With Wild at Canelé, Two Sqirl Vets Master the Art of Lunch
Wild at Canele's duck leg is braised in a vinegar-rich adobo sauce.
You might wonder why more restaurateurs and cooks don't enter into relationships like the one between Canelé and Wild at Canelé. Many dining rooms sit empty for some portion of the day — few small establishments could possibly handle the rigor of three-meals-a-day service. And there are plenty of young and talented cooks who long to become chefs but lack the resources to finance a space of their own.
Of course, the pop-up restaurant is hardly a new idea, and Wild at Canelé is a riff on one. Three days a week at Atwater mainstay Canelé, Wild at Canelé presents lunch service as a separate entity, with its own chefs and personality. The concept launched late last year, and while its chefs, husband and wife Ria and Matt Wilson, are now Canelé owner Corina Weibel's employees, they see Wild as a residency. Do they want their very own place one day? Sure. But for now, this is an ongoing, symbiotic relationship, one in which the Wilsons get to experiment with their own menu while generating extra daytime business for Weibel.
My assumption is that arrangements like this will become more common — we are in the era of the sharing economy, after all. But a restaurant is hard enough to control and keep functional without letting other chefs into the kitchen, even when not in use. A lot of trust and respect needs to exist between the parties involved.
In the case of Wild, that trust already existed. Ria Wilson worked for Weibel at Canelé as a line cook before leaving to join Jessica Koslow at Sqirl, where she was the chef de cuisine and Matt Wilson was the sous. So the relationship was established, as was a familiarity with the restaurant itself. Canelé's open kitchen and glassed-in storefront, with its refined but comfortable bistro vibe, is perfectly suited to the type of thoughtful daytime dining being served up at Wild.
The Wilsons' time at Sqirl has certainly left its mark on their cooking, and it's obvious from eating their food that they were a huge influence on Sqirl, too. You might even recognize the handwriting on Wild's specials board, which belongs to Ria and for years was the neat, all-caps scrawl that adorned Sqirl's wall-mounted menu. Wild shares an aesthetic with Sqirl, a gift for inventiveness that feels wholly natural, yet there's much here that is strikingly original.
If you were to stick to the central dishes on Wild's regular menu, you'd likely end up with a lovely but unremarkable lunch. A beautifully cooked but otherwise plain slow-roasted salmon sits alongside fresh lettuces enrobed in a lightly creamy Meyer lemon and creme fraiche dressing. A duck leg is braised in a vinegar-rich adobo sauce and also served with lettuce greens. Canelé's fried chicken sandwich appears on the Wild menu, though it's been tweaked significantly. The chicken itself has been marinated in the style of lechon manok, a Filipino roasted chicken that's heavy on lemon grass. From there it's fried, piled onto a house-made pan de sal (also Filipino) and topped with a green papaya pickle. It's a heck of a sandwich.
Yet, you'd do well to wander toward the less obvious parts of the menu, or, even better, the specials board. There's a terrine of the day, and it's almost always delightfully unexpected. It could be composed of smoked yellowtail and Saint Germain–pickled strawberry, the fish ever so lightly cured but retaining all its lush, fleshy qualities, the strawberries adding a punch of bright flavor. Or a chicken terrine might come with English peas and carrots, a puckery mustardo and warm biscuits on the side. It's here that you begin to realize that these chefs are capable of far more than the simple protein-plus-salad lunch.
Fried chicken sandwich, Filipino pickle, aioli, pan de sal bun, market lettuce
The surprises only get better. Dishes are built for visual beauty: a torta de ceci, or chickpea pancake, was one day festooned with brilliant yellow and purple beets, shaved thin and arranged like dragon scales. Taste is not sacrificed for prettiness though. A cavatelli of the day, topped with artistic slivers of shaved porcini, was made from toasted rye and ricotta, and cloaked in a gravy-like, schmaltz-enriched sauce given dazzling acidic luminosity by the addition of apple and roasted garlic.
And who might imagine they'd be eating a lunch of savory milk curd, a lustrous, creamy bowl of impossibly light custard topped with favas, morels, fried shallots and sprigs of fragrant sansho leaves, plucked from a Japanese pepper plant? It's a glorious argument for the rise of savory curd as the basis for a dish, or even for a whole meal.
A creamy bowl of impossibly light custard is a glorious argument for the rise of savory curd as the basis for a dish.
There's food here that seems heartier or heavier than anything the Wilsons might have produced at Sqirl, such as the chashu dumplings served in a tonkotsu broth (there's also occasionally ramen, though I've never lucked into a bowl). The plump, golf ball–sized dumplings burst with porky flavor, and gently waving bonito atop the dish add to its umami-bomb nature.
The Wilsons have also taken charge of Canelé's brunch menu but haven't treaded too heavily there, given that the restaurant already has a devoted brunch following. Mainly they've freshened some of the dish accompaniments and made changes such as curing their own bacon in-house rather than using Nueske's, and transitioning to a more seasonal approach for omelet fillings and the like. You're bound to find a Wild special or two during the weekend as well.
But for the full experience (and without the long wait Canelé has always had during brunch), come for lunch. It's only served Wednesdays to Fridays, and there's no telling how long this residency will last. But what Ria and Matt Wilson are producing here is far more inventive, thoughtful and delicious than most of what you'll find at far more established spots. Much like Sqirl, Wild at Canelé is better than you'd expect it to be and better than it needs to be. That's a trend I can get behind.
WILD AT CANELÉ | Three stars | 3219 Glendale Blvd., Atwater Village | (323) 666-7133 | wildla.wordpress.com | Lunch: Wed.-Fri., 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Brunch: Sat.-Sun., 10 a.m.-3 p.m. | Lunch entrees, $9.50-$15 | Beer and wine | Street parking
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