GORBALS: A SCOTTISH/JEWISH CURATE'S EGG IN DOWNTOWN L.A.
As part of a week-long public celebration of my 46th Birthday, Sybil had treated me to a Thai massage and a facial (even fat, bald, big eared 46 year old Yorkshiremen are entitled to glowing skin)
The facial part was a breeze. I lay on a comfortable couch as an attractive young woman bathed my battered fizzog with exotic lotions from all corners of the globe, all the while drifting off to the peaceful sound of chill out music played on the Pan pipes.
The massage however, was a different matter entirely. No gentle back rubs here. For those of you who have not experienced true Thai massage, it is the equivalent of the sort of beating you would expect to receive if you asked a Hell’s Angel to give you a hand job. At one point, the burly lady who was unfortunate enough to have me as a client, spent a good fifteen minutes walking up and down on my back as I whimpered like a five year old girl. Revenge was mine however as she turned towards my bottom half, letting out a little squeal as she realised her tasks that day included giving a right good massage to my bunioned feet.
I hobbled out of the spa an hour and a half later feeling like I had endured a heavy kicking in one of the rougher areas of Glasgow. Particularly appropriate as supper that night was going to be at a relatively new restaurant in Downtown L.A, which carried the unlikely moniker of the same name; Gorbals.
Chef, Ilan Hall was apparently the winner of the second season of US TV cookery show Top Chef. He named his restaurant after the area where his Scottish/Israeli parents lived in Glasgow. It’s an odd choice for a name, a bit like calling a restaurant “Moss Side” or “Toxteth” but his unlikely selection added to an equally intriguing menu offering “Scottish/Jewish Fusion” food has won the place quite a few online fans and a mainly positive critical response since it opened its doors.
Downtown L.A. seems to be redeveloping at a pace, but you would hardly know it as you pass some of the more troubled of the city’s population and make your way through the lobby of The Alexandria Hotel into the dimly lit restaurant. It’s a small room, but not unappealing, with a handful of tables for couples and foursomes, some large communal benches and bar stool seating overlooking the kitchen itself. It was empty when we arrived, but by the time we left, there was barely a spare seat in the house, a definite testament to its current popularity.
The menu too is small and genuinely quirky. It contained only eleven listed savoury plates followed by just two desserts. These included Sticky Toffee Pudding, the only nod I could see on the menu towards any British, let alone Scottish influence. There were certainly some Jewish elements with gribines and even matzoh balls served with horseradish mayonnaise. Although, I am pretty certain the fact they were also served wrapped in bacon might preclude them from any Jewish ceremony I know about.
This is where it all began to get a little odd. We ordered five of the eleven dishes and sat back to sip on our drinks until they arrived. We didn’t have to wait long. In fact, we didn’t have to wait long until every single plate of food had been placed before us. Sybil checked her watch and calculated that we had been in the restaurant a mere ten minutes before our first food arrived and only twenty before the last of the small plates was deposited in front of us.
The meal itself was a real curate’s egg. When it was good, it was delicious, when it was bad, well just look at the pictures. Those bacon wrapped matzoh balls were surprisingly light and worked well with the wrapping of crisp bacon and the tang of the horseradish sauce. If they were an unlikely success, then the next dish was an unlikely flop. Few things can’t be improved by deep-frying and the slivers of crisp pigs head in our salad were spot on. They were far too few of them however and the remaining components of peas and other greenery had been overdressed with lime, to mouth puckering effect.
Top marks for the next two dishes. Gribines are literally “scraps” of chicken skin that are cooked until all the fat has rendered leaving them akin to my beloved pork scratchings. I make them myself, but Hall’s notion to use them instead of bacon in a BLT is a thing of genius. The lettuce in our attractive sandwich may have been overdressed again, but the crunch of toasted bread, chicken skin and leaves was good enough for me to consider ordering another one immediately.
Equally delicious were three “Lamb Buns” or sliders that, oddly enough, reminded me of the fabulous lamb rolls I ate in Xian, than anything I have ever encountered in Britain. I am normally no great fan of lamb in the US, but these were tasty, perfectly cooked chunks served in sweet, soft rolls. It was another good idea from a chef who likes his gutsy flavours.
Quite how then, I wonder, could a chef able to send out something as good as those two dishes also be capable of two horrors that should never have never have made it further than the kitchen waste bins? Just in case you think I am being deliberately unpleasant (and, oh yes, I know I am definitely guilty of that from time to time) I offer up as evidence photographs #4 and #10.
There seems to be a new trend appearing for charred green vegetables. Here’s a word of advice to all chefs. If God had meant asparagus and broccoli to be black, he would not have made them green in the first place. First, the incinerated asparagus at Chego last week and now, well as I said, just look the pictures. If you guessed that the bowl contained what was once broccoli, you are correct. It was really very nasty indeed.
Worse was to come with the dessert. I chose the sticky toffee pudding. Well, of course I was going to. Any chef with British heritage can have his chops tested with this classic pudding. Over the years I have eaten dozens of STP’s. The best have been gloriously soft, light and drenched in a rich coating of caramel sauce. The worst are dense, lumpy and dry. None however, has ever been quite like the one served at Gorbals.
That’s it there in the picture, next to the blob of rapidly melting ice cream. I thought of Richard Burton reading Dylan Thomas’ “Under Milk Wood” as I prodded at it
“Starless and Bible black”
The charred outside just about yielded to reveal the hard layer below and the texture was like eating the contents of a hypo-allergenic pillow. The addition of small flakes of Maldon salt did not add any relief and we both took one bite and pushed the plate away. I mentioned it to our waiter and he took the cost off the bill immediately. Quite right too, but they should also take it off the menu until they know how to make one.
The service, as it has been just about everywhere in LA, was lovely and efficient and deserved the tip we left. I ordered a smashing bottle of a dark, rich Angel Porter to drink with my meal and Sybil had glass of red from a small wine list, which included a Kosher wine that could only be served by Ilan, (presumably not after he had been cooking the bacon)
These brought our final bill to $85. That struck me as quite a lot to pay for six small plates of very, very hit or miss food. It struck me as even more to pay when we looked at the time again and realised we would be hitting the street less than forty minutes after arriving. The curse of small plates dining strikes again.
I can certainly understand the appeal of Gorbals. It is lively, fun and a useful addition to a resurgent part of the city. The food however is too variable to ever make the restaurant a regular stopping off point for me when there are better options downtown. That being said, I shall be watching Ilan Hall’s career with considerable interest. After all, anyone who can come up with the brilliance that is a chicken skin sandwich can’t be all bad.