The days (and more importantly nights) of glamour and indulgence on the Sunset Strip have long faded away, but glimmers of the era remain in the form of art deco buildings and grand hotels. A short ride past the old beauty of Hollywood on a slightly edgier stretch of Sunset Boulevard is where you’ll find Gwen, Curtis Stone's sophomore L.A. restaurant, which opens this week.
“Hollywood’s always been an interesting place. It had such a huge reputation, and you go there and realized it’s a little gritty,” Stone explains. “It’s had a bit more of a colorful past than you realized.” Walking into Gwen is nothing short of transportive. The 1920s building, seafoam velvet banquettes, crystal chandeliers and glossy black-and-cream tables from the restaurant design pros at Home Studios feel just like the Strip might have in its golden era.
The dining experience here requires trust. Dinner is served as an orchestrated five-course tasting meal, revealed to diners as they go along instead of up front on a menu—which is given to diners at the end of the meal as a souvenir. “If you’re a chef and you go to your buddy’s restaurants, they just cook for you,” Stone says. “The reason you go out for dinner is to spend time with someone you like. This takes care of that.”
The courses wax and wane between less formal and more composed, starting with the “first bites” of spicy house nduja, meant to be spread over slightly charred focaccia, leek-ash-and-porcini salami, marinated peppers and chewy beets (see the recipe). The second wave of the meal is an elegant salad with summer squash, hearts of palm, buttermilk purée and burnt cucumber pickles. It’s followed by house-made orecchiette, dressed in a pancetta, chile and tomato sauce that’s plated tableside with crispy bread crumbs and impossibly sweet baby tomatoes.
The heart of the meal, and the restaurant, however, is the meat course. For the opening, it’s dedicated to lamb that has been brined, smoked, grilled and roasted in several ways—cooking an ingredient many different ways is a signature Stone honed by focusing on one ingredient each month at his acclaimed restaurant, Maude.
To achieve that here, Stone has several fires running throughout the day and evening. Behind the kitchen’s glass wall, diners can watch the smoke rise in the asador, or Argentine grill. “You put a whole animal on a cross and stand that cross near the fire,” Stone explains. The smoke cooks the meat over 10 hours, imparting flavor from almond wood. (Those who watched Francis Mallmann’s episode of Chef’s Table may remember this technique.) Other cuts are cooked over an open grill called a brasero, which roars throughout service, or in a coal Josper oven.
From this array of heat sources come small links of spiced merguez with cooling yogurt, brined and smoked slightly sweet lamb ribs, and pulled lamb served with an earthy and rich jus. When it’s time to eat, servers bring by a box of varied steak knives, including the coveted 9.47 knives from French producer Perceval, for diners to choose from, making the restaurant feel a bit like dinner theater.
Stone’s gone even further by opening a butcher shop, which diners pass on their way in and out of the restaurant. Stocked with house-made sausage and a variety of cuts of meat, it’s also solved his problem of where to find choice cuts in L.A. “As someone who cooks for my family, I’ve said I wish there were always a good butcher shop,” he explains. “You can get good beef and good pork if you really look for it, but there’s no game. As a chef, I started FedEx-ing ducks from the East Coast.”
For Stone and his brother, Luke, a partner in the restaurant, this project is also a sort of return to their previous lives working as teenagers in butcher shops in Australia. And Gwen is a reminder that returning to something—be it a formative butcher shop gig or an entire era of a city’s past—can be a good thing.