Culinary ambition is a strange beast. The formula used to be relatively simple: work your way up the restaurant chain, feed people well, and eventually get a decently paying job. Perhaps you might eventually open your very own restaurant. These days, a culinary career is so much more complex. Once you have one successful restaurant, how about opening a second? Should you be on TV? Write a cookbook or three? Today, a saucepan and an apron; tomorrow, the world.
Chef Curtis Stone is also a strange beast, having gone about this tumbling series of career goals backward. He got TV-famous before he had a high-profile chef job; the endorsement deals and cookbooks happened years ahead of his first restaurant. His training and culinary pedigree is legit, involving Michelin-starred restaurants and iconic chefs as mentors, but he’s spent most of his career following the celebrity-chef path rather than the working-chef path. But damn it, that drive to prove himself wouldn’t let go. And so in late 2014 he opened Maude, an intensely personal, intensely ambitious restaurant in Beverly Hills where he serves lengthy tasting menus based around a seasonal ingredient that changes monthly. I once asked him during a phone interview why he picked such a rigorously challenging format for his first restaurant: a complex menu that must be remade entirely every 30 days. He laughed and said, “I spend a lot of time asking myself the same question.”
And now ambition has struck again and propelled Stone to open restaurant number two. Gwen is an establishment that is striving for greatness in so many ways it’s a little head-spinning. It’s a meat importer, a butcher shop, a cocktail bar, a chophouse of sorts and a return to serious glitzy Hollywood dining the likes of which we haven’t seen in decades. Stone, who convinced his brother Luke to move to the U.S. from their native Australia in order to launch Gwen, has said publicly that he hopes the project will tempt Michelin to return to Los Angeles. (The France-based tire company and restaurant ratings guide pulled out of the L.A. market in 2010.) Unlike the exceedingly intimate Maude, Gwen is large and brash, with one of the most breathtaking dining rooms the city has ever seen. The whole affair must have cost approximately three bazillion dollars. It would have cost, give or take, two bazillion dollars for the design alone, not counting the floor-to-ceiling meat and charcuterie cases, not counting the glassed-in open kitchen that’s a feat of engineering, holding multiple types of open flames that leap behind the glass as animal parts dangle and sizzle all around. It’s like an aquarium containing the hottest parts of the underworld. The brothers Stone self-funded this menagerie of insanity, which speaks to that driving force in Curtis to make something important, long-lasting and game-changing.
Does he succeed? Yes and no.
The restaurant’s location, on Sunset Boulevard smack in the middle of Hollywood, is positioned in such a way so that the sunlight in the early evening glares white and then reddens to a deep blaze, silhouetting the row of palm trees stretching west. If you come at the right time of day, even the sun itself seems complicit in making this an iconic Los Angeles experience, that white light luminescence blinding you like it does nowhere else in the world. When you step through the doors of the 1920s building, you’re greeted at first by what looks like an old-fashioned butcher counter, the glass case stocked with some of the highest quality meat, much of it sourced from Blackmore, the Australian beef producer considered among the best in the world. (Blackmore was not available in the U.S. until now; Stone became an importer in order to get his hands on the product.) Beyond the butcher counter and host stand, the grand sweep of the room becomes apparent. Two massive art-deco-style crystal chandeliers hang from the impossibly high ceilings, and the green velvet banquettes, dark wood and coppery accents give the place a classic glamour that’s at once restrained and over-the-top.
Like Maude, Gwen delivers a tasting menu, though the format is very different. Where Maude trades in delicate luxury, Stone’s rallying cry here is “primitive elegance.” This is more like an insanely over-the-top picnic than a formal meal. Courses come in great flurries of dishes, all served on little plates that spread across your table like puzzle pieces. (General manager Ben Avrim joked to me one evening, as he delicately made room for more and more plates on the table, that he’d be very good at playing Tetris once his time at Gwen was done.) First there’s charcuterie, then a whirlwind of salads, then a pasta course, then a meat course accompanied by a medley of sides. You will see easily 20 or more dishes cross your table by the end of the evening.
And many of those dishes are stunning. The charcuterie might include a rich nduja, the spicy spreadable salami that’s all the rage with meatheads these days, as well as light feathery fiocco, pork leg cured with pink peppercorns and rosewater that gives it a hint of floral funk at its edge. The multiple vegetable dishes that come as salads and sides are deceptively simple but always reveal a trick of technique or creativity that makes them shine. Beets come “pickled, raw and chewy,” with that last descriptor referring to dehydrated beets that become almost candy-like and set up a captivating textural interplay.
The meat course presents the animal of choice — lamb, say, or pork — cooked a number of ways, each of them pulling out the best attributes of that part of the beast. Lamb ribs were sticky and wonderfully musky, the fat crisped just so. Before your meat course arrives, you’ll be offered the chance to pick your own slicing implement from a box bearing a variety of gorgeous, handmade vintage knives. This is only one detail that aims to make the aesthetics of dining at Gwen particularly pleasurable. Cocktails — very good cocktails — are served in stunning vintage glassware; flatware is beautiful to the look and touch.
You have the option at the beginning of your meal to forgo the standard meat course and instead supplement with one of the many varieties of beef you may have seen in the butcher case on the way in. The upgrade will cost you. Gwen, in general, will cost you.
When the restaurant originally opened, the bulk of the meal was paid for in advance via an online ticketing system. You purchased a reservation for two people for $190 — a party of four would cost $380. In recent weeks this pre-pay part of the process has gone away, and I wonder if it’s because many people felt the same sting I did upon learning at the end of my meal that the $190 did not include tax or an 18 percent service charge, bringing the price for two closer to $230, without drinks. Add wine — from a list that is beautiful but skews high price-wise — and a cocktail and you’re easily looking at a meal that’s pushing $400 for two people.
I love the food at Gwen, I love the experience, but do I love it $400 worth? It’s a tricky calculation. When you add up what it must cost to put on a show so meticulously choreographed, so incredibly sourced, so beautifully accessorized — the cost of the flatware alone could probably pay off my college debt — there’s no doubt that the price makes mathematical sense. And yet, there’s something about the format here that doesn’t quite work.
Because the room is so large and lively, it mimics the energy of far more casual restaurants. The rusticism of the food, too, is reminiscent of much of modern American cooking these days — grilled meats, creative vegetables, fruit-forward desserts. There are dishes at Gwen that could live happily on one of Maude’s far more formal — though similarly priced — menus: a delicate ravioli holding musky chanterelles and topped with an ethereal, frothy anaheim chili espuma; a pre-dessert celery sorbet over a dainty dollop of goat cheese that managed to somehow beautifully straddle the line between dinner and dessert, both literally and figuratively. But in a setting like this, with all the whiz-and-bang and flurry of dishes and flames leaping in the background, it’s actually kind of hard to focus on the delicacy of dishes such as these. It’s an atmosphere that calls for hunks of meat.
And this is my other quibble with Gwen — to come in and be greeted by meat in the butcher case, to smell the meat cooking on the grill, to see sides of beef and sausages hanging in the glassed-in meat lockers, all make you primed for an intensely meaty experience. But unless you’re willing to shell out an extra $75 or $275 (on top of the well-over $100 per person you’ve already spent) for a steak supplement, the meal you’ll get is not actually that meaty. It feels like a bit of a tease, no matter how tasty the pork loin or lamb ribs are, to not get a few bites of all that beautiful beef on display.
As much fun as it is to put yourself in someone else’s hands, to indulge in the feast that Gwen provides, as a customer I want this restaurant to be a la carte. I want to be able to order some charcuterie and a fancy steak and one or two vegetable sides or extras (rather than the dozens you get). I found myself eating desserts I didn’t particularly want (even if they were delicious), yearning for meat I couldn’t afford, and feeling at the end that I’d been deprived of something despite spending the money and being stuffed full of food. And yet I understand that this restaurant would make no financial sense as an a la carte affair; that the glassware, the ingredients, the build-out, the kitchen talent — all of it requires the kinds of prices that Gwen charges and the kind of foreknowledge a prix fixe guarantees.
It’s a conundrum. I don’t know the answer. The format is still being tweaked, and I can tell the Stones are honestly grappling with how to make this thing work and be as gratifying as possible for their guests. Despite the price, the overall feel is one of generosity: generosity of spirit, generosity in trying to deliver as much pleasure as possible.
My guess is that eventually, Gwen will have to offer its a la carte options (currently available at the bar and on the patio) to a larger percentage of its customers. That the prix fixe will maybe become more expensive and exclusive and deliver more thoroughly on its meaty promise. That despite all the ambition (and money) the Stone brothers have poured into this place, it might have to become a little more populist to survive.
“You’ve got to be grateful,” I said to my dining companion one night, “for a guy with enough vision and money to make something like this happen.” Gwen is a monument to one guy’s glorious, meaty Hollywood dream. It’s a beautiful dream, from the butcher counter to the room to the delicate vintage glassware to the food, which is cooked with talent and love.
Does it make sense? Dreams, especially the complicated visionary kind, rarely do.
Gwen | 3 stars | 6600 Sunset Blvd., Hollywood | 323-946-7513 | gwenla.com | Restaurant: Tues.-Sat., 6 p.m.-midnight. Butcher shop: Tues.-Sat., 10 a.m.-10 p.m., Sun., 10 a.m.-3 p.m., Mon., 10 a.m.-7 p.m. | Dinner starting at $190 for two, plus tax and tip | Full bar | Lot parking