Most underground supper clubs manage to stay incognito, but one particular venue in Los Angeles took very little time to become the talk of the town. Its reputation, its exclusivity, its food, its concept, its chef and most of all the difficulty in getting one’s foot into the door of the Wolvesden gained notoriety almost overnight. An evening at the Wolvesden is not a regular supper club experience- think of it as a gathering of friends for a fun and casual dinner with bottles of BYOB wines and spirits. Only 12 guests are invited for the evening, to Chef Craig Thornton’s loft in downtown, where he oversees the planning, the shopping, the prep, the cooking, the execution and the hosting with a help of a few friends. It’s essentially a home dinner party, and strangers assemble for an exquisite meal around a cozy dining table adorned with hanging antler mobiles and crocodile heads, all pitching in to help clear plates, set utensils, pour wine and serve courses for an unforgettable evening where everybody becomes friends and works as a community.
You never know who you’ll run into at the Wolvesden- on the evening that I went, the Animal dudes Vinny Dotolo and Jon Shook were there, as well as Daily Dose owner Sarkis Vartanian and fellow physician food blogger John Sconzo who flew out from New York for this event. Regardless of everybody’s background, the vibe at the dinner table was friendly, open, fun and full of laughter. The house mascot Prince, a mellow and adorable Pomeranian, made his rounds to ensure that everybody was having a good time.
Wolvesden is not your typical dinner venue, and Craig Thornton is certainly not your typical chef. Unlike most chefs in Los Angeles, he doesn’t have a long list of restaurant stints, and he didn’t go to the CIA. In his last job he worked as actor Nicholas Cage’s private chef, and he stays free of attachments to restaurants and institutions. As they say in Japanese, he’s an ‘ippiki ookami’ 一匹狼, a lone wolf, who stays away from the packs to maintain his independence and raw wild nature. His den is hidden in a dark neighborhood in downtown LA, his website features a growling wolf, his custom MAC knives have a signature wolf paw print engraving, and his wild long mane, initially tucked neatly inside a hat, comes thrashing out at the end of the evening as he skates around his living room. Yet Thornton himself is nothing like an intimidating wolf, but a young artist who engages with his innocent and kind eyes, and makes everybody feel at ease with his laid back friendly demeanor. He is one of the most approachable and warm chefs, his humility a stark contrast to the genius behind his mad creations.
Sweet uni, celery root puree, pickled celery leaf ice, coffee, mustard meringue, apple balls
His name was celery, a bitter bloke from the downtown projects, hated by all for his unpleasant and sarcastic sense of humor. Children despised him, and threw rocks at him. He took odd unexciting jobs in mirepoix and soup stocks, never quite making it up the social ladder. Her name was uni, a buxom globetrotting socialite with beauty and fame. Her sweet luscious body enchanted even the most discerning royalty from Europe to Asia, and her images often graced the cover of food magazines.
On one fateful evening, they met in a garden of apple ball topiary and coffee dust. There was an instant attraction between these unlikely opposites, as they snuggled on a soft blanket of celery root purée under the shaded mustard merengue canopies. Their passionate love making melted his ice cold green celery leaf heart, as he succumbed to the intoxicating sweetness of her flesh. His signature bitterness changed to a refreshing and pleasant complement to her succulent savor, and their heavenly union became known as one of the best interpretations of celery. As I licked my dish clean of the bitter and sweet flavors, their tale came to an abrupt bittersweet end.
Black cod, tomato, crouton, potato chip tartar
I found the most memorable component of the Wolvesden dinner in a flavorful and addictive smear of potato chip tartar sauce, made with Banyuls vinegar, mayonnaise, pickled shallots, capers and crushed potato chips. A perfect balance of tart, sour, creamy and salty, this sauce defined the dolled up Filet-o-fish dish of black cod, heirloom tomato wedges and ‘chunky crouton’ made with toasted brioche.
Butternut squash, lobster, bacon serrano muffin
It takes several days for Thornton to prepare each dinner, especially when he sticks to his uncompromising principles of getting the best quality ingredients for his dishes. He may get the bulk of his inspiration from the local farmers markets, but will easily spend the rest of the day fighting LA traffic to get individual items from specialty stores. It’s all in the name of good food and a good experience for his diners who eventually become his friends. Take the creamy butternut squash soup for example, where he added generous chunks of lobster ‘just for texture’, with a freshly baked bacon serrano muffin on the side.
Rabbit saddle, tomato broth, albondigas, finger limes
Thornton’s inspiration for his rabbit dish was the image of a Mexican abuelita. Rolled up rabbit saddle in a tomato rabbit stock broth flavored with nutmeg, cumin, cinnamon and Mexican oregano was comforting and nourishing, just the type of pozole that a Mexican grandmother would concoct for the common cold. Succulent meaty albondigas (meatballs) on a red corn tortilla pudding with shaved cotija cheese were amazing, but the highlight of each bite came courtesy of the titillating and eye opening bursts of citrus tang from the barely visible bubbles of finger lime pulp. The occasional surprise pop and burst packed a real punch to liven up the dish.
Sweetbreads, burnt eggplant and bone marrow purée, sorrel, pee wee potatoes
The Wolvesden provides a homey environment where diners can get up to stretch, chat, drink and mingle with others. Most of the time guests congregated around the stove where Craig multi-tasked between the oven, the steamers and the immersion thermocirculators while keeping up his duties as host. The aromas and sizzling sounds of sweetbreads and pee wee potatoes on the pan drew the party to the kitchen, where he plated the perfectly cooked wedges of creamy veal sweetbreads with burnt eggplant and bone marrow purée, and a brush of sorrel sauce.
Elderflower, violet and lime ice
As ridiculous as this may sound, my favorite dish of the evening was the palate cleanser, an elderflower, violet and lime ice with a sensational flavor quite unlike anything I’ve ever tasted before. A subtle sweetness with just the right amount of unobtrusive citrus undertone, full of complex flavors that my palate was well familiar with but couldn’t quite place.
Pork cheek bao
After a successful rabbit dish reminiscent of a Mexican grandmother, Thornton summoned the powers of a Chinese grandmother to create a satisfying pork cheek bao, stuffed with generous chunks of tender pork. Utilizing his own grandmother’s yeast roll recipe with a traditional Chinese bao recipe, he pulled off a perfect doughy skin with an optimal amount of chewiness that silenced the table as the guests embraced these warm steamy buns in their hands.
Wolves in the Snow- venison loin, hen of the woods mushrooms, beet, cauliflower
Every dish that Thornton makes has a story, a vision, a powerful image that comes to life on the plate. In one of his signature dishes, he recreated a haunting yet beautiful scene of a winter wolf attack, a vivid display of animals in the wild. Pan seared then oven baked venison loin was torn apart with forks to mimic the powerful shearing forces of wolves clamping down on its prey, while hen of the wood mushrooms, rose petals, dehydrated cauliflower florets and cauliflower purée set the forest background. Splashes of bright crimson beet juice with blackberry and Banyuls vinegar conjured a gruesome sight of fresh warm blood splattering across the white snow which Thornton plated with the determination and grace of Jackson Pollock.
Like the great African migration of wildebeests that cross crocodile infested waters of the Serengeti, well aware of their imminent danger but unable to resist their instincts, the awesomeness of such powerful displays of the circle of life renders the voyeur unable to look away. The savage clash of prey and predator while both desperately fight for survival and the juxtaposition of beauty and violence was captured eloquently in this dish where the flavors were as good as the visual. While the venison should have been prepared more rare, the dish was amazing in every other way.
Buttered rum hot and cold
Temperature and texture contrast was the theme in the first of two desserts, featuring a hot buttered rum fritter on cold buttered rum panna cotta, a silky gelatinous concoction with the light jiggly texture of annin tofu, or Chinese almond jelly.
Banana four ways
The best part of the banana dessert was not the banana slice, the banana poprocks, banana bread or banana purée, but the Nilla wafer ice cream that glided across my tongue to melt into a pool of seductive sweetness. The familiar flavors and playfulness of textures reminded me of those happy childhood moments in my backyard.
Even though Chef Craig Thornton is a lone wolf in the culinary world, he successfully grows his own pack of faithful followers and fans through these amazing dinner experiences. An intimate look into the home and the kitchen of this young and vivacious chef, in the company of similar diners who will become your new friends by the end of the evening, is a special and memorable experience unlike any other. He rarely, if ever, repeats a dish, making each dinner a unique affair for those lucky few who get to attend. According to Thornton, the list of dinner requests is so overwhelming that it would take a minimum of 2 years to get through it. My hope is for as many people as possible to see, smell and taste the raw fantastic creativity of this uninhibited adventurous chef.
“Even if you have bad food, if you have good people, you’ll have a good meal,’ Thornton told me at the end of the dinner- the prime reason for limiting each dinner to 12 guests, to maintain a sense of intimacy. At the Wolvesden, you will have both good food and good people, making for a remarkable meal.
-at an undisclosed location in Los Angeles
Random trivia: Did you know that a mated wolf pair usually stays committed for life? Only when one of them dies, does the other look for another mate.