in slices of chicken Balmoral, which is served with clapshot. Say what? It's a homey mash of potatoes and turnips, perfect for the rainy weather.
As we taste our way through half a dozen dishes, candles flicker in my peripheral vision. The Gorbals space is makeshift and rude, put together obviously with very little money. A white door is grubby. Waiters dash in and out of a flap of black curtain. Customers at the bar sit on upended wooden crates. Beverly Hills it isn't. In fact, I doubt you'll see a designer logo in the place. This is hand-knit muffler, hoodie and leather jacket territory.
With no presence on the street except for a white flag emblazoned with the name, the restaurant feels something like an old-time speak-easy. In the Alexandria Hotel lobby, black-and-white photos of former star-studded banquets try to give the place a thin scrim of glamour. In actuality, it looks a little sad sack, the once famous Palm Court at one end of the lobby locked, a leasing office in the hallway where the down and out sometimes wander. And with no valet parking out front, you'll have to hoof it from one of two parking garages on the block.
The wine list is quite minimal at the moment, about 20 wines by the glass or bottle, starting at $9 and $28, respectively, and including Chalone Pinot Noir, Goodnight Pinot Grigio or Chamisal Stainless Chardonnay. The beer selection is fairly standard: Anchor Steam, Sierra Nevada and the like, which I suspect is more due to lack of funds than policy. However, if you enjoy Scotch, Hall's got a sweet little list of single malts, including a 16-year-old Lagavulin or a 14-year-old Clynelish, both $10.
For sweets, go with the sticky toffee pudding, which is more cake than pudding, served with espresso ice cream and a touch of Maldon salt.
But don't expect the mime troupe every night. They were members of the Wandering Marionettes who perform upstairs in the hotel on the weekends drumming up business. Never mind. There's plenty of entertainment and soul at this new downtown spot, even without them. And 5-inch Balenciaga heels not required.
The Gorbals ** LOCATION Inside the Alexandria Hotel, 501 S. Spring St., downtown Los Angeles; (213) 488-3408; www.thegorbalsla.com. PRICE Savory small plates, $7 to $15; sweets, $7. Corkage, $15. DETAILS Open for lunch 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday to Friday and for dinner 6 p.m. to midnight Monday to Wednesday and 6 p.m. to 2 a.m. Thursday to Saturday. Full bar. Parking in lots just to the south on the same block. Sunday brunch is served 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Rating is based on food, service and ambience, with price taken into account in relation to quality. ****: Outstanding on every level. ***: Excellent. **: Very good. *: Good. No star: Poor to satisfactory.