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The Gorbals: Interview with "Top Chef" winner Ilan Hall about his new restaurant

July 29, 2009 |  6:09 pm

Chef Ilan Hall stands in his unfinished restaurant, The GorbalsMuch has been made of "Top Chef" season 2 winner and soon to be restaurateur Ilan Hall's ethnic background. Born to a Scottish father and an Israeli mother, he brings his cheeky, eclectic sensibility to the Gorbals, a restaurant that is, like its chef, a mix of cuisines with a hefty dose of New York attitude.

Named after a Glasgow neighborhood that was once the equivalent of New York City's Lower East Side, the Gorbals seems fittingly located in the base of the Alexandria Hotel in downtown L.A. It's not in the former Charlie O's, which Hall says is slated to open as a bar called the Down & Out, but in a space next to it. It's also across the street from where Hall and the other "Top Chef" contestants stayed while filming the show.

The idea behind the Gorbals is big, spanning dozens of cuisines and settling on none. But the menu itself will be small: 15 appetizer-sized plates each under $15. That is, if Hall can decided on which 15 plates. There will be a small wine list, approximately 10 whites, 10 reds and a few roses as well as a full bar featuring a small but carefully curated Scotch whisky list.

We had a chance to peek at the unfinished space, where Hall was hand-sanding a long slab of wood that will be positioned between two columns as a floating communal table that seats 18. In addition, there should be about 16 tables and several seats at the bar. The restaurant will be done simply: whites, wood and steel with an open kitchen. If all goes well, Hall plants to open the Gorbals between Aug. 18 and 20.

[Interview and more photos after the jump.]

A long wooden slab that will eventually be a floating table rests on the ground at The GorbalsHow long did it take to put the Gorbals together?
I moved out to L.A. a year from this past March, but I found this space last October. It took a long time to get the right contract and lease, but it’s a really good one. We're signed on for five years with an option for 15. It would be lovely to be here and successful for that long.

What made you choose the Alexandria Hotel?
All the architecture downtown is beautiful and charming. It’s nice to see that it’s being cleaned up and revamped. I found it by random. I was [getting] a tour of downtown. We came in and looked at another space [in the Alexandria], a karaoke bar and printing shop two doors down. It was sort of a bi-level, open lofty-looking thing, and they weren't sure if the liquor license would apply to that because they have an old liquor license from when it was a hotel. Then they were like, "We have this diner space." Then we walked in here.

By "they" you mean the owners of the building?
Yes, the owners of the building. They were more interested in having some sort of a bar, which they're re-opening Charlie O's and calling it the Down & Out.

I looked at the space and the second I walked into it I said, "This is kind of awesome." I love it. I like that it’s recessed from the street. It’s interesting, it's weird and it had half of the kitchen done already. They were already working on bringing this up to health code. I jumped in at the right time, so I got a lot of kitchen equipment for no money. It’s kind of a dream come true. It gave me the ability to open up a restaurant of this size and of this scope.

Tell me about the menu.
On the website you’re adamant that this is NOT fusion cuisine, yet it combines elements from so many different cuisines. If I look at my favorite restaurants, they don't really stick to a certain guideline. They'll stick to maybe using certain ingredients but adapting them to how they feel is right. Look at Animal, which is one of my favorite restaurants; they don’t serve a specific type of cuisine. It’s very meat-themed, but they'll have a dish that's inspired by something from Hawaii or they'll have a dish that's inspired by something Italian.

My father's Glaswegian. My mother's from Jerusalem. I grew up with Scottish food. I grew up with really Jewish food and a lot of Eastern European-influenced food. I think ham makes hummus taste better. So I think it works. The only thing that's being fused in this is bacon into food that's not allowed to have bacon in it.

Bacon-wrapped matzo balls have to be the most sacrilegious dish on your menu.
They could be. I’d only have to make a lobster hummus to make it even worse.

Do you serve them in a soup?
No, they’re going to be amuse bouches. They're really fluffy. When you roast them really slowly, the pork fat makes them fluffier and more tender. I make really light matzo balls. I use yeast, baking powder and seltzer -- everything possibly to make them fluffier without falling apart. Never try and make them in Telluride, Colorado because they don’t work. The altitude messes them up. I tried to make them for an event…

Chef Ilan Hall considers the exterior of The GorbalsWhat about the rest of the menu?
I have a list of 45 small plates that I want to make. The problem is I've had like 10 menus. I keep modifying them because the produce keeps changing and I keep having different ideas and taking things away. I did a dinner at Canele the other day, which is another one of my favorite restaurants, and I made crimini mushrooms roasted in duck fat. I'm probably not going to do that here.

I'm not using any higher end cuts of meat. I'm not using any rib eyes. Short rib might be the most expensive cut of meat I'm using. I want everything to be really homey, really rustic in flavor but beautiful in presentation.

I want to do lots of side dishes. The produce in California is so amazing. What I'm trying to do in the restaurant is just make food that I love to cook and eat and have wine and beverages that I love to drink.

How's the produce as compared to New York?
When I used to work at Craft when I was but a wee boy, we had a buyer at the Santa Monica Farmers' Market that we'd give orders to. She'd be walking around with her cell phone to all the different booths and it would be shipped over. Now that’s kind of taboo. But, yeah, local produce in California, for this country it’s unbeatable.

Is there any dish you’re pretty sure you’re going to serve?
I love the rib and breast cut of lamb. I've been cooking it for years all different ways. I do [lamb ribs] two different ways. I either confit them in olive oil and then remove the bones and press it so it's compact and all the excess fat sticks out of the side. And then I'll just slow roast them in the oven until they get really, really crispy. And I'll serve them with tabouli and pickled cantaloupe or watermelon. But the menu is going to change! It sucks because I'm programming the POS system, and they keep asking me for the menu and I keep changing it.

So your dad's picking the Scotches?
Did he raise you up to know about Scotch? Yes, to be a Scotch snob actually. My favorite Scotch right now is the Lagavulin Distillers Edition, Double Matured, of which I have about one glass left in my bottle. I brought it with me when I was in Scotland a few months ago. [The Scotches are] going to be affordable. I want everything to be affordable. I just think that things right now, people want to get good value. I want to get good value. It’s all based on me. It’s a very selfish thing. It’s the restaurant that I want to go to.

It’s your fantasy restaurant. Some people find partners who look like them; you've created a restaurant in your own image.
Exactly. Yes.

Did your experience on "Top Chef" inform any of the dishes you’re doing at the Gorbals?
I learn from everything I do. When you're around lots of talented people, it rubs off and you get bits and pieces. I'm sure I pickle a lot more stuff because I watched Sam pickle a lot of stuff. I learned how to pit olives with the back of a funnel from Marcel. Things like that are priceless. You're never going to learn skills like that unless you’re there with somebody who actually knows how to do it.

--Elina Shatkin

Photos: Elina Shatkin / Los Angeles Times

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