View more photos in Anne Fishbein's "Jewish-Glaswegian Inspiration at The Gorbals" photo gallery.
The Gorbals, perhaps, is a restaurant that should not be seen by the light of day, when the boxy tables look like a shop-class project, the artfully scuffed floors look worn, and the back-room speakeasy vibe is overtaken by the thought that the dim space may have once served as an industrial laundry room. The music is still good, various Iggyisms and post-Iggyisms and proto-Iggyisms, but you get the feeling that the chefs would rather be sitting on a couch smoking cigarettes rather than flipping matzoh brei, and although the $5 Bloody Marys with fresh horseradish are of a strength that you may not have experienced since sophomore year in the dorms, on a Sunday morning the staff may be as hungover as you. As crisp as the blintzes are, as rich as the latke-studded pork belly hash can be, the Gorbals is not a fluffy, happy place to brunch.
If cooking is theater, and it occasionally is, what comes out of the Gorbals kitchen is the confrontational kind, food that challenges your belief systems about what cooking should be, dishes that are often easier to admire than actually to like, ox marrow thrown together with oyster mushrooms because their textures rhyme a little, but mostly because they look weird together, or braised red cabbage splitting the difference between Poland and Britain.
Chef Ilan Hall, a rangy, stubbly man in owly spectacles, became famous as a Top Chef champion a few years ago, and settled into the food-world media circuit instead of returning to work behind the range. When he opened the Gorbals — supposedly inspired by the Scottish equivalent of the Lower East Side; a Glasgow neighborhood that went from working-class Jewish to dismal slum to fashionably disreputable — the restaurant was derailed by a plumbing problem almost immediately thereafter. And for months, when you walked past the movie star portraits in the empty old Alexandria Hotel lobby, music swirling, chandeliers bright, Charlie Chaplin films flickering on the wall, it felt as if you'd wandered into a scene from The Shining, and the chalkboard "open" sign stood outside the entrance whether the restaurant was open or not. User-friendliness is not much of a concern here.
The menu's conceit, Scottish-Jewish food, is at first glance a transgressive fantasy cuisine designed to alienate as many people as possible: bacon-wrapped matzoh balls, pork belly braised in Manischewitz, and BLTs, the homey kind your mom may have tucked into your lunch as a kid, made with chicken-skin cracklings — gribenes — instead of bacon. (Really, the gribenes here are closer to crunchy yakitori chicken skin, but the idea is intact — sacrilicious!) There were chicken thighs stuffed with haggis, a dish he took off the menu just before Burns Night, the one dinner of the year when people actually want to eat haggis. The dessert of Israeli couscous was garnished with bacon. He made thin, crisp latkes out of butternut squash until he came to his senses and began to make them with potato.
But the bacon-wrapped matzoh balls eat better than they read, at least once you let them cool enough to avoid the painful, explosive burst of steam that escapes when you bite into them right away, and syrupy Manischewitz is almost as good a braising medium as port. You might as well pair octopus with chicken gizzards, which have more or less the bouncy texture that the octopus might have had if it were boiled instead of grilled to a charred crunch, and a sweet-tart green-bean chutney works well to cut the richness of chicken-fried lamb sweetbreads, even if the condiment exists nowhere else on earth. The French fries, cooked with great handfuls of fresh dill, are my favorite in town at the moment.
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As an experienced judge of JCC kugel competitions, I can assure you: Hall's oatmeal kugel is not about to enter the pantheon anytime soon. The magnificent sticky toffee pudding, dusted with Maldon salt, is really the only dessert the restaurant needs.
While the ideas may be aggressive, the prices are not — good-sized small dishes are priced between $5 and $15 a pop, and bottles of drinkable if not magnificent wine tend to linger in the mid-twenties for whites and the mid-thirties for reds. I have become fond of the Pomelo sauvignon blanc, which, true to its name, tastes like fresh grapefruit.
Hall brings a dissipated presence to the restaurant, and even when the restaurant is steaming on a loud Saturday night, he manages to clatter his pans with a certain louche flair, as if he were doing a performance about a restaurant rather than cooking over a live flame. It is hard to tell whether it is his entourage or his customers occupying the few stools in front of the open kitchen. At this point in his career, they are probably more or less the same.
THE GORBALS: In the Alexandria Hotel, 501 S. Spring St., dwntwn. (213) 488-3408, thegorbalsla.com. Lunch Mon.-Fri., 11 a.m.-3 p.m.; dinner Mon.-Wed., 6 p.m.-mid., Thurs.-Sat., 6 p.m.-2 a.m.; Sunday brunch 11 a.m.-3 p.m. AE, MC, V. Full bar. Street and nearby pay-lot parking. Small plates, $7-$14; desserts $7. Recommended dishes: octopus with gizzards, fried broccoli, sticky toffee pudding.