When in the WolvesDen, one might think that one might need to be wary and on guard. When dining in The WolvesDen, one might think that one would need a heightened awareness and be ready for anything. In Craig Thornton’s WolvesDen in Los Angeles the latter is true, while the former couldn’t be any less so.
Craig Thornton, aka WolvesMouth, is an accomplished young cook and former roommate of Sean White, not long off an extended gig as Nicholas Cage’s private chef, during which he got to travel, cook and dine extensively, building up his experience base to an impressive level. Now back home in Los Angeles, the long-haired and extremely affable cook is using his considerable talents to throw dinner parties in his downtown LA apartment (It is NOT a restaurant). I had the pleasure to attend one in the beginning of December. With a fascinating mix of guests that included amongst others the co-chefs of the hot Los Angeles restaurant Animal, John Shook & Vinny Dotolo and Tomo Kurokawa, like me a physician and food blogger, any degree of wariness or being on guard I may have had quickly disintegrated. As the evening progressed though, it became quickly apparent that I should retain a heightened sense of awareness and truly be ready for anything since a spectacular meal was underway.
My evening got off to an inauspicious start as it took me two hours to get through an aggravating snarl of traffic from my hotel in Westwood to downtown Los Angeles where the dinner party was held. Since I had left early in order to check out downtown LA, I wasn’t actually late when I arrived to find a neighborhood desolate and with few signs of life. Even the entrance to the building I had been directed to was rather quiet and it wasn’t clear which bell to ring. Fortunately, after a few texts someone came down to let me in and guide me to the apartment. By that time a few additional people had arrived at the door and we all ascended together.
The apartment, similar to a NYC style loft like one might find in SoHo, was spacious and airy with a large open kitchen off to one side, a long communal dining table in one corner and several rooms to fill out the remainder of the apartment. It was commodious and light. I could exhale, relax and start sipping some wine, while I met the rest of the guests as well as my friend Russell Wong, who I invited to join me. Russell, a life-long Los Angeleno and major food aficionado had volunteered to be my food guide in LA. He had been doing a great job and this was my chance to introduce him to something cool foodwise in the city.
Though I had been communicating with Craig Thornton for some time, this was the first time that we had met in person. Tall, thin and young (to me) with long straight hair cascading down his back, Craig presented a model of enthusiasm and efficiency as he continued the final touches of his prep before engaging in the production of his multiple courses. It was a pleasure to watch him work effortlessly and fluidly through stovetop cooking, the use of modern techniques and his own, unique style of plating. He had two assistants with him to help with the details and the preparation fo the various dishes.
Everyone spent a little time mingling and getting introduced all the while drinking some wine. Thornton and his assistants, Cortez and Julian continued their last minute prep and making sure that everything was set to begin the flow of food.
There were twelve diners and we all took seats around a long rectangular dinner table. The conversation kept flowing amongst both old and new friends as the food started coming. Diners brought their own beverages with sharing freely taking place.
The dinner opened with a tour of the from sour to bitter to sweet to savory. I’m a sucker for good uni and this dinner started out on my good side. Uni is as much about texture and temperature as it is about taste. the uni in this dish was fabulous, forming a base for the rest of the dish’s components, which even though disparate remained harmonious. The celery ice cream added clean, creamy notes in parallel with the uni, while the Arkansas black apple punch outs (see the photo above) added a bit of crunch along with a complex sweetness.
One would expect the black cod to have been the center of attention and most memorable aspect of this dish and it was indeed wonderful, but it wasn’t the most memorable component. That honor went to the potato chip tartar sauce. I’m not usually a fan of tartar sauce, but this was delicious, creative and fun. The tartar sauce, made with homemade mayo, pickled shallots, shallot vinegar, Banyuls vinegar, capers and pureed, cooked down potato chips was particularly wonderful when combined with the exquisite tomato and then when tried with everything together, it was off the charts. Thornton was quickly showing himself to have a deft hand with ingredients, textures and flavor combinations.
Thornton clearly likes to play with his food. The next dish could have been considered a culinary version of hide and go seek. Lobster was the principle protein, but rather than being the visual focus, it was hidden underneath a layer of velvety squash soup. Visiually monochromatic, the dish was one of surprises. While the lobster flavor took only a supporting role in this dish, it was still present and did a wonderful job of blending and providing haunting notes to support the delicious squash soup. The textural aspects of the lobster were critical for making this dish work as well as it did. I’m not sure that I would always want to eat lobster this way, but it worked. With this dish, it was clear that Thornton was not afraid to take chances.
It’s difficult to not be exposed to good Mexican cooking and flavors in L.A., which are bound to rub off on anyone with a palate who spends any time eating in that city. This influence certainly has not been lost on Craig Thornton. This dish was brilliant, combining the familiar with the creative. This was simply one of the most delicious rabbit dishes I’ve ever had the pleasure of eating. The element that put this dish over the top was the perfect use of finger limes, the caviar of citrus. Generously spread throughout the dish, they provided wonderful pops of pure citrus lime flavor and acidity. The rest of the flavors were spot on. This was an amazing dish, demonstrating Thornton’s versatility.
Aside from the food and the company, one of the great pleasures of a meal in the Wolves Den is the theater of cooking and plating, all of which is done in plain sight. I found it infinitely entertaining to get up in between courses and watch Thornton cook and get his perspective on the dishes he was making. Since sweetbreads are on of my favorite things to eat, I particularly enjoyed observing the preparation of this dish – almost as much as eating it. This dish with its little bit of ash, sorrel, bone marrow and elderflower, showed that Thornton was familiar with and facile with current culinary trends. He was also adept with traditional cooking techniques – the sweetbreads were perfect!
Somehow I missed taking a photo of the intermezzo – a refreshing, balanced and novel,
violet elderﬂower lime ice. The elderflower was taken from the liqueur and mixed with candied violets and fresh lime juice. The candied violets had been steeped, pureed, strained and added to the liqueur and the lime juice. Marvelous!
Mexican is not the only culinary tradition that pervades Los Angeles, a melting pot city if ever there was one. The cooking of China is another cuisine that has become part of the culinary thread of this city. In this iteration it was pulled pork meets bao. The technique used was similar to that used for making Shanghai style soup dumplings, although the wrapper was thicker and breadier than soup dumplings. Thornton showed a sense of tradition as he he used his grandmother’s recipe for yeast rolls to prepare the dough for the delicious, chewy bao.
The final savory course of the evening was a signature of sorts for Wolves Mouth, in style if not all the specific components. Wolves are distinctly carnivores and probably the most common meat eaten by them in the wild is venison. Thornton cooked venison loins conventionally, leading them to a perfect medium rare.
Hen of the woods mushrooms were used along with several other components like fir gelee and rose petals to help suggest a place in the natural world.
The plating process for all of Thornton’s dishes was fascinating, but for this dish, I truly felt like I was watching an artist at work. Each plate was different, but each plate evoked a sense of primordial wildness.
This was a dish to really stoke one’s inner carnivore – almost as much fun to watch being made as it was to eat (it was lots of fun to watch). The venison loin was rapturously perfect with enough natural redness to get the salivary juices flowing. Thornton achieved his effect of a wild kill by pulling apart the loins with forks and strewing them on the plates along with the blood-like beet blackberry gastrique. The snow was simulated by the smooth cauliflower puree. With this dish, Thornton showed his wild, primal side. Though he is not generally into repeating dishes, this one is a worthwhile signature style – delicious, evocative and absolute fun.
While not as impressive in appearance as “wolves in the snow” dessert was not an afterthought for Thornton. He applied the same sense of fun here with hot and cold treatments of a specific flavor component – buttered rum – tasty. As my friend, Russell said, “It’s rum.” No complaints there.
Thornton likes to riff off pop culture foods – witness the potato chip tartar sauce and the bao using his grandmother’s recipe for yeast rolls. The final course of the evening did it again, taking a childhood favorite – nilla wafers – and transforming them into something special beyond their comfort food legacy. Nilla and banana is a classic combination, but somehow Thornton made it new and vibrant. The pop rocks didn’t hurt. They never do.
At the end of the meal, the guests were handed envelopes for voluntary donations to contribute to the cost of the meal. Thornton has developed quite a following and rightfully so. His audience this night certainly appeared appreciative as the should have been. The quality of his food is outstanding. Unlike being in an actual wolves’ den, this was a place to relax, socialize and enjoy. The senses were all fired up, but not from danger. This dinner party was great fun with riveting culinary theater, fascinating guests and stimulating and truly delicious food. The Wolves Den is not easy to get into. Don’t pass up the opportunity if it comes your way. Craig Thornton is a special talent who happens to be a very interesting and genuinely nice human being despite what images might arise from his alter ego as Wolves Mouth. Watch for him.