If you enter Space Ninety 8 and make a beeline for the elevator instead of getting sucked into its predictable selection of identical cut-offs and drapey woven things, you’ll get to The Gorbals. The outpost of Top Chef alum Ilan Hall’s renowned LA restaurant, which opened in the Urban Outfitters concept store last night, is a respite from a corner of Williamsburg that reminds me more of SoHo these days than anything else.
Or is it?
Hall doesn’t seem like he would be into baiting tourists looking to take a unique bit of hipster culture home with them, unlike Space Ninety 8’s notorious “oversize art-school dreamcatchers.” His menu at the original LA location is sophisticated and adventurous, not late-stage trendy or banal.
And the food at The Gorbals Brooklyn follows suit. The chef aims to serve challenging dishes, expertly prepared with fresh, seasonal ingredients. For instance, his take on the Japanese egg custard called chawanmushi: “We used pig blood with it, and it’s really sort of bizarre, and gray and green. And then we top it with uni. So you really have to love it all to love it,” Hall explained.
And yeah, those bacon-wrapped matzo balls we’ve heard so much about are also gracing the menu.
A bartender on the roof pointed to “the beef tongue dish” as the standout. Hall said this cut of cow is similar to the one at The Gorbals LA, except here it’s treated to an added kiss from the wood-fired grill. “We’re using the grill a lot to impart a lot of good, nice wood-smoked flavor,” he said.
Though the chef’s imagination is evident on the menu, he assured us The Gorbals will still have “some plain old delicious stuff.” For example, a lamb rib dish with freeze-dried raspberries that will be cooked in charred ginger, before being finished off on the grill.
If all this carnage makes The Gorbals sounds like a scary place to be for vegetarians, hold up. Green-conscious plates can also be found on the menu, such as “peas many ways,” a vegan dish consisting of grilled snow peas, pickled English peas, and sweetened sugar snap peas accompanied by an English pea and miso puree.
Hall insists that working at the Brooklyn location will be a “very different experience” for him. “New York drives me, the energy here makes me better,” he said. “I’m one of those people who’s a glutton for punishment, I need people to constantly put me down and insult me, and tell me that I’m doing a horrible job. Because it makes me do better. I feel like LA was a bit too nice to me.”
And he definitely has tough skin. The Williamsburg resident was understandably defensive about the Urban Outfitters store, which has caught its fair share of flack. “Listen, the neighborhood is the neighborhood. New York neighborhoods change,” he said. “New York City is a beautiful, safe place to live now. And it wasn’t 20 years ago. Especially Williamsburg. Twenty-five years ago Williamsburg was one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in all of New York, so you know, I much prefer that I can go for a walk and get an ice cream with my son than be cool and in fear.”
Given the development of Williamsburg, he argued, it’s no surprise that UO plopped a store here. “I mean, c’mon, there’s a J.Crew opening around the corner, there’s a Whole Foods [coming] here. Not to mention the fact that you can get an apartment here that’s not very big for $2 million.”
If you’ve watched Hall host the raucous cooking-competition show Knife Fight (new episodes start next week) then you know he seems like nothing short of a super cool dude. Hell, he had no qualms discussing the tattoo that graces his butt. “Yes, I have a potato on my right ass cheek,” he said. “It symbolizes nothing actually, it was a joke someone made to me at the time. But in retrospect the joke wasn’t funny at all.”
But given Urban’s expertise in co-opting “cool,” repackaging it, and making it white-bread friendly, it’s doubtful that the Top Chef alum’s presence at the concept store (along with that of local designers) is a mistake. Maybe the proximity of something genuinely interesting and unique next to oh, say, clothing that gets bottom-of-the-barrel marks from Ethical Consumer magazine, breeds a sense of “authenticity” that spreads throughout? Who knows.
But this much is certain: if you’re sitting at the bar near the hostess stand and you glance over your shoulder at your friend sitting to the right, you’ll certainly catch a glimpse of the tribal short shorts, flimsy peasant maxi dresses, and destroyed graphic tees located just steps away downstairs. And making your way to The Gorbals, either via the elevator or the staircase leading upstairs, means passing through at least a few steps of merchandise.
This gave me a feeling of being immersed amongst their Hipster (TM) paraphernalia (e.g. novelty books about BEER and CATS LOL) and made me feel as if I were trapped in a mall selling access to a small piece of something myself and most people could never dream of affording, the Williamsburg Experience (TM). This feeling is one not unlike what I experienced while eating at some fusion restaurant on the Strip in Las Vegas, or eating a hot dog at IKEA– everything is set up ideally so that visitors will not just want to buy more things, but have the opportunity to buy them.
I couldn’t shake the feeling I had years ago as a teenager while screwing around at a mall in Jacksonville, Florida. I spotted Club Paris, a thoroughly, er, Floridian destination, to which mall-goers were flocking. The glittery, horrible club was apparently the namesake of Paris Hilton. I watched, horrified, as people filed into this place, hypnotized by the promise of experiencing something cooler, allured by the semblance of having access to something more expensive and elite than whatever else that mall had to offer (i.e. what they could normally afford as middle class-ish people.)
Ok, so comparing Ilan Hall’s new fine dining establishment to some trashy club named after Paris Hilton in Florida wouldn’t be fair, but it seems the success of The Gorbals Brooklyn is dependent upon the same logic. Swap out celebrity culture for Hip Williamsburg Culture, and Paris Hilton for a Top Chef and you can accomplish similar things: make visitors (er, tourists) feel a part of Hip Williamsburg (TM) and give them a sense that the good life is accessible to them by virtue of proximity to said celebrity, and you’ve got yourself a winning product.
The Gorbals Brooklyn, Space Ninety 8, 98 N 6th St, Williamsburg, (718) 387-0195