If you should find yourself at Manuela, the sprawling new small-plates restaurant at the heart of Hauser & Wirth, you should probably poke around the museum-size galleries, take a look at the chickens out back and order a "Redneck" platter as soon as you sit down. That platter is a statement of intent disguised as a crudités arrangement, appropriate with either a blackberry smash or a Japanese hefeweizen. The "Redneck" is where chef Wes Whitsell, who grew up working on his father's North Texas farm, shows his hand.
There is a small heap of country ham, sliced so thinly that it falls apart in your fingers, a mound of soft pimento cheese, and deviled eggs that would not be out of place at a proper Georgia funeral. You are in the small-town mid-South, nibbling on genteel staples more associated with church suppers than with ambitious restaurants.
But if you're keeping score, the ham comes from Tennessee's cult smokehouse Benton's. The pickled vegetables seem to have each been brined separately, ranging from sharply spicy carrots to crisp cucumber pickles to mellow lacto-fermented turnips — Whitsell is clearly into the fermentation thing. The dense, flaky biscuits, pre-buttered, owe more to New South chefs like Sean Brock than to Grandma — Whitsell likes craft baking too.
In a place like Hauser & Wirth, a sophisticated, ambitious mega-gallery whose first exhibition was a lovely survey of contemporary sculpture by women, you might expect a restaurant where the food is as conceptual as the art, boundaries as crumbly as the unfinished walls. Within the context, Manuela's sharply defined homeyness — open walls bleeding into the vast courtyard, abstracted Old West furnishings twisted into the idea of the century-old flour mill this complex used to be — may be avant-garde in its own way, Whitsell's rural sensibilities settling into one of the most urban spaces on the West Coast.
You can keep going the pure Southern route if you're so inclined, starting with a plate of crisp, hot hush puppies served with softened molasses-sweetened butter and a tiny bottle of Whitsell's own hot sauce, then continuing with a crusty, dripping cheeseburger made with ground venison, a plate of grilled quail with sour cream, or a bacon-wrapped elk loin, mild and dead-rare, with a burnt slab or two of grilled maitake mushroom and a tangy bit of fermented radicchio. Dessert might be biscuits and honey, a classic blackberry cobbler, or a mashup of yogurt, crunchy meringue and berries that is very close to a classic Eton mess.
Purple potatoes are boiled, smashed, briefly crisped in the fryer and moistened with crème fraîche; green peas are braised with green garlic; broccoli is sprinkled with fresh horseradish.
The last time I went to Manuela, I somehow ended up with baby-back ribs, cornbread and collard greens. The texture of the meat, firm and juicy, hewed closer to that of a heritage pork roast than to something you'd find at a Georgia pit, and the greens were flavored with cider and a bit of smoked tomato butter instead of pepper vinegar and a ham hock. The corn bread was more crunchy than crumbly. But it too was a Southern meal.
It is easy to snap into a reverie here, especially if you spend much time gazing at the magnificent Mark Bradford painting that dominates the eastern wall, a massive abstracted map of the Hollywood street grid. The one time I sat with my back to the painting, the waiter pointed out that the artist himself was sitting across the room. If you get a chance, try to get a peek at the mural Raymond Pettibon painted in the private dining room.
But Whitsell's menu isn't all so explicitly Southern, although much of it does involve the grill in some way: blackened romanesco cauliflower given a Middle Eastern tinge with mint and chile; grilled carrots with labneh; charred asparagus spears with tomato; and grilled salmon with a subtly funky heap of smoked cabbage. (A salad of grilled lettuce with anchovy, on the other hand, smells more than a bit like burnt plastic. I might give that one a pass.) Even the very Italian ragù on the soft polenta sees a bit of fire — the ground pork is subtly smoked.
I really like the butter pecan ice cream, and the citrus salad with crushed pistachio and pink peppercorn is refreshing after what is likely to have been a heavy meal. But I'm not sure I've had a better dessert this year than what turned out to be a plate of chilled, peeled Kishu mandarins, smaller than golf balls yet fragrant and sweet, with a distinct, almost savory acidity that lingered on the tongue like the honeyed essence of a really good Sauternes. It was a distillation of late California winter. And it may take a particular kind of genius in the kitchen to know when to let perfection speak for itself.
At a new restaurant, North Texas meets L.A.'s Arts District
907 E. 3rd St., Los Angeles, (323) 849-0480, manuela-la.com.
Raw and cured dishes $5-$21; hot dishes $7-$43; vegetables $7-$10; desserts $3-$16.
Lunch Wed.-Fri., 11:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.; dinner Sun.-Thurs., 5:30 p.m. to 10 p.m. and Fri.-Sat., 5:30 p.m. to 11 p.m.; brunch Sat.-Sun., 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Credit cards accepted. Full bar. Valet and difficult street parking.
"Redneck" platter; hush puppies; grilled avocado; crisp fingerling potatoes, bacon-wrapped elk loin, meringue with yogurt and berries.
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