Restaurant Review: The Cannibal’s Meat-Centric Cooking Isn’t at the Top of the Food Chain
The Cannibal's burger, served with tater tots
In 2014, the fast food chain Arby's launched a marketing campaign based on the catchphrase "We have the meats." You might know the commercials: Most feature a baritone narrator and visuals of thick-cut brisket. At a time when other fast food restaurants were pitching kale salads to their customers, Arby's doubled down on the caveman demographic. The ads worked. Previously only a third of the restaurant's customers were under the age of 35 — now it's around 50 percent.
The Cannibal Beer & Butcher — the newish Culver City outpost of the popular New York City restaurant and butcher shop — doesn't have much aesthetically in common with Arby's. But it does place a similar emphasis on meat, a movement shared by a growing number of restaurants eschewing the vegetable-centric cooking commonly associated with L.A. in favor of something more primal. Chef Curtis Stone of Maude just opened Gwen, a tasting-menu restaurant (and butcher shop) where whole roasted animals are the centerpiece. There are dry-aged rib-eyes at new-wave steakhouses like the Arthur J, house-made pâtés and terrines at Salt's Cure and nose-to-tail sustainable butchery at Belcampo. Americans might be eating less meat than ever, but that hasn't diminished their passion for ordering it off restaurant menus.
Built into the edge of the Platform, a modernist, mixed-use complex off the Expo Line that's home to acai bowls, artisanal tacos and leather jackets as fashionable as they are expensive, the Cannibal is a small butcher shop that sells sandwiches during the day and a larger, cavelike restaurant next door that comes to life in the evening. The restaurant, headed by chef Francis Derby, is named for a celebrated racing cyclist, but the more obvious definition might fit, too: Dinner at the Cannibal will almost certainly involve some type of flesh (though probably not human).
The Cannibal does two curatorial things exceedingly well. First is the killer beer selection, a wall of 200 or so bottles and cans stacked in a tall cooler near the entryway. The offerings might include a perky sour beer from Missouri, an obscure Belgian trippel or a double IPA brewed a few miles away. The wine list is impressive, too, and the staff's fluency in navigating such a giant collection of booze makes perusing the catalog a pleasure rather than a chore.
Second is the cured meats. For the most part, the Cannibal sources its charcuterie from New York producers such as Salumeria Biellese and Brooklyn-based Ends Meat, although you will find a nice array of country ham from states like Kentucky and Tennessee. It's glorious to order a small battalion of charcuterie — back bacon, 'nduja, guanciale — and watch it come out of the kitchen on a paper-lined butcher block, thinly shaved and piled into neat haystacks (although a few pickled vegetables or mustard alongside would be appreciated). At happy hour, you can snag a bottle of rosé for $20 and take part in a free, communal salumi platter.
Unfortunately, that's where the excitement ends. As intriguing as the Cannibal's creative nose-to-tail cooking should be, many of the more inventive offal creations here don't live up to their food-geek descriptions. Take, for instance, the tostada topped with cochinita pibil headcheese, which didn't resemble either of its namesakes. A trip under the broiler turned the bouncy texture of headcheese into a gooey, salty paste, while the spicy citrus flavors of Yucatán cooking seemed to be on vacation.
With other dishes, the tweaks are too clever for their own good. Silky chicken liver mousse comes blended with matcha, which lends an odd, greenish hue yet fails to deliver the earthy, grassy flavors you might expect from the green tea powder. Unless it's St. Patrick's Day, why turn your liver green for no reason?
If you'd prefer to add vegetation to your meal, the menu lists 10 or so vegetarian dishes, most of which you have probably encountered at other restaurants. There are the charred carrots, the roasted cauliflower tossed with Parmesan, the kale salad. For the most part these vegetables are fine — sometimes oversalted, as with the Brussels sprouts slicked with anchovy aioli, or sometimes too bland, as with a chilled squash and peach salad on special — but it is probably unreasonable to expect a restaurant with cuts of pig hanging from the rafters to blow you away with carrots.
When you gaze longingly at the menu's meat section, you might wish that you and your date had put together a much larger party. The cheapest steak on the menu is the $120, 36-ounce rib-eye meant to be shared by a crowd (never mind the $320, 96-ounce behemoth rib-eye, which must be ordered a day in advance), and for $90 you can order a roasted pig's head doused in General Tso's sauce. I understand the appeal of large-format dishes, but it is irritating to find yourself at a butcher-themed restaurant as a party of two and be practically limited to a thick-cut pork chop and a roasted half chicken — although that chicken, rubbed with what the kitchen calls "French Martinique" spices and smothered in a scallion oil that recalls what you find atop Hainan chicken, is very good chicken.
There are sausages, too, which are less like the sausages served at gourmet hot dog outfits such as Wurstküche and more like dressed-up small plates. The chicken Parmesan sausage turns out to be a coiled link dredged in flour and fried, then smothered with tomato sauce and a dollop of burrata. It's fine, but I was left dreaming about the crisp texture you'd find on a legit chicken Parm. The same went for the bulgogi sausage, served with pickled bean sprouts, sesame leaves and a creamy gochujang dip, which aimed to evoke Korean barbecue — a solid concept — but lacked the delicious, caramelized char that makes the inspiring dish so wonderful. While the idea of loading hot dogs with tripe mapo tofu and spicy Chinese mustard is meant as a cheeky play on the classic chili dog, the salty, Sichuan peppercorn–spiked sauce bulldozes away other discernible flavors.
At least there is the burger, which is kept blessedly simple: a large puck of fine beef topped sparingly with melted onions and served with tater tots that are the size of Jenga blocks (and taste remarkably like McDonald's hash browns).
By the time dessert arrived — a barely sweet cherry almond tart that had been inexplicably made with foie gras instead of butter — I thought of the scene in Jurassic Park where Jeff Goldblum's character rants about dinosaur gene-splicing run amok. "Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they didn't stop to think if they should," he says.
There's little doubt the L.A. version of the Cannibal has the potential to develop into a great restaurant. The service is wonderfully polished, and the raucous, cool-kid vibe is something most operations spend years trying to cultivate. But there's a palpable sense that the kitchen is still trying to find a balance between what its creative impulses are saying and what the average person wants to eat at a meat-centric restaurant, which would be less troubling if the prices didn't leave such a thin margin for error. Until that is worked out, you might consider meating elsewhere.
THE CANNIBAL | Two stars | 8850 Washington Blvd., Culver City | (310) 838-2783 | thecanniballa.com | Mon.-Wed., 5:30-10 p.m.; Thu.-Sat., 5:30-11 p.m.; Sun., 5:30-10 p.m. | Full bar
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