Horses, a hot Hollywood restaurant where the food is actually the point

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LOS ANGELES — I don’t want to be that person who recommends chicken. Especially not here, in a restaurant where you’ll probably be waiting months or weeks to get in – a little less, maybe, if you can maintain a healthy working relationship with by Resy “notify” button.

But all those people who say you should never buy chicken — because chicken is objectively tedious and unambitious, or generally too expensive and mediocre, or because you can make it so much better at home — probably didn’t didn’t get the chicken Horses.

The delicate Cornish hen is prepared to reveal crisp, lightly browned skin, and rests on a warm, unmade bed of panzanella, the juices flowing onto the plate.

While the dish may make you feel effortless, like so many at Horses, it’s not. It takes precision and care to extract and concentrate the flavors of a roast bird, to develop them with little more than sour currants and slightly bitter dandelion greens, to serve it all at the exact moment the the edges of the crusty bread are softened by soaking them in the hot cooking juices, a light broth and butter.

Horses opened last fall on Sunset Boulevard with a Blue Yves Klein facade that hides a maze of cozy and inhabited dining rooms and wooden bars. It used to be the Pikey, an excruciatingly-named British restaurant, and before that, Ye Coach & Horses, an old Hollywood haunt.

Within months, it’s become one of those insufferably hot reservations in Los Angeles, a restaurant where the waiting list on a recent Thursday was 1,784 names, where Beyoncé and Jay-Z enter through the alley leading to the back door, and where stars often fill the back room, which is decorated with dreamlike paintings of horses by Kaper Abolik, known for his celebrity portraits. But it’s not like most Hollywood scenes where, if you’re going to dinner, you might have to accept that food isn’t the issue.

The menu doesn’t list a chef’s name, and servers don’t refer to “chef” in conversation, but there are several: Chefs and owners Liz Johnson and married couple Will Aghajanian have hired Brittany Ha to run the kitchen, and Hannah Grubba is dedicated to desserts.

Several chefs and a dedicated pastry chef! It might have been mundane at one time, but it’s an unimaginable luxury right now, as so many restaurants in Los Angeles are struggling to staff after pandemic-related cuts and losses, and are preparing to face a new wave of Covid cases.

Horses seems aware of its appeal as a low-key party – a place to get away from it all, order platters of vodka pasta under crunchy breadcrumbs and have a dollop of fresh guava sorbet melting in chilled, bubbly wine . For the most part, the kitchen has a knack for making service and food brilliant, effortless and charismatic.

Plates are never cluttered with superfluous ingredients or garnishes. Massive amounts of butter and olive oil tiptoe together, stealthily, never weighing down a dish. To see: the sole under an airy and melting béarnaise, and the undulations of pork buttered Milanese style, fried in olive oil.

The menu reflects a fondness for offal, a deep respect for the power of anchovies and mayonnaise, a reverence for cooking juices and a devotion to fat. While the food never seems outdated, there are occasional Easter eggs for the cooks, the kind of cheesy, shot-for-shot homages you might find in an episode of “Stranger Things.”

If this chicken dish sounds familiar, it might be because it shares so much with Judy Rodgers roast chicken and bread salad, on the menu at San Francisco’s Zuni Cafe since 1987. Black pudding is almost reminiscent of a perfect slice of blood cake, draped in a delicate fried egg, at Fergus Henderson St-Jean in London. Veal Sweetbreads with Capers and Frisée could cite a number of key influences, but made me think of Gabrielle Hamilton’s cooking at Plum At New York.

The Horses menu changes so often that great dishes can disappear, come back later in a new form, or not at all. Months ago, a bowl of tender, creamy beans drizzled with a loose, salty tonnato was surprisingly good. Although I never saw the dish again, tonnato reappeared with chili oil to dress lean and tender Romano beans and thin slices of seared tuna. A pile of tagliarini and clams, the strongest pasta dish I have tasted, is unfortunately no longer with us. And its replacement, a thick rolled pappardelle dressed in saffron butter, was unusually heavy.

In the same way, the food can feel much airier than it is, as can the dining room. Although the servers keep the party vibe going, they still move around intentionally and with an eye on the clock. In the kitchen, the chefs connect their phones to the restaurant’s security cameras – flashing red in the corners of the three rooms – so that they can set the rhythm of tables and the time dishes are sent.

Recently a friend who lives down the street and used to go there regularly when the space was Ye Coach & Horses complained that he could no longer walk in on a whim and just throw himself into the bar. Technically, that’s not true. The bar seats are reserved for walk-in diners, and you can get lucky once in a while, I wouldn’t count on it.

That’s the dark side of hot reservation: if the restaurant turns out to be good, you can’t go back with a sense of spontaneity, even if you live in the neighborhood. It can make the horses distant and inaccessible, which is a shame, because once you walk in and sit down, ideally in front of the roast chicken, it can be pure delight and warmth.

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