Like so many other businesses that have opened since the pandemic began, Voodoo Vin’s path has been more of a crooked line than originally intended. Owners Natalie and Michael Hekmat always envisioned opening a wine bar and restaurant, but serving food had to be put on the back burner while they got their wine business up and running.
The duo had secured their Virgil Village location — a former security guard and detective training school located at 713 N. Virgil Avenue — back in 2017, shortly after the LA natives moved back to the neighborhood after spending more than a decade in New York City. (Since then, it’s worth noting that several other businesses, such as Melody Wine Bar and Courage Bagels, have opened in the area, prompting concerns over gentrification in the predominantly Latinx neighborhood.) As is often the case, permitting took much longer than expected, so it wasn’t until the fall of 2020 that Voodoo Vin opened as a natural wine retail shop, operating with online retail and curbside pickup. The Hekmats, who modeled the wine bar after traditional caves in Paris, London, and Tokyo, started serving wines by the glass and some simple snacks in the summer of 2021, and last November, chef Travis Hayden began a residency, serving more elaborate small plates.
Hayden, a longtime former music executive who knocked on the back door of Rustic Canyon five years ago and turned a stage there into a full-time cooking position, is now officially Voodoo Vin’s chef of record. He’s serving a menu that complements the Hekmats’s selection of 400+ bottles that lean heavily on Old World producers (“about 98 percent,” Michael estimates) — a selection built from inspiration from their extensive travels and a love for places like Wildair and the Four Hoursemen in NYC.
From a tight 20-square foot kitchen with little more than a couple of induction burners, a pasta boiler, a toaster oven, and a meat slicer, Hayden has started an ambitious housemade charcuterie program. “Charcuterie is frequently made by winemakers, because the temperature and humidity of wine caves is perfect for aging,” Hayden says, adding that he often incorporates wine from the Hekmats’s bottle selection into items like mortadella, bresaola, and a chicken liver terrine. His charcuterie is also aged in the same cave where the Hekmats age bottles from their collection.
Other menu highlights include a Caesar-dressed beef tartare spooned onto a toasted slab of Bub & Grandma’s bread, a nduja-fortified Bolognese served with housemade tagliatelle and dusted with cured egg yolk, and scallops paired with beurre blanc and house-made potato chips. Hayden’s frequent market visits mean accompaniments to the dishes change regularly; the mortadella, for instance, might be served with pickled cauliflower one night and pickled Jimmy Nardello peppers the next.
Hayden’s goal is to be as close to a zero-waste kitchen as possible, so ingredient scraps are used throughout the menu, as well as for fermentations and vinegars. Whey from ricotta ice cream is used in the Caesar dressing for the beef tartare, for instance, while buttermilk from Hayden’s cultured butter is used to make a buttermilk ice cream latticed with a blueberry-lavender compote.
“I’m about to put on a cucumber dish and am juicing the scraps to make kosho, as well as a cucumber vinegar,” Hayden says, noting that he learned about preservation processes while at Rustic Canyon. “The great thing about ferments and vinegars is that they’re incredibly shelf-stable, so they’ll find a home in a dish someday.”
On the wine side, the Hekmats are offering eight to 10 options by the glass, with selections often changing daily. Bottles are still available to take to-go or to enjoy at a handful of wooden tables on the sidewalk or the compact indoor bar (the couple worked with design firm Weekends for the space’s minimalist look that takes inspiration from some of the couple’s favorite spots around the globe, like Septime in Paris).
The couple is passionate about both sourcing and aging bottles they don’t think are ready to drink. “We feel it’s important to hold some bottles back. We’d like to get to a point where, with a particular vintage, you could even do a vertical tasting of the same cuvée to see how it’s aged over time,” Natalie says.
She hopes that Voodoo Vin evolves to give people a sense of place that expands beyond the real-time dining room experience in Los Angeles. “We’ve built such close relationships with these farmers and growers over the past several years,” she says. “We’re so grateful to share these beautiful bottles. I call them ‘time capsules.’ Wine gives you an element of a time and a place without having to have to travel.”
Voodoo Vin is open Tuesday through Saturday from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m., with extended hours coming soon.
Update, August 5, 12:33 p.m.: This story has been updated to incorporate additional context about gentrification.