Here's Looking At You, Koreatown!
In recent years, the restaurant industry has seen a dramatic shift away from traditional dining. Many popular new eateries developed by rock-star chefs and risk-enthused restaurateurs have traded in the antiquated “appetizer” and “entrée” for small-plate starters and mains often served family style at communal tables. Eating out can sometimes feel like being apart of a New Age social experiment or marketing company’s focus group—only at the end instead of a $200 Visa gift card for your opinions and participation, you get a bill and a few foodie pics to post on Instagram. Across the board there seems to be an emphasis placed on sharing and tasting a variety of dishes to create an eclectic dining experience. Armed with forks and spoons, loved ones engage in battle for the last morsel left on the charger. Menus are structured by food-groups like “Meats,” “Vegetables,” or “Poultry,” instead of the standard course progression we’ve come to expect—and the price is no more of an indicator of portion size than the order in which it’s written on the menu. At such restaurants, I’ve found that I’ve become completely reliant on my server for guidance—left to the mercy of their knowledge of the food and ability to course a meal.
I imagine it’s a real pressure cooker for the chefs designing these “small plate” menus. It requires that every dish stand firmly on its own—and without traditional pallet cleansing signposts, there is no respite from the intense flavor that is packed into every bite. But for all my belly-aching and resistance to change (you damn kids get off my lawn) I have to say that when certain restaurants get the small plate phenomenon right, it can be a transcendental experience that shouldn’t be missed. Here’s Looking At You is one of those places. SoCal native and food whisperer chef Jonathan Whitener (who earned his stripes at Animal) has joined forces with managing partner Lien Ta to bring his modern and unique perspective on cooking to the LA diner.
Southern California is home to a plethora of immigrant communities in close proximity of one another. The mixing and mingling of these communities created a whole new approach to cooking. This Koreatown gem promises progressive SoCal food that hails predominately from the Asian corner of the globe. In preparation, flavor profiles and presentation that Asian influence boldly shines through along with a distinctive Mexican interpretation. It fuses the best of the continent’s varied cuisines with Mexican flare on the side for good measure.
As a reminder, TBOT evaluates restaurants on a scale of 1 to 10. A) Atmosphere, B) Appetizer, C) Cocktails/Beverage, D) Dessert/Coffee, E) Entrée and F) Service. We add up the scores from each category and divide by 6 to get the average.
If you’re expecting some type of referential nod to the moment when Humphrey Bogart famously broke Ingrid Bergman’s heart—softly touching her chin to say: “here’s looking at you, kid” you’ll be sorely disappointed. If anything the name is more “tongue and cheek” as the restaurant has nothing to do with Casablanca or Rick’s Café where so much of the action in the movie took place. Though you won’t find balconies with ornate banisters or beaded wall sconces in the French-Moroccan style, you will find taxidermy busts of horned gazelles (at least they look like gazelles to me) towering over the hostess stand. Artifacts and potted plants are scattered about the restaurant giving the industrial space some warmth and approachability. Sleek grey wood floors meet an open wrap-around bar made of deep brown wood that shows its grain. Books line the top shelf of the bar and a playlist of some of the best hip-hop of today and yesterday serenade the munching crowd. We are seated underneath a photograph of a salt and peppered man wearing a shirt that says “Supreme” on it. He’s probably a famous chef that I should recognize, but more importantly it all seems to be indicative of the playfully sophisticated style the entire atmosphere embodies. I gave the décor a TBOT 8.
Having slogged our way through rush hour traffic, my gal pal Natalie Decleve and I figured we’d earned one of the delicious “intersections” designed by Allan Katz and Danielle Crouch. A euphemism for cocktail, intersections refers to the cultural diversity one finds on every LA street corner. This merge of ingredients from disparate sources is what defines HLAY’s food and cocktail menus along with catchy namesakes sure to pique thirsty patrons interests. I'm not one for brown liquor so I can’t tell you about the Japanese whiskey based Underdog Story, or the date-infused Ron Prohibido 12 rum- based Handsome Devil. However, after slurping down the persimmon leaf-infused tequila-based Folk Hero with winter citrus and yuzu I can only imagine how quenching all of the intersections are. The lady at the table certainly enjoyed her lime, pink peppercorn and vodka Spa Day. I gave the booze a TBOT 9.1.
Given that there’s no such thing as an appetizer anymore, I’ll have to say we started with the Speckled Romaine & Curly Mustard salad and Momotaro Tomato. Both were scrumptious. The crunch of the breadcrumbs and the salt of the cotija cheese sprinkled on top of the salad met the pasilla chile hidden in the dressing beautifully. The tomato dish puzzled us—our best conceptual guess was a deconstructed BLT without the L. Extremely fresh and ripe slices of tomato were buried underneath micro bits of Chinese sausage on a generous blop of anchovy bagna cauda sauce. Stealing some of the speckled romaine from the salad, I created that BLT on my own and scraped my plate until there was no bagna cauda visible. These dishes earned a TBOT 8.9.
Thanks to the encouragement of my fearless-female-Anthony-Bourdain-incarnate-dinner -date, we took a giant leap and ordered the Frog Legs! There were other much safer options like the 30-Day Aged Holstein Ribeye cooked on a wood fire grill (or what HLAY lovingly calls the green egg) that came with a pickled radish butter and peewee potatoes. But no, we figured in this case “when in Rome” meant braving the 4-spiced rubbed frog legs that came with a lime-pepper and miso dipping sauce. Thank God for Natalie’s sense of adventure, because I seriously couldn’t get enough of those frog legs—super flavorful with tender flesh that tasted a lot like chicken.
We also enjoyed the White Trout and Soft Shell Prawns. There seemed to be a war going on between light and heavy. A crispy fried flaking white fish with its head still attached, laid across a bed of dense pea hummus, that was brightened up by lemon and fresh cilantro whose flavor came through like a green dragon. With those last two elements fighting against the heaviness of the hummus, everything on that plate came together to create a skillfully balanced dish. Though the soft shell prawns weren’t exactly what I was expecting, the diabla sauce and pureed avocado dollops allowed for the natural flavor of the prawn to really be the star of the dish. Overall, I’d have to give our “entrees” a TBOT 9.5.
Dessert is where it got wacky in the best of ways. We ordered the Strawberry and when it arrived it looked more like a macro bowl you’d get at Café Gratitude or Kreation. At first I didn’t know what to make of it, but oh how it grew on me quickly. Strawberry granita and sour cream ice cream accompanied candied whole strawberries with brown-butter shavings and fennel. Much like the trout, this was the type of dish that required you to collect all the ingredients in one single bite to really understand the magnitude of its extraordinariness. The syrupy sweetness of the candied strawberry—the chill of the flavored icy—the creaminess of the sour cream—and unexpected power of the butter and fennel had my brain playing catch-up with my tongue—desperately trying to identify what I was tasting. I had to give this dessert a TBOT 9.1 for the originality alone.
Last but definitely not least, the service was impeccable! Our waitress proficiently walked us through the menu, offered insightful advice and descriptions of the food, and knew how to course the meal. Her favorites were definitely some of our favorites and the entire staff was efficient and on top of fulfilling our needs. A TBOT 9.7 for service!
So, here’s looking at an unforgettable meal that surely will provide you with perplexing pleasure! Earning a strong TBOT 9 over all, I can’t wait to go back and taste more of Whitener’s outstanding creations.