The Gorbals (Los Angeles, CA)

Plenty of space for thick rimmed glasses and scarves in 70 degree weather…

I’m not a star chaser. I’m not! Really! But… would I have cared about The Gorbals if not for Top Chef? Er, probably not.

In need for a last minute dinner reservation anywhere downtown, The Gorbals popped up on Open Table so I booked it. Illan Hall wasn’t a favorites on the show, but—much to the chagrin of my school teachers—TV tells me what to do these days.

In the pre-ultrahipsterazation lobby of the Alexandria Hotel an unremarkable door hides The Gorbal’s sparse dining room. Populated with utilitarian wooden furniture and down-lights, it’s a refreshingly quiet space from a winner of a reality television show. Although the unpretentiousness of the space is muddled by the paint-by-numbers predictability of the hostess’ high-waisted jeans and plastic rimmed glasses.

The menu is broken down by animal, with a neat little omnivore section for the likes of me (and you?)! The Pimento Cheese & Corn was sadly out of stock, still we ordered a nice assortment of hits and misses that gave me a clear picture of Chef Illan’s cooking point of view.

Yes, even without the meat.

The secret to these cucumbers is not lemon

Our meal kicked off with the Persian cucumbers and clearly not canned Garbanzos Beans tossed with Sesame Oil and Sumac ($8). Wading in a puddle of what I assumed to be watered down sesame oil, the cucumbers were ‘kicked up a notch’ with sumac. Apparently I didn’t know what sumac was before this meal, but I’ll never forget it now! Though the red color implies spiciness, it’s more like a sharp dusting of lemony zest! Fabulous!

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Rant: Hey Top Chef, cook me something vegetarian

I am abhorred, embarrassed, and ashamed of everyone after this week’s “Meat Natalie” or “finally a vegetarian episode” of Top Chef. While they all seemed to approach the challenge with a positive attitude, I am floored that this episode only furthered my thesis that somewhere in the cultivation of “chefs” they ALL develop the equation that “vegetarian” equals “vegetable” totally eclipsing the rest of the edibles spectrum. It is akin to the cognitive aptitude of 8 year old Janey asking “Are you going to marry a carrot?” to Lisa Simpson. As any child would tell you, the best vegetarian food is pizza and mac & cheese… not that I’m saying that is what the chef’s should have done, but the basic elements of these two enticing entrees, starch and cheese, only appeared in a smear of lentils and a defiled polenta, aka the technical grain. As Kevin said: “Cooking vegetarian food can be challenging because when you eat meat it leaves you feeling satiated and it’s hard to replicate that with a plate of just vegetables…” JUST VEGETABLES! I couldn’t agree more…

This challenge should have been easy, the only restriction was no meat, a mere portion of a single food group, which is hardly the wildest elimination challenge… in fact, it should be something they have all experienced before. As Gail Simmons said in her blog entry “we re-created a scenario that regularly occurs in most restaurant dining rooms: a demand for one superlative vegetarian dish that tastes and looks as delicious as anything else on offer.” A review of the Craft Steak’s menu confirms that the kitchen should have been teeming with rice, pecorino, fresh buffalo mozzarella, blue cheese, yukon and fingerling potatoes, but instead they fought over tiresome eggplants and mushrooms so that they could present the dismal parade of vegetable melees. The winner of which was a pabulum of smoked kale/mushrooms/turnips, a threesome this vegetarian does not want an invitation to.

Natalie Portman offered no inspiration or direction other then “I love food” and “I’m a vegetarian,” the chefs may as well have received their directives from a chimpanzee… and based on their performance, I think that maybe what actually happened. I mean banana polenta… come on, how is that NOT monkey food?! To add insult, she brought nothing to the judge’s table… oh, except some drug dealer joke that was so funny when I was in 8th grade. My eyes rolled as though they were trying to release the mousetrap when she made the “as a vegetarian it’s hard to get protein” comment. Anyone who says this – or swears that as a vegetarian they suffered a protein deficiency so now they HAVE to eat bacon, you know, for “health” – is CRAZY; protein intake is directly related to caloric intake not meat intake. If you have a protein deficiency due to diet then you’re not eating enough calories to maintain your health and you are probably suffering from a much bigger problem than being vegetarian… like poverty, war, or stupidity.

There is a lot of whining from the peanut gallery of the internet (myself included) but there is on questions being as by commenters that I would like to refute: “Why didn’t the chefs venture into more ethnic cuisines?” Apparently the people asking this missed the whole point of the challenge – to take over the menu at Craft Steak. Can you imagine going to Bouley and being served Indian Food?! Of course not! This challenge was about creating a vegetarian meal utilizing the provisions at a steakhouse, and anyone who faults the chefs for not serving enchiladas or curries or tempura or whatnot should have their computer taken away… or at least have their browser locked to the wasteland of their peers at Yahoo Answers.