Review: Hatfield’s, Los Angeles

 

I’m lifting the first spoonful of celery-root soup to my lips when a camera flashes. Then another. I swivel to see if a celebrity has arrived, but the front door is silent, just a couple of hostesses scrunched over the computer screen. Flash! I turn to look. A young couple is photographing their appetizers: charred Japanese mackerel, and scallops with an apple froth. The mackerel’s silver skin is singed and crinkly. The fish is sliced and propped like dominos, entwined with mizuma, dried pineapple and fried shallots. Flash! I turn the other way. Four elderly women, wielding iPhones, are snapping pictures of their beignets…

I’m dining with a recent culinary school graduate and his mother. And when the aspiring chef’s appetizer arrives, he fiddles with his phone, then resists. He knows I don’t want to draw any additional attention to our table. But every time another flash streaks across the room, I can see the longing in his eyes. It must be killing him.

The urge to take pictures of one’s food is hard to resist. Every dish is insanely pretty. Each plate begs to be recorded. It’s like looking through a kaleidoscope.

I return to my soup. My initial reaction was, “Wow, this is awfully thick.” But I find my interpretation shifting to velvet and cream, which swirls around my tongue with bits and pieces of roasted pumpkin and pork confit.

Hatfield’s is not technically new, of course. This is the second incarnation of Quinn and Karen Hatfield’s place that used to be on Beverly. For the past few years, the husband-and-wife team (he cooks the savory parts while she makes the desserts and opens the front door) occupied a quaint storefront dressed up with a Swarovski crystal chandelier and a wraparound porch.

The wood floors creaked, and the walls were slanted askew. The space barely held 45 svelte diners at a time. The kitchen bulged at the seams with merely five or six cooks, crammed elbow to elbow. All of those low-budget quirks just amplified Hatfield’s charm and demonstrated the owners’ desire to cook for as many people as they possibly could in the hope of one day, with a little luck, turning a profit. It was the anti-L.A. restaurant, a true chef-driven operation built on a shoestring and held together with pastry glue.

So when the couple announced they were moving to a much grander venue—formerly Red Pearl Kitchen, and long before that, Citrus—I cheered. Yet, my heart sank. Everything I adored about Hatfield’s was going to change.

Everything—and nothing—has changed. Hatfield’s has nearly tripled its capacity. Those thrifty quirks and charms have been replaced by muted glamour and grace. Instead of that dainty chandelier (which seemed so grand in the old space), now glows a truly massive linen fixture in the shape, literally, of honey’s molecular code. The room is awash in the same subtle grays and greens, enveloping banquettes and tufted booths. The tablecloths are crisper and straighter than I remember, and the waitstaff strikes me as more mature and polished. The hardwood floors appear well-trodden even though they’re brand-new. And from any seat in the dining room, I can see into the kitchen. It is the kitchen of every young chef’s dreams.

Behind a plate-glass window is a blur of white coats in perpetual motion, the entire kitchen crew oblivious to the roomful of groupies watching their every move. Each of a dozen cooks commands his or her own highly polished workstation with elbow room aplenty.

Many of the Hatfields’ recipes survived the transition. My favorite is the croque madame, which isn’t the classic croque (a grilled ham and cheese sandwich embellished with a fried egg) but rather a modern riff involving a cloudlike brioche topped with sashimi-grade hamachi and a sunny-side-up quail egg. It always was—and it still is—an absolutely perfect composition.

Perfect, too, is the beet-cured fluke, a beautiful new creation. The first time I see it, even I am tempted to snap a few pictures. The supple white flesh is tinged pink from beet juice, and random bites reveal the puckering tang of pickled shallots or the unexpected crunch of toasted buckwheat. Something else I hadn’t seen on the menu before is blackened prawns, which, I discover much to my embarrassment, are impossible to eat without moaning. The shrimp rest atop a creamy crab and rice mixture that delivers brittle peanuts and occasional bursts of lemon. It reminds me of New Orleans, vaguely.

Even the beef short rib—the most ubiquitous entrée in town—is entirely unique. Here it is cooked sous-vide style, which, in and of itself is not that unique. But instead of cooking the beef for hours and hours until the meat is so tender that it faints into a puddle, this short rib looks and acts just like a medium-rare steak. In fact, he serves it side by side with a hanger steak, and no one at my table can figure out which piece of meat is the steak and which is the rib. Both pieces of meat look, cut and chew like steak. The only difference? The short rib is more tender and buttery. 

Quinn is definitely one of the city’s most original thinkers. He marches to his own drummer, for sure. Every dish is an imaginative (sometimes bewildering) juxtaposition of ingredients and a rainbow of colors. And while I usually like what he comes up with, his compositions can often be more complicated than I would prefer. Long, curly späetzle (which he serves alongside a steak, in lieu of frites), for example, are not more satisfying than actual fries would have been.

And while I love the flavors of date-encrusted lamb, I wish the lamb tasted more like lamb, less like dates. And my biggest complaint is not that there is sometimes one too many ingredients on each plate, but that the chef overutilizes sous-vide. The problem with slow poaching is that the item being cooked isn’t allowed to caramelize. As a result, for example, while the chicken is infused with extraordinary buttermilk flavor, I’m left craving the chicken’s missing crispy skin. I long for a piece of pork that’s just been plied from the caramelized grip of a cast-iron skillet. This is almost a deal breaker. Almost, but not quite.

A few years ago, I selected Karen Hatfield as runner-up for Angeleno’s Pastry Chef of the Year award. And she is still one of the greatest closers in town. If there has ever been a moment during the beginning or middle of a meal when I’ve thought, “OK, maybe Quinn over-reached on that,” or “I sure wish the skin on this fish were crispy,” Karen has always had an uncanny talent for coaxing me back into a state of joy.

Every bite of every dessert I’ve ever eaten at Hatfield’s has been exquisite, from the coconut custard “macaroon” with vanilla tapioca and elderflower sorbet—which is like eating a piña colada that’s been turned into a cloud—to the cinnamon-swirled brioche pudding served with sublime maple syrup ice cream. The desserts never fail to make me smile.

Flash! There goes another camera. Sorry… That time it was mine.

Hatfield’s
Rating ????????????
6703 Melrose Ave., L.A., 
323.935.2977, hatfieldsrestaurant.com

What the stars mean: 
0 = poor, unacceptable
???= fair, some noteworthy qualities 
??????= good, above average
?????????= very good, well above norm 
????????????= excellent, among the area’s best
???????????????= world-class, extraordinary 
in every detail. Reviews are based on multiple visits. Ratings reflect the reviewer’s overall reaction to food, ambience and service.

 

 

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