When chef Jonathan Whitener departed his post as chef de cuisine at Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo's acclaimed Fairfax restaurant back in December, there was a sense of mourning amongst a certain circle of diners. This was the guy, after all, who came up with killer Animal dishes like "honey walnut" fried crab with black Sriracha, crispy rabbit larb, and tonkotsu ramen topped with ham hocks and swiss chard.
Luckily for us, he won't be out of commission for long: Whitener will be teaming up with Lien Ta, a former manager at Animal and culinary liaison for Jon and Vinny's restaurant group, to open a new 50-seat restaurant in Koreatown called Here's Looking at You this spring.
The food will tap into L.A.’s wide range of immigrant cuisines for inspiration. Whitener notes that as a surfer kid who grew up in Huntington Beach eating burritos and musubi, his cooking often exhibits a heavy Japanese-Mexican influence.
Whitener has been experimenting with dishes at private catering dinners in the interim, and he shared with us some creations that have made the cut thus far: fried chicken with ume (sour plum) ranch, hamachi crudo with tamarind-hibiscus onions and beer ponzu, beef tartare with togarashi spice, fried head-on shrimp a la diabla, smoked beef belly with radish, broiled unagi with mole negro and polenta, burrata with rau ram pesto, beet-persimmon poké, bone-in ribeye with pickled ramps and sesame gomashio, and an endive salad with Chinese sausage and five-spice blue cheese dressing (“I’m a pretty good condiment maker,” he says).
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Whitener has been working in restaurants since he was 13, when he borrowed an older friend’s social security number to land a dishwashing gig. He later attended culinary school in New York before moving back to Los Angeles, where he worked at Craft and Mezze. After three years cooking at Animal, Whitener — winner of the 2014 Los Angeles Rising Star Chef award — left on amicable terms to eventually pursue a project of his own. “I loved cooking at Animal, but sometimes I would come up with dishes that were a little too refined for the menu and I’d write them down for later. The food we did [at Animal] was supposed to be kind of ‘dirty,’ amped up with lots of fat, salt and acid.”
Whitener and Ta, who become friends while working at Animal, didn’t anticipate opening a restaurant so soon, but after learning that Beer Belly owner Jimmy Han was looking for a new tenant for his former Whiz location (as well as two adjacent parcels) the wheels were set in motion. The duo is currently designing the restaurant themselves, with the nearest description being a sort of midcentury-modern, Eames vibe, utilizing warm and clean colors. Interestingly, Whitener previously restored and resold vintage furniture, which probably gives him an advantage to most chefs when picking out bathroom tile.
The restaurant’s unique name comes not from the film Casablanca but from a vintage tiki postcard that Ta stumbled upon. Expect a list of wines from sommelier Danielle Fournier of DFF Wine consulting, as well as craft beers and a few cocktails once the liquor license arrives (apparently Whitener makes a top-notch mai tai).
“We couldn’t be more excited to open in Koreatown,” Ta says. “It’s a neighborhood we’ve loved and admired for a long time and now get to be a part of.”