Wolvesmouth – The Joy of Refinement
Some might call Craig Thornton’s obsession with food OCD. I call it passion. A document on his computer filled with menu ideas, ingredient pairings, and preparations is so long it could double as a culinary dissertation. He’s a stickler for flawless produce, scheduling his day around picking up the best meat and fish. But despite the heaps of praise his underground supper club, Wolvesmouth, has garnered, Craig simply can’t sit on his laurels. He’s always refining dishes, continually pushing himself in a never-ending quest for perfection. Is it achievable? It doesn’t matter– the process of constant refinement almost defines Wolvesmouth.
This past Wednesday, I was invited back to the Wolvesden to partake in another one of Craig dinners, and it was here I experienced the joy of refinement.
At first glance, the menu looked eerily familiar to my meal a few weeks ago: the proteins were exactly the same (rabbit, lamb, pork, trout) and similarly prepared too. My heart sank a bit, but I knew this was the case given those ingredients were what was in season. I should’ve known better though– despite the familiar ingredients and preparations, this meal was worlds better than my last.
Some dishes were polished with nuance and finesse— crab appeared again, this time accompanied by larger and thicker slices of green tomato for more bite. Similarly, the mascarpone was completely eliminated to allow the sweetness of the crustacean to sing. The venerable rabbit dish I ate last time was brightened with pickled red onions. Such a simple but critical change, the added acidity did what salt does to a bland dish. Razor thin slices of jalapeno added heat while the accompanying black beans were given a whole new depth of flavor with rabbit kidneys and livers blended in.
Other courses were given complete makeovers. Craig’s previous dish of asparagus, morels, and bone marrow sabayon morphed into an asparagus risotto with snails and morels. Just like how drinking a gulp of carrot juice can fill your mouth with more “carrot flavor” than biting into a raw carrot, I kid you not when I say each spoonful of the risotto felt like eating buckets of sweet asparagus.
A few weeks ago, Craig served ocean trout with phenomenally fresh peas; on Wednesday, the fish sat on a bed of tofu surrounded by squid ink dashi loaded with smokey katsuobushi. Bits of shiso and salted cherry blossom were like tiny explosions on my palate.
The only dish that wasn’t better than its previous iteration was the pork belly. Served with soft shell crab, peas, mint, fava beans, and pork jus, this dish was a study in excess. The soft shell crab wasn’t needed and added heft to an already heavy dish. I was equally surprised Craig didn’t add more acidity into the dish to cut through the fat. Perhaps I’m being overly critical, but I still miss the verjus grape he used last time around. More mint would’ve been nice too, but that’d already be nitpicking.
Finally, some dishes were totally new, like the first course of black truffle potato soup. “Just potato, chives, crème fraiche, and a ton of black truffle”, Craig gleefully announced. It always irks me when restaurants use truffles sparingly– might as well just leave them out. Craig’s soup was diametric opposite. It was loaded with so much truffle I actually CHEWED on bits as I slurped the soup. Intoxicatingly good, Christine laughed at me as I attempted to lick up the last drops from my bowl.
Desserts were comforting and delicious. A bowl brioche ice cream, smoked maple syrup, and green apple tasted like French toast had been run through an ice cream machine. The tiny balls of green apple, which added acidity and crunch, were an especially nice touch.
The second dessert featured strawberries (both in normal and dehydrated form) along with pound cake and crème fraiche ice cream. The slight tang from the crème fraiche along with the sweet strawberries made for a wonderful sweet-sour interplay, and those tiny alpine strawberries were a real treat! I’ve only had them a few times, but they’ve got this intense, slightly-pineappley flavor that puts normal strawberries to shame.
There’s so much to love about Wolvesmouth I’m not sure where to start, but it’s definitely one of those experiences where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts:
1. The food is fantastic and constantly evolving; it’s not on the same level as say, Eleven Madison Park, but comparing a well-funded restaurant with a small army of chefs to Craig’s dinners would be ludicrous.
2. You won’t find Riedel sommelier-series stemware and there isn’t even a winelist for you to choose from, but diners all bring and share fun wines, craft beers, and more. Bill of Street Gourmet LA even graciously shared some intensely smokey Lucifer mezcal, and Jo of MyLastBite brought a funny homebrew concoction only known as HUCH (it tasted like hard lemonade).
3. Where else can you sidle up right next to the Chef in between courses and pepper him with inane questions like “did you smoke the maple syrup yourself? (no)”, “what temperature did you sous-vide the lamb for? (135F)”, and “how the hell did you make this awesome risotto? (water instead of stock, tons of pureed asparagus mixed in)”. Thanks for putting up with me, Craig.
These days, fine dining can often feel cramped, with the level of service and ambience increasingly suffocating the more you spend. Meals should be delicious, unpretentious, and fun— laughs should outnumber chews and diners should leave with a permanent grin on their face. My seatmate Josh Lurie of Food GPS summed Wolvesmouth up perfectly, “it’s the dinner party you’ll always want to get invited to.”