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Fried green tomatoes and chow chow; photography by Carin Krasner

Straight From the Hart

by Lesley Balla | Angeleno magazine | January 18, 2013

Over the last few years, pop-up chefs have proved one thing: Their allure is due to what they cook rather than where they don their toques. These days, veal udon in a sandwich shop or steak frites from a truck can be had at any time somewhere in the city. That’s the beauty of it.

Kris Tominaga and Brian Dunsmoor, the two chefs behind the new The Hart + The Hunter, got everyone pretty jazzed for country ham and biscuits on Abbot Kinney when they opened a pop-up in the former Capri space last year. Now they’re doing a similar thing in the small kitchen adjacent to a teensy dining room at the Palihotel on Melrose. It’s a veritable hipster paradise where jars of pimento cheese and plates of fried chicken livers seem right at home.

The name alone signifies to diners that they’re in for something interesting. The two chefs called their last place Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing because they wanted something unique and memorable. They obviously have a thing for fables; this Mid-City spot is named for one of Aesop’s tales that involves a hart, or a deer, and a hunter. The moral, according to the restaurant’s website: We often despise what is most useful to us. But that actually has nothing to do with what you’ll find here. There’s nothing to despise on this menu.

Tominaga and Dunsmoor met at Joe’s in Venice, each bringing a certain culinary sensibility from their respective homes—Tominaga is a California native, and Dunsmoor hails from Atlanta. Together they are creating a new kind of Southern Californian cuisine. Seasonality is prominent in the dishes these chefs create, but their recipes pull in flavors and butter (lots of it) from below the Mason-Dixon Line.

Off of the lobby of the small boutique hotel, which itself serves as a waiting area when the restaurant is busy, the room already existed before this restaurant took over. The seafoam-green tiled walls, caramel-colored banquettes and glassed-in room where dishes come out were there. This team added the quirky, white, bistro bucket chairs—and the folding ones that seem as though they time-traveled from a local high school circa 1965—plus the chipped china.

The only problem with the space itself is the way that sound bounces off the walls and ceiling. When the long communal table holds one large party, as it did a couple of times when we dropped in for dinner, the place has the acoustics of a bathroom where sound ricochets around the tile and glass at nerve-rattling speed. Noise level is rarely, if ever, my gripe, but I’ve left The Hart + The Hunter needing silence for at least 15 minutes just to get my bearings back.

Perhaps it’s because no one can contain themselves when plates of chicken cracklins get passed around. The fried-to-a-crisp chicken skins are so devilishly good, especially when you generously sprinkle them with hot, peppery vinegar (which comes in a small Mason jar with holes punched in the top, no less). Or the country ham with sweet-tart housemade butter pickles. You could just use a fork to place these on top of some thick-cut bread and call it a day.

The servers will steer you to the kind of meal you want, whether it’s just a few snacks and wine or a full-fledged meal. The staff is dressed as casually as the mismatched dishware and linty paper napkins on the table, wearing flannel, fedoras and big smiles. Just let them know you want things coursed out, or you might end up with a table full of food sent out in an order you don’t quite understand.

The menu definitely has a Southern twang, but not a heavy fake accent. The most regional thing on it is probably the low-country shrimp boil. There is nothing Californian about it, just shrimp in the shell, a few chunks of spicy Andouille sausage, small pieces of corn and potatoes, all sitting in butter. You will get messy eating this, but it’s worth it.

These guys know flavor and balance, which is really the key. If you’re going to serve fried green tomatoes, make sure to pair them with chow chow, that Southern pickled relish staple with fresh herbs to cut the crisp cornmeal coating. My friend and I demolished the shaved Brussels sprouts salad, mostly because we were so hungry that particular night, but also because it was rather addictive, laden with crunchy peanuts, aged cheddar and bacon sherry vinaigrette. Another stunner is the charred hanger steak that comes smothered in mushrooms, snails and herb butter. The escargots are perfectly soft, the steak medium rare and a bit chewy, all served over creamy grits. This is probably the most decadent thing I’ve tasted here.

The few backfires aren’t enough to keep me away: overly salted black-eyed peas and collard greens; the biscuits that are almost too heavy with butter; and the cast-iron pan of raclette and potatoes that’s more like congealed scalloped potatoes than the simple but finessed Swiss dish. There’s a lot that makes up for these offerings, like the lemon ice box pie.

No matter which server we had, when it came time for dessert, they would ask, “Are you ready for some lemon ice box pie?” They push it because they know it’s spot-on good. To be clear, this is not lemon meringue pie. The filling, at least on this pie, isn’t custardy; it’s frozen. It’s tart and sweet and incredibly lemony, topped with a couple of inches of meringue. Divine.

The current Southern trend in L.A.’s restaurants and bars is not always instigated by someone who actually grew up in Georgia or Louisiana. But in this case, at least half of this team has such credentials and it shows. The Hart + The Hunter is a fun, casual spot that’s pulling in diners tired of Italian, Mexican and Japanese food. And it’s as cool and refreshing as a slice of lemon ice box pie.

The Hart + The Hunter
7950 Melrose Ave., L.A., 323.424.3055, thehartandthehunter.com

Open for breakfast weekdays and brunch on weekends.
Lunch: Daily, 11:30am-3pm
Dinner: Daily, 5:30-10:30pm

Small plates: $4-$6
Shared plates: $10-$22
Desserts: $6

What to Wear
As the Cole Porter song says, anything goes. Locate those heritage labels in your closet and layer them.

What to Drink
The wine and beer list is compact but packs a wallop with mostly California selections. The Habit chenin blanc goes down particularly well.

Parking
If it’s busy, the valet may be full. We’ve been lucky with parking spots on Melrose, where meters clock out after 8pm.

Breakfast and Lunch
Because the restaurant is also the hotel’s dining room, you can stop in during the day for biscuits and jam, a salad or soup, apple dumplings or a cup of joe from Handsome Coffee Roasters.