November 5, 2009
Bacon-wrapped matzah balls with Top Chef Ilan Hall
Even before The Gorbals first opened for dinner on Aug. 28, chef Ilan Hall’s bacon-wrapped matzah balls served with horseradish mayonnaise had already earned his new downtown restaurant its share of notoriety in the food press.
But Hall, 27, doesn’t seem afraid of anyone’s opinion — except those of the city’s health inspectors, who, just a few days after opening, temporarily shut down The Gorbals for an inadequate water heater, forcing him to cancel all reservations at the last minute. The restaurant relaunched on Oct. 23.
For every Jew offended by his matzah balls, Hall thinks another two will indulge their inner Jewish rebel. In life, Hall is exactly as viewers of “Top Chef’s” second season might remember him: full of chutzpah, in food and in personality, a quality that charmed the show’s judges to his victory.
One could argue that his restaurant is a delicious symbol, reflecting the assimilation of Jews into world cultures — the bacon as the goy, embracing the Jew, only to absorb each others’ unique flavors. Really, it’s just Hall’s brand of Jewish humor.
“The bacon-wrapped matzah ball thing was a little bit of a joke — a tongue-in-cheek thing I did for a friend’s birthday party in New York,” said the loquacious chef, sporting his signature dark-rimmed glasses as he sat at the restaurant’s wooden communal table, his design. “He was a fellow Jew and not kosher at all, and I thought it would be kind of funny to do. I tried it and loved it. It came out really nice. Pork fat does something magical to matzah meal.”
The Gorbals, where the dish goes for $5 as an amuse bouche, is not a play on the name of a certain Nazi minister (Hall, the grandson of Holocaust survivors, is not that irreverent). Located in downtown’s historic Alexandria hotel, the restaurant is named after a district in Glasgow — the once-thriving center of Scotland’s Jewish community, where his father was born. Growing up in Great Neck, N.Y., Hall’s father was the family chef, but his mother’s sabra roots provided inspiration.
“We didn’t eat a lot of Scottish food growing up, but when we did it was always a treat for me. I grew up eating more Israeli and Mediterranean food, which was always fresh and healthy,” he said.
And if anyone thinks his Jewish mother — born in Jerusalem, no less — would be the one to chastise him for sacrilegious use of pork, think again.
“My mom, who doesn’t cook, made really good sandwiches. She made me a hummus and ham sandwich, and it was really marvelous. It was those two ingredients made to be together. That’s where it all began,” he said.
Pork-filled lunchboxes aside, his mother did send him to Hebrew school in the afternoons, which he couldn’t stomach for long. Hall dropped out two years shy of his friends’ graduation.
“Come on, they tried to convince me dinosaurs didn’t exist. I wasn’t into it. I didn’t like school at all. School on top of school wasn’t my favorite,” he said.
But not everything Hall cooks and says is meant to give rabbis a heart attack. Hall says good taste (as it relates to the palette) drives his menu of 15 items, and he couldn’t think of a tastier braising sauce for pork belly ribs than Manischewitz concord grape wine.
The most kosher dish on the menu is a zatar-spiced cucumber salad with sesame leaf and garbanzo beans. The idea for sesame leaf came from a friend who owns a kosher Israeli restaurant in Great Neck.
The Gorbals has another Jewish influence — Natan Zion, his childhood friend and business partner (emphasis on “business” — once a reporter left out the qualifier, feeding false rumors that Hall is gay). Also of Israeli descent, Zion doesn’t eat bacon because that’s how he was raised (or “brainwashed,” as Hall teases him), but he did sample the treif delight on opening night, as a gesture.
“I was just thinking of the fact that I’m eating bacon right now,” he said of his first bite.
The Israeli ingredients of Hall’s youth also figure into his turkey wings with fatback tabouleh. Scottish classics are interpreted in his shepherd’s pie and haggis burger, named after the peasant dish traditionally made of lamb innards and oatmeal.
Having worked in a fish store after high school, Hall expresses his fondness for (unkosher) seafood in his octopus with gizzards and lemon, king oyster mushrooms and manila clam chowder.
A graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, Hall worked at “Top Chef” judge Tom Colicchio’s Craft restaurant and at Casa Mono in Manhattan prior to his reality TV win. Hall adopted Los Angeles as his new home in March 2008.
The restaurant interior combines the rusticity of a kibbutz dining hall and the unpretentiousness of a neighborhood pub with a sprinkling of L.A. trend. Stainless steel counters with tree stump-like stools run along the open kitchen and bar. The floor is a patchwork of concrete slabs and marble tile leftover from the space’s previous life as a hotel eatery.
Hall conducted research for The Gorbals upon visiting Scotland as part of his post-”Top Chef” travels to Spain, France, Romania, Venezuela, the Philippines and Israel, where he visited family and ate — or attempted to eat — Israeli foods at their source.
“Last time I was in Israel I was really angry because I went to my favorite shawarma and falafel place on earth — it’s this tiny one in a little Arab village called Tira — and of course it was Ramadan. I didn’t put two and two together. I drove all the way down there. Empty. We went later at night. It was closed. Sucked. Really sucked,” he said.
OK — so we got Hall intermarrying matzah balls and cavorting with Arabs (he laments he can’t visit more Arab countries); single and admittedly not looking, he prefers dating non-Jews (“I’ve had bad experiences with Jewish girls”); and he sometimes gets frightened by ultra-Orthodox Jews (“Why are they still wearing that outfit? It says nowhere in the Bible you need to wear that outfit”).
But the “weird connection” he last felt with the Holy Land reveals that maybe he’s just like his matzah balls: oozing with heresy on the outside, but a soft, mushy Jewish soul on the inside.
“I’m not really a spiritual person, but something about it felt nice and right,” he said with a boyish grin. “Not that I need to move there, but I need to visit more often. Israel, whether you’re religious or not, is such an amazing place. It just has so much history. Whether you believe things in the Torah or not, all those places are there.”