When does Koreatown not feel like Koreatown? When you're sitting near the window at Here's Looking at You, gazing at the towering limestone façade of the Wilshire Colonnade across the street. There's a Morrissey track playing, and a large framed poster of said British balladeer on the wall. He's sporting a tight Supreme tee and a concerned look — you shudder to imagine his reaction to the eel- and foie gras–layered terrine on the menu, not to mention the twin oryx heads mounted on a nearby wall.
Jars filled with mustard-pickled limes and brined black walnuts line a windowsill that looks into the open kitchen, and a hand-drawn sign of a cartoon pickle asks: “What's your dill? Please do not disturb our pickles.” At some point in the evening, you will be tempted by a $26 mai tai, or a pony bottle of Miller High Life paired with whiskey and pickle-juice sorbet. You will be informed about the availability of clandestine pie.
Here's Looking at You, like an increasing number of compelling places to eat in Koreatown, is not a Korean restaurant. It's the brainchild of two Animal veterans — Jonathan Whitener, the former chef de cuisine, and Lien Ta, a former manager — who met working under Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo. If you followed Whitener's inventive cooking at Animal, it seemed inevitable that the chef would eventually split off to headline his own project.
The restaurant's name originates from a phrase Ta spied on a vintage island postcard; after sending the card to Whitener, they both agreed it would make a fittingly odd moniker. The duo designed the moody, mid-century space themselves, combining what was previously a cheesesteak shop and a psychic reader into a single 50-seat dining room, adorned with various tropical bric-a-brac and a long wooden bar/bookshelf along the back wall. As with most modern restaurants, there are the usual gripes regarding noise, but for the most part Here's Looking at You is a wonderfully lively place — compact and intimate, bustling with the energy of a room filled with young, good-looking people.
No matter what time you arrive for dinner, nearly everyone in the room will be nursing a cocktail. You should follow suit. The bar program by Allan Katz and Danielle Crouch (formerly of Caña Rum Bar) is further proof that the most exciting cocktails in L.A. are found in restaurants as often as they are in bars. I adored the tangy pop a single pickled strawberry added to a 50-50 martini (served with a sidecar on ice, à la Musso & Frank's), and was enchanted by the giddy tiki vibe of the Tropical Medicine, a pineapple-scotch quaffer that resembles the groovy love child of a Painkiller and a Penicillin. The heady spice of the Psychic Reader, made with rich mango cream and an entire shot of angostura bitters, is pretty addictive, too, a perfect triad of sweet, lush and bitter.
And that $26 mai tai? It is indeed very good, but at roughly double the price of other cocktails on the list it's hard to justify its value, considering that the indie rum used to make it is neither particularly rare nor outrageously expensive compared with other high-end spirits utilized at upscale cocktail bars. Try the perfectly suitable $15 mai tai instead, which is made with the same house-made orgeat and curaçao as its pricier sibling.
The menu at Here's Looking at You is divided into quadrants — vegetables, seafood, meat and dessert — rather than by course or size, which means your server will map out the arrival of your plates by default. For the most part this process functions smoothly, though the progression of dishes can be unorthodox if you've envisioned certain dishes as appetizers and others as entreés.
If you're familiar with the food served at Animal, it's easy to see the Dotolo-Shook fingerprints on Whitener's cerebral, post-cultural cooking: an easy fluency in mashing together international flavors, a flair for turning lowbrow into highbrow, and a penchant for balancing richness with judicious splashes of acid (i.e., pickles, vinegars, various sour things).
But Whitener's style is distinct, too; his food has a lighter, more subdued touch, with less of that smash-mouth decadence that defines many of Animal's greatest hits. His ground brisket tartare, crowned with egg yolk, toasted chili powder, shaved turnips and sprigs of watercress, is so ethereal it turns a dish associated with luxuriousness into something that feels downright healthful — at least, until you brush on the accompanying Japanese mayo, which functions as a sort of buffer between toasted bread and soy-marinated beef.
Charred shishito peppers are a common sight at the tail end of summer, but my favorite version might be the way Here's Looking at You serves them, with a generous dollop of tonnato — a rich Italian aioli thickened with poached tuna — and a dusting of Chinese sour plum powder, the kind you often see coating dried fruits and gummy candies in Asian supermarkets. The combination is as cheeky as it is head-slappingly simple. The same could be said for the fried prawns, head-on crustaceans prepared like the salt-and-pepper shrimp of so many Cantonese banquet halls, arranged over a pool of cumin-heavy salsa diabla, the Tapatío-esque red sauce often paired with sautéed seafood at marisquerías, garnished with tiny dots of avocado mousse, peppery Vietnamese coriander, and hot pink watermelon radish. Is it a miniature metaphor for the city's cultural hodgepodge? Sure, but it's also effortlessly delicious enough to be consumed without context.
Seared octopus rubbed with Old Bay seasoning, which Whitener sets adrift on a bed of silky creamed potatoes and pickled celery in a mid-Atlantic twist, strikes the same where-have-I-tasted-this-before note. As do the cubes of roasted pork belly, first cured in palm sugar to render them crunchy, then coupled with sour lime paste, sliced Fresno chiles and a showering of Southeast Asian herbs. The flavors are familiar and unfamiliar, tweaked with a subtle shift of perspective that turns them from ordinary into original.
As with many of his dishes at Animal, Whitener shows a keen understanding of textures, especially when it comes to his gorgeously complex salads. A plate of Little Gem hearts dressed with a sort of five-spice ranch was pure crunch, speckled with crumbled blue cheese and flecks of dehydrated Chinese sausage pulverized to resemble garlicky bacon bits. I liked the idea behind a savory, romp-through-the-garden nectarine salad — crisp celery, purslane, rye crumbs, sumac and salty feta — but the dish was brought down by the stone fruit itself, severely underripe and lacking the vibrant sweetness you'd expect from California's late-season harvest. The summer tomatoes anchoring the tomato salad, thankfully, were plump and juicy, but arrived with a veritable house party of accompaniments: funky aged Gouda, shredded chicories, pickled mushrooms, fresh corn, buckwheat, Calabrian chilies and a heavy lashing of vinegar. I would have preferred fewer elements, if only to allow the remaining ones to stand out amidst the cacophony.
But picking apart the minor deficiencies at Here's Looking at You — the slight bitterness of the grilled sweetbreads with fennel; the flatness of an avocado-grapefruit salad dusted with nori — overlooks the bold, clear-eyed expressiveness with which Whitener cooks. When he's on, he's really on: Grilled yellowtail collar, coated with burnt red “Nashville spice,” adorned with wafer-thin apple slices and pickled snake beans, is one of the more mind-altering, of-the-moment dishes I've encountered all year. It's a sly wink to the hot chicken trend, somehow improved by substituting a flaky, fatty off-cut of fish.
The same sensation of comfort washed over me after a mouthful of Whitener's sturgeon rice porridge, a dish that sounds as decidedly unhip as Nashville hot fish veers trendy. Incredibly soothing and savory, the sturgeon (a notoriously finicky fish to prepare) was cooked just so, its pleasant oiliness offset by the tangy pucker of buttermilk and sour grape juice.
Pastry chef Karla Subero, another Animal alumna, is the other hero of Here's Looking at You. I could sing the praises of her subtly floral bubble-gum ice cream with lychee, gently sweet yuzu tart with smoky charred meringue, or dense chocolate cremeux swirled over wheat toast with warm spices, but I would be seriously remiss if I didn't mention her bar pie. Most nights, a single pan of pie (with variable fillings) is reserved for guests sitting at the bar. On one visit, I sampled a slice of blueberry pie so spectacular it caused me to mutter some very immodest words, louder than I intended. If you consider yourself a pie fiend, I'd suggest finding a way onto one of those dozen or so barstools before that baking pan is empty.
In any neighborhood, Here's Looking at You probably would garner the level of attention it's already enjoying, but Whitener's progressive cooking seems a specific fit for Koreatown at this very moment, a part of town that L.A. Times architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne once said “suggests more directly than any other neighborhood what the city's next phase — post-immigrant, post-suburban L.A. — will look like.”
Though not without its idiosyncrasies, there's already a lot to love about Here's Looking at You, a young restaurant overflowing with as much raw creative potential as anywhere else in the city. As with Koreatown, I can't wait to see what it will look like in a year or two.
HERE'S LOOKING AT YOU | 3901 W. Sixth St., Koreatown | Three stars | (213) 568-3573 | hereslookingatyoula.com | Sun.-Thu., 6-11 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 6:30-midnight | Entrees, $12-$32 | Full bar | Valet parking