Things That Make You Go Hmmmm

The Gorbals Downtown 05 May 10
eat: Bacon-Wrapped Matzoh Balls, GLT, Crispy Broccoli, Potato Latkes, Welsh Rarebit, Fettucine with Artichoke Hearts, Sticky Toffee Pudding
sip: Cheesebro Rousanne, Dirty Martini

My job as a costumer requires that I spend most of my day in clothing stores. Lately, I've noticed an unfortunate trend in fashion - everything looks the same. Before, preppy JCrew and hipster Urban Outfitters never had crossover merchandise; now, they both carry oxford shirts, fedoras, and boyfriend blazers. A similar homogeneous current is affecting restaurants; even quality ingredients like pork belly, Jidori chicken, and beets have almost become monotonous due to their ubiquity on menus around town (how many gourmet burgers can one city have???) Consequently, I have been craving something different, something non-traditional, something to make me go "hmmm". Enter The Gorbals, an eclectic eatery in downtown LA, that will pique your culinary curiosity.

As their website accurately states, The Gorbals "does not fall into a category". The cuisine is a unique hybrid of Jewish, Scottish, and Spanish cooking. It's run by a Top Chef Winner, Ilan Hall, yet there isn't an ounce of pretentiousness from the celeb chef. They serve food until the rare hour of 2am. An ethnic folk band, The Petrojvic Blasting Co, plays Thursday nights. The restaurant is housed in the enchantingly bizarre Alexandria Hotel. Although the historic Alexandria has recently been renovated into low income apartments, the building still has a faded, Lynchian charm - a trip to the bathroom reveals a hidden jazz club and a dusty, majestic ballroom. The decor is industrial and raw, with highlights including an enormous communal table of rough-hewn wood, kitchen-view seating, and angular, wooden pillar-like stools. In spite of the minimalism, the room still hums with a convivial, homey vibe thanks to the affable staff. Since the menu features obscure organs like sweetbreads and gizzards, an adventurous and carnivorous eater will be in hog heaven here; however, when I came with my pseudo-veggie friend, Gretchen, she was able to find something to nosh. Having dined here three times, here is a smattering of my faves:

Many have dubbed the Bacon-Wrapped Matzoh Balls to be the "signature dish" of The Gorbals. They have garnered a lot of attention due to their shamelessly un-Kosher combo ; yet they are more than just a provocative plate. The crispy, fatty bacon accentuates the soft, doughyness of the matzoh ball and the fresh grated horseradish and parsely add a welcome zing to the plate. Surprisingly, these are amazingly light; like donut holes, one could practically pop a dozen in your mouth before getting full.

Latkes with Smoked Applesauce I wish latkes were not just restricted to Jewish delis. In spite of their deliciousness, they are a pain-in-the-arse to make, both because of their tendency to disintegrate mid-frying as well as the pungent oil smell that permeates your kitchen for days . Ilan's version is crispy, salty, thin and tinged with rosemary. The accompanying smoked applesauce pairs well with these and other meaty menu items.

Gribenes, Lettuce, Tomato Sandwich Gribenes, aka chicken skin, is the Jewish version of chicharrón -pork rinds. I had expected the gribenes to resemble the crunchy, oily skin of a roast chicken, but was sorely mistaken (as you can see from the photo on the right). In fact, the skin is cooked in it's own fat (similar to the French confit) which keeps it juicy, succulent, and meatier. Admittedly, I am that eater who relishes the fatty gristle around the steak almost as much as the steak itself, but I strongly believe that even the faint at heart would enjoy this sandwich. The combination of the fresh lettuce and tomato, the creamy dill aoli, and the gribenes is excellent. I would even go so far as to say I like this better than a traditional BLT. In the words of the Sizzlean adds: "Move over bacon....."

Crispy Broccoli with Soy, Chiles, Vinegar Don't be fooled by the few ingredients; this dish packs a powerful punch. On the outside, the broccoli has been charred to a shriveled crisp , yet inside the green flesh is flavorful and moist. It is a clever spin on the usual side of greens sauteed with garlic; it's so good that we debate ordering a second round.

Fettucini With Artichoke Hearts is a light and refreshing pasta perfect for springtime. The pasta glistens with a buttery, lemon sauce which is so unctuous that we are convinced that cream is a primary ingredient (turns out it's not even in the dish!)

Welsh Rarebit with Fried Egg
My English ancestors would be ashamed, but I always thought this was a meat dish (maybe I mixed up "rarebit" with "rabbit"?) Thankfully, I tasted my inaugural rarebit here and was excited to find that it is essentially melted cheese sauce on toast. I like the addition of the fried egg and Worcestershire sauce on top; this would be a perfect late-night, prevent-a-hangover snack.

Sticky Toffee Pudding with Nutella-Buttermilk Ice Cream This is more cakey and dense than the traditional oozy version. I sampled this dessert twice; the first time, the pudding had just a hint of toffee sauce, but the second time, the cake was drenched. The sprinkled sea salt transforms the pudding into the flavor du jour, salted caramel. Love the tangy ice cream too.

In beverage-land, The Gorbals has quality liquor, a smattering of microbrews, and an inexpensive wine list. In keeping with my recent white-wine infatuation, I drink Cheesebro Roussane a Carmel Valley, Rhone-style white which has a nice balance of fruit and minerals.

To be frank, this isn't a restaurant for everybody. The eclectic menu is small and lacks any food wimp options. Some have said the decor feels unfinished. Downtown parking sucks. Some experimental dishes are flops. In spite of these critiques, The Gorbals succeeds because it is like nothing else out there - it is artsy, innovative, communal, and relaxed. Each time you visit, who knows what you will find. The ever-changing menu is full of surprises. One night, Ilan served us his famous matzoh balls himself. Another night, my friend hosted a circus-themed, costume soiree. Maybe it's the hybrid cuisine or the diverse crowd, but The Gorbals feels like it could be located anywhere. Fortunately, it's here in good ol' Los Angeles.