Space Ninety 8: Welcome to the Gorbals
Ilan Hall, winner of Top Chef season 2, star of Knife Fight, and owner of the wildly popular downtown LA restaurant The Gorbals is a long-time friend of Urban Outfitters. Who better, then, to open up a restaurant (and open-air rooftop bar) at our new Brooklyn concept store Space Ninety 8? In Hall’s hands, food is fun, fresh, often irreverent (bacon wrapped matzo balls, anyone?), and always yummy. We caught up with the Long Island native, who has returned home to the East Coast to open The Gorbals’ new Williamsburg outpost, to talk trending ingredients, supermarket sushi, and what we can expect to see on his new menu.
Hi Ilan! Tell us about the concept for The Gorbals at Space Ninety 8.
I like to make food that’s a little bit cheeky, that doesn’t take itself too seriously, but at the end of the day is delicious. We started out the concept for our restaurant in LA with it being based in traditional Jewish food, with elements of pork sprinkled in! I try to keep that attitude in my food. Not that every dish has to have, like, shrimp and hummus—I don’t want to do it for the sake of doing it—but I like food to be fun. Some of it will be a little bit weird and maybe a bit challenging for people, but for the most part I want it to be tasty and really satisfying and for people to maybe eat things they haven’t eaten before. As a chef you want to open people’s eyes to new ingredients or things that are new to them.
So, you’re going beyond the Kale we see on many a Williamsburg menu?
I’m sick of kale for the sake of kale! I think there are so many great vegetables available, I don’t know why kale has had such a boom in popularity. It’s a good green… I just think that the idea of food trends is kind of ridiculous. We’re not going to have a kale salad on our menu, because everyone has a kale salad on their menu. I think that, being a chef, you need to utilize everything that you can. There are no rules. There’s so many types of greens you can use—different types of watercress, chickweed… I sort of want to stay away from bigger trends because it’s easy to get sucked into them. But maybe that’s a bad business decision! Who knows?
What can we expect to see on the menu?
I’m maybe about a third of the way through working on the menu. I’m trying to use things that are really seasonal and maybe a little bit more obscure. Not obscure but, like, less common fish. Most people don’t put bluefish on their menu—bluefish is one of my favorite fish. I’d rather use a skate cheek than a skate wing. I’d rather use a monkfish liver or a monkfish tail. There are so many great parts of an animal, and you don’t have to always use the basic filet. There’s this farm really close to where I grew up on Long Island in Glen Cove that, in the spring and summer, has amazing produce. We’re opening at the best possible time for New York [produce]. There’s peas, ramps, spring garlic, fava beans, soft shell crab, Bouchout mussels from Maine.
How did you approach the design of the space?
Within Space 98 I really wanted to keep the aesthetic of the restaurant soulfully connected to my restaurant in Los Angeles. It’s a bit more rough and rustic in LA, we have this giant 18ft communal table. Here, the focal point is our grill, once that’s fired up it will be the hearth, and heart, of the restaurant. I wanted to go a little bit more polished in terms of the furniture here. A friend made the tables, they’re a bit midcentury-ish. We got the legs from a metal-smith in southern California and and our plates are all organic and rough. I wanted to adapt to the space and have some plants and for it to be more put-together. When we opened up the restaurant in Los Angeles, we opened it with no money, all of our chairs we got at a secondhand place. I’m a father now—it’s time to grow up a little bit! At Space Ninety 8 we had the opportunity to do something that was really beautiful that wouldn’t take away from the old building. I think we did a pretty good job!
How did you come to open The Gorbals inside Space Ninety 8?
I’ve had a relationship with Urban Outfitters for a few years. I’ve done some charity events and some cooking things and hosted a lot of parties for them at my restaurant in LA. I was talking to someone about possibly doing some consulting work on a café here that Urban was thinking of opening and then I said, “That would be a great place for a restaurant!” And now, a year and a half later, we’re in the restaurant. It’s been a dream of mine to come back to New York and Williamsburg is the epicenter of new restaurants right now; it’s where people are doing exciting things, lots of late-night things. It’s similar to the push in New York around 2004 when all these new places were opening up in the East Village and Gramercy Park area—Momofuku and Casa Mono—and it all keeps moving East. We’ve been open in Los Angeles for almost five years, so it was time to come home.
Have you been shopping in the store yet?
I think my wife bought me some jeans! The space is beautiful, they really did a great job. It’s quite lovely. I love the renewal shop downstairs on the first floor, that’s my favorite. You just opened a bar on the roof deck, too.
What’s your poison?
I like to order very simple things at the bar. I like Irish whisky, I like single malt scotch. Lagavulin is my everyday scotch—I don’t like subtle scotch, I like something really smoky, really peaty. I drink gin; I’ll have a gin and tonic. If I’m ordering a cocktail I’ll usually have something that’s gin and a bit bitter.
How does the New York dining scene differ from LA?
New York people are very adamant about what they want, they have very high expectations of service and quality—you can’t really get anything by New Yorkers! New York is one of the most critical food scenes. Everyone works in their first six months towards that New York Times review. I’m not nervous, I just want to offer the best possible product that I can. I want it to be fun; I want people to have a good time when they’re here! Because when I’m cooking, even if it’s stressful or very busy, I still try and have fun, and I want my employees to have fun. That’s why we have an open kitchen—I want our cooks to be part of the party. I want everything to come together in an enjoyable way.
Where do you like to eat in New York?
I love going to Chinatown, I love going to Flushing. In Chinatown I love Great NY Noodletown—they have this balance of simplicity and super-powerful flavors. I have friends with some great restaurants. Casa Mono where I used to work is still probably, pound for pound, my favorite restaurant in New York. It’s tiny and the quality of food they put out is amazing. My friend Dale Talde opened two places in Park Slope—Talde is a really amazing restaurant. It just hits you in the heart, it’s really tasty and sort of Asian with no direct focus. My friend Damon Weiss is the chef at Lafaytte and he’s doing amazing French food on a very large scale. Edi and the Wolf in the East Village is amazing; [it has] Austrain roots—I like food from all over. Every time I have a meal, I’m inspired. I love places in the [Williamsburg] neighborhood: St. Anselm, Café Mogador. I love eating wherever I can, all the time.
What’s your food guilty pleasure?
Supermarket sushi! It’s gross! But there’s something about it. Like, a step below Wholefoods sushi, but not bodega sushi. I don’t know why. It’s gross in theory, and it’s gross in actuality too [laughs]. Because I’ve eaten sushi at the Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo at 6am and I’ve had some of the best and… that’s just not acceptable!