Southern at Heart
Hatchet Hall is on the cutting edge of an often neglected culinary tradition
By Richard Foss (email@example.com)
I am married to an expat from a chunk of Virginia that is as about as far north as you can go and be in the South, but still a place where the fine points of barbecue, fried oysters and long-simmered greens are understood.
She is occasionally wistful about feasts gone by, and I try to feed her craving whenever I can. Those regional delicacies are occasionally available at California restaurants, albeit made with varying amounts of fidelity and competence, and I’ve managed to master a few favorites myself.
When I saw the $32 ham tasting plate at Hatchet Hall, I knew we had to go there.
Real country ham is completely unlike the preservative-packed, water-injected, mass-market items that are often glazed with sweet stuff to disguise that they don’t taste of anything but salt and fat. The traditional method requires four or five times the effort of mass production, but it delivers a flavor that would be instantly recognizable to someone present for our country’s birth.
The word “Southern” isn’t in Hatchet Hall’s mission statement — which describes the restaurant as “a wood fire cookery with an emphasis on ingredients and old American techniques” — but Chef Brian Dunsmoor hails from Georgia and studied cooking in Charleston, the culinary capital of the Old South.
Dunsmoor cooked with top chefs before opening the critically acclaimed but short-lived restaurants The Hart and the Hunter and the Ladies Gunboat Society, and at both he merged his Southern roots and modern sense of style and presentation. These elements are certainly present here, and someone has done a nice job of creating an environment that fits the mood, which echoes a rustic yet sophisticated hunting lodge.
We were at Hatchet Hall for weekend brunch and momentarily considered the pastry basket or candied orange rolls as a starter before concluding that, while those might be wonderful, the ham tasting plate would be quite filling.
The plate included thinly shaved cured pork from Kentucky, Virginia and North Carolina, and when it arrived at the table we could immediately see the differences. They ranged in color from delicate pink to bright red, and as we were to discover there was a wide range of flavors.
The Broadbent’s Kentucky ham is unsmoked, like Spanish Serrano, tasting of concentrated porkiness. The meat was soft and rich, almost buttery, like the Kobe beef of the ham world. This was a marked contrast with the Johnston Smithfield ham from North Carolina, which was chewy and had such a strong flavor of smoke and salt that it might be best as a flavor in a soup or stew. The ham by Edwards of Virginia had the best balance of meat, smoke and spice, but we appreciated all of them.
Though the ham tasting plate was a great idea, the presentation left a bit to be desired. The hams were unlabeled and the plate delivered without explanation until we asked — surely someone who was paying this much to taste different hams would care which was which. Washable markers could label the plate itself or there could be a card delivered with it, but something should be done. The plate was also delivered without bread or any other palate cleanser; we ordered a piece of toast for an extra $2. It was necessary and should have been included.
We did like the “ham wine” that was offered for an extra $10 — not a wine made from pork products, but a Cerasuolo d’Abruzzo dark rosé that was a superb complement to the meaty, salty flavors.
We took about half of the ham home so we’d have room for something else, because even people who love cured pork can appreciate the need for a balanced diet.
I decided on a fried oyster omelet. After dithering over the grilled trout or buttermilk-fried quail, my wife opted for shrimp and antebellum grits with bacon, mushrooms and scallions.
The heritage grits were feather light and tasted delicately of corn — worlds away from the mushy, dull stuff that passes for grits in Los Angeles. They were topped with plump gulf prawns in a savory but not spicy sauce that was like a Carolina gumbo, which is less about chili heat than simmered spices, seafood stock and mushrooms. A lemon wedge was provided but not needed, as we couldn’t imagine how it could improve on the way the dish came from the kitchen.
Oysters and bacon have been cooked together for centuries, but combining them with eggs is an invention of Gold Rush California and is called a Hangtown Fry. The original is not a nuanced dish, but the gribiche sauce that tops it here adds another dimension of flavor. Gribiche is a mayonnaise with chopped pickles and capers and fresh dill or chervil and tarragon, and the creamy, tart herbal sauce complemented the rich flavors of oysters, mushrooms and bacon perfectly.
The portions of both plates were filling without being overwhelming, and we had already enjoyed a pot of French press coffee and two cocktails: a Ramos gin fizz and a house concoction called an “Ease into It.” That mix of Italian bitters with soda and grapefruit zest was a great eye-opener, full of flavor but low-alcohol, and if you like citrus and bitters it’s a must-have. The bar program at Hatchet Hall is impressive, and the people who work here know their stuff.
Our brunch for two ran $110. At midday most plates here run about $17 each, and main courses at dinner are priced between $21 and $34. It’s a reasonable price to enjoy the cooking of a master who is championing the flavors of an overlooked region and has assembled the ingredients and the team to pull it off.
Hatchet Hall | 12517 W. Washington Blvd. | (310) 391-4222 | hatchethallla.com