I recently spent three weeks in the “Old South” and experienced all that is good and bad in that region’s cooking. The best elements of that cuisine are the blended flavors from patient, slow cooking: dishes like collard greens with bacon (in North Carolina, salted pig tails), black-eyed peas in chicken stock or Savannah-style crab stew. The downsides are the heaviness and unhealthy nature of many dishes, which had me longing for a simple salad after a week.
Southern cuisine is ripe for reinvention, for a lighter, healthier version that is still true to the spirit of the cuisine. That evolution is happening at Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing, a new restaurant on Abbot Kinney Boulevard in Venice that has a bit of a tangled past.
The new place is not under the same ownership as a previous restaurant by the same name and on the same street, and there has been much confusion about whether there is any continuity from one to the other. I never went to the first WiSC, so I can’t address whether the menu is similar, but I can say that what is happening there now is brilliant.
The space that used to be Lilly’s is fronted by a lively bar with an exceptional selection of boutique booze – Bourbon fans in particular will find some arcane brands to choose from. The South is liquor country, and the bartenders here act accordingly. As we quickly found, WiSC makes a mean rye Manhattan and the house Old Fashioned is strong and tasty. There is also a good wine and beer list for those who prefer Californian imbibing.
We started the meal with appetizers – pork fritters and a bowl of chanterelle mushroom soup. The only novelty about the soup was the topping of crisped sunchoke shavings, both ornament and flavor contrast. The creamy mushroom soup was rich and tasty, but a bit bland compared to everything else we tried.
The pork fritters, also known as croquettes, were a mix of meat and spices coated in bread crumbs and fried so the exterior is crisp, with the interior almost a stew. It fits the Southern profile – rich, crispy and fried, and the bed of faintly bitter mixed chickories with pickled watermelon chunks completed the flavor spectrum, sweet and tart. When I sampled the croquette, chickory, and watermelon one after the other it was delightful.
For main courses we selected white bass etoufee, braised lamb belly, and quail with ham hock stuffing, grits, pickled okra and corn. Etoufee is a Louisiana specialty of seafood in rich, spicy roux gravy, either topped with a vegetable mix or with the cooked veggies stirred in. Here the seafood had been grilled, sauced, and then topped with a mix of lightly sautéed bell peppers, celery, and shrimp, with a few Asian-style rice cakes in the mix.
Some micro-greens added color if not much flavor – a pretty garnish on a very tasty dish. There was a balance of hot spice and warmth, fresh flavors and long-cooked. Etoufee is sometimes made with junk fish under the assumption that the gravy will hide the lack of seafood flavor, but in this case you could savor each component.
The lamb belly looked disappointing; a small portion of meat with a scattering of smoked pole beans, a dab of chopped stewed kale and some black-eyed peas. The portion was just adequate, but the flavors were fantastic: the lamb’s natural meatiness was intensified by slow-cooking that had melted out the fat. The smoked green beans and black-eyed peas were well-calibrated accompaniments to the lamb, but I would have liked more. There were also two small pieces of caramelized salsify, but my companions ate those before I could try any.
The quail had a more generous portion, but it was the only dish where the flavors were unbalanced. The bird with ham hock stuffing was well thought out and executed, the pickled okra a tart contrast to the rich meat, but the grits cooked with mascarpone cheese were very bland. The flavors and textures of the mild, creamy grits and the stuffing were similar, and the almost unseasoned corn and carrots didn’t contribute much. I would have preferred the grits without the cheese so the corn flavor could be emphasized, and alongside a green vegetable, perhaps the broccoli or collards that are served with other dishes. Each individual item had merit, but the combination detracted from the whole rather than adding to it.
For dessert we shared warm bread pudding topped with banana mousse, served over bitter chocolate sauce with powdered bacon. This was a delicious end to the meal – creamy banana and bitter chocolate were interesting counterpoints to a bread pudding that would have been tasty even without them. It was an adept reformulation of a New Orleans favorite and well worth the calories.
Dinner for three, with appetizers and two drinks each, ran about $50 per person – not excessive given the novelty of the preparations and caliber of the cooking. Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing stands out even in a crowded scene for its original take on traditional flavors, the fruit of taking Southern ideas seriously.
Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing is at 1031 Abbot Kinney Blvd. in Venice. Open for brunch Sa-Su 10 a.m. – 3 p.m., dinner daily except Monday, at 4 p.m. Full bar, corkage $15. §