A private dinner at Wolvesden, Los Angeles

Wispy black clouds draw its shady curtains over the silver moon.  A lonely wind drags a broken beer bottle through the vacant streets of industrial downtown LA, its hollow echo resonating and disappearing into the urban abyss.  A howl echoes in the distance.  A macabre panorama on this frigid evening brings hungry pack mates together for a feast at the Wolvesden, a secret supper club revealed only to those who dare to step in.  The pack has convened at the den for a private dinner organized by the evening’s host and alpha male, Chuckeats.  It is a special occasion slightly different from the usual workings of the Wolvesden, where lucky strangers from a year long waiting list are brought together for one of Chef Craig Thornton’s dinners at his downtown loft.

It takes days for Thornton to prepare for these feasts, foraging the vast flat plains of Los Angeles for seasonal ingredients and hunting, patiently, for the ultimate fresh catch.  He works alone, diligently, wisely- taking no sous chefs nor brick and mortars that would constrain his independence- a lone wolf whose culinary creations are as wild and raw as his nature.  Live Santa Barbara spot prawns and fresh scallops large enough to eclipse the moon adorn the countertop of Thornton’s kitchen, ready for a sacrificial offering for the pack members who, one by one, gather around the fire on the stove top with bottles of wine and voracious appetites in tow.  The pups and vixens slowly circle the kitchen, admiring the hunt, panting breaths clouding the air, lips curled back to reveal their teeth and paws trembling with excitement as they hold back their instincts to pounce on their prey.

Thornton gives the signal and the sacrificial ritual begins.  For this special evening he has specifically hunted for impregnated female spot prawns, all the better to appease the  predators who have come for the Wolvesden festivities.  The prawns scurry across the hotel pans, making tiny scratching noises with their spiny little feet in a desperate attempt to escape their fate.  Their thin whiskers sway left and right, their black beaded eyes without expression.

One by one we take our turn at the cutting board to sink the knife into the occiput of the crustaceans, killing them as humanely as possible in one precise swift blow.  ‘Let me, let me!’ we all cry, amidst a crescendo of excitement, as we each experience the satisfaction of the catch and the kill.  The strike of the knife, a gush of green liquid, and soon we have a tray of butterflied prawns engorged with bright orange eggs and vivid green tomalley.  They are flash baked in the oven with a sprinkle of sea salt, just enough to sweeten the flesh and concentrate the bitterness of the innards.  After a twist of lime and a dash of coffee powder, we simultaneously rip the flesh out of the shells and sink our teeth into this delicious first course to start the feast.

Thornton pries open the live scallops, removing the white adductor muscles and slicing them horizontally in half.  The motion is so quick that the scallops don’t even realize that they have been severed- they are still fasciculating, twitching and undulating like calm ocean waves, unperturbed.  Wedges of frozen and fresh Oro Blanco draw out the sweetness of the scallops with a splash of white soy, black sesame and chili for extra flavor.

Tortilla is used unconventionally as a purée in a deconstructed fish taco dish, smeared across the plate as a background accent to complement the vivid hues and bright flavors of lime, avocado, cilantro and pickled red onions in the black sea bass dish.

Thornton is a master of uni, at times juxtaposing its sweet butteriness against the crisp bitterness of celery, and in other dinners immersing it in the brininess of black squid ink for a deep ocean adventure.  Here he balances sweet and bitter for the slick little orange sea urchin that are plated with intensely sugary beets- dehydrated yellow beets sliced thin like fruit leather and salt roasted red baby beets- green tea shortbread crumbs, pea shoots, nasturtium and a splash of yuzu kosho vinaigrette.

A whole filet of John Dory is gutted with Thornton’s razor sharp knives, stuffed with thyme and citrus wedges and slathered, quite liberally, with butter.  Into the oven it goes, this glorious specimen of succulent fish, as the butter infuses into the flesh and fine beads of sweat form on the surface of the skin.

In one swift move the chef skins the fish and divides the flesh into equal pieces for each hungry member of the clan.  Razor thin celery slices impart just enough bitterness to temper the buttery clam juice broth that the meaty clams and Asian pears have soaked up.

This time a sputtering of melting fat on the hot skillet draws the pack to the kitchen- it is time for the meat courses, and Thornton is preparing what wolves love best- offals.  The smell of meat drives the wild pack into sympathetic overdrive- we whine, we yelp, we sniff and we bark as we impatiently wait for that golden crust to form on the sweetbreads.  The meaty nuggets are presented as an open faced sandwich on fried green tomatoes with raw cheddar cheese, crème fraîche, chives and a trio of peppers-cayenne, pimento and piquillo.

A refreshing palate cleanser made with freeze dried blueberries, verjus and mandarins tames the excited pack into submission for a quick break before more meat appears on the dining table.

Thornton has broken down a whole wild pheasant earlier that evening- oh how we would have loved to hunt and kill that bird ourselves, the pups secretly think, their tails wagging at the thought of such an adventure.  The roasted bird is tossed in a parmesan hazelnut rosemary cream sauce that lovingly clings to the fresh pappardelle, a little too salty for many but the crispy skin cracklings loved by all.

For the final savory course Thornton pulls out a loaf of 48 day aged beef from the oven, slicing them in perfect little medium-rare pink toasts that he plates with watermelon radish, chives, dill, and sautéed wild mushrooms- yellow foots and black trumpets.  The vixens watch from a distance, leaned back in crouched positions, ready for the ambush, while the impatient pups trot and pace around the kitchen, salivating at the veal tongue and pork cheek pelmenis (dumplings) which, once served, swiftly disappear between their sharp incisors.

Dessert begins with a playful tribute to the Whopper, Thornton’s nod to our dinner host Chuck who, despite his reputation for having a refined palate for the finer things in life, is quite the closet junk food addict.  A steel spoon delivers a swift blow to the chocolate capsule, causing it to crack and massively hemorrhage a miso and malt liquid.  It bleeds briskly like an aneurysm into the fluffy carpet of salted Valrhona chocolate purée (mixed with homemade tofu for that light airiness- how brilliant) and gets soaked up by the roasted barley malt cake, a satisfying and delicious interpretation of America’s finest snack.

Thornton hones in on sweet nostalgia with an unmistakable flavor that makes us smile.  He has turned cereal milk, those last few remaining spoonfuls and satisfying gulps of sweetened milk at the bottom of the breakfast bowl, into an ice cream with chewy nuggets of rice krispies and sliced bananas.

The feeding frenzy ends on a sweet and playful note as the wolves rub their muzzles on their napkins and lick their chops.  It was quite a feast, beginning with an interactive catch and kill that instantly awakened the ravenous nature of the pack and whetted rapacious appetites.  There was a lot of meat- too much for even these wild animals to clean up, an issue of portion control that Thornton is aware of (‘I don’t want anybody to leave hungry, and I just get too excited about the food!’) but the smells, the sights and the tastes kept us curious and amazed from course to course.  There is something really special about this chef, who is immensely passionate about what he does, yet is as humble, unassuming and generous as they get in this industry.

At the end of the evening we salute this wonderful chef, rolling to the floor on our backs in a food coma, satiated bellies facing up in the ultimate sign of respect and submission.  Thornton responds to this gesture by removing his hat, revealing his wild long mane that he thrashes back and forth- a true pack leader, a majestic wolf.  The pack howls in unison.

A dinner at the Wolvesden is a special treat, and a private dinner with friends makes for an even better experience.  Book your feast with this talented chef and get ready to Strike. Tear. Chew.                                                                                                                     ……at the Wolvesden

Random trivia: Did you know that scallops have up to 100 simple eyes around the edges of their mantles?

Wolvesden- Los Angeles

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.