When an exciting new restaurant opens in Los Angeles, L.A. Weekly heads in for a First Look, a short review based on a single visit.  If you're hungry for more, see our starred restaurant reviews. 

A server is standing beside you, half smiling as she opens a velvet-lined wooden silverware box. “For your meat course, I’ll let you choose your weapon,” she says. Inside are an assortment of elegant steak knives. Some have rustic wooden handles others are smooth and shiny. You choose a blue French Laguiole knife that has clearly never been used before. At brothers Curtis and Luke Stone's new Hollywood restaurant Gwen, the steak knife service is one of many details that make dining feel like a special occasion.

With brand new knife in hand, the anticipation for Curtis Stone’s Asador Lamb, which has been cooking on a blazing indoor fire pit for days, reaches a maximum. You’ve waited for the much anticipated restaurant to open, you’ve waited to make a reservation, you’ve watched the appealing Aussie chef tend the fire and now you’re going to bite into it. And though hype can be a curse for some restaurants. For Gwen, it only adds to the allure.

The space, inside of a 1926 building that formerly housed two separate restaurants (The Mercantile and Township restaurants) is now a soaring-ceilinged throwback to old Hollywood glamour. The design, by New York-based brothers Evan and Oliver Haslegrave of Home Studios, is the first LA project for the duo. The first thing you see upon entering is the butcher shop. But this by no means takes away from the refined feeling of the room. In fact, several tables are located exactly next to a glass case of meat; a kind of transparency that is thematic at Gwen. Chef Stone and his team cook in an open kitchen, putting on a sort of show for diners.

Burnt cucumber pickles with summer squash, hearts of palm, blossoms and buttermilk at Gwen.; Credit: Heather Platt

Burnt cucumber pickles with summer squash, hearts of palm, blossoms and buttermilk at Gwen.; Credit: Heather Platt

The fiery asador, though behind glass, acts as a centerpiece to the whole restaurant and every so often Chef Stone puts on his fireproof goggles to stick his head into the flaming apparatus. Every hour or so a sous-chef carries a flaming log from the fire and places it on a sheet pan in the prep area. The log continues to smoke as the chef delicately massages the sardine filet skin side down into the smoldering piece of wood. It is mesmerizing to watch, and for this reason, (along with the fact that Curtis Stone is extremely charming) the chef’s counter is the best seat in the house. When they finally remove that tiny filet from the wood, drizzle it with olive oil, a sprinkling of sea salt, cut it in half and serve it to you with fennel gelée with your “First Bites,” it is one of the most delicious things you can remember eating.

Similar to his first L.A. restaurant, Maude, Gwen is a buy-ahead tasting menu format. The $95 five courses at Gwen come as a surprise (dietary restrictions taken into account) in the form of a selection of “First Bites” of house made charcuterie, followed by salad, pasta, meat and dessert. The menu is so thoughtful and involved that is seems as though Stone wants each guest to be well-versed in the range of his talent. Or, he is just very excited about delicious food and is palpably excited to share it with the world.

Servers in old fashioned uniforms carry out the first course on trays. The small plates filled with spicy Nduja sausage spread, duck speck and leek ash and porcini salami are a display of the butcher shop's skills. You can almost hear the head butchers saying “See! Look what we can do!” The pork and liver terrine, marinated peppers and slices of fire-grilled focaccia are so good, you would be fine if the meal had to end right then and there. But this meaty first course is just the beginning and it comes with a delicate salad of beets three-ways: pickled, dehydrated and shaved raw all tossed in a beet juice reduction.

The second course is a salad of summer squash, burnt cucumber pickles with caramelized squash blossoms and hearts of palm in a buttermilk dressing. The third course is house made orecchiette pasta with pancetta, pickled fresno chilis, tomatoes and pecorino. The sauce is just the right amount of spicy, tossed with crispy bread crumbs and basil flower leaves.

Lamb merguez, shoulder and ribs at Gwen; Credit: Quentin Bacon

Lamb merguez, shoulder and ribs at Gwen; Credit: Quentin Bacon

And then it’s time for the main event. The fourth course at Gwen is the meat that has been cooking over the fire. You have the option of substituting various cuts of beef instead of of the planned lamb. Clearly someone in the dining room has as you see the chefs ogling over a cartoonishly handsome bone-in 90 day dry aged ribeye. There is a sort of respect for the meat that seems to come from having an in-house butcher shop. You can see chef Stone’s concern. “Be sure to render it enough. It’s quite fatty.” He reminds the sous-chef overseeing the precious steak. 

If you want to drop major dough, opt for the Blackmore Wagyu. Thanks to the Aussie connection, Gwen is the only restaurant in the U.S. serving it. It melts in your mouth. But stick to the pre-designated menu, and you’re also going to win at dinner because the lamb comes out in three different preparations: Merguez sausage, fall-off-the-bone ribs (apparently brining, then roasting then grilling creates the most optimal lamb rib) and tender shoulder. The assortment of lamb meat comes with a side of lamb jus, smoky eggplant capponata, summer beans and a little bowl of charred corn that has been cooked in corn stock and finished with butter and black pepper.

After cleansing your palate with melon sorbet, sink a spoon into crème fraîche panna cotta scattered with cherries, almonds, pieces of lemon verbena meringues and a scoop of tart apricot sorbet. And just when you didn't think things could get any sweeter,  house made caramels come with the check, which, even with cocktails and wine, is worth every penny.

6600 Sunset Blvd., 323-946-7512; gwenla.com.

Curtis Stone tending the Asador at Gwen; Credit: Ray Kachatorian

Curtis Stone tending the Asador at Gwen; Credit: Ray Kachatorian

LA Weekly