If you haven’t gotten to Hippo in Highland Park, you don’t know what you are missing. Matt Molina opened his California style, Italian restaurant next to his joint-venture Triple Beam Pizza with Nancy Silverton almost a year ago now. Highland Park, a neighborhood just past downtown Los Angeles off the 110 Freeway is going to be a diner’s dream in the very near future with Chef Molina leading the way. If you don’t know Chef Matt Molina, he was Nancy Silverton’s James Beard nominated chef in 2012 who opened Mozza Osteria and worked side-by-side with her for so many years. His cooking is spectacular and with all the Italian restaurants in Los Angeles, he can definitely hold his own in this city.
The space is industrial-esque with wooden tables and chairs scattered about the place. The noise level is tolerable with the kitchen in an L-shape on two sides of the restaurant. The cocktail list reads like a Los Angeles native with an alternative drink list focused on wedding season – a nod to one of his servers getting married this month. Hoist the Chair – a mixture of Campari, housemade vermouth, orange and bubbles reminded me of an Aperitivo in Sicily last fall, but with a slightly better bitter blend of flavors.
First, a Crudo, Carpaccio and Griddled Cauliflower with Tahini are pretty classic offerings here in LA, however it’s the plates with olive oil soaked and grilled bread that you should not skip. Thinly sliced San Danielle Prosciutto with fresh Buffalo Mozzarella or Burrata and bread bring you back to dining at Mozza for the very first time – let’s face it, he learned from the best. Garden lettuces, shaved Brussels Sprouts and a Rye Berrie Salad with nectarines are reminiscent of spring, but a bowl of Cool Wax Beans with Serrano Chili and Hazelnuts tossed in a Frenchie Vinaigrette is something you’ll devour. The al dente beans snap in your mouth with pleasure and I assumed the name “Frenchie” came from a champagne vinegar or mustard based dressing?
Pasta is probably the reason you are here at Hippo – all freshly made by hand. Delicate Triangoli stuffed with celery root puree in a buttery shallot sauce is a great place to start, but my favorite – Bucatini with Guanciale, Red Onion in Tomato Sauce made my heart sing. The strands of pasta were so perfectly coated with a fine balance between sweet-acid and slight undertones of pork jowl. Make sure you eat it pipping hot from the kitchen – you won’t be to help yourself.
Meat, Fish & Game offer something for everyone’s palate, whether it be barbecued Quail, Pork Country Ribs or Porcini rubbed Sirloin. However, the fish options seemed to pop with Griddled Sea Scallops or Strip Bass, but the Cedar Smoked Ocean Trout with Umbrian Lentils was where it was at. Perfectly cooked wood-colored fish with a pink center rested upon a boastful, but creamy pool of legumes – a nice combination of textures and tastes.
A separate dessert menu with a Browned Butter Blackberry Tart was calling us all to attention. It was the perfect ending to a most delightful meal. Hippo is now serving Brunch on the weekends and I can’t wait to give it try. This is definitely one of my favorite dining experiences of the year.