There are so many “hip” spots in LA these days, that I feel like I’m continually catching up. One I missed during it’s opening flush was The Gorbals, run by Top Chef winner Ilan Hall. So during a recent evening with reluctant DTLA queen Amanda Leon, I grabbed the chance to finally sit down there.
Na Gorbals, for those without access to the internet, is the grittiest part of Glasgow (where Hall’s father grew up), once even considered the worst part of the entire UK. The reference is obvious when you consider The Gorbals’ location, carved out of the lobby of downtown’s hundred-year-old Alexandria Hotel, once the jewel of Los Angeles, but for decades, a flophouse (though remarkably intact).
Glasgow’s Gorbals also happens to have been the Jewish Ghetto at one point, which explains some of the culinary reference points on Scottish/Israeli Hall’s everchanging menu, particularly his signature bacon-wrapped matzoh balls, and on the current menu, fresh matzoh (who makes fresh matzoh??) with favas, garbanzos and horseradish; gribenes (the kosher version of chicharones, made from chicken skin) and latkes with smoked applesauce.
One could dig further in to the Jewish/Alexandria connection with the fact that it was the gathering point for the nascent film industry in the silent era, many of whom were Jewish (and almost all of whom were immigrants), but hey, this ain’t a thesis paper.
The apparently everchanging menu is all “shared plates,” divided by ingredient source –pig, cow, lamb, sea, chicken—and then a section which is supposedly veggie, “herbivore.” Dishes generally range from $5 to $15, but without warning there will be larger treats such as (on the night I visited) a half-cut roasted pig’s head for $50 or a whole dover sole for $37. You have to organize your meal yourself
The bar is an equally serious part of the operation, which has tended to be overshadowed in most reviews I’ve seen. They have some intriguingly clever, deceptively simple house cocktails here, such as the two we sampled, Charlize TheRum (Starr African Rum, geddit, with mint and yellow chartreuse) and the Nancy Drink (Fair Trade Quinoa vodka, Carpano Antica, rhubarb bitters) –which was an “up” drink, served in a tumbler, with no garnish whatsoever. They also have a rotating selection of clever craft beers and a small but carefully curated wine list—on which everything is available by the glass.
This was a short visit, so Princess Amanda and I just shared the classic bacon wrapped matzoh balls and the Bahn Mi poutine along with our cocktails. The former was exactly as advertised: soft bacon wrapped around smallish matzoh balls, in a horseradishy béchamel sauce. More whimsical than impressive, to be honest, I think Hall might need some better Matzoh ball makers—these were fairly dense and flavorless (and yes, there is a difference between a good and bad matzoh ball) beneath the bacon and sauce.
The Bahn Mi poutine though, was a messy delight, spicy Viet-inspired meat, vegs and sauces layered over fries that hit all five tastes at once: rich, savory, buttery, meaty, spicy, you name it. Umami for ages. Bingo.
Gorbals is essentially a gastro pub in the purest sense: tie one on and have some amazing bites in a loud convivial room without pretensions. I would love to come back with a feast of friends and order the whole menu…whatever it is that night.
Wonder if they’re taking reservations for Pesach?