Ding Ding. The tinny chime of a twice-strummed service bell — the analog silver dome once used to summon hotel employees — cuts through the din of the packed 50-seat dining room, while Drake’s “Fake Love” blares from the speakers. Chef Jonathan Whitener, who is impossible to miss with his towering height, calls out a word from the kitchen: “Scallops!”
A waiter dashes across the floor to pick up the plate, then disappears behind the wall of people who fill every seat at the bar to deliver it. Another chime, another scream and soon an order of scallops arrives at our table. They’re the small, sweet bay variety, a winter treat from the Gulf Coast, arranged in a pool of gently smoked soy sauce brightened with yuzu juice. A slurry of passion fruit pulp and seeds shines the pink-beige scallops. Elements of the flavors suggest ponzu, and the whole dish seems reminiscent of a Peruvian style of ceviche, but it’s a pleasure to eat without context beyond its own deliciousness. Tart, lemony and salty, it pairs elegantly with a mai tai, given unexpected depth by house-aged Jamaican rum.
I sip my drink as I look around the room at the blushing oddities that define the room’s decor: stuffed puffer fish; two stuffed oryx heads looking away from a picture window overlooking one of Koreatown’s densely populated commercial blocks; and a portrait of a Christ-like figure wearing a caftan with a rainbow flag.
Lien Ta, the front-of-house virtuoso and Whitener’s business partner, swoops by and notices me staring at the art.
“Nice to see things are back in their rightful place,” I say.
She looks around, her eyes flashing equal parts happiness and weariness over a black mask. “Yes, we got everything from the warehouse,” she says. “I’m glad you didn’t get lost.”
Ta and Whitener’s entire Here’s Looking at You restaurant could have disappeared forever as one of the countless victims of the pandemic. And yet here it is, reopening in January after a 17-month hiatus in its original location. Its comeback comes as no surprise to its owners: They’ve had to balance almost two years of back rent, debts and responsibilities to employees against the bet that customers will return night after night to one of the city’s quirkiest and most ambitious havens for modern Angeleno cuisine.
Given the obstacles, the return of HLAY (as it’s called by almost everyone who knows the place) still feels like an act of grace for its enthusiasts, including myself.
Ta and Whitener met while working at Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo’s Animal. Three years later they opened HLAY in a corner eatery on West 6th Street and South Oxford Avenue that had previously been a cheesesteak restaurant and before that a psychic. Ta had envisioned a small bar serving a menu with an emphasis on Vietnamese flavors. What they ultimately created was something far more idiosyncratic. A reductive description such as “global small plates plus sophisticated cocktails” fails to convey the unlikely, exciting combination of ingredients that Whitener has honed with skill and imagination. Seared shishitos served in a bowl over creamy tonnato dusted with powdered huamei (preserved Chinese plums)? Unorthodox, wonderful and perfect Los Angeles.
Allan Katz and Danielle Crouch designed the original bar program, a collision of tiki updates, purple-blue hued martinis with violet liqueur and a wild fizz of angostura bitters, mango nectar, coconut cream and aquafaba. The blaring hip-hop and cramped seating navigated by upbeat waiters kept up with the culinary energy.
HLAY’s shabby, crumpled creativity wasn’t designed to withstand COVID-19. Ta and Whitener tried when they struggled to also get hold of All Day Baby, their second restaurant, which opened in Silver Lake in late 2019. There was no al fresco dining option at HLAY. They held taco pop-ups, reluctantly joined the delivery apps, and lured in with burgers and cocktails to go. They sold t-shirts and donated the proceeds to the NAACP. Business faltered while spending piled up.
“We’re closing Here’s Looking at You,” Ta posted on Instagram on July 8, 2020. “For now. On paper, this is temporary. But of course we don’t have to tell you that life is super-duper uncertain right now.”
Ta and Whitener’s landlord pressured them to sell the restaurant. A low-ball offer came in, then lingered in escrow for too long; After almost a year, in a hopeful moment in early June 2021, all parties agreed that HLAY deserved another chance at life. The duo planned quietly for months and announced their resurgence in November. Ta set up a GoFundMe page for the restaurant, which eventually raised over $85,000. The dining room, with its abstract Midcentury Modern vibe, has been reassembled. Health concerns and staff shortages due to the omicron variant have pushed back the reopening from mid-December to early January.
The Start menu – pared down to about a dozen In-Flux dishes, about half the options in early 2020 – draws largely on past favorites. It’s an encouraging act to slip back into the highly acidic, full-throttle creations that could only have come from Whitener’s head and hands: the salt-and-pepper frog legs, sliced with lime juice and splattered with salsa negra. The gentle swoosh of whipped chicken livers with crusty bread and a few drops of smoked maple syrup. Tartar steak based on Korean galbi, strong with chili and tamari and softened with egg yolk. The chopped broccoli salad with its individual, flawless mounds of nuts, seeds, pickled ginger, sliced jalapenos, and tiny popcorn; Stir it up for an earthy, crunchy, avant-garde party snack.
A beefy rib eye gilded with fermented radish butter returns when the baller splurges. There are also red wines from the Loire or Rhone; After a first round of mai tais or bourbon with sweet potato liqueur and topped with toasted marshmallows, they taste grown and grounded.
Are the tomatoes sprinkled with frizzled lap xuong and bagna cauda — one of Whitener’s most missed signatures — out of season and a little cottony? Do I wish I could have caught the tangerine-scented, crackling-skin duck confit that looks so hypnotic on social media pictures but always sells out when I try to order it? Small concerns mean nothing when there is so much to celebrate.
Whitener has an ideal match in pastry chef Thessa Diadem. Her desserts at HLAY, like All Day Baby, stretch notions of spiciness and sweetness without descending into the absurd. Her warm, chewy chestnut mochi bathes in muscovado caramel and coconut cream with a final shower of shredded halva. So many layers of texture and flavor. Ditto for a frozen cloud of pear soda foam sprinkled with sorrel granita and hidden jelly made from avocado leaves and tapioca pearls drenched in fermented honey milk. It sounds aggressively herbal, but the final effect is restrained, and the combination is calming and head-cleansing.
It makes sense for the team to take a look back at the recent past when reorienting themselves in the present. However, I’m looking forward to a taste of what’s next at HLAY. We are at a time when many of Los Angeles’ flashy new restaurants are opening in hotels or are part of international chains and well-funded restaurant groups. They have their place: They provide jobs and feed people familiar foods that are easy to swallow in a long period of uncertainty. But the soul of Los Angeles food lies in leaders like Ta and Whitener. Your will to survive produces the freshest ideas, the most provocative meals, and the truest insights into improving restaurant business.
How often do we get a second chance to appreciate something we were sure was gone from our lives forever? In his 2019 book, Becoming a Restaurateur, for which he chose HLAY as the main subject, former Los Angeles magazine restaurant critic Patric Kuh notes a 2005 Ohio State University study that found, that 59% of restaurants fail within the first three years. The industry is brutal. So make a reservation and come along. Capture the hopeful look in Ta’s eyes as she leads you to a table or bar seat. Order the shishitos. Have a second Angostura fizz. For a restaurant so small and so important to have fought its way back into the world should feel like a triumph for all of us.
Here one looks at you
3901 W. 6th St., Los Angeles, (213) 568-3289, hereslookingatyoula.com
Prices: small dishes $6-22, larger meat and fish dishes $33-120, desserts $13
Details: Dinner Thursday-Monday 18:00-22:00 Full bar. Credit cards accepted. Valet and limited street parking.
Suggested Dishes: Shishito Peppers with Tonnato and Huamei, Sprouted Broccoli Salad, Uni Panna Cotta, Frog Legs, Roasted Chestnut Mochi
https://www.latimes.com/food/story/2022-02-24/heres-looking-at-you-koreatown-reopening-review-bill-addison Review: The return of Here’s Looking at You is a serious win for LA’s hospitality industry