It is 10 in the evening, West Hollywood has just begun to ramp up into the night and three dozen people are lined up outside Laurel Hardware, the fashionable restaurant of the moment. It is the weekend before Halloween, which means bits of the usual sorts of costumes are on the boulevard: size 13 heels and ragged scraps of lace, kitten ears and satin bow ties. A woman saunters up to the restaurant, bouffant freshly blond, wrapped in what looks like a replica of a Mead three-ring notebook. A few paces closer to the door is a redhead also wearing Staples' finest. The blond glares. The redhead shrugs. A moment later they are together in the line, two binders full of women talking and giggling.
Not long ago, Laurel Hardware actually was a hardware store, a place to buy hammers and socket wrenches, and the restaurant has kept the neon sign. If it weren't for the high heels and the valet parking, you could drive by the place without imagining it sold anything more adventurous than a garden hose. One wall of the front dining room, near the open kitchen, is striped with rows of nails, as if somebody had just stripped off a display of door hinges. Surfaces are polished, lighting is moody and the ceiling is stripped to the rafters, but it is fun to imagine the place with the fig-infused cocktails turned back into Dixie cups of water, skinny jeans blown out into overalls and the service counter heaped with doorknobs instead of maitake mushrooms.
It would also be possible to eat dinner in that front dining room, working though share-plates of seared figs served on wads of sautéed spinach, a butter lettuce salad tricked out with toasted almonds and tangelos, a thick burger of Niman Ranch slicked with melted Comté cheese, maybe a crisp pizza with marinated anchovies and goat cheese, without quite working out that there was any more to the restaurant, at least if you ignored the masses of people flowing into the barroom at the back, which is a big, handsome indoor/outdoor space with the usual dim lamps and splintery wooden tables. The bar is the kind of place with cucumber-flavored tequila, double-oaked bourbon and blood-red beet infusions, so if you're into that sort of thing, drink up.
The chef at Laurel Hardware is Mario Alberto, who cooked at Lazy Ox, Mo-Chica and Freddy Smalls, and most prominently at Chimu, the brilliant but short-lived neo-Peruvian restaurant next door to Grand Central Market downtown. He is fond of long-braised off-cuts and deep acidity. He favors a complex palette of chiles, seasonal fruits and exotic herbs. You sometimes think you can spot the roots of one of his dishes, maybe in a traditional preparation from southern Mexico or the mountains of Peru, but then the sensation vanishes, and you are left with a preparation that is basically just his.
Is there a basis for a dish of pungent but mild seared scallops served with quinoa and a tangle of beet greens? Perhaps, but the flavor of the shellfish is being tugged one way by the Southern-inflected musky vegetables and another by the sweet scent of the quinoa, leaving it somewhere in the realm of what Norman Van Aken used to call Floribbean cuisine. A snack of toasted corn nuts is cancha, solidly Peruvian, but the thinly sliced fried pork rinds with a dip of the Lebanese yogurt called labneh flavored with maple syrup, whiskey and Basque pepper derives from a region that exists only in Alberto's imagination.
Sometimes the intermarriage works — a dish of fresh corn kernels sautéed with truffle butter and Parmesan is simultaneously bright and summery and muted and autumnal, which sounds odd but is almost cinematic in its effect. A risotto, made in the new style with Parmesan broth, is spiked with both fall's lima beans and summer's pea tendrils. A handsome slab of well-seared Arctic char appears on a bed of chewy, wintery spaetzle tossed with crumbled kale chips.
Sometimes it doesn't: A summery toss of arugula salad with apples, tart pickled Jerusalem artichokes and lots of crunchy nuts, ends up tasting more like dessert than it does like salad. Hanger steak, marinated into submission, could just as well be an indifferently seared filet.
The braised lamb belly, a Chimu preparation that made it onto the Laurel Hardware menu, is crisp and meltingly soft, rich and tart, spicy and sweet, with barely cooked shishito chiles snapping the preparation toward freshness. A luxurious dish of caramelized pork cheeks, stewed root vegetables and a barely poached egg is set into vibration by curls of bitter frisée lettuce. Even the inevitable pork belly, given the November treatment with squash and cranberries, shows careful cooking and an intuitive sense of balance.
Laurel Hardware is a useful place, with strong drinks, Jidori chicken and all sorts of vegetables, plus a vibe that splits the difference between Santa Monica Boulevard and the Sunset Strip. If you stay up late and enjoy cocktails with dinner, it can be a good place to know.
In a former West Hollywood hardware store, chef Mario Alberto presides over a whirling entrepôt of strong drink and eclectic seasonal cooking.
7984 Santa Monica Blvd., West Hollywood, (323) 656-6070, laurelhardware.com.
Snacks, $4-$9; small plates, $10-$18; large plates, $15-$38; pizzas, $14-$18; desserts, $8-$10.
Open 11:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. and 6 p.m. to 11 p.m. daily, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. brunch Saturday and Sunday. Credit cards accepted. Full bar. Valet parking.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun