First & Hope, the gorgeous supper club in the not-so-gorgeous strip mall at the corner of 1st and Hope streets (clever, huh?) in downtown Los Angeles, certainly has lots of style. From the mood-changing lighting in the sleek dining room to the servers outfitted by “Mad Men” assistant costume designer Allison Leach, the restaurant screams class. I just wish the food spoke as loudly to me — in a good way.
I had visited First & Hope once before during its preview night when the atmosphere was close to mayhem. It was very crowded, and while the servers did their best, it was hard to get a good idea of what the food and drink should have been like.
So when presented with an invitation to have dinner at the restaurant under normal circumstances, I decided I would give the place another chance. I would have a proper meal and make a better-informed decision about First & Hope’s merits.
And I’ve made my decision: I would only come back here for one, maybe two, dishes.
You see, the menu sounds good; it reads like a food blogger’s wet dream, with foie gras, bacon and pork rinds littered all over its comfort food-centric offerings. But First & Hope leaves much to be desired in execution.
First, the cocktails. Nearly every one contains some kind of bubbly, no doubt an homage to the vintage style. I get it, but I thought the drinks were just OK, which was pretty much my summation after the preview party, too. I had an Elle for Leather, made with Famous Grouse scotch, vanilla syrup, “a touch of effervescence” and garnished with a vanilla pod. It smelled amazing due to the vanilla pod but tasted light on the scotch.
I had sips of the Russian Spring Punch, made with Grey Goose vodka, cassis, raspberry and bubbly, which was too fruity, and the Seelbach, made with Woodford Reserve bourbon, orange curaçao, bitter, bubbles and garnished with an orange peel, which was a bit too sweet.
We were served a couple of appetizers before our starters, including an amuse bouche of potato, creme fraiche, chives and I don’t remember what else. It was fine, but not outstanding. The spreadable cheese and house-made saltine crackers were palatable, though.
Next up was a round of appetizers. The standout here was the All-About-The-Cheese Mac & Cheese Flight. It came with three pots of cheesy goodness, one filled with Marin triple cream brie, elbow macaroni (the menu says baby lasagna but it was elbow macaroni) and some kind of baked puffed cake on top; another with Cypress Grove goat cheese, mini shells and crumbled popped corn; and the last with porter beer cheese, corkscrew pasta and crumbled rye croutons. And each pot came with “sides,” including more cheese, honey, mustard and even a mini pint of porter beer. Score!
Unfortunately the rest of the starters left a lot to be desired. The Crab Meat Justine Potpie made with crab gratin topped with a puffy, buttery french toast was boring, and the Popcorn Shrimp & Grits with jumbo shrimp, corn relish, popped corn cream sauce and creamy grits might have been OK if it had arrived at our table hot.
And the Back Yard Garden Salad looked gorgeous but left me wanting, especially the fiddlehead ferns that were promised on the menu but didn’t appear on the plate. This dish is also the first time we encountered the undercooked potatoes. While the amuse’s potato was perfectly cooked, the rest of the potatoes were crunchy (and there were many of them). The green goddess dressing was good, though.
The main dish that I liked best was the Duck-Duck-Goose — a duo of a sugar-and-spice seared duck breast and duck leg confit, roasted foie gras, spring onion hoe cake and wilted baby mustard greens. Even though I got a piece of gristly fat in my bite of duck breast that I ultimately had to spit out, the meat was nice and tender. And the duck leg confit layered between green onion pancakes topped with foie gras was heavenly.
What wasn’t so heavenly was Nenaw’s Picnic Basket, which came with juicy-yet-bland deep-fried buttermilk hen (which was also slightly over fried), a crunchy potato salad, beer-braised collard greens and cornbread sticks. The potatoes were yet again undercooked, and while the collard greens were enjoyably spicy, the cornbread was placed in the same container, making it mushy.
And then there was the Moonshine Meatloaf: a ground chuck, foie gras and gin meatloaf wrapped in bacon served with “blistered potato and pearl onion hash,” brown butter green bean bundles and caramelized tomato marmalade. This was quite possibly the most disappointing dish of the night for me. There was just too much going on in the meatloaf, which seemed to suffer from unbalanced proportions and a texture that, dare I say, reminded me a bit too much of canned dog food. And does that look like “hash” to you? No, it doesn’t look like hash to me, either. Oh, and the potatoes were hard again. When we finally asked about the crunchy potatoes, we were told that they were meant to be “al dente.” Really? Really.
The desserts we tried were nothing to write home about, either. The Porky Pig Banana Split with bacon and banana ice cream, jalapeno hot fudge, brandied cherries and caramel pork rinds sounded better than it was (I personally didn’t like the pork rinds but a dining companion did), and the Lemon Meringue Beehive with coconut macaroon, lemon curd, lemon-thyme ice cream and toasted marshmallow had too much thyme in large pieces to be enjoyable. And I love the lemon-thyme combination usually.
The one saving grace was the strawberry milkshake with strawberry compote and strawberry whipped cream that came with the LAPD Donut Shake Down’s Boston cream pie doughnuts and chocolate dipping sauce. I don’t remember the doughnuts at all, but the shake was really good.
Consistency and execution are definitely problems at First & Hope. The proportions are wrong, potatoes are crunchy (literally — I thought I was eating all celery out of that potato salad), and it’s like the kitchen has never read the menu. Of course, like the rest of the restaurant, the food presentation is pretty, and the service is excellent. Good service can go a long way. But in the end, you’ll need something to back up all that style.
Note: This was a hosted meal.