Ilan Hall’s triumph in Season 2 of Top Chef gave him notoriety as well as the financial capacity toward opening his own restaurant. Years later and after traveling the world, Hall is preparing to open The Gorbals, named after a neighborhood in Glasgow, Scotland, where his father grew up. The space resides in the bowels of the Alexandria Hotel, a former hotbed of celebrity and political action beginning from the 1920’s and recently refitted as a loft building.
The flooring isn’t something Hall replaced, using what was left behind. Though he fashioned much of the wooden furniture himself, including a massively long table made from one piece of thick tree trunk, the space is bare and utilitarian. Incandescent flood lamps illuminate the main dining room while a bright fluorescent lamp from the open kitchen blinds out the bar area, where diners on tall wooden stools can watch the cooking in action.
Hall and his friend Elia Aboumrad, a fellow contestant from Top Chef, were helming the night’s orders. The preview seemed devoid of media and full of family and friends – exactly how it should be. The few of us covering the dinner were hunched on the stainless steel bar getting first dibs on the food.
The introduction to Hall’s distinct approach cooking is a baked matzo ball, creamy and resembling polenta, covered in a strip of bacon, dusted with horseradish white cheddar and topped with scallions. Hall originally dubbed his concept as, “Jewish food, date-raped by bacon.” The rather unsavory description might be offensive to an adherent of kosher laws, but to a gourmand, it’s both ironic and humorous. That doesn’t mean the food is funny though, as Hall put together each course with his own able hands.
The second dish was called “fideos“, or noodles in Spanish, where short-cut pasta noodles are covered in creamy smoked cheddar and bits of bacon and then baked in a small ramekin. Some tan-colored corn meal and a squirt of rich olive oil topped it off. It was comfort-heaven, resembling an ideal version of mac-and-cheese.
Next came a “salad” of crunchy cucumber wedges covered in a thick avocado dressing, lightly seasoned with white wine vinegar and garnished with a deep-fried leaf of sesame. A hefty sprinkling of sesame seeds, hyssop and sumac lent the dish a smoky, toasty essence. The fried leaf gave a nice counterpoint to the fresh cucumber.
Hall and Aboumrad worked together to fire a dish of sauteed mushrooms and walnuts, where springs of parsley were briefly folded into the fry pan to wilt. Slivers of garlic and a splash of malt vinegar added a bit more flavor to the meaty button mushrooms. The dish seemed a little too straightforward until I had a bite with the bitter parsley – mysteriously, the flavors worked. I wish I had another plate of this dish, perhaps with a grilled steak or a few roasted marrow bones.
The last dish I tried was a large piece of roasted lamb breast, placed over a slice of Welsh Rarebit, toasted bread covered in a rich sauce of cheddar cheese, paprika, Guinness beer, cayenne pepper, and Korean chili flakes. Though some parts of the lamb meat were a bit dry, combined with a chunk of fat, the dish soared. Tiny cornichon slices balanced out the rich flavors.
Overall, Ilan Hall’s cooking seems to resemble a mishmash of cultures and flavors, but succeeds because of thoughtful balance and a little ingenious creativity. Though the room is hardly what one might consider fine dining, in this part of town, as part of the bleeding edge of hip that’s housed in a former palace of glamour, Hall’s fare provides a respite. It’s a departure for those who are too comfortable with their Cobb salads, roasted jidori chicken breasts, and creme brulees. The service was attentive despite the obvious crush of guests, a crowd of whom is unlikely to overwhelm this place, at least for now.