It has all the elements of a tall tale told in a Mississippi barroom: Have you heard? Bob's wife went out to Los Angeles and says a restaurant there is serving Hoppin' John for $14!! Can you imagine?
The vinegar-tinged combination of red peas and rice is the best thing on the menu: comforting
Naaaw. It couldn't be.
Hoppin' John: that murky side dish found at meat-and-threes and the occasional barbecue shack throughout the South, made with black-eyed or field peas and rice. You eat it on New Year's Day for good luck and on any other day for hearty sustenance. It is unlikely to cost you more than $4.
But at Flores & the Ladies Gunboat Society, the new operation out of the restaurant that used to be Flores on Sawtelle Boulevard, the Hoppin' John is served as an appetizer or a small plate rather than a side, and the price is the stuff of comedy.
Flores & the Ladies Gunboat Society comes to us thanks to Brian Dunsmoor, who is also half of the team behind the Hart and the Hunter. The mouthful of a moniker refers to a group of women who, frustrated with their relative helplessness during the Civil War, raised funds to build ironclad gunboats to protect the harbors of the Confederate South. (As a recent Southern transplant, I'm not sure how we should feel about the glorification of a group whose aim was to support the Confederacy and thereby uphold slavery, however progressive it was in other, female-empowering ways. But perhaps I'm reading too much into it.)
And if the Gunboat Society bit weren't confusing enough, the restaurant is still called Flores, given that its owner, Amal Flores, wanted to retain some recognition that the place hadn't changed hands, just chef and concept. So now we're supposed to call it Flores & the Ladies Gunboat Society, or something like that.
As with the Hart and the Hunter, and as the name suggests, Dunsmoor is taking his inspiration here from the South. The chef grew up in Savannah, Georgia, and cooked under Hugh Acheson at 5 & 10 in Athens. Acheson is one of Georgia's most celebrated chefs, and 5 & 10 is an exemplar of what's possible when the traditions of Southern cooking meet fine dining technique.
At the Hart and the Hunter, Dunsmoor partnered with chef Kris Tominaga to bring their Southern concept (which began as a pop-up) to life in the Palihotel in the Beverly Grove neighborhood. The kitchen in that restaurant is decidedly makeshift, without a proper oven or even burners. Here, with a full kitchen build-out, Dunsmoor has the freedom to cook whatever his heart desires.
Perhaps it's that freedom, or the lack of Tominaga's influence, but the food at Flores & the Ladies Gunboat Society is a little more overwrought than what we've seen from Dunsmoor in the past. There's a heavy-handedness here, which is something the jaded, ex-Georgian side of me expected at the Hart and the Hunter but thankfully never encountered.
A pan-fried trout comes with a cumbersome crust, and the creamed corn, pecan relish, succotash salad and hazelnut accompaniments become a jumble with about three too many elements. Chicken-fried rabbit with spiced local honey is both too oily and too sweet. And the $25 soft-shell “crabs” should, in fact, be in the singular, given that there's only one crab on the plate, and it's over a nectarine-and-pecan relish that was too copious for that one little crab and too fruity in flavor.
Even an otherwise stellar buttermilk pie was overwhelmed by a huge scoop of strawberry ice cream — lovely on its own merits but unnecessary for the task at hand.
Still, there are some magnificent plates of food to be had here. A fried green tomato salad gets showered with fresh cherry tomatoes in a rainbow of colors, undercut by a creamy, goat cheese dressing. It tasted like hot days, like the South and like the produce-driven spirit of California all in one.
If you have yet to be swayed by the “American charcuterie” claims of country ham, Dunsmoor's preparation of Benton's country ham with lemon ricotta just might convert you. The intensely smoky, salty ham comes in feathery drifts surrounding the milky cheese, along with slabs of melon and a mint salsa verde.
Dunsmoor's affinity for colorful pops of flavor sometimes goes overboard when too many ingredients are involved. But it serves him well in a small plate that is basically a risotto made with grits. The antebellum white grits are cooked — a bit too loosely, if you ask me — along with cherry tomatoes, chanterelle mushrooms, corn and basil. It's a vibrant plate of food, singing with summer's bounty. If nothing else, it makes me curious to see what Dunsmoor will do when fall rolls around; this is a chef whose grand inspiration is intensely seasonal.
The restaurant's soul has changed since it was Flores but its outfit remains the same. Walnut and marble give the interior of the former art gallery a cozy, stylish feel, and the patio in particular is still a lovely place to eat, complete with a giant bird cage that doubles as a firepit.
Dunsmoor has brought Jonathon Strader along with him from the Hart and the Hunter to take care of service and wine. Service is relaxed but excellent as a result, and the all-Californian wine list is short, fun and just a wee bit pricier than it ought to be given the vibe, which is 100 percent California cool.
And what of that $14 Hoppin' John? It's made with Sea Island red peas and Carolina Gold rice, two ingredients about which I could write a doctoral dissertation. (Working title: The Influence of Italy and Africa on the Culture and Cuisine of the Coastal Carolinas.) Suffice to say that these are two ingredients that have been grown on the Sea Islands south of Charleston for hundreds of years, and have been served together, stewed with smoked ham hock, for just as long. Dunsmoor cooks the rice to a fluffy, sweet ideal and adds braised collards and a hunk of corn bread. The vinegar-tinged combination of all these things is the best item on the menu: comforting, hearty and tasting of its complex mixed heritage.
Despite its punchline price, that Hoppin' John is the type of dish I found so exciting when I first ate at the Hart and the Hunter, and it's the type of cooking I wish Dunsmoor were doing more of here.
The best Southern food has tradition as its underpinning, and whatever creativity flows from there has to be smart and focused to avoid the pitfalls of parody or pointless fusion. Dunsmoor proves here, as he does at that Hart and the Hunter, that a happy meeting of the American South and Southern California is possible when he reins himself in enough to let the food shine.
But still — $14 for rice and peas? Good lawd.
FLORES & THE LADIES GUNBOAT SOCIETY | Two stars | 2024 Sawtelle Blvd., Sawtelle | (424) 273-6469 | floreslosangeles.com | Nightly, 5:30-10 p.m.; brunch, Sat. & Sun., 11 a.m.-2 p.m. | Plates, $12-$35 | Beer & wine | Valet parking