Mai Tai Tom’s 2019 Restaurant Of The Year!
Hippo – Highland Park, CA
Visited: February, March & October 2019
The votes have been tabulated, and Mai Tai Tom’s 2019 Restaurant of the Year is now ready to be unveiled. In the closest vote in history, Highland Park’s Hippo takes home the title! Hippo had fierce competition from two of Pasadena’s relatively new restaurants Entre Nous and The Arbour, and also from Bavel in DTLA’s Art District.
With the voting so close, we returned to Hippo this autumn to try a few more menu options before making our final decision. Hippo had been in the running since we first dined here in February. We have tried many of their dishes but had never had the off-menu rib eye steak. We only knew of its existence from a subscriber, Garrett, who has recommended many terrific restaurants over the years, including Mai Tai Tom’s 2018 Restaurant of the Year, Dama. Thanks, Garrett!
Hippo had already created quite a buzz even before it opened in the summer of 2018. That’s because the restaurant was going to be helmed by James Beard award-winning chef Matt Molina (along with Silverlake Wine partners Joe Capella and Randy Clement). It was back in 2012 that Molina won the coveted James Beard award for Best Chef: West for his work at L.A.’s Osteria Mozza, co-owned by the chef, baker, and author Nancy Silverton.
With that pedigree behind the restaurant, hopes were high Hippo would be a resounding success, and from what we’ve tasted on our multiple visits, it is just that. Although there are many pasta dishes, Molina calls his cuisine Cal-Med, which sounds like the nearby Urgent Care facility I frequent; however, it really stands for California Mediterranean. Cal-Med cuisine was supposedly a trend in the 1980s, but since I didn’t have enough money to go out to dinner in that decade, I don’t remember it.
The restaurant is hidden from the street. We walked through a small passageway occupied by Nancy Silverton’s famous Triple Beam Pizza and Go Get Em Tiger Coffee, which also serves pastries and breakfast. The Silver Lake Wine guys run the Highland Park Wine Shop behind the restaurant. This is all part of a complex, which I believe is called the Hippoplex.
Stepping inside Hippo, this 80-seat establishment was seating its first customers at 5 p.m. A half-hour later, there was a line to get in.
As is so prevalent these days, the industrial-type interior with a high-ceiling makes for a rather loud environment. Still, we were incredibly lucky to get the large round table adjacent to the open kitchen at the front of the restaurant, so the noise level was bearable for conversation.
This table is a great spot to watch the plating and finishing of dishes as they came out of the kitchen. It’s quite an operation (more on that later).
The just-out-of-the-oven, freshly baked focaccia bread, whizzing by on a long wooden board from Triple Beam Pizza, whetted our appetite. It was set enticingly just out of our reach (so good!).
(October Update … February and March visits are below this.) On our autumn visit, we once again scored the great table right in front of the kitchen and dined with friends, Jeff, Cecilia, and Susan. We love going with friends because we can try so many more dishes. As soon as we were seated, Tracy asked if the rib eye was available this evening. The server popped into the kitchen to confirm that it, indeed, was available. Tracy inquired why it is never on the menu and was told that the restaurant doesn’t know if it will get one rib eye or a dozen, so they play it by ear. This dish is something you have to ask about as it is an off-menu item, sort of like the secret menu at In-and-Out.
Jeff and I started with two of the house Cocktails … the Hippo Old Fashioned, bourbon, amaro sfumato, tart cherry, bitters ($14) and Paris When It Sizzles, rum blend, spiced pear, pineapple, sherry, lemon … and lots of crushed ice ($13).
Since our group of five had decided to share the ribeye, we did not order from the “Meat, Fish, Game” portion of the menu. As is the norm with so many new restaurants, most of the dishes at Hippo are meant to be shared.
Instead, from the “First” section, we started with the shaved brussels sprouts, toasted almonds, mint, lemon, and Parmigiano-Reggiano ($10). Wow! Jeff and I lamented how we would never eat Brussels sprouts when we were kids, but these are not your mom’s Brussels sprouts. Fresh and crunchy with just the right amount of lemon vinaigrette. Perfect.
We finished with the Royal Hamachi Crudo, citrus, mint, fresh serrano chile, and olive ($16). Wow! We were on a roll!
At our server’s suggestion, we also tried the Herbed Ricotta Tortelloni with citrus zest, Parmigiano-Reggiano, and fennel pollen ($18). While this was very good, it was light and delicate, and if you didn’t know what it was, you couldn’t taste the herbed ricotta.
In the only error of the evening, the server recommended the Semolina artisanal fresh bucatini, guanciale, tomato, red onion, and chile flakes ($18). This was just ok and may have been better if we had been eating some of the more robust pastas like the Tagliolini with duck ragu ($19) or Fettuccini with heritage pork ragu ($19). But with the fresh, delicate sauces of the other dishes, it just did not work on our palates.
Now about that rib eye. What can I say? It’s a large (enough for five) porcini rubbed rib eye, grilled to perfection (medium rare for our table) and served pre-sliced, hot and sizzling in butter at the table. On this night, it was served with ranch-style beans, arugula salad with avocado, and what looked like hand-made tortillas ($78). Wow! Wow! Wow! It was the best ribeye I have ever had in a restaurant (sorry, Dama and Alexander’s Steak House). Garrett has had this off-menu item several times and said it never came with any sides. I guess we just lucked out.
(Our February and March visits …) On our initial foray to Hippo, Tracy and I (along with my Seattle cousins Susie and Bill, and friend Susan) scored a 5:30 Sunday reservation (the only time available when I went online ten days previously … yes, it’s that popular).
We chose from the “First” and “Pasta” portions of the menu. We ate so much of the darned bread (delicious) that we never got to the last part of the menu, “Meat, Fish, Game.” Witnessing first-hand the meat, fish, and game being plated at the counter ensured that we would be returning here to try more menu items.
I was enticed by the cocktail names such as Mariachi on the Beach but decided on a drink featuring bourbon, blood orange, amaro, almond, orgeat, lemon, walnut, and bitters called There Will Be Blood ($13). At no time did I yell, “I drink your milkshake!”
From the “First” category, we shared Smoked marinated beets in a sherry vinaigrette, burrata and herb salad ($9). This opening dish gave us the idea that this would be a special evening.
Next up was the Griddle’d Cauliflower on a bed of cauliflower “tahini” with walnut, raisin, and caper relish ($12). That was an incredible dish, and if anyone ten years ago could tell me I would use “cauliflower” and “incredible” in the same sentence, I would have had them committed.
The Bufula mozzarella, 16-month prosciutto di San Danielle, Fett’una ($15) also shined. I believe I could live on prosciutto.
Besides the Cauliflower, the biggest star of the First round was the Royal Hamachi Crudo with kumquat prosecco relish ($16). Our server recommended this as a palate cleanser, and that description shortchanges the incredible flavor we experienced.
By now, I wished we hadn’t had that second basket of bread. Of course, I ate two more pieces.
Now we were on to “Pasta” time. There wasn’t much sharing on this round as we devoured the dishes we selected.
I ordered the Winter Squash Cappellaci with browned butter, sage, and amaretti ($19). The amaretti added a delicious crunch to this tremendous pasta dish. Wow!
Another “Wow” went to Tracy’s and Susie’s Celery root triangoli, buttered shallots, and chives ($18). Not to be outdone was Susan’s Tagiolini with duck ragu ($18) and Bill’s Fettucine with Heritage pork ragù ($19). By the time we were done, not a strand of pasta could be found on any of our plates.
For dessert, we ordered an espresso pot de crème, dark chocolate, candied hazelnuts, and sea salt ($10). It was good, but I still couldn’t get the memory of my pasta out of my head. We vowed to return.
We returned once again in late March. Uber was our friend on this appearance, and Tracy and I arrived a few minutes early for our 8 p.m. reservations and enjoyed an Old-Fashioned and a Manhattan, respectively.
Tonight we’d be dining with our friends, the Chicas (Joanne, Helen … who was celebrating her birthday … Gema and Xochiti). Once again, we scored the round table in front of the kitchen. Our server, Maya, was stupendous, paying particular attention to the various allergies at our table and making recommendations so the EpiPen would not be needed.
Helen ordered the Mariachi on the Beach; tequila, passionfruit, Aperol, coconut, lime, curry bitters, and salt ($13), while Joanne ordered off the special $10 cocktail list (it changes each month). This month’s “March Madness” list included Peas, Can I Have a Drink?; mi campo tequila, ginger, lime muddled snap peas, and agave. I helped Joanne drink it. I’m always here to help.
On this evening, our table shared a few items we had on our prior visit, the smoked marinated beets and burrata; the Griddle’d Cauliflower, and the winter squash cappellaci plus two new items.
Tracy and I thought the Cool Haricot Verts; fresh serrano chili, toasted hazelnuts, Frenchie vinaigrette ($9) were phenomenal, while a couple of others were less enthusiastic.
This time we didn’t eat quite as much bread, so it was on to the “Meat, Fish, Game” category.
Joanne and I opted for the Barbecued porcini rubbed sirloin steak, Acento balsamico, potatoes ($26). This spicy steak dish is pre-sliced, and my medium-rare steak was cooked to perfection.
Tracy and Birthday Girl Helen ordered Griddle’d Sea Scallops, Parsnip puree, Capers, Lemon, Parsley ($24). Tracy loves scallops and gave this a big “thumbs up.”
Sufficiently satiated, we were going to pass on dessert, but as it was Helen’s birthday, they brought her an espresso pot de crème with a birthday candle. We certainly didn’t want Helen to eat alone, so we ordered buttermilk pannacotta topped with sautéed blood orange and fennel pollen ($10) for the rest of the table, which was excellent.
If possible, try to get the table near the kitchen. It was a great experience to see this team hard at work. It was almost like a food ballet as each individual stuck to his or her task creating these delicious and great looking dishes.
Although working at a torrid pace, they all seemed to have a smile on their face throughout as they painstakingly made these dishes as beautiful as they could.
Hippo has a patio, which would be a great place to dine during the warmer months (Yes, L.A. has been cold recently).
I do wish they had a corkage fee (no outside wines allowed). I have some Italian wines from Piemonte in my wine cave at home that would have paired nicely with many of these dishes. I will say the glass of a Grenache/Carignan/Cinsault blend ($12) was excellent. In their defense, Hippo’s wine selection is fair (especially for Los Angeles). There are at least eight bottles in the $40 – $50 range.
Hippo also adds 3% to the bill for health insurance. Living in L.A., I’m starting to get used to that charge, but truthfully I wish restaurants would add 3% to the food bill. I see that Hippo now has Weekend Brunch (served 10 a.m. – 2 p.m.) where they promise “Decadent Eggs Benedict,” “Really Good Coffee,” and “The Safest High Chairs.” We will have to check it out sometime (without the high chairs).
All three of our meals at Hippo were nothing less than exceptional. Virtually every plate they put in front of me left me immensely satisfied. Along with the food, the staff (from the greeter to bartenders and servers) has been top-notch … friendly, professional, and knowledgeable. Molina has himself a winner, and Hippo is undoubtedly a deserving winner of our 2019 Restaurant Of The Year. I would not be surprised to find us making many more trips to Hippo in 2020.
MaiTaiTom Rating (4.85 mai tais out of 5)
5916 1/2 N Figueroa St
Los Angeles, CA 90042
Hours: Monday – Thursday 5 p.m. – 10 p.m.
Friday 5 p.m. – 11 p.m.
Saturday 10 a.m. – 2 p.m. & 5 p.m. – 11 p.m.
Sunday 10 a.m. – 2 p.m. & 5 p.m. – 10 p.m.
Parking – Street (if you can find it) & a small lot in the back
Metro: Gold Line – Highland Park Station,
203 N Ave 58, Los Angeles, CA 90042 (3-minute walk)