Oh, dude food, what have you wrought?
A few years ago, at the beginning of the chef revolution, young cooks stopped cooking what was expected and started cooking what they wanted to eat. The resulting meat-centric, balls-out approach was both exciting and refreshing — bringing with it some of the last decade's most astonishing food. Suddenly spice, salt, fat, offal, cult seafood items and stinky cheese became the norm. Restaurants that 10 years ago would have seemed like risky business propositions became the model for many young chef/owners. You must have livers. You must have uni. You must have octopus, belly meat, bacon in places where no bacon has gone before.
This is certainly the tradition claimed by Eric Park, the young chef behind Black Hogg in Silver Lake. Black Hogg opened last March with an aggressively meat-centric menu, a sparse and tiny storefront space on Sunset, no liquor license and a setup where you had to trek through the kitchen to get to the bathroom. The place was a hit from the get-go, packed on most nights despite the lack of booze. In August, Black Hogg closed to prepare for a liquor license, which required a renovation, mainly having to do with the lavatory situation. It reopened in November with a more traditional bathroom setup, beer and a short wine list.
As his press coverage had it, Park is an alumnus of the French Culinary Institute in New York, and a guy who'd worked in both April Bloomfield's seminal New York nose-to-tail gastropub Spotted Pig and Eleven Madison Park, one of the country's best restaurants.
Impressive, right? Yet the truth is a little trickier. Park's most vaunted jobs, Eleven Madison Park and the Spotted Pig, were both brief, part-time, noncredited internships while he attended FCI. Outside of these internships and his nine months in culinary school, Park has only a couple months of real restaurant employment, the kind you get paid for, the kind you would call experience. There's absolutely no reason to hold this against him, but it does explain quite a bit about Black Hogg.
Spotted Pig is an obvious inspiration for Park's cooking, although even Spotted Pig isn't quite so aggressively meat-focused — meaning, vegetables are a strong point on Bloomfield's menu along with the pork belly and pig ears.
But the one true vegetable-focused dish on Park's menu is also one of his best: Brussels sprouts and Yukon gold potatoes topped with a poached egg, the Brussels twice-cooked so the flurry of shattery leaves on the outside gives way to a soft inside. The bacon vinaigrette brings the dish together with an acid tang, balancing and harmonizing.
Egg and acid make an appearance also on the báhn mì, a deeply satisfying sandwich of mortadella, capicola, pâté and a vinegary slaw, topped with a runny egg. Purists will complain that $14 could buy you as many as seven báhn mì at any of the city's best Vietnamese báhn mì houses, but this sandwich is highly edible nonetheless.
Then comes the deep fried bacon. Called “popcorn bacon” on the menu, it's a small dish holding cubes of bacon, breaded and fried, served with maple crema. It's fat, fried in fat, served with a side of sugary fat.
Here's where Black Hogg really starts to go off the rails, where the ingredients and trends of the day are taken to extremes, without an ounce of subtlety, and presented as delicious simply because they exist. Chopped chicken liver on toast is good, right? How about we make it spicy — spicy food is good, right? How about we top it with chicken skin cracklin, because, cracklin is good, right? Never mind that the spice and salt obliterate the magnanimous, creamy nature of the livers. And never mind that livers alone are almost impossibly, wonderfully rich, and that adding more intense fat and salt in the form of a cracklin takes it so far overboard that it loses all that's good and right and amazing about a chicken liver.
The same is true for the uni toast, two quivering globs of Santa Barbara sea urchin served on grilled bread with Plugrá butter, scallions and salt. All that makes uni the strange, magical ingredient it is, all its sex and funk and creamy subtlety, is lost in the textural heavy-handedness of the butter and bread. All you taste is the harsh carbon of a hot grill meeting buttery bread; the soft touch of the ocean is obliterated.
Much goes outrageously overboard here, in a way that's almost fun and then not fun at all. The meat for a lamb burger is ground with butter, for a burger that literally gushes fat — not just the butter in the meat (why?) but blue cheese as well. It's a flavor bomb, for sure, but more than a little off-putting.
The one vegetarian dish is a huge slice of brioche, soaked in brown butter with crimini, shimeji and hen-of-the-woods mushrooms. It's too much. It might work as an hors d'oeuvre perhaps, but as an entire plate of food, it is pornographic.
It feels as though Park perhaps took his training wheels off a little too early. Eleven Madison Park and the Spotted Pig are impressive places to have on your résumé, but it's hard to think of any profession in which a nine-month training program and two internships prepare someone to be CEO. Park's cooking lacks nuance and technique.
There is simply no way to underestimate the value of working your way up in a kitchen, starting on salads, spending night after night at the sauté station, making damn sure the skin on that fish is crisp and the fat on that duck is rendered.
On something as simple as Black Hogg's cast-iron chicken, the chicken is cooked too hard and too fast, the skin singed on the outside and still flabby and white on the underside, the meat a little too dry, the pan drippings a little too watery.
Octopus on the “grilled octopus chana masala” is tough and rubbery, the chickpeas and potatoes so aggressively spiced and salted that no clean flavors shine through.
For dessert, a dulce de leche pot de crème is thick as tack — there's no crème to this crème. It makes what should be a generous, silken dessert stiff and unfriendly.
There are some fantastic Silver Lake moments to be had at Black Hogg: One night, the very loud music playing in the restaurant prompted a Warren G “Regulate” sing-along, featuring half the clientele and at least one waiter.
And many people genuinely like Park's cooking, even the dishes that I found hard to swallow. “I love the popcorn bacon!” a friend told me, even after I warned her against it. Just read the Yelp reviews and you'll see that most of the neighborhood is in agreement with her.
But I do think that, even if salt and fat and overkill are the artistic media Park feels drawn to, his basic skills need developing.
It's an odd thing, that title of “chef.” It can mean so many things. Culinary schools are actively engaged in making prospective students believe that a relatively small time commitment and thousands of dollars will earn them the title. I know cooks who have been running kitchens for more than a decade who have yet to earn it.
Eric Park understands the food of the moment enough to know where and how people will eat it, but I'm afraid he still has many hours to log in the kitchen — preferably under a benevolent, experienced mentor — before he's likely to understand how to make his food truly shine.
BLACK HOGG | One star | 2852 W. Sunset Blvd., Silver Lake | (323) 953-2820 | Tues.-Sat., 6-11 p.m. | Reservations not accepted | Beer and wine served | Street parking