Hatchet Hall, Los Angeles – review

Behind LA’s capped teeth, palm trees and perpetual tan, there lies a tremendous melting-pot of cultures and influences (thanks in part to the cosmopolitan transplants who were all in search of a very similar dream at one point or other), which is why it’s all the more gratifying to see a restaurant bold enough to reflect and salute the city’s very multi-culti, checkerboard fabric with such inclusive panache. The former Waterloo & City space is now a quizzical maze of rooms, moods, styles and disciplines, from a saloon-style back bar, to a beachy looking oyster bar; a turn-of-the-century southern diner festooned with taxidermy; an almost Edwardian private room dripping with precious candelabras and key-lime wallpaper and an Umbrian pergola-covered patio.

Wood grilled Octopus - Hatchet Hall

Wood grilled Octopus

Contrary to many points of view, the only thing truly southern about Brian Dunsmoor’s hearty hearth kitchen, is that it’s located south of Venice boulevard on the (next-to-be-gentrified) edge of Culver City. I would argue that the success of the seven week-old Hatchet Hall goes way beyond “southern-gothic”, as Mr. Dunsmoor flexes his flavor muscles in a variety of hemispheres with an emphasis on local ingredients.

Grilled carrots - Hatchet Hall

Grilled carrots

With a name like Hatchet Hall, it would be a fair assumption to find oneself confronted with endless cuts of bloody beef and bones, but rather surprisingly, Dunsmoor seems to favor unconventional beans, seeds, salsas, aiolis, seafood and dairy products to bring his dishes their unique (and by all recent accounts – highly popular) appeal.

Perusing the sharing-style, five-section menu is a lot like finding the restroom – a delightful (yet much longer than expected) adventure of twists and turns, dotted with highlights, bites and delights – plus an arbitrary surprise here or there.

Sliced tomatoes - Hatchet Hall

Sliced tomatoes

Accompanying the fresh and bi-coastal bivalves is an interesting selection of cured country hams served with pickles and warm bread. Our strictly-casual attired waiter referred to the second section as “snacks”. These include a few imaginative bar-food bites, plus a couple of mention-worthy salads. The Sliced Tomatoes are layered over the most amazingly tangy and richly whipped aged-cheddar, with a few crusty breadcrumbs and something called “pigeon peas”, which looked and tasted a lot like a second cousin to the black-eyed pea. The sublimely charred Market Peach Salad is similarly plated over a froth of yummy, minty cream-cheese, with a dribble of oil and vinegar.

Market Peach Salad - Hatchet Hall

Market Peach Salad

Moving on to hot appetizers, the list includes a couple of organ meats and the much-Instagram’d Skillet Fried Quail – which I’m dying to try on my next visit, but let it be said that the Wood grilled Octopus is pretty stellar; a triplet of crispy, tender tentacles coil lovingly over a puddle of citrusy aioli with a tart salsa verde and a few soft runner beans for company.

Wood grilled Trout - Hatchet Hall

Wood grilled Trout

Of the five main options, Chef Dunsmoor prepares three of them in his wood-fire grill. The first is a wonderful take on a traditional Pork Chop with brown butter and charred peaches. Then there’s a nose-to-tail trout wrapped with a deliciously smoky belt of bacon-y corn and roasted peanuts. And finally a whole Stone Crab – which arrives triumphantly dappled in a sublime herbed crab-butter, which I devoured greedily with tongs, wrenches and spears as if it were the last crab to ever cross my plate. His Game Hen is a formidable contender for the best roast chicken in town. It arrives mounted on a slice of country bread soaking in its own salty, barbecue au jus with a delightfully appropriate crown of hen-o’-the-woods mushrooms.

Wood grilled local Stone Crab - Hatchet Hall

Wood grilled local Stone Crab

Even the side dishes seemed to enjoy the wood-fire grill as much as their protein counterparts, such as the wonderfully honey-sweetened Chimichurri Carrots or the dill-infused Roasted Beets – the first served with yogurt, the second with crème fraiche. And while I idiotically assumed that duck fat was the ultimate decadence for Roasted Potatoes, Dunsmoor pushes his über-crispy spuds way over the edge with beef fat on a bed of roasted garlic aioli with a garden salsa.

Beef fat Roast Potatoes - Hatchet Hall

Beef fat Roast Potatoes

Surprise! Surprise! Desserts are just as varied and flavor-forward, from a Panna Cotta made from goat cheese, to a Bread Pudding exploding with blueberries.

Blueberry Breadpudding - Hatchet Hall

Blueberry Breadpudding

So, the hell with “southern-inspired.” Could Hatchet Hall be the first truly nouveau-American restaurant – inspired by all of us?

http://www.hatchethallla.com/reservations/

Roasted Game Hen - Hatchet Hall

Roasted Game Hen

Advertisements

Truffle Hunting in Umbria

For as long as I can remember, I have always had a thing for truffles. Half of it must be their mystique and the other half – their incomparably subtle aroma and uniquely distinctive flavor. By definition, a truffle is a parasitic fungus that grows onto the roots of certain trees. They are fiendishly fussy about altitude, moisture, soil, foliage, wind and weather, and unless everything is as pedantically perfect as a banquet table at Buckingham Palace, they’ll refuse to grow. But to make matters trickier, even if they thrive, they are invisible to the human eye. So, for centuries, farmers in France and Italy enlisted the help of pigs to sniff them out of their subterranean hiding. But that’s not the worst of it. Turns out, pigs find them just as much of a delicacy as we do. And so after many a farmer lost many a finger trying to pry summer blacks or winter whites out of the throats of swine, they started training man’s best friend to do the work instead, with fewer casualties and more rewards.

That brings us to Umbria – the Italian capital of black truffle farming. In many of the forests along the olive-grove hilltops somewhere between Montefalco and Norcia lies a charming industry just a couple of inches below the dirt, (not to be confused with the truffle oil industry, which not only sells artificially flavored ersatz truffle infusions, but one that is also systematically wiping these farmers off the map).

Outside the tiny hamlet of Pettino, Mac, a farmer from the south island of New Zealand (I know, not exactly what one would expect in these parts), and his Umbrian wife Francesca welcomed us onto their 700 year old family farm – and when I say family, I mean the entire la famiglia (in-laws and outlaws) to spend the day finding, cooking, eating, enjoying and celebrating truffles.

One morning's harvest

One morning’s harvest

The first thing you notice as Mac releases the dogs from a cage on the back of his truck, is that while they might look like very ordinary farm dogs, they are trained to sniff, dig and retrieve the “black gold” from the forest floor in exchange for tiny treats. Mac had barely enough time to explain how important it is to keep these working dogs separated from regular domesticated pets for fear of them “becoming lazy” and loosing their hard-learned skills, when the first truffles are already discovered. For the next hour or so, the process repeated itself over and over. Run, run, sniff, sniff, dig, dig, arf, arf, wag, wag, chomp, chomp, bene, bene!

Next on the agenda was a ride up to the top of the hill with a spectacular view of the valley, just as the resident sheep family munched their way across our path. Our hosts quickly whipped up a snack of farm-fresh scrambled eggs and a few slithers of wondrously creamy, home made sheep’s milk cheese, all topped with shavings of our recently discovered harvest, plus a flute of Prosecco. (Sigh!)

Shaved truffles over Sheep's milk cheese

Shaved truffles over Sheep’s milk cheese

Meanwhile back at the farm, Nonna (Mac’s round-shouldered, smudge-bespectacled, hands-on-hips mother-in-law) stood hunched over a mound of flour and a few fresh eggs in the stone kitchen.

With nothing but years of practice, her bare hands and a long rolling pin, she transformed these two ingredients into heavenly ribbons of tortellini right before our eyes.

Francesca put the final touches on our lunch: her New Year’s Eve signature, red wine-infused Truffle Frittata; a deliciously tender Braised Guinea Fowl flavored with local tomatoes, sweet prunes and fresh herbs; a sublime Truffle Pesto to accompany the tortellini; a garden salad with home-fermented red wine vinegar; Garden Peach Tarts bursting with juice and begging for a scoop of gelato.

Fresh tortellini with truffle pesto

Fresh tortellini with truffle pesto

Then in a series of trips down to the long, wooden table under a shady pergola, we all sat down to an unforgettable lunch – farmers, dogs, hunters, tourists, cooks…and every member of la famiglia! Buckingham Palace, take note!

http://www.montefalcomob.com/wild-foods-adventure

Blue Hill at Stone Barns – review

The first question anyone asks me after I just so happen to casually mention that after 5 years of trying, I have finally dined at Dan Barber’s hyper-sniper, super-duper, elusive and exclusive Blue Hill at Stone Barns is, “Did it change your life?” You better believe it did! In fact, just like BC and AD represent the world before and after Christ, I now use BBH and ABH to refer to how food tasted before and after Blue Hill.

Sound a bit too dramatic? Not when you consider that Chef Barber’s mission is to nurture and cultivate the most perfect ingredients purely for the sake of flavor rather than size, shelf life or growth speed. Not wanting to paraphrase his incredible story, which can be seen on episode 2 of Netflix’s gastro-series “Chefs Table”, Mr. Barber began his journey by resuscitating his family farm in the Hudson Valley. Then one thing led to another, and now he is the king of an agricultural movement the size of Australia.

Vegetable Crudité - Blue Hill at Stone Barns

Vegetable Crudité

When you take that first crisp bite out of a slice of yellow bell pepper (after it glides onto your starched, white tablecloth aboard a block of spiked wood alongside a few other hand-picked Crudités), you realize that all this little bell pepper ever wanted to be (after growing up in Mr. Barber’s year-round hothouse with retractable roof), was the best bell pepper the world had ever tasted! The same goes for the radish parked on a plate with a dark dollop of poppy-seed butter, or the fermented cucumbers, or the pastrami cured watermelon rinds. Yes, get comfortable with it. Vegetables get top billing in this show, but their flavor is off the charts.

In lieu of a menu, a 12-page booklet awaits each diner, listing the freshest produce picked, slaughtered, harvested or foraged during every month of the year. Then it’s the kitchen (and the database comprised of your prior visits) that determines the specifics of your meal. After my umpteenth question, I can comfortably confirm that every member of the patient wait staff is equally passionate and knowledgeable about the simple, yet intricate preparations of every one of the 20 or so courses we spent the next 4+ hours enjoying.

Tomato Burgers - Blue Hill at Stone Barns

Tomato Burgers

Sublime highlights included: Peach Slices wrapped in an almost transparent coating of the most deliciously fire-grilled speck; a semi-circular bow of Stone Barns Weeds with a yummy, smoky, charcoal mayonnaise dip; winter-coat-button sized Tomato Burgers with goat cheese and almond flour buns (which made an encore appearance as a result of our exuberant ovation); domino stone slithers of ultra-smooth Pork Liver Mousse encased in crispy chocolate wafers; soft and spicy tufts of country bread for sampling the farm butter (amazing), the honey-sweetened pork lard (incredible) and the Single-udder Butter from a cow whose name I wish I could remember (utterly unbelievable)…

Honey sweetened lard, Farm butter and Single-udder Butter - Blue Hill at Stone Barns

Honey sweetened lard, Farm butter and Single-udder Butter

By way of an intermission, our glasses of rich, jammy ‘99 Vacqueyras (recommended by the superbly informed but barely drinking-aged sommelier) magically followed us into the bakery. We learned about another of Chef Barber’s pursuits, to recreate the best tasting wheat for bread – the kind used long before the world ever genetically inserted gluten intolerances into our everyday lexicon. While our Parisian baker lovingly split and shaped the dough into canvas-lined baskets, we each devoured our own doorstep-high, still-warm-from-the-oven slice of soft, speckled brioche with a side of green marmalade and warm, wet and wonderful farmer’s cheese.

Brioche from

Brioche from “Barber Wheat”

Another quest in flavor-forwardness that Chef Barber has been working on for some time is his mission to grow a baked potato so creamy, that it doesn’t require any cream! This was the first time I have ever been served food presented inside a dried cow-paddy before, but rather than warn us about that little surprise, our waitress admitted that this was still very much a work in progress, as she sadly sprinkled a few streaks of grassy olive oil over the steaming spuds. Creamy doesn’t even begin to describe them. Moist, thick, smooth with a rich earthy-herby flavor, with neither a lump nor a single starchy bite. If I were a potato – this is what I would want to taste like.

But cow-paddies aside, the only slightly embarrassing moment was when we were presented with two Trombaccino gourds – duking it out for which one would take top honors as the best representation of Pyronie’s syndrome. Their less phallic-looking cooked versions, however, were served with a delectable Beet Bolognaise.

As one waiter distracted the table with an example of one of the humanely-raised farm poussin’s nestled in a basket of hay, another quietly plated a tender chunk of breast meat with fermented honey and a smooth, sweet, sour and magnificent apricot paste.

Desserts were every bit as thrilling, from crunchy Milky Oats with berries and ice-cream, to a moist and sticky Zucchini Cake, followed by one of the sweetest donut peaches and tristar strawberries anyone could ever imagine.

Zucchini cake - Blue Hill at Stone Barns

Zucchini cake

While I realize that it’s going to be to virtually impossible to ever taste anything quite as pure, fresh and real as this again, I am pretty confident that I will find a way.