Ilan Hall has long dreamed of opening a restaurant here in New York City, his hometown, but it took establishing himself in L.A. to make that possible. After stints under Tom Colicchio and Mario Batali — and a Top Chef season two win — he moved to the west coast, he says, because “I wanted a new place, new atmosphere, everything new. Opening a restaurant in New York is incredibly difficult — L.A. is a more comforting environment. Back when I was opening, the restaurant scene was less immediately critical. It was a warmer and fuzzier place to open up my first restaurant.”
Five years ago, he debuted The Gorbals in downtown Los Angeles, garnering accolades for his quirky Scottish-Israeli food. His success prompted Urban Outfitters to tap him for a restaurant in the Brooklyn outpost the company was building; this week, Hall celebrated his homecoming by opening a second location of The Gorbals (98 North 6th Street, Brooklyn) in Williamsburg.
The partnership was fortuitous not just because it helped Hall afford real estate here, but, the chef says, because Urban Outfitters has given him the creative leeway he needs in the kitchen. “They wanted me to do what I wanted to do,” says Hall. “It’s my restaurant, it just happens to be in Urban Outfitters.”
And what Hall does, he says, is makes things that are delicious but also somewhat cheeky. “Food should be delicious and fill you up,” he says. “As long as you follow those guidelines, you can do anything. I always like to do something a little bit weird.”
If you’re familiar with the L.A. outpost of Hall’s restaurant, you should know that you won’t find a carbon copy here. The partnership with Urban Outfitters allowed a sleeker, more stylish design (the west coast restaurant has a slightly unfinished feel), and Hall’s also tweaking the concept slightly for New York City, partially because it’s a different crowd here. “In New York, diners have incredibly high standards,” he says. “Not that they don’t in L.A., but most people here eat out ever single night.”
His menu here will also reflect an evolution in his own cooking style, which he says has become lighter and more vegetable-focused. “There’s so much more diversity in the world of vegetables,” he says. “But trying to satisfy people with just vegetables is more of a challenge, and I like to challenge myself.” That challenge will be exacerbated here by the short growing season — after years of working with an abundant year-round local produce supply, he’ll have to get creative working within the confines of New York’s agricultural system.
For now, he’s put dishes on the menu that reflect the seasons, including a celebration of peas that incorporates pickled English peas, grilled snow peas, and compressed sugar snap peas. He’s doing lamb ribs grilled over oak and finished with ginger juice, candied ginger, and freeze-dried raspberries, a combination he says is both smoky and tart. And he’s offering slow cooked rabbit thighs matched to pickled and raw cherries and a cherry mustard. “These are really clean flavors that go together,” he says. “I’m trying to be a bit more subtle. It’s easy to hit someone over the face with a lot of salt, fat, and acid.”
Still, you can expect to find some of his most iconic dishes, like the bacon-wrapped matzoh balls, on the list here, too.
The food matches to a cocktail list that includes drinks like the Son of a Gun, a blend of tequila, mezcal, pear puree, almond syrup, and mole bitters, and the South Crescent, which mixes bourbon, cachaca, blueberries, and lemon cinnamon syrup. Look, too, for an old world-heavy by-the-glass wine list and craft beers from all over the world.
Is this the start of a mega-partnership with Urban Outfitters? Not necessarily. “I want to focus on running the restaurant, so I’m not at any place to start thinking about another place,” says Hall. “I don’t have huge desires to have a giant amount of restaurants. I want everything I do to be as high quality as possible. I’d rather have two really good restaurants than five medium restaurants.”
The Gorbals is open for dinner daily.
See a couple of food photos on the next page.