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Sep 20, 2011 06:12 PM

Top Chef Misses the Mark

I have not read any other reviews of The Gorbals on this Board before writing this but will do so after posting so I can see whether I'm the one that's off the reservation or whether other hounds have been as disappointed as I in this place. I am a devoted Top Chef watcher and have eaten at Mike Isabella's place in D.C. and sampled Voltaggio's food when he was at the Langham. I am also a fairly accomplished amateur cook.
To me the entire experience at Ilan Hall's restaurant was a major disappointment. Let's start with the location. I'm all for revitalizing downtown LA but calling the Alexandria Hotel a dump does dumps a disservice. Walking through that lobby trying to even find The Gorbals is neither hip, nor cool. It's just unpleasant. We walked in the door and were "greeted" by the hostess. Although we were the first ones in the place (arriving at 6 because we had 8 p.m. theater tickets) we were, nevertheless, kept waiting for 5 minutes because, I guess, whoever was supposed to seat us was not yet ready to do so. Don't take 6 p.m. reservations if you are not ready for guests to arrive at 6. The place was still being set up as we stood at the door waiting to be seated. And, we had to hear how tired the hostess was because she had just come from her first job that day. Okay, call me a grouch (I am) but that's not how I want to be greeted when I go out for a nice (or so I thought) dinner. Then, we had to endure a soundtrack that was too loud and better suited for a club than any restaurant - hipster wanna' be or not.
The interior is actually pretty cool - albeit in the window-less basement. - except for the fact that it's so dark the wait staff actually had to provide us flash lights as they saw us trying to read the menu by the light of our I-phones. Again, too hip by half.
The food is just not worthy of anyone with Hall's obvious talent and experience. I do not mind "unusual" animal parts being the focus of the menu but the combinations are gimmicky and the preparations are just not that good. We had popcorn chicken gizzards, bacon-wrapped matzoh balls, latkes, squid ink fish and chips, cucumbers, broccoli, and grilled corn. The last of these we were served "gratis" because the cucumbers were not prepared as advertised. (They are too be served with garbanzo beans and we were told that the chickpeas were "too hard to serve." Really? A prep cook not doing the job or what?) In any event, the sesame cucumbers are basically the same as those served in every Chinese place in the San Gabriel Valley. Big deal. The grilled corn was off the cob and served with "pimenton butter." Very tasty but nothing anyone can't do at home. I do a version every week during sweet corn season. Big deal. The broccoli with ginger, chilies (if I recall correctly) and vinegar was unpleasant (although my wife liked it). I am not sure how the floret was prepared (fried?) but I did not care for the texture and the vinegar was overpowering. The bacon-wrapped matzoh balls are just cute. The matzoh balls need to be really good to make this dish special. They were not. So, it was just a lump of dough wrapped in bacon. To me, a dog treat wrapped in bacon would be yummy so the fact that this tasted good means nothing. The latkes were served with "smoked applesauce." The applesauce was tasty but "smoked." Nah. The latkes were ordinary and way, way, way oversalted. (N.B. I have 5 different types of salt in my pantry so I am not salt-shy). The fish and chips also suffered from excessive salination. (Yes, a made-up word for this review). The squid ink batter on the fish was just silly, although the fish was moist and flavorful. The chips (fries) were horrible. Oversalted and undercooked. McDonalds' are better. The chicken gizzards were actually pretty tasty but, again, isn't anything deep fried usually tasty. The batter tasted fairly light but eat too much of it and the grease factor become quite noticeable. Did we just order wrong? Maybe, but we tried 7 dishes on a menu that only has about 20, one of which is a half-pig's head which my wife and I were not going to order for the 2 of us. All in all, this place was a major disappointment. If Hall cooked like this on Top Chef, he would not have made it to the second episode. My recommendation for Chef Hall, bag the Battali-esque desire to use offal and other not-commonly eaten body parts until you earn your stripes like Mario has. Return to what got you this gig in the first place and open a first-class Spanish restaurant and/or tapas bar. The LA area has only a couple and they suck. Lose the attitude and the faux hipster vibe and just cook us some good food. Otherwise, I'm going to start wishing Marcel had won.

The Gorbals
501 S Spring St, Los Angeles, CA 90013

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  1. Not terribly surprising, but you'd think the guy would at least hire an experienced GM to have things running smoothly.

    Have you enjoyed any of the food from the restaurants of the other Top Chef contestants?

    4 Replies
    1. re: foodiemahoodie

      Alex' small lunch shop called Sweet Salt in Toluca Lake is great. <3 the shrimp po boy.

      1. re: ns1

        Wonderful to know!

        I knew it was there but have yet to try. Now I feel much mow confident about heading that way : )

      2. re: foodiemahoodie

        Black Market Liquor Bar was surprisingly good, Chef Antonia has an eclectic menu, but most of the items are executed well.

      3. Thanks for such a well written and informative review. This is the type of review which makes CH a good and valuable site.

        1. So's you know, Ilan did not get a lot of respect from folks his season - or after. It was felt that he cooked stuff he already knew from the place he had worked at - but did not invent anything really "new." That he skated.

          So don't judge all Top Chef Restaurants by his!

          I have very picky foodie friends that adore Stefan's place in Santa Monica, so if you are ever on that side of town, I'd say check it out. Not cheap, but they say they quality and skill level is worth it.

          2 Replies
          1. re: happybaker

            I liked the food at The Farm (I think that's what it's called) a couple times. His place on Montana had promise that never quite delivered.

            It one thing to be a chef, even a great one, but another thing to run a restaurant. I've seen truly talented chefs who couldn't scale their food to a larger format effectively.

          2. I was a bit underwhelmed by The Gorbals after I tried it.

            What I did like: pork belly over toast, tongue

            What I did not like: bahn mi poutine, steak, bacon matzo balls

            I agree about the lighting too, way too dark and its not like I'm old or anything but seriously, enough with this dimly lit bull, I like to be able to see my food. Recommendations to future diners, if you want light, sit at the communal table.

            The setup is really rustic but a bit ghetto feeling as well and the food seemed rather alright. The chef tries to think out the box but it didn't fly with me all tha twell.

            The Gorbals
            501 S Spring St, Los Angeles, CA 90013

            1. I haven't been to Gorbals, and probably won't bother. I was eager to try their offerings at the LA Times' Food Noir street event, especially when I saw it was slices of tongue. Well, kids, there is not a Mexican place in LA County that can't do much better tongue than that. It was dry, mushy, and it had no flavor whatsoever. I can't even remember what it was served on, bread or cracker or what, the whole thing was just that forgettable. On the other hand, Rivera, Drago Centro and Malo/Mas Malo were at the head of an otherwise pretty good pack. Hall was just playing out of his league; from the other comments here, I guess he does that consistently. Pity.