Curtis Stone is my butcher
How to turn a world-class dining experience into a neighborhood joint
There’s a celebrity chef around the corner and I’m OK with that. My husband Matt and I have lived in the flats of Hollywood for fourteen years. Our cottage lies below a stretch of Sunset Boulevard that has stubbornly resisted upgrades by the local business improvement district. High-end restaurants tried and high-end restaurants failed — none of them lasted as long as the simple sandwich joint, Ponchik.
I would, to use Zagat style, describe myself “aware” but not “enraptured” by the “celebrity chef phenomenon.” I’ve seen just enough of Iron Chef and Top Chef to understand that when Curtis Stone and his brother Luke open a new restaurant called Gwen two blocks from your house, it’s a “big deal.” But I didn’t rush to get a reservation, even if Eater LA described Stone as a “dreamy, genial Australian” and the place itself as “$3.3-million seasonal, meat-focused” restaurant with a “five-course tasting menu” in a “high-ceilinged, Art Deco-inspired space.”
Maybe it was because that space holds so many memories. Like any native New Yorker, I mark the flow of time not in seconds, but in restaurants. And the restaurant that previously occupied that building was special to us.
I could spend a whole other post writing about the ups and downs and almost’s we experienced at The Mercantile. I will say that if you cracked me open and looked inside, this is what my soul might look like. Is that too much to say about a mid-level French-ish cafe that never quite recovered from losing its first chef? They did introduce me to canelé. I guess it’s just that we left so much of ourselves there over the years.
The Mercantile opened about the same time I went freelance for the first time ever, and it seemed like a reward for the perils of working for no one and everyone at the same time. When I had to tell our friends that my husband was in the hospital and we didn’t know how long he might be there, we spoke in hushed tones in the loft space above the main floor. Two months later my husband and I were finally married in our backyard, and the whole wedding party walked up Seward toward Sunset. We could have turned left and celebrated at The Mercantile (my vote). Instead we turned right and ate burgers and drank beer at The Cat & Fiddle (Matt’s vote.) Both are now gone from their original locations.
I don’t mean to be maudlin. The Cat & Fiddle is back! After Kaya toast, it’s the second life debt I owe Susan Feniger. But I want you to understand why I’ve been circling Gwen slowly, from a distance, walking past the large window where the kitchen staff stacked ribs on top of large butcher blocks, but never quite walking inside.
We finally decided to eat at Gwen to celebrate our seventh wedding anniversary. At 9:15p on a Friday in mid-February, we walked those two blocks through the pouring rain under an umbrella meant for one. Traditional gifts for the seventh anniversary are copper, wool, and desk sets. I’m pretty sure there’s copper somewhere in this picture, even if it’s only the Insta filter. The bar was too crowded, but the tasting menu was spectacular. So spectacular I forgot to take pictures. The opening course featured tiny slices of house-cured salumi, rich terrines, and a spreadable sausage that went perfectly with tiny pretzel rolls. Next, a little gem lettuce log adorned with sauerkraut, which on paper makes no sense, but on the tongue was perfection. Salad was followed by a wide bowl with a small pile of braised beef and tiny square gnocchi resting at the four corners. The server poured a silky broth over the whole thing. Those gnocchi defied any sensible ratio of size to flavor, and the broth would have had me licking the bowl, if there weren’t so many other instagrammers about. And let’s not even get into the 30-day aged steak. You’ll just hate me more.
At the end of the meal, my husband and I wandered over to gaze in appreciation at at the giant meat-curing apartment where former cows age into magnificent steaks. And when I say apartment, I mean it’s bigger than my old apartment on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. We waltzed home in the mist, reliving each detail.
It was a magical night, but “once in a good year” kind of night. And Curtis Stone, soul of the restaurant, is tucked away behind the chef’s counter, charming folks who purchased the pricier experience. I watched his night unfold the way you watch a movie star settle into a seat at the Arclight — respectfully and only in short glances. In the dim copper light of Gwen, you can almost imagine Stone’s constant path through the kitchen as a live Chef’s Table time lapse. Cue the Vivaldi.
We ate our leftover steak all weekend, and marveled at the flavor even longer. But I still mourned the everyday feel of the space’s former occupant.
So I wondered, can I make Gwen part of my regular life, without going bankrupt?
I think that ideal is firmly in the Stone family business plan. Both got their start in an Australian butcher shop, and a chalkboard sign outside Gwen all but begs you to visit during the day. The restaurant sells excellent pastries and coffee, and sandwiches at lunch. But for whom? The Scientologists next door? The construction workers doing god-knows-what to the former Cat & Fiddle space? Maybe it’s all for the benefit of the kind of freelancer I used to be back in The Mercantile’s glory days.
Yesterday, my husband and I got off work at the same time, a rarity these days. We took the dog for a walk and ended up at Gwen. Since my usual “lack of a plan dinner plan” involves spending too much money on Postmates, I took a closer look at the meats in the butcher counter. Amidst the giant rib eye steaks for $18 per pound and Wagyu Kobe beef for $ let’s-not-even-per-pound, I spied two beautiful Boudin Blanc sausages. The cost was less than two Big Mac meals at McDonald's. It seemed worth a try.
The friendly gentleman at the front counter wrapped the pale sausages in butcher paper that is nicer than the fanciest Christmas wrapping paper I have ever used. We purchased a few pastries and walked home.
In my kitchen, all I had to do was put a some oil in a pan on a low heat and brown the sausages for a few minutes. Let’s not talk about my Pinterest fail of a cacio e pepe, although it did prove that just about anything can be saved with enough Kosher salt.
The sausages were light, fragrant and delicious. Imagine if Strawberry Shortcake’s hometown of Strawberryland was adjacent to Meatopia, and then you took the clouds above Meatopia and squished them into a sausage casing. The pastries were casually devastating, and for one night we were able to bring a little bit of Gwen’s elegance into our home.
It’s a promising start. I’ll probably keep going back for the pastries as much as can be considered “not embarrassing.” Who knows, one day when I’m off from work, I’ll call up a friend and ask them to meet me at the butcher shop for a sandwich. My friend might raise an eyebrow — a butcher shop? Yes, I’ll say. It’s a nice place run by two brothers, just around the corner.