I gotta admit, I was a bit skeptical about Hatchet Hall. It's not that there was any doubt in my mind that chef Brian Dunsmoor could cook with soul and finesse. His collaboration with Kris Tominaga at the Hart and the Hunter showed L.A. the possibilities of modern Southern cooking, thanks in large part to what Dunsmoor brought from his experience cooking with Top Chef judge Hugh Acheson in Georgia. (Dunsmoor is a Georgia native.) His brief stint at the Ladies' Gunboat Society at Flores showed a chef breaking out of the purely Southern mold, bringing his own style to the genre.
But Hatchet Hall is a new, different, bigger challenge. Taking over the massive Culver City space formerly occupied by Waterloo & City, this new project would test the bounds of any chef, let alone one whose executive chef experience has been limited to a pop-up, a tiny hotel restaurant where there were no stoves and a residency in the Flores kitchen so short it called into question whether Dunsmoor was up for cheffing at all. Waterloo & City had 300 seats! Could Dunsmoor rise to the occasion?
Not only that, but "Hatchet Hall"? What kind of a name is that? Dunsmoor and his crew — including front-of-house manager and business partner Jonathan Strader, who's been with Dunsmoor through all of his jumping around — admittedly are into weird restaurant names. The Ladies' Gunboat Society was named, for some unknown reason, for a group of women who raised money for the Confederacy. Even if the connotations of Hatchet Hall are, when it comes down to it, a little less unsavory, there's still no real positive association with the word "hatchet."
But my skepticism began to melt when I arrived at the door of the long, low building, which never quite shook its generic restaurant feel when it was Waterloo & City (the building's original purpose was as a large, American "family restaurant," described most often as a greasy spoon). Along with restaurateur Louie Ryan, Dunsmoor and Strader have done quite a number on this space, opening it up and segmenting it in ways that make it feel airy and not at all like a giant dining hall.
The capacity has gone from 300 to 130, with many of the seats on the front patio, which looks like a garden party that has spilled out of the restaurant. Inside, comfy seating near the entrance gives way to a curved dining counter, a long bar and, in back, a separate bar called the Old Man Bar. The space quite purposefully goes from light and airy to dark and brooding, and it feels like a natural progression. A lot of thought has gone into this thing.
You'll be presented with two documents when you sit, one of them a long food menu, the other a piece of paper that appears to be a wine list. It's a little hard to tell. This is the work of wine steward Maxwell Leer, who made his mark as a young and enthusiastic presence at Bestia, where he introduced the city to a lot of cool and interesting wines not usually found on restaurant lists. To many drinkers, those wines were a little confusing, but if they thought they were confused then, Leer has a whole new level of befuddlement waiting for them at Hatchet Hall.
I get the feeling that Leer is going for some kind of Dadaist wine performance art with this list, a thing that's rife with hashtags and signifiers that mean nothing to anyone but Leer and his brethren (Adam Vourvoulis, who used to be the GM at Trois Mec and puts on "wine raves" with Leer, also is working here a few nights a week).
Is there some fantastic wine to be had on this list? Absolutely. Will you be able to find out what it is? Only if Leer or Vourvoulis feels like telling you about it. The thing is unreadable.
Luckily the food menu is not nearly so inhospitable. In fact, its only setback is that it's so long — and that there's so much to have to choose from.
People say of Dunsmoor's cooking that he's now bringing a Southern Californian sensibility to his Southern style, and in terms of produce that's somewhat true. But what people outside of the South rarely understand is that the best Southern cooking these days is thoroughly modern and ingredient-driven, and Dunsmoor does a fine job of translating that aesthetic here. It's true that this food is more wide-ranging than his menus at the Hart and the Hunter, but it's no less Southern in spirit.
Sometimes that will be recognizable to all, as with a plate of sliced fresh tomatoes served with pigeon peas, aged cheddar and fresh herbs, or a skillet-fried quail served with peaches, honey, black pepper and bursts of fresh basil. Other dishes are slightly more subtle in their Southern-ness: Hunks of yellowtail are sandwiched with thin-sliced habanero and juicy peach, all wrapped up in a sliver of translucent fat shaved from a Johnson Mangalitsa country ham.
Chicken livers come sautéed in big chunks over toast, accompanied by onion jam and the fruity sting of apple cider vinegar. It's an outrageously rich plate of food, and just about all I ever wanted from a chicken liver dish. The chicken-on-bread theme continues with a whole, roasted game hen, which is showered with hen-of-the-woods mushrooms and served over bread to soak up the juices. It's comforting and modern all at once, a combination that's as rare as it is delicious.
At Ladies' Gunboat Society, I found Dunsmoor's penchant for sweetness often overwhelming, but here that's less the case. There are a lot of peaches on the menu right now, but there are also a lot of peaches around right now, so perhaps he's just making use of the season. And there are plenty of intensely savory dishes, including okra with Calabrian chile and pickled garlic (and not a hint of sliminess) and wood-grilled octopus with lemon aioli and salsa verde. This is a long, diverse, ambitious menu, and it is being executed incredibly well.
Beyond wine (and even including wine, if you ignore the difficulties of the list), the drink program here is stellar. The cocktails were created by Cappy Sorentino, a bartender who made a name for himself at Sonoma's Spoonbar and is now in L.A. In the bar up front, that means tiki-inspired stuff such as the complex, beguiling tequila-and-passionfruit–based Roger Rabbit.
In the Old Man Bar in back, which doesn't open until 8 p.m. and would be a notable cocktail bar even if it weren't attached to Hatchet Hall, the drinks skew strong and dark. Don't miss the beet/scotch combination that plays with the perception of smoke and fruit in ways that are thoroughly enjoyable.
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Hatchet Hall, on the whole, is hard not to love. There is barely anything so heartening as watching a chef rise to an occasion, and I'll admit that I wasn't so sure Dunsmoor could pull off this mighty task. Hooray for happy surprises.
HATCHET HALL | Three stars | 12517 W. Washington Blvd., Culver City | (310) 391-4222 | hatchethallla.com | Sun.-Thu., 6:30-10 p.m.; Fri. & Sat., 6:30-11 p.m.; oyster happy hour daily, 5:30-6:30 p.m.; Old Man Bar, nightly, 8 p.m.-2 a.m. | Entrees, $23-$38 | Full bar | $6 valet