Gwen at the end of the longest year
New Year’s Eve at the butcher shop around the corner
“We’re not fancy, but we’re fun.” — Jean Flanagan, mother-in-law
This is the story of a fine-dining restaurant that wants to be world-class, but might be better off just having fun.
My year or so of eating at Gwen, thinking about it, and writing about it, has been like watching a Star Wars trilogy unfold around the corner. The first time, I fell in love with the possibility of it all. Monkey bread! Sausage rolls! Giant haunches of meat in the window! Celebrity chef with great hair motoring about the premises!
The second time, I learned more about the characters and their perils. Why does everyone always seem like their attention is elsewhere? Would there ever be a way to belong to the Gwen community at fine-dining prices? Would the tasting menu surprise and delight for a majority of its courses, and not just a magical few? And would the neighborhood dogs ever stop peeing on that oversized-flower pot?
Then there was the third visit. The closing chapter in the trilogy — the epic space battle.
“There are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen.” — Vladimir Lenin
Last night was the last day of the longest year. And who better to put the year in perspective than Vladimir Lenin. It was the year that never stopped happening to you. The year you couldn’t escape one name for more than ten minutes. The year’s biggest change? People who can afford to be regulars at Gwen can now afford an even bigger haunch. In the restaurant’s battle between friendly neighborhood butcher shop and Michelin-aspiring artistes, there seems to be only one logical conclusion— the folks in my neighborhood may come for work drinks or the occasional birthday, but they are not ordering the 30-year old sherry.
And yet, I found myself, a few days before the end, buying two tickets for New Years Eve, at 9:45pm, otherwise known as the “book droops and I drift off to sleep” hour. It was $500 for two people, all paid in advance. I called it “The Last Deductible Meal.”
After we made the reservation, one of our “couple friends” called to see what we were doing for New Years. We convinced them to join us at Gwen, on a separate reservation, with the hope that we could sit together. These friends know good food. Both have been to Michelin-starred restaurants abroad. This is notable, because right before Gwen opened in 2016, Curtis Stone told Eater LA, and anyone else within earshot, that he wanted to lure Michelin inspectors back to Los Angeles. In case you haven’t watched Chef’s Table, the Michelin guide is the bellwether for fine dining. It stopped reviewing restaurants in Los Angeles in 2009.
One of our friends was born and raised in England. She has a smile that is equal parts warm and wicked, a sharp wit, and was even raised with what I believe are called “manners.” She pronounced the name of the guidebook the French way — “Meeshaleene.” It sounded like the name of a beautiful women, and not the name of your spare tire. She told the apocryphal story about the secret Michelin inspectors, whom you could identify by the dropping of forks and the rate at which those forks were whisked away by the staff. Our friends knew what they expected from Gwen, the way Michelin inspectors know what they expect from a restaurant that wants their stars. I don’t know what I expected on New Years Eve, but I sure as hell got it.
We walked over in the evening fog, talking about all the terrible things we’d learned about people we admired this year, and also migraines. (The two seem related.) We rounded the corner, and there was Gwen, twinkling in the damp. The chandeliers were surrounded by black, gold and silver balloons with long curled strings dangling from the ceiling. The place looked the part.
Curtis Stone’s other restaurant Maude is closed for a “retooling”so the chef was indeed in — motoring in the front door, past his brother, and straight towards the roaring wood “Mallmann” fire, where raw meat becomes dinner in spectacular fashion.
We ordered drinks and sat on the patio, while the front of house team put their heads together about our seating arrangement. I watched the crowd that flowed in and out of the restaurant. It was like an endless procession of high end DJs — the kind you see on billboards advertising a two-year residency at the Wynn in Las Vegas. They wore bedazzled suit jackets and bedazzled cardboard hats announcing the impending new year. The roar of the fire mingled with the laughter, punctuated by the clinking of — and occasional dropping of — the restaurant’s impossibly elegant glassware.
There was some confused consultation about the reservations, which caused our friend Micheline, as she will now be known, to smile and mentally remove a star from the field of play. However, a perfectly rendered Manhattan served to her boyfriend brought it back into the game.
Around 10pm, we were led upstairs to the secret wine room. This was my first time upstairs, and it did not disappoint. The long rectangular space has its own bar and glowing stained-glass windows. It looks like the quiet car on The Orient Express, and it was the perfect place for us.
At the end of the room, a large and bedazzled party enjoyed raucous party. We sat next to a nice young couple, who much like Star Wars, turned out to be brother and sister. They were from San Diego, friends of one of the chefs downstairs, and they took on the wine pairing with determination. The young woman was a Navy wife — at home while her husband flew helicopters in Okinawa, Japan. As the courses progressed, and the wine flowed, we would learn more.
I suppose you would like to know about the food. But to understand the food, you must first meet the waiter. He was French. Or perhaps from Michigan and playing at French. We’ll never really know. He may not actually exist. He was either drunk, a poet, or both. He most of all loved to wax lyrical about cocktails. When I ordered one, he suggested another. When my husband ordered a drink, the waiter said, “ah, this is usually a drink for the women, but it is a good drink.” Whenever he appeared he was a delightful rambling brook of unintelligible information about the food, but he was a kind heart, and a champion at whisking things off the table — even things you still wanted on the table.
The food began to arrive. At first it arrived with the precision we experienced in our previous visits to Gwen. The cutlery swoops in, the food arrives at once, and is set down in perfect sync by four waiters. If you drop a napkin, one appears on a silver platter. This is a restaurant that pays attention.
As the night progressed, the intervals between courses lengthened. I was filled with the warm glow of fellowship, laughter, and a concoction called “The Collins Family.” We met other waiters. The youngling who poured the water used to live in my old neighborhood in Harlem. We both grinned at the connection. We learned more about our table neighbors. The brother had recently sold a business, the sister had known the chef downstairs since they were eleven years old. She only saw her husband 7 months out of the year. We saw pictures of Okinawa, which led our table into a conversation about the precision and harmony of Japanese cuisine. Our own food was no longer as precise. At one point we waited 37 minutes between the fish and the pasta. The waiter would materialize as if he had been taking his fifteen in the court of Oberon or Elphame. He would tut-tut at the lack of food, and then a few minutes later, four waiters would appear bearing gifts. I delighted in the well-heeled chaos. On the other side of the table, theoretical stars dropped to the floor like well-polished forks.
I know you want to hear about the food. Each course was an island of calm amid the increasing mischief and revelry. The oyster and the lobster arrived together — the start of Lewis Carroll poem and a fine meal. The oyster shell contained its former tenant, along with jellied champagne and a hit of caviar. It was a lovely amuse bouche. I wished the lobster salad had a bit more for the bouche — it was one bite atop a square of uni-infused flan, and it was gone before I could take its full measure. The ham was superb — you cannot say a bad word about the meat at Gwen. The bread it rode in on was over-toasted and sat too long on the counter. It caused pain in the crunching. The salad was a fine diversion. We had to wait for the scallop, which gave me time to think about all the scallops in our lives.
Scallops are treasured in my family. We miss the giant butter broiled scallop from Connie & Ted’s like a departed family member. The executive sushi chef who opened our rotator belt sushi joint used to cut thin slivers of raw scallop served on a plate that looked like the coastline of Okinawa, with a sauce I asked so many questions about, he gave me a jar of it. The day he disappeared — probably to open another rotator belt sushi joint in another city — the magical sushi restaurant descended back to earth, and we lost the nerve to order raw scallop.
So the scallop that was en route at Gwen had a lot riding on its gelatinous body, and it delivered. But the other ingredients were a lesson in the danger of over thinking a dish. I’m just a humble eater, but when you get a perfectly grilled scallop in a delectable brown butter sauce, with an architecturally delightful fingerlime (Australian shrub) balanced on top — that dish is done. It is balanced, in harmony, and adorned with a personal connection to the chef’s home country. It does not need chunky, clunky hazelnuts. I’ve seen this before in other meals at Gwen — there’s a lesson there about knowing when to stop, even if that seems too simple or obvious to a bunch of professionals. Maybe you don’t win Michelin stars with safety, but I’m not sure you win them with hazelnuts either.
Our friends at the next table got a visit from their friend in the kitchen, an exuberant and exhausted young woman in a striped apron. There is nothing I love in this whole world more than seeing two lifelong friends hug each other like a lifejacket in the ocean. A stranger’s compulsion is often to mock other strangers, especially when seated next to them at a restaurant, especially when you are competing in the drunken Olympics. But every time our new pals friendly incursions seemed like they might overpower our meal, I remembered that hug. You can’t make a caricature out of a person who hugs like that. I showered the young chef with compliments about the kitchen, and their magnificent lunch time tuna sandwiches. She was so touched that she brought the sous chef up to hear it again. And I was reminded that restaurants are made of people, and their hard work often goes without praise.
Somewhere in the course of the meal was the one surprising thing you always discover at Gwen. Was it in the salad? Atop the scallop? I don’t remember. But it was infinitesimally small snips of what our waiter described as a “micro-frisee”, that popped like fish roe in the mouth but instead of the sea it delivered an intense burst of lemon. That kind of surprise in the tiniest detail is what makes this restaurant so damned compelling. It’s very close.
The pastas at Gwen are always exquisite, and were made more so by the aforementioned 37 minute wait. They arrived adorned with extra slices of white truffle as an apology. The truffles I ate out of grateful obligation if not delight. A sliver of dried sourdough starter melting on the tip of my tongue is more compelling. However, the little pouches of pasta exploded in my mouth and delivered a creamy burst of happiness. Again, less is more.
Unless, of course, you’re talking about the steak. Then there is never enough. Unless you get the steak that comes attached to a cow rib — then you’re probably taking home leftovers.
The meat at Gwen is the whole ballgame, and we got a no-hitter. At 11:45pm, a waiter appeared with a box of knives, each with its own story. Selecting my knife felt like choosing a wand, or I suppose, the knife chooses the diner. I swear they said one of the handles was made of a deer antler. One was a straight up switchblade which looked like it came right from 1950’s Hells Kitchen. That went to the guy who works in Hollywood. And then three waiters appeared behind Luke Stone, bearing plates with two thin rectangles of wagyu New York strip, jus in a little copper pot and horseradish sauce on the side. And in the center of the plate, a charred and ashy lump of meat.
This is moment when our table — which had been filled with laughter and discussion — fell silent. All around us, the revelry continued, but we didn’t hear it. It was as if we were in a bubble through which no sound could penetrate. Everyone attended to their steak with care and focus. The perfectly prepared slices of wagyu sliced with ease, and disappeared quickly. But it was the charred piece in the middle that was the night’s greatest reward. The blackened skin, contained pure half-melted fat — the kind of fat that’s supposed to be bad for you. The coating of ash was mild, but it made you remember just how the meat was transformed in that raging wood fire below. The fat dissolved as I ate it, and it reminded me of all the things we demonize that are in the end, delicious. It was the last food I ate in 2017.
Several times throughout the meal, our waiter would appear and remind us to walk downstairs at the appointed time to celebrate New Years. At the end of the steak course, we toddled carefully downstairs with our now very drunk table neighbors and walked down the center aisle. The room was alive, the bar was packed, and waiters passed out champagne. As if to herald our arrival, a glass of bubbly smashed on the ground, knocked off a passing tray by a guest. Curtis Stone helped pick up the shards. We found two empty tables right in the center aisle. We all watched our iPhones and wished we could see the seconds tick down. My husband conversed with the table-neighbor brother about writing, the sister asked me about my job in publishing, which I could not convince her was actually radio.
The hour struck with cheers and applause, as a man in a glittered jacket shot fake $1000 bills from something that looked like a gun, but was called a cash-cannon. I suspect you will not find cash cannons at La Maison Troisgros, but that I think is their loss, our gain. It was a room filled with family, restaurant family, friends and us, customers on the edge of a moment that wasn’t quite ours. The staff toasted and hugged each other as hard as the two childhood friends had upstairs. It had been a helluva year for everyone, and it was finally 2018. A nice round number that promised a determined, if not exactly fresh start.
That nice round feeling lasted a full seven minutes, which is how long it took me to hear the name of the president in the new year, at a restaurant owned by one of his former contestants on a reality show that changed the world. That contestant was walking around the room, pouring more champagne into outstretched glasses. Curtis Stone came to our table. As we murmured our compliments, he made five perfect pours, and ran out of champagne for the last of us.
“Be right back,” he said. We laughed, because of course he wasn’t coming back. But in exactly the time it took to get a fresh bottle, pop it, walk through the crowd, end up in a selfie, and get a few hugs, he was back with the final pour. And that attention to detail at 12:17am, in the first hours of a new day on what had been a long night — that is the moment I will take away from Gwen, because that is the spirit that will drive the brothers Stone and their team to whatever success they desire.
Eventually we tumbled back upstairs, to a cheese course and a decadent chocolate dessert. Our table neighbor decided her brother had had enough of the pairing menu, and blithely handed our table a full glass of 30 year old sherry. I think we gave the sommelier a stroke, but she gamely told us the details of its Bush-era magnificence. We handed it around our table, and back to the other table, and back again to ours. That’s what kind of night it was.
There remained only the petit fours, the little of tray of cookies and candies that precedes the arrival of the bill. We continued our conversation, I grabbed two balloons from the ceiling and tied one each to the side of my husband’s glasses — the perfect accompaniment to a conversation about the perils of corporate behavior in the light of the #metoo moment. The moments ticked on, the little room above the kitchen emptied, and still the petit fours did not arrive. An hour past midnight, I finally asked the bartender, and he looked aghast, then whisked them immediately from a nearby waiters nook.
In the end, there was a whole thing with the check, where our waiter, returned from the mists for one last assignment, did not know that we were two separate parties at one table, and accidentally overcharged us by 500 dollars. It took some huddling over a computer screen, but we all made it through. We walked downstairs. The roaring fire was reduced to coals, above which hung two huge haunches of pork — a feast for the staff meal. It’s quite possible that’s meal is still ongoing.
The staff was clustered in and around the kitchen. Our table neighbors were deep in the back with their friend. I waved goodbye. The young chef came out and gave me a hug. I told her again what a night it had been, and how tremendous the food was. She glowed and welcomed us back any time. Then Curtis Stone walked by, propelled by the same energy we’d seen at the start of the night, back in 2017.
As we walked home, the four of us laughed and chewed over the slightly madcap evening, and as we stood for a moment in the fog at 2:30am, our friend summed it up in his usual thoughtful way.
“If it had been perfect,” he said, “we wouldn’t remember it. But we’ll be talking about this night for years.”
Right there. That is my wish for Gwen. Why strive for stars, when you can share your own magnificent fire. As Vladimir Lenin never said, “There are meals where nothing happens; and there are meals where decades happen.”
Happy New Year, indeed.
Jennie Josephson can probably stop writing about Gwen now, but here is what she has written in the past.
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