Right around this time last year, I read a feature story in a local weekly about sushi in Los Angeles, and it moved me so much, I emailed the writer a note of admiration and thanks. He is somewhat of a local, even national, celebrity, so I didn’t expect any sort of reply. In fact, I doubted that he would even receive my email mixed in with the hundreds he likely receives on an hourly basis. I just assumed that some assistant-to-the-assistant-to-the-assistant would intercept it and junk it. Fan mail. Click. Trash.
Not only did he receive it (though I am not sure how many levels of filtering hands it had to go through first), but he replied. I almost passed out when I read it. I was starstruck like a silly little school girl.
The email has been saved in my inbox now for a year. Who saves an email in an inbox for a year? I do, and in fact, I “starred” it in gmail – partially because it was an email from him (eek!), and partially because one line struck me so deeply that I wanted to make sure to have it as reminder:
“I…try to understand restaurants in more or less the way that the restaurateur intends all of us to, then evaluate them by the standards they have set up for themselves. It's a difficult thing sometimes – really, swinging an axe is so much easier and more fun.”
He is a professional restaurant critic, and clearly, it is important that he follows this simple philosophy that he has stated because there is a lot at stake for him, for the restaurants, and for his readers. Whether or not people agree with his using the restaurant’s own standards against which to measure, at the very least, the readers will know what that standard is. That’s not to say that personal taste and opinion don’t play roles – they absolutely do – but it has to be balanced.
However, for someone like me, just a food blogger going out, eating, having fun, applying such a statement seems presumptuous. Who am I to think that I should even be in a position to “evaluate?” I’m not. And yet, it is so easy to write off a restaurant simply because it didn’t taste good. It is also much easier, as he said, to swing the axe.
Admittedly, too many times I have written harsh, sometimes to the point of scathing, words about a restaurant. They have always been my personal opinion, and I realize now, that I might have been more careful about using “terrible,” “taint,” and “putrid,” had I thought more about the restaurant’s intention.
And that is the approach I try to apply when thinking about Hatfield’s. When I first walked out of the restaurant, my thought was “I didn’t love how the food tasted.” I was going to write it off.
From the outside, the restaurant looks like a small, simple house that has been updated. It states its name in plain, easy-to-read block lettering, large and in all-caps, which might be mistaken for arrogance, yet it was refreshing. Too many restaurants in a trend of Hollywood haughtiness refuse to put up a sign, because duh, you should just know who and where they are. You should do your homework, they shouldn’t have to tell you. Hatfield’s is a restaurant that is humble enough that it still wears a nametag and introduces itself to you at a cocktail party.
My “date” was waiting beautifully on the patio for me. Put-together. Stylish. Gorgeous. After a quick hello hug, we followed the host through the front door into the dining room.
The inside is small, somewhat stark, and even felt a little cold. We went back into the warmer outside air. The patio wraps in an L-shape from the front around the left side. We took a table there on the side to avoid the traffic chaos on Beverly Boulevard. Surprisingly, at 7:30 on a Thursday night, most of the tables, inside and out, were empty.
Our server handed us the short, highly seasonal, market-focused menus, then glided off to fetch our drinks. I had just recently finished reading French Women Don’t Get Fat and had also re-discovered my love for sparkling wine, so I started with Prosecco. We exchanged abbreviated versions of our life stories and out future dream fantasies, and had to apologetically shoo away our server a few times.
I had a light, giggly buzz going. This will sound painfully cliché, but perhaps it was the twilight, perhaps it was being in a fantasy headspace of sitting on a tiny patio that didn’t feel the least bit like LA, perhaps it was just the excited anticipation of dining with someone new who is similar to me, and yet so fascinatingly unlike me. If ever there was a time that something felt like it was sparkling, it was that moment. Then again, maybe it was the Prosecco.
The kitchen sent out an amuse bouche – two shots of apricot gazpacho and tiny devilled quail eggs. On any other day, I’d roll my eyes at such teeny tiny pretty little preciousness. Not even “precious,” but a high-pitched “ohmigod…presh!” But for some reason, I found the presentation adorable. My inner Hello Kitty emitted a silent, squeaky squeal.
The apricot gazpacho was slightly sweet and refreshing, but I have to admit that I wasn’t in love with it on its own. Sweet and fruity to me is always a cocktail, and even in cocktails, I prefer nothing fruitier than a twist. The devilled quail eggs were made with a smoked fish which certainly made them more interesting than a simple hard-boiled egg, but like, the apricot gazpacho, I wasn’t in love with it.
We chose two appetizers. I wasn’t sure what to make of the Croque Madame. Like the amuse bouche before it, it was “presh,” as if Hello Kitty herself were back in the kitchen *eek!*-ing them out on all her miniaturized pink Sanrio-licensed Hello Kitty emblazoned cookware. Buttered and toasted brioche had been cut into sugar-cookie-sized discs. Instead, of plain ham and Gruyère cheese, it was pretty in pink prosciutto and Hello Kitty Japanese hamachi, all topped off with yes, another tiny little quail egg. It was too cute for comment. My date liked the saltiness and butteriness of it. I thought it tasted like a tuna melt. A cute tuna melt.
Charred Japanese Octopus, Roasted Fennel, Red Wine Olive Puree, Saffron-Vanilla Braised Heart of Palm, Candied Orange Rind came next. I had read the words on the menu and wondered whatever happened to giving a dish a simple name. When did it become necessary to list every component? I’m not necessarily complaining, since it’s always nice to know, but sometimes I like to look at a Red Lobster Menu and order the “Octopus Salad.” The dish was fine, but I am not a huge fan of octopus to begin with, and as much as I adore hearts of palm, I was thrown off first by their canary yellow color from the saffron, then by the flavor. Vanilla belongs in cookies.
But I understood now.
This was not a formal meeting. This was not “Hello. *handshake* Allow me to introduce myself…” Dinner at Hatfield’s is an IM conversation. The kind where a stranger’s window simply pops in with a “heeeey…” and a ;) As you exchange messages getting to know each other, you’re intrigued.
hAtfiElds323: Devilled eggs?
hAtfiElds323: O, I’ve got devilled eggs, LOL
hAtfiElds323: howz ‘bout croque madame? ;)
TheDeliciousLife: o, toootally.
hAtfiElds323: “croque madame” ;)
The conversation is witty, clever, sassy, serious, but with enough flirtatious innuendo that if you get it, you get it, and if you don’t, you don’t. Hatfield’s answer is always a wink. ;) Sometimes there's a LOL. The food is serious, but it feels like there’s a little bit of sarcasm behind it. A joke. Like playing a joke on foodies.
If the appetizers were a series of IMs riddled with smilies and TLAs, though, the entrees were a one-sided presentation in a bored meeting. They did their homework. They prepared. And though I’m sure every single dish – from a duck breast to a rack of lamb – would have sealed the deal with smooth, professional execution, they were a little uninspiring. I think we ordered an entree simply out of obligation, and made our selection by process of elimination. Olive oil poached Halibut, Herbed Asapragus, Hon Shimeji Mushrooms and Pickled Scallion Vinaigrette was fine. Like I said, well-executed, slick, particularly the choice of hon shimejis, but I was nodding and “hm”-ing my head only out of business-etiquette habit.
By the end of the meal, the evening had turned into night. We didn’t order dessert, though I’m not exactly sure why. Perhaps I thought it would be too much. Perhaps I was trying to be polite. Perhaps I didn’t want to seem a glutton. I don’t know.
I may or may not go back to Hatfield’s. I understand now that Hatfield’s, even if not an IM conversation but a real-life conversation, is playful banter. It is filled with impish grins and mysterious facial expressions. Dishes, like phrases are wrapped in quotes because what you get is, but it isn’t. Everything is a double entendre. So to speak. If you will.
When I think about how hamachi on grilled brioche tastes like a tuna melt and how it looks like Hello Kitty made it, I tell myself that I don’t need to go back. That once was enough. That it was nice to meet Hatfield’s. That it’s nice to see them in my Buddy List but I don’t need to ping them.
But when I re-read the email from J.Gold, I think I might. ;)
7458 Beverly Blvd (@ N. Vista)
Los Angeles, 90036
** a year ago today, chameau went north, south, eat west **