Wolvesmouth – Los Angeles, CA
Wine bottle in one hand and cellphone in the other, I stepped out of the cab and dialed the number that was sent to me a few hours ago. A man met me at the door, escorted me up a flight of stairs, and I found myself at Wolvesmouth, Craig Thornton’s underground supper club (more details here).
Walking into kitchen, I found Craig hunched over a pot of mashed potatoes, continually tasting and evaluating its texture with jedi-like focus. He didn’t say a word, keeping to himself and focusing on the food. My eyes wandered to a pile of morels being meticulously brushed clean, and a tray of perfectly prepped sweetbreads later appeared on the counter. In the corner, vacuum-sealed lamb loin submerged under the steady hum of an immersion circulator, and I overheard someone saying rabbit was on the menu tonight. Craig sure didn’t skimp on ingredients!
15 minutes passed and Craig was still mixing and tasting the potato puree. With the amount of care lowly potatoes received, I wondered how much more love Craig lavished on the more expensive produce? I arrived at dinner knowing it would be a delicious showcase of composition, flavor, and plating, but I didn’t expect Craig’s immense respect for produce to be what resonated long after the meal ended.
The offal lover in me audibly gasped when the first dish of sweetbreads was placed in front of me. An engorged pancreatic McNugget, it was one the largest I’d ever seen! These sweetbreads were phenomenally creamy, and the ranch-flavored mashed potatoes were so luxurious you’d mistake them for butter.
Next, crab arrived simply dressed, one with mascarpone, the other drizzled with a touch of (lemon-infused?) oil. The crustacean’s inherent sweetness couldn’t have sang louder or clearer, and the fried green tomato was the perfect foil.
Gigantic asparagus was prepared with sauteed morels and maitake mushrooms then topped with a bone marrow sabayon. Toothsome and bursting with umami, the morels had the texture and flavor of dry-aged ribeye; a painful experience at Whole Foods yesterday proved the mushrooms cost even more per pound!
Trout arrived next with peas, all-spice-poached apple, and preserved meyer lemon. My fish was unfortunately a touch overcooked, but the peas were otherworldly. I first thought Craig had a preternatural ability to draw the natural sugars out of the tiny green spheres, and I stood up to ask him how he prepared them. Apparently most peas you find -even at the Farmers Market- are at least a day old, and their sugar content starts turning into starch in mere hours. I was tasting the result of having impossibly fresh peas that were plucked just earlier that day.
Right when I thought Craig’s food had morphed into The Art of Simple Eating, a magical dish appeared in front of me. Rabbit was finely ground with mole spices, studded with pine nuts and raisins, and encased in a poblano pepper with a layer of monterey jack cheese snuck in between. Here was Craig Thornton at his finest, a stellar display of technique coupled with creativity.
From deboning an entire rabbit, to grinding the meat, prepping the spices, and finally cooking and assembling the entire dish, I could only imagine the effort it took to create this– all from a kitchen no larger or better equipped than my own. Thornton’s creation was somehow at once soulful and comforting -probably because it reminded me of Mexican food- but cerebral and whimsical as well. This was my favorite dish of the night.
A scoop of kabosu elderflower ice refreshed our palates and we forged on.
Pork belly was served with celery, verjus grapes, (unfermeted wine grapes) and peanut-pork jus. This was the first time for me tasting verjus grapes, and I found it revelatory. Their tartness simultaneously brightened the dish and cut through the fat, and the thin sheets of celery provided a nice herbal kick.
The last savory dish of lamb, served with fava beans and tendrils, soaked cherries, and a lashing of 20-year-old balsamic vinegar, doubled as edible art. Cooked sous vide, the meat was moist and dripping with flavor. The fava tendrils were especially fun to eat, and at one point, I imagined this is what a lamb must have felt like grazing on an open pasture. And the 20-year-old balsamic? I had no qualms licking my plate clean.
A brown smear of chocolate-tofu creameaux signaled the start of dessert, and this ended up being the sole dud of the meal. I like my creameaux smooth and silky -almost like pots de crème- but Craig’s version tasted more like soy than chocolate and had a gummy mouthfeel. I picked off the almonds and set my sights to the second dessert.
Our last dessert featured an island of granola ice cream floating over a lake of strawberry slices and sauce and my favorite part- topped with a fistful of poprocks. Sweet and comforting with a crackling zing, I wouldn’t have wanted my meal to end any other way.
With the vestiges of poprocks crackling away in the back of my throat, I sat back and thought about what had transpired that night. Craig and I spoke earlier about how this particular meal wasn’t as avant-garde as his Wolvesden meals usually are. In fact, at first I wasn’t going to blog about it, thinking I’d document Wolvesmouth once I got a clearer idea of what he was all about.
Then I realized I was thinking about it all wrong! Great food was still consumed, alcohol was shared, laughs never ended, and dining companions turned into friends. It felt equal parts social experiment and dinner. Most importantly, it was very delicious and very fun.
Truth be told, I arrived that night expecting my eyes to be dazzled by beautiful plating, for my tastebuds to be intrigued by rare ingredients and unique combinations, but Craig surprised me in a totally different way: from treasured sweetbreads and morels to humble potatoes and peas, his tremendous respect for produce is inspiring. On top of having a supportive base of produce suppliers, he’ll spend six hours in Los Angeles traffic to find the perfect vegetables and outpay others to get the freshest seafood and best meats. Along with the gargantuan task of figuring out logistics for one-man and a few assistants to cook a 10-course meal out of a home kitchen, you could tell Craig had deliberated about the aspects of each dish– every sauce and garnish had a purpose, resulting in a produce and purpose-driven menu that competes with any restaurant in town.
Craig and crew, it was a privilege to dine at the Wolvesden, and thank you for a fantastic evening. I can’t wait to see what else you’ve got up your sleeve.