Hal’s new chef Lee Garman spices things up with a new dinner menu
Story by Jessica Koslow • Photos by Zsuzsi Steiner
Some things about Hal’s Bar & Grill never change: Hal’s turkey burger, which has its own following on Instagram; Hal’s Caesar salad; the organic half chicken, a favorite of regulars; live jazz on Sunday afternoons and Monday nights; Mikel Alatza’s three-dimensional portrait of co-owner Hal Frederick hanging on the back wall across from Kwaku Alston’s larger-than-life black-and-white portrait of a sharply dressed lone African-American man walking down the road holding a guitar case; and the sight of Hal himself, white hair, classy suit, big smile.
And then, of course, some things do change. Like when the original location of Hal’s Bar & Grill on Abbot Kinney closed its doors in April 2015 after 30 years and opened down the street, sharing the former Primitivo space with its sister restaurant, Casalinda Mexican Grill, also owned by Hal’s Bar & Grill. Then, in April 2017, Hal’s Bar & Grill launched its new, additional location at Runway Playa Vista, serving only breakfast and lunch for six months while they waited for a liquor license.
This month, Hal’s announced the arrival of a new executive chef, Lee Garman, who replaces retiring Manuel Mares, the culinary maestro in charge of Hal’s kitchen for the past three decades. Chef Garman is signaling his arrival with a new menu, first unveiled on November 15.
“This new menu has a lot more comfort, slow food,” explains Garman, who comes to Hal’s via Trejo’s Cantina in Woodland Hills and Plan Check, “food that takes time to make and needs a lot of love: collard and mustard greens for ravioli and salads, slow-cooked foods like red beans and rice. We will also be featuring moles, or our versions of moles.”
The fresh collard green salad is a small mountain of healthy living, bursting with sharp flavors — blue cheese crumbles, crispy bacon and candied pecans — tossed in a honey cider vinaigrette, with a beet pickled egg on the side.
According to Garman, it took his team two weeks to get the salad dressing just right. Collard greens are bitter after all, and so mixing just the right amount of honey and cider to cut the bitters was akin to figuring out the Rubik’s Cube.
The pan roasted sea scallops show off the chef’s love affair with Mexican flavors. (When asked his favorite style of cooking, Garman replies, “Mexican: It is such a complex and rich culinary tradition.”)
The scallops are floating in a bed of esquite — an exquisitely creamy, limey, cotija cheesy Mexican street corn — with added swirls of guava jelly.
The new menu is showing early signs of success. The duck asada tacos, sweetened with pineapple and passion fruit chutney, sold out in one-and-a-half hours the second night the new menu was available.
When speaking about his new menu, Garman is quick to highlight the contributions of the other cooks in his kitchen. The savory mole poured over the mustard greens and burrata ravioli is the recipe of prep cook Eloisa’s grandma. Lead cook Ryan is the mastermind behind the chorizo red beans and Spanish rice, which serve as the bed for the succulent braised short rib.
As 6 p.m. rolls around on this mid-November Saturday night, Hal’s is filling up nicely. The bar and grill occupies the niche for a casual, elegant eatery at Runway. Tonight’s crowd is a hodgepodge of hip baby boomers, UCLA and USC sweatshirts, clusters of stylish millennials (some here with their parents), date-night couples, and more couples at the bar well positioned to watch college football on the large, flat screen.
Most customers are probably ordering Hal’s signature dishes: the Caesar salad, turkey burger, organic half chicken or their burger, which is now called the “off-the-menu” burger.
But for the adventurous eaters who order off the beaten path, like the braised short rib or (one of the best desserts I’ve ever eaten) the salted caramel mousse and sweet potato pudding shaped into a perfect scoop by vanilla gel and sitting atop a shortbread cookie, they are in for a tasty treat.
“My first time in a kitchen was with my grandfather,” shares Garman. “His mother owned a diner. He taught me a lot about cooking. He baked the best pies and made the best pancakes.”
It should come as no surprise that Garman will be launching a brunch menu at Hal’s soon — another niche at Runway that Hal’s fills so uniquely: swingin’ Sunday brunch with live jazz.