LOS ANGELES — I don’t want to be that person who recommends the chicken. Especially not here, at a restaurant you’ll likely wait months or weeks to get into — a bit less, maybe, if you can maintain a healthy working relationship with Resy’s “notify” button.
But all of those people who say you should never get the chicken — because chicken is objectively tedious and unambitious, or generally overpriced and mediocre, or because you can make it so much better at home — probably haven’t had the chicken at Horses.
The dainty Cornish game hen is spatchcocked to reveal so much crisp, lightly browned skin, and rests on a warm, unmade bed of panzanella, juices running across the plate.
Although the dish might give you the impression of being effortless, like so much at Horses, it isn’t. It takes precision and care to extract and concentrate the flavors of a roasted bird, to expand on them with little more than sour currants and lightly bitter dandelion greens, to serve it all at the exact moment when the edges of crusty bread are softening from a soak in warm pan drippings, a light stock and butter.
Horses opened last fall on Sunset Boulevard with an Yves Klein blue facade that hides a warren of cozy, lived-in dining rooms and wooden bars. It was formerly the Pikey, an atrociously named British restaurant, and before that, Ye Coach & Horses, an old Hollywood hangout.
Within months, it became one of those unbearably hot reservations in Los Angeles, a restaurant where the waiting list on a recent Thursday was a whopping 1,784 names long, where Beyoncé and Jay-Z enter through the alleyway leading to the back door, and where A-listers often fill the back room, which is decorated with dreamlike paintings of horses by Kacper Abolik, known for his portraits of celebrities. But it’s not like most Hollywood scenes where, if you go to dinner, you may have to accept that the food is beside the point.
The menu doesn’t list a chef’s name, and the servers won’t refer to “chef” in conversation, but there are several: the chefs and owners, Liz Johnson and Will Aghajanian, a married couple, hired Brittany Ha to run the kitchen, and Hannah Grubba is dedicated to desserts.
Several chefs and a dedicated pastry chef! This might have been unremarkable at one point, but it’s an unimaginable luxury right now as so many restaurants in Los Angeles struggle to staff up after pandemic-related cuts and losses, and get ready to face another surge of Covid cases.
Horses seems aware of its allure as a low-key party — a place to escape, to order platters of pasta alla vodka under crunchy bread crumbs, and to spoon fresh guava sorbet melting in cold, fizzy wine. For the most part, the kitchen has a gift for making both the service and food seem bright, effortless and charismatic.
Plates are never crowded with ingredients or superfluous garnishes. Massive quantities of butter and olive oil move together on tiptoes, stealthily, never weighing a dish down. See: the sole under an airy, melting béarnaise, and the ripples of buttery pork Milanese, fried in olive oil.
The menu reflects a fondness for offal, a deep respect for the power of anchovies and mayonnaise, a reverence for pan juices and a devotion to fat. Though the food never feels outdated, every now and then there are Easter eggs for cooks, the kind of nerdy, shot-for-shot homages you might find in an episode of “Stranger Things.”
If that chicken dish feels familiar, it might be because it shares so much with Judy Rodgers’s roast chicken and bread salad, on the menu at San Francisco’s Zuni Cafe since 1987. The boudin noir almost calls back to a perfect slice of blood cake, draped with a delicate fried egg, at Fergus Henderson’s St. John in London. The sweetbreads with capers and frisée could cite a number of key influences, but got me thinking about Gabrielle Hamilton’s cooking at Prune in New York.
The menu at Horses changes so often that great dishes can disappear, returning later in a new form, or not at all. Months ago, a bowl of tender, creamy beans drizzled with a loose, salty tonnato was astonishingly good. Though I never saw the dish again, the tonnato reappeared with chile oil to dress skinny, tender Romano beans and thin slices of seared tuna. A pile of tagliarini and clams, the strongest of the pasta dishes I tasted, is sadly no longer with us. And its replacement, a thickly rolled pappardelle dressed in saffron butter, was uncharacteristically stodgy.
In the same way the food can seem far breezier than it is, so can the dining room. Though servers maintain the party vibe, they’re always moving intentionally, and with an eye on the clock. In the kitchen, the chefs connect their phones to the restaurant’s security cameras — winking red in the corners of the three rooms — so they can set the rhythm for tables, and time sending out the courses.
Recently, a friend who lives down the street and regularly when went the space was Ye Coach & Horses, complained that he couldn’t go in on a whim anymore and just plunk down at the bar. Technically, that’s not true. The bar seats are held for walk-in diners, and you can get lucky every now and then, I just wouldn’t count on it.
It’s the dark side of the hot reservation: If the restaurant turns out to be good, you can’t keep going back with a sense of spontaneity, even if you happen to live in the neighborhood. It can make Horses feel faraway and inaccessible, which is a shame, because once you do get in and sit down, ideally in front of the roast chicken, it can be pure deliciousness and warmth.