The Sunset Junction of 2010 was a very different place from the Sunset Junction of 2017. The portion of Sunset Boulevard that runs through Silver Lake has been a magnet for artists and bohemia for decades, but seven years ago it still had its grungy aesthetic, and there weren't quite so many places one might purchase $300 shirts or $5 coffee drinks. You could rent one of the wonderfully shabby old bungalows in the hills above the boulevard for less than $4,000 a month. Silver Lake was well on its way to becoming what it is today, but it was nonetheless a simpler time.
One of the businesses that helped to usher in the new era of Silver Lake — or this area of Silver Lake — was Forage, a restaurant that opened in 2010 and served farro and pea salads from a cafeteria-style counter, and which encouraged people from the neighborhood to bring in produce they'd grown (or foraged) themselves for inclusion on the menu. Though the customer-grown component proved too difficult to remain a core principle — for reasons of health department rules and ultimately plain logistics — Forage is still going strong, and still using produce from many local, nonprofessional growers. Now its owners, Jason and Chrissy Kim (Jason an alumnus of restaurants such as Lucques and L'Orangerie) are branching out, and in doing so they're participating in the transformation of another slice of Silver Lake.
The Kims' new restaurant, Wolfdown, sits on Rowena Avenue in an edge of the neighborhood that has always been a little sleepier and more residential than the Sunset Boulevard thoroughfare. “Gentrification” is a hard term to use about this part of Silver Lake, because although housing prices here have skyrocketed in recent years (I used to live there; I can no longer afford the luxury), it's long been a fairly upscale enclave, full of lovely, hillside homes that primarily house an upper-middle, creative class. But Rowena Avenue itself, and the curve around onto Glendale Avenue, were both a bastion of cheaper apartments. It was also home to low-key restaurants like the one that Wolfdown replaced: Nicky D's Pizza Wood Fired Pizza, an old-school Italian joint in a collection of somewhat rickety structures built into the side of the hill. Now Moby has a vegan restaurant on Rowena. Around the curve, Whole Foods 365 has replaced one of the crappiest Ralphs the world has ever seen. In Wolfdown's new space, those rickety buildings have been transformed into a boho-chic fantasy that feels a bit like a mountain lodge and a bit like a tropical hideaway. The two-level dining room is wood and brick, and an open kitchen emits the smell of wood smoke. Outside the patio sits under a canopy of green trees. The restaurant captures the magic of a treehouse, of climbing up off the street and into a woody, leafy world above it all.
The menu is international in scope, with lots of Asian influence and the same focus on showcasing produce that gave Forage its reputation. There's a luminously flavored green garlic bisque dotted with explosively sweet orange cherry tomatoes, its basil garnish and the light sting of the garlic combining for something a little like Thai green curry but much subtler. There are lots of salad variations, most of which focus on contrasts between bitter greens and bright citrus, as well as some sort of creamy element — green goddess dressing; avocado. A chicken and shrimp dumping is almost more like a burger patty than a dumpling, though there is a barely perceptible, thin, crackly dumpling skin around the puck-shaped disk. Whatever it is, it's good to eat — full of garlicky flavor and topped with a flurry of arugula and mustard frills.
There are dishes that could easily act as the subject of a graduate dissertation on modern American food and its cultural signifiers, such as an “Ethiopian-style” steak tartare served with crackers the shape of the Wu-Tang logo. This isn't much like kitfo, the traditional raw-beef Ethiopian dish, but is delicious with its curry-like collection of spices that bleeds yellow onto the plate. Why the Wu-Tang crackers? I'll leave that to the status and symbol academics to decipher.
Wolfdown starts strong and falters a bit when you move into larger plates, in part because it's not clear why these plates are larger. The fun of a menu like this is built on the ability to taste a ton of stuff, and the portion and prices on the lower half of the menu limit that ability, mostly with dishes that would work just as well at half the size (and half the price).
You get two legs and two thighs for $25 on the Korean fried chicken plate, which comes with either a spicy chili or soy honey glaze. I'd much rather have a smaller portion and a smaller bill, because I found the chicken itself a bit dry and the chili sauce not quite spicy enough and a little too gloppy, stealing the crisp from the chicken's skin. I felt similarly about the $35 pork belly bossam, which comes fanned out on a plate next to a pile of fantastic radish kimchi and a bunch of lettuce and shiso leaves for wrapping. Underneath it all is an “oyster tartare,” a kind of smoosh of raw oyster that's been minced up, and which is a little disconcerting texturally, as well as overwhelmed by the other flavors on the plate. But the slightly dry pork was my real complaint about the dish, as well as the fact that I'd rather eat less of it (and pay less).
There's no doubt that, like Forage, Wolfdown represents an evolution for the neighborhood. The wine, beer and sake lists are pretty great, the space is beautiful, and the food is mostly smart, creative and on-trend without being too derivative. If I'd never been priced out of Silver Lake, I would have been able to walk to Wolfdown from my house, and I'd have been happy for that opportunity. Would I drive across town to eat here? It's doubtful. But with all the money, traffic and beautiful people flooding into this part of town, it's also doubtful they'll need me to.
WOLFDOWN | 2764 Rowena Ave., Silver Lake | (323) 522-6381 | wolfdownla.com | Tue.-Thurs., 5:30-10 p.m.; Fri. & Sat., 5:30- 11 p.m. | Plates, $8-80 | Beer, wine and sake | Valet, lot and street parking
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