Friday, July 24, 2009

Top Cheffer Ilan Hall Cooks & Smiles His Way Through an Evening at Canelé

3219 Glendale Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90039-1831
(323) 666-7133

Chef Corina Weibel (ex-commodities trader, Lucques) and co-owner/manager Jane Choi (Balthazar & Pastis in NYC) opened Canelé in 2006 to offer food of west side quality in an east side neighborhood. 2006 was pre-Palate, pre-Reservoir, pre-downtown restaurant boom and post-Blair's. Canelé lives on my favorite walking strip of Glendale Blvd in Atwater Village across the street from the Tennis Warehouse and the Tee-Yee Room.

I like Canelé although I haven't dined there a whole lot. Just a few very happy times. There was a whole friend dating a friend of the kitchen incident, and the fact they don't take reservations but are often quite busy is also hindrance. D hates to wait. However, in a somewhat irregular but joyous manner they occasionally invite a friend into the kitchen to conceive and execute a three-course prix fixe menu for their walk-in clients on the odd Tuesday. This particular Tuesday Ilan Hall, winner of Top Chef Season 2, was cooking to interesting effect. It crossed my mind, as I read the item in Eater LA, that he might be drumming up buzz for his upcoming DTLA restaurant Gorbals where he plans to cook "old Jewish food, date-raped by bacon." According to Eater LA's Plywood Report, Gorbals is coming along nicely at the corner of 5th and Spring and should be open sometime mid-August.

Treating myself to a mid-week night at home, I really wanted to eat Ilan's food but did not want to wait in the 85+ heat outside for a table, so we arrived as they unlocked the doors at 5:30. I inquired about the early bird senior citizen special, to which the waitress quite accurately guessed my age almost to the minute as being too young for a senior discount (barely). Must have been the wet hair. Do I look my age when I first get out of the shower? We were back in a dark corner...Nevermind. Canelé has a good wine list with some very fair prices. I splurged on a bottle of very cold Drappier Brut Nature for $50 or so. Not really a splurge, per se. But champagne always feels like a celebration. Drappier Brut Nature is a 100% Pinot Noir champagne with no liqueur d'expedition added during the fermentation process. I know what this means, but I don't know what it means to the flavor of the fizz. I do know I really enjoyed it, and would order it again anytime I see it on a menu. The server could fill the Riedel glasses less full with each pouring. She filled it to the brim, so that each glass was only filled twice before the bottle was gone. This left us with somewhat lukewarm half full glasses of champagne, which is a shame when you have an ice bucket on the table. She also could have opened the bottle more gently so the wine did not explode and foam onto the floor. I may be nitpicking, but someone should teach the servers how to serve champagne.It's not that hard, and it's a skill that will serve them well at home and at parties for years to come. Still, major points for excellent stemware.

Hall, hard at work in the kitchen when we arrived, was all smiles. D said hello and that we were here specifically for his food, he seemed pleased. From my vantage point the crew in the open kitchen were humming along, enjoying their work and the company. The first course out was mushrooms in a walnut-bone marrow vinaigrette with julienned green onions. These could have been boletes or simply button mushrooms, I am not sure. They tasted broiled rather than sauteed, because they retained a nice structural integrity, something that usually breaks down a bit when mushrooms are sauteed. These were still firm and glazed on the outside with the silky fat from the bone marrow. The portion was hugely generous, and the mushroom flavor was an earthy foil against the rich nuttiness of the walnut chunks.

Next up was our main course. This definitely falls into the category of "old Jewish food", but instead this was date raped by Great Britain. Chicken haggis with pureed potatoes and braised corn. Here's the thing. The haggis was casing free. I have never had casing free haggis unless I released it from the casing myself. And for a haggis, this was liver intensive. Typically, haggis also includes the heart, lungs, oats, pepper, onions and suet. My favorite haggises (haggi?) have had a generous amount of oats which really lightens up the dish, and black pepper which makes it nice and spicy. To me, this tasted suspiciously like a warm and delicious chopped liver. Over the pureed potatoes, D commented that it reminded him of Shepherd's Pie. So, we were eating Jewish chopped liver crossed with haggis divided by Shepherd's Pie. Don't let the new math fool you. This was delicious. Perhaps a little unseasonable in its comforting textures, but really nommy.

Right in the middle of the protein, Ilan stuck a giant chip of deep fried chicken skin. Oh my, he has me now. I cannot wait to eat at Gorbals.

For dessert, out traipsed another nod at Ilan's Scottish heritage, shortbread with key lime curd sitting in maple sauce. Good not great shortbread, but the key lime curd was delicious. I scooped mine off and licked the spoon clean. (I was already really full.)

After dinner, we made our way on foot up Glendale Blvd headed back over the bridge toward Silver Lake and Echo Park, watching the sun set slowly through the eucalyptus and behind the east side hills.


Cara said...

Great post - we'll have to hit his new place the next time I'm in LA. And by hit, I mean "eat at." Glad the meal was a success!

Reservation for Three said...

Great post, but no pics of Ilan? :(

Kristine G. said...

*sigh* I'm glad you enjoyed Ilan's food even though he turned out to be a douchenozzle in the end. He should not have won: that little saffron monkey. Remember when the judge called him that? Or was it pepper-monkey?

Anonymous said...

Last time i ate at canele one of the cooks was stuffing his face with his fingers and then wiping his fingers and his mouth on his side towel! Disgusting i'll never go back, the chef who was standing right next to him the whole night said NOTHING to him.

Anonymous said...

I just finished watching Season 2 of Top Chef and I'm considering hitting his new place next time in LA too. And by hit, I mean "burn to the ground". What a horrible person.

Kristine: The pepper-monkey was Dave Martin on Season 1! They probably decided that calling Ilan a saffron-monkey would be an insult to monkeys.