You always want the thing you cannot have. This is the only explanation I've been able to come up with for the recent proliferation, here on the precipice of the Pacific Ocean, of East Coast seafood joints. Atlantic-plucked oysters and lobster rolls are everywhere, and more than a couple of New England–style seafood spots will have opened in L.A. by the time 2013 is done.
For Jason Travi, the chef at Hollywood's newly opened littlefork, it's a matter of nostalgia for home. Like many migrants before him, Travi has opened a restaurant that's an ode to the cooking of his homeland, in this case New England. Travi was previously the chef/co-owner of Culver City's Fraîche, and before that worked in some of the city's best kitchens, including Spago. At littlefork, Travi has partnered with A-Frame and Sunny Spot owner David Reiss to highlight the food of New England "from Montreal to Boston," as the servers proclaim when they introduce themselves.
The space is a curious cube of a building in the blocks between Hollywood and Sunset. Most recently Shin BBQ, it was once a recording studio rumored to have served Joni Mitchell and later Snoop Dogg. Inside, some of the walls are papered with a gray, woodgrain-type pattern, others a greenish floral. There's some sparse taxidermy: A large waterfowl spreads its wings over one wall, while a wild feline perches above another. I'm not sure if it conjures New England in any real way.
Luckily, the food often does. Travi gets the classics right. It's one hell of a lobster roll he's serving, the balance of bouncy lobster meat to creamy dressing exactly right, with the nice touch of a parsley salad on the side. Servers instruct you to top the lobster roll with the salad, "like Chef did it when he was growing up."
There's a lot of unabashed nostalgia at play here. The chowder is creamy and soothing, the smoke from the bacon and brine from the clams in perfect balance. Steamed snow crab legs come splayed across the plate, their arachnid form dressed with chermoula and charred lime. They're as messy to eat as they are fun — although if the table next to you orders them, beware. I was sprayed with flying crab bits from adjacent diners twice during my visits.
Fried stuff takes up a decent portion of the menu: oyster sliders, airy pork rinds served with vinegar, balls of headcheese battered and fried and served in a bowl with tomato aioli. The headcheese kept more of its funk than many similar dishes around town these days — there's no doubt you're eating pig's head, not just extra-gelatinous pulled pork bits. I expected the clam cakes to be a clammy version of crabcakes (how? no idea), but instead they were more like clam donuts, fried dough balls studded with clams. The dough was a tad too doughy, almost underdone, the clams throughout a little rubbery. Cool idea in theory; it's not as great in practice.
And there were other disappointments on the menu, other places where the finished product didn't quite live up to its hypothetical promise. Hot smoked salmon on leek fritters from the "apple wood smoked" section of the menu were tongue-burningly salty, the delicate leek fritters eclipsed by the salt in the fish. There's a poutine that lives up to its destiny as fat on fat, but there's not much special about it. (I wonder if the next trend will be to upgrade the New York diner mainstay, the disco fry. Let's hope not.) Potato puree with cheese curds and garlic turned out to be a bowl of oddness: the potatoes a thick, almost tacky paste, the cheese curds hidden within, like nuggets of chewy confusion, only adding to the textural discombobulation.
That potato puree (sans curds) does better under hunks of monkfish in the monkfish Française entree, a classic fish/potato/garlic spinach plate that felt a little heavy but was tasty nonetheless. And you can add littlefork to the growing number of L.A. restaurants serving very cold, very fresh oysters on the half shell. Of course, only East Coast varieties are offered. We want what we can't have, after all.
Cocktails are one of littlefork's great strengths, thanks to barman Dino Balocchi, who was recruited from behind the bar at Chicago's fantastic Longman and Eagle by a member of A-Frame's team during a trip there last summer.
Balocchi's drinks are both summery and serious, befitting the food but also worthy of a visit without appetite. He's brought a few Chicago tricks along with him, including Letherbee gin, which he uses to great effect in the Logan Square, a negroni variation that uses Benedictine in place of Campari, and has undertones of chocolate. You can even get a shot of the infamous Malört at littlefork's bar, an absinthe-like liquor beloved by Chicagoans and reviled by most everyone else because it tastes a little like bitter alcoholic earwax. I love the stuff, but that doesn't mean I recommend it.
The strength in the cocktail menu helps somewhat with the weakness of the wine list but only to a point. Cocktails are delicious with lots of food, and work particularly well with littlefork's fried options, but seafood's greatest mate is wine, and there's not much wine to be had here. There's a pale rosé from Provence that suffices, a Hugo Gruner Veltliner if you're looking for crispness, but I wish there was more variety, more than four whites and five reds — more in general.
As an act of nostalgia and devotion, littlefork fills its niche nicely. It also fills another (perhaps more important?) niche: that is, an almost low-key place for non-douchey cocktail consumption in the heart of Hollywood. And when the gifts from our very own ocean simply won't cut it, some briny Long Island oysters and that fantastic lobster roll ought to satiate anyone who wants what, until recently, L.A. couldn't have.
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littlefork | 2 stars | 1600 Wilcox Ave., Hlywd. | (323) 465-3675 | littleforkla.com. | Dinner: 5-10 p.m., daily. Bar open late, Tues.-Sat. | Entrees, $22-$28 | Full bar | Valet parking ($6 during week, $10 on weekends).