Duds Simple: Ilan Hall Is Back -- but Do His New Urban Outfitters Rags Suit Him?

Matzoh balls go goy for fall with bacon jackets.
Matzoh balls go goy for fall with bacon jackets.
David Penner

On a recent episode of Ilan Hall's Esquire Network show, Knife Fight, the cheeky, bespectacled chef held a lifeless, blue-skinned Silkie chicken by its neck, thrusting it toward hooting audience members as cameras panned across their squeamish faces. The faux-underground competition is Food Network by way of WWE, with ingredients, chefs, and their dishes fetishized into vaudevillian spectacle. The victor of Top Chef's second season, Hall's no stranger to the role of chef as entertainer, having parlayed his Bravolebrity into a culinary career on both sides of the burners. His flagship Los Angeles restaurant, the Gorbals, plays bloodstained coliseum to the theatrical culinary melee.

Two months ago, Hall returned to New York -- he grew up in Great Neck, Long Island -- to open a second Gorbals (98 North 6th Street, Brooklyn, 718-387-0195) inside Space Ninety 8, a multilevel Urban Outfitters (of all things) complex that occupies the husk of a Williamsburg factory. (The name comes from the Jewish ghetto in Glasgow where the chef's father grew up.)

Climb three flights from the street or a short staircase from the men's department, the latter barely obscured from the dining room by frosted, floor-to-ceiling checkerboard window panels. Reminiscent of the cafeteria of an emboldened start-up fresh off a round of fundraising, the space is a sea of natural wood and multicolored tile, with a stage-like open kitchen where chefs tend to a wood-fired grill. A quartet of spotlights dangle overhead, primed and ready in case Hall feels the urge to rev up the cameras. Patrons can cool their heels at the restaurant's bar, ordering from a list of inoffensive craft cocktails and wines by the glass. Bottles average $50 or so.

One of the buzzier openings of the summer has seemingly quieted down as V-neck weather turns to more of a cardigan clime. Classic rock and '90s hip-hop plays on the stereo -- though when the room's light on diners you'll find yourself privy to shoppers' conversations. (That Warhol-Basquiat T-shirt is going to look awesome!) On none of our visits did the dining room reach more than half capacity. The restaurant stays open until midnight, but late one evening our party's only company, aside from one other couple, was a foursome of be-blazered blokes who descended as a group from the Gorbals rooftop bar to relieve themselves and discuss personal weightlifting records. I considered inviting them to join us for a go at Hall's signature whole roasted pig's head -- a bro dish that feeds four, its bronzed and crackled skin giving way to supple, porky flesh.

At our table, we were already busy grappling with in-your-face small plates like salty, spongy, bacon-wrapped matzoh balls dipped in horseradish mayonnaise, and pounded-thin chicken schnitzel served with the talon still attached to the drumstick. Crisp and juicy, the showy bird sang against a creamy potato purée. The kitchen fries sweetbreads just as ably, kitschily pairing the organ meat with zippy ranch hummus. "Bánh Mì Poutine" was similarly gimmicky but less successful. Topped with pickles, Japanese-style mayonnaise, and Sriracha, the thrice-cooked fries quickly turned mushy under a deluge of hoisin-inflected chicken gravy, and the generous portion of barbecued pork failed to register as proper char siu, smacking more of a run-of-the-mill Sunday roast.

Divided according to agricultural habitat -- field, barn, coop, stream -- the menu reads like a Highlights magazine word exercise for foodie spawn. "Chewy Carrots" might appeal to such enlightened youth, inasmuch as they taste like carrot Twizzlers, but for me the shriveled taproots were sabotaged by shavings of brown butter that coated the palate with pasty fat. Asterisked dishes signal the use of the wood oven, and for the most part what emerges from the flickering furnace delights: soft, charred beef tongue splashed with vibrant red-pepper romesco; roasted corn kernels dressed with pimiento butter and popcorn shoots for an upscale Southern take on esquites; moist rabbit grilled over hay with apples and mustard.

Red meat is something of a calling card for Hall, and, fittingly, the "barn" harbors the menu's most diverse menagerie. One of only three available entrées (the others being the pig face and a fish fried whole), braised lamb neck beckons with a glistening crust. The gamy, concentrated meat falls apart upon contact, sending tender shreds into a pool of savory oats that are halfway between grits and risotto. It's a homey, nostalgic dish that doesn't rely on too much gimmickry -- and (surprise!) it's one of the best dishes you'll find at the Gorbals. Its polar opposite is a small metal tin filled with barley, repurposed gefilte fish cakes, and dill kimchi, which gets shaken up to produce a soppy mess labeled the "Jewish Lunchbox."

Desserts require varying degrees of risk on the diner's part, from black-pepper ice cream melting over sticky toffee pudding to cotton-candy grapes (which taste exactly like the spun confection) grilled in the wood oven. While a chocolate brownie might sound safe, here the bake-sale treat is subjected to a three-pronged assault from Vidalia onion caramel, candied onions, and scallion ice cream. Oddly, the vegetable's abrasive sharpness is tempered by all the sugar, cream, and chocolate, adding depth to the rich, dark bar.

After his Top Chef win, Hall decamped to Los Angeles, citing a volatile New York dining climate, blogger pitchforks on one side and social media-fueled chef beefs on the other. His brand established, the return feels well poised, but in partnering with Urban Outfitters, he has forfeited much of the scrappy charm that inspired adoration on the West Coast. His cooking is as assertive as ever, and it's great that he has come back. I just can't help wondering whether a smaller splash might have made a larger impact.

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