It's a tough thing to be a biscuit lover in Los Angeles. In recent months, I've had dry hockey-puck biscuits, greasy, tough biscuits, and floury, powdery, tasteless biscuits. I had come to the conclusion that the biscuit portion of my life was over. It's OK, I thought. There are so many other things to love.
But at the Hart and the Hunter, the odd new restaurant in the Palihotel, the biscuits are close to revelatory. Baked fresh to order, they're so buttery that the bottoms get a golden-crusted fry, similar to grilled cheese sandwiches, simply from the butter in the batter sizzling on the hot baking sheet. They're flaky to the point of disintegration, coming apart when you pick them up, revealing a soft, yellowish middle. They come with “accompaniments”: a sweetened butter, a smear of pert pimento cheese, some pickled blackberries. They are delicious with each of these things and also on their own, a warming, buttery reminder that the universe loves us.
The Hart and the Hunter is a Southern restaurant, nominally, although chefs Kris Tominaga and Brian Dunsmoor call what they're doing “country food.” Tominaga and Dunsmoor opened the Hart and the Hunter after a popular run at a Venice pop-up named Wolf in Sheep's Clothing. There's a convoluted story about how their other partner in the pop-up has opened a restaurant called Wolf in Sheep's Clothing, but I'm not going to get into that here. Suffice to say, Tominaga and Dunsmoor were considered the chefs at the pop-up, and they are not involved with Wolf in Sheep's Clothing the restaurant.
Instead, they're here, located in what is basically a coffee bar in a hotel lobby, albeit a very pretty coffee bar in a very artsy hotel lobby. The walls of the tiny dining room are blue-tiled, and the decor is quirky farm-swank. There are paintings of horses, mismatched flowered plates and wooden tables that would go by the obnoxious term “shabby chic.”
Much of their food is on-the-nose Southern: those biscuits, the pimento cheese, fried green tomatoes, a wonderful version of shrimp and grits that absolutely channels the original upscale version of the dish made by Bill Neal at a restaurant called Crook's Corner in North Carolina. If you've never had this dish, or if you've only had hokey, heavy-handed iterations, the version at the Hart and the Hunter isn't a bad place to start.
Some of the food is less pointedly Southern: steak tartare, venison carpaccio, kale salad.
But the best options are the in-betweeners, the dishes with Southern roots and modern sensibilities. The fried chicken livers come under a glorious mound of arugula, radish, apple and hazelnuts — a fresh, crisp, crunchy salad that contrasts with the richness of the livers in a manner that would border on brilliance if it wasn't so simple. Likewise, a shaved Brussels sprouts salad that's basically a super-fresh slaw comes punctuated with peanuts, aged cheddar and bacon lardons. It's crunchy in more than one way, tangy in two or three ways, and grounded by the smoke of the bacon and the nuttiness of the peanuts. Smoked trout in a jar comes with toast smeared with avocado and a board full of toppings, like pickled onion, to pile on top.
This philosophy of pairing Southern ingredients with fresh American and European influences isn't surprising, given that Dunsmoor worked at the seminal 5&10 in Athens, Ga., under Hugh Acheson. Acheson currently is enjoying his rise to TV stardom as a judge on Top Chef (as well as winning Best Chef in the Southeast at last year's James Beard Awards), and I can vouch for his restaurants: They're some of the best in the South.
The Hart and the Hunter's aesthetic is close to Acheson's, although it's blunter, a little less refined. But where Acheson's restaurants (and 5&10, in particular) look to put Southern food in a fine-dining context, the Hart and the Hunter is playing in the casual, small-plates genre, and doing a damn good job of it.
The dishes coming out of this kitchen are sometimes too salty — collards one night were practically ruined by the cooked-down, almost burnt, bitter and salt taste. And some of the straight-up European dishes, like the venison carpaccio, seemed less successful, if only because they were a bit boring compared to the more playful food. But even most of the straight-up Southern staples are done incredibly well — a creamy bowl of cheese grits; a pickle plate of cauliflower, radishes and okra; a gorgeously tart and silken lemon ice-box pie.
There are things about the Hart and the Hunter that are maddening. I have showed up more than once to find the place closed, even after checking the website and calling (a recorded message reiterated the hours on the website, with no mention of the apparent exception of the evenings in question). There are no reservations and, since the room is small, a wait is likely, though the large communal table that runs down the center of the room often has seats open. Only take this option if you can sit next to your companions — the table is too wide to have a conversation across in this outrageous noise.
Did I mention the noise? Those blue tiles are cute (or not — one friend compared the space to being in a bath house decorated by someone's grandma). But they amplify the din of conversation to ridiculous levels, the hard surface of the walls bouncing everyone's strained and shouting voices around, cacophonous, infinite.
The waitstaff is laid back and hyper-cool, sporting finger tattoos and/or fedoras, and operating as if the room were their very own house party rather than a business. It's not that they're disorganized or lazy — far from it. But the style of service here is more friendly than professional. I found this comforting; many people might find it annoying.
One of my dinner companions turned peevish when a towel-flicking fight broke out between two flirting waiters in front of the kitchen pass. I prefer to think the Hart and the Hunter has an energy that betrays its roots — a pop-up, a group of friends doing something fun, a couple of chefs and their band of hipster waiters playing house in the bottom of a boutique hotel.
If this sounds infuriating to you, then it probably will be. But to many diners, the reaction will be similar to the folks sitting beside me at that big, communal table one night. “You hear about something like this, and half the time you show up and the food just isn't that good,” a bearded guy said to his date. “But here, dish after dish has arrived, and it's, like, 'Wow, what a relief. This food is actually really, really good.' ”
As a former Southerner and current biscuit snob, I couldn't agree more.
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THE HART AND THE HUNTER | Three stars | 7950 Melrose Ave. | (323) 424-3055 | thehartandthehunter.com | Breakfast daily, 7-11:30 a.m. Lunch, Tues.-Sat., 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m. Dinner, Tues.-Thurs. & Sun., 5:30-10 p.m.; Fri. & Sat., 5:30-11 p.m. Brunch, Sun., 11 a.m.- 2 p.m. | No reservations | Beer and wine | Valet ($8) and street parking