Opening Night at The Gorbals
Tonight on Top Chef. Restaurant Wars. The challenge? Open a restaurant in a halfway house.
Walking past the down and out residents in the lobby of the Alexandria Hotel towards The Gorbals, it sure seemed that way. I’m all for Downtown grit and historic buildings, but I’d call this decor “underfunded institutional”.
Okay, I’m exaggerating. Suffice to say that if this restaurant was on Top Design, Jonathan Adler would be saying, “See you later, decorator”.
I liked the open kitchen and the long, wooden communal table. I liked that you can sit at the kitchen counter, sushi bar style, and watch the chef work.
But the space just feels… unfinished. But come expecting a culinary adventure and not ambiance, and you’ll be fine.
On to the main reason we came. The food.
Chef Ilan Hall famously described it as “old Jewish food date-raped by bacon”. What that means is Jewish and Scottish influenced small plates, fused with comfort food and offal. Think bacon-wrapped matzoh balls, haggis burger, gefilte fish and chips and Manischewitz-braised pork belly.
We started with the Manischewitz-braised pork belly on a bed of clapshot and mustard. Pork belly has become somewhat of a dish du jour and, consequently, a de facto yardstick for me when trying a new restaurant. This pork belly was tougher than I would have liked with the skin verging on chewy. It was also under seasoned and I can’t say I tasted any mustard. However, the clapshot (mashed potatoes and turnips) was creamy with the turnips adding depth to the mash.
Next was the bacon-wrapped matzoh balls with a horseradish mayo. Presumably this was the dish that inspired the “old Jewish food date-raped by bacon” quote. Yes, it seems deliberately provocative and sacrilegious but, for me, this dish really worked. The salty bacon exterior encasing a very moist and hot matzoh interior. It tasted to me very much like a moist polenta. Dare I say it, almost like Ludo’s oxtail polenta, which is no small compliment. Dipped in the horseradish mayo, this was a great bite. This, more than anything else, summed up The Gorbals philosophy for me.
We moved on to the king oyster mushrooms, warm bone marrow with walnut vinaigrette. This was a good looking dish. It’s hard not to be drawn to the plates of bone marrow being served around the room. The mushrooms were substantial and firm, although a couple of pieces were too firm. Think of it as meat for vegetarians. The bone marrow was deliciously fatty but unfortunately too little for the dish. Overall as a dish, I think this one missed the mark but I found it conceptually interesting.
The sweetbreads and corn followed. The sweetbreads were crusted in flour and deep fried until crispy and served over fresh sweet corn. This was a dish I really enjoyed. Think of it as an elevated and reconceived chicken nuggets and corn. But better. The sweet corn was a delicious complement.
Our final dish was the octopus with gizzards and lemon. This came out as a warm salad of grilled octopus and gizzards with a vinaigrette dressing. The octopus tentacles were crispy and well braised and, given that gizzards are one of the few offal I’m not particularly fond of, they were surprisingly tender and mild, taking on the flavors around them.
We inquired but they don’t serve dessert. It’s a small kitchen and I can understand not having a pastry chef in a small operation, but perhaps they can order some in in the future? Bacon maple sufganiyot anyone?
Moving on to some general notes. The Gorbals serves a small selection of wines and beers by the glass. Actually, I should say they serve beers by the glass and wines by the very small glass. I’d recommend sticking to the beers unless you want a small pour.
The space is also very loud. I didn’t see a single soft surface in the restaurant — it’s all wood, concrete, marble and metal — so don’t go expecting a romantic dinner.
And, being opening night, there were service issues. The restaurant was at about 30-35% capacity (on a 70 person max) and the dishes sometimes came out slow or to the wrong table. Getting a waiter’s attention was also challenging at times. But, given time, I’m sure the kitchen and front of house will find their groove.
On balance, I’d give The Gorbals a solid 3.5 out of 5. Decor can always be improved, the Alexandria Hotel is slowly attracting a new demographic of tenants — the rooms are now marketed as “micro-lofts” which, I guess, makes them the apartment equivalent of Twitter — and service issues can always be ironed out. Dishes can be refined and reworked and even replaced. What’s hard to change is the chef’s vision. The way his dishes are conceptualized. Tonight, some of the execution didn’t quite reach the bar set by the concept. But The Gorbals will never be a restaurant for all tastes so better to overreach than to play it safe.
Bottom line. Would I go back?
Yes, I would.
Ilan, you’re safe from elimination. For now. Please unpack your knives and stay a while.
Los Angeles, CA 90013