We recently ploughed through the first 3 seasons of AMC's Mad Men, a period piece that follows the work-obsessed, repressed, alcohol-swilling men and women who work in a Madison Avenue ad agency in mid-20th century America. While we love the show, I can say with absolute certainty that I'm glad I was born when I was born. But...I'd be lying if said those ad cats didn't have style. Racism, sexism and other rampant social issues aside, there's just something just so cool about the way the main character Don Draper holds court in any number of old-school swanky Manhattan bars and restaurants.
So, when we found the occasion to check out First & Hope, a restaurant/bar inspired by the "elegant, yet theatrical settings of the late 1940s and early 1950s American cabarets and supper clubs" (located at - you guessed it - the corner of First and Hope Streets downtown across from the Walt Disney Concert Hall), a button-down establishment that is every bit as removed from LA culture as a place Mr. Draper might sip cocktails, I thought, "why the hell not?"
We arrived just a few minutes before our reservation and were asked to sit for a few minutes while they prepared our table, which gave us some time to take in the gorgeous, retro-inspired decor (including the attire of the service staff, conceived by a Mad Men costume designer), silver and black bathed in cool blue light. The swank atmosphere extends to the drink options: in addition to a small but respectable list of craft beers, First & Hope boasts a number of handcrafted cocktails like the Kiroshka Mark ordered, which mixed vodka, creme de cassis, and lime.
We were seated at our table and as we waited (a considerable amount of time) for our server, we heard the strains of live jazz start up in one of the rooms near the back of the dining area. Oftentimes, First & Hope plays host to musicians on the weekends, and diners have the option of taking in a live show while they eat.
Eventually, our server appeared to apologize for his tardiness, as he would several times throughout the meal, and our patience was rewarded with a couple of drinks and menus. Given the elegance of the decor, I found the "modern American comfort food" menu a little dissonant, but was willing to go with it. We vacillated between the blue crab hushpuppies and the mac 'n' cheese, but before too long, the promise of beer, bacon, and egg won out. I'd like to say First & Hope delivered on that promise. What I can say is that it almost did. All the decadent dish wanted to take it from mediocre to very good was just a touch of salt. As it was, it was a little on the bland side. But I did appreciate the perfectly poached egg, as well as the contrast between the creaminess of the sauce and the crispy bits of bacon hidng at the bottom of the dish.
The second appetizer, a chicken liver mousse with grilled crostini in a spiced Santa Rosa plum compote (below), fared a bit better, flavor-wise, with the richness of the liver cut nicely by the mildly spiced, sweet compote. The creamy spread was also on point texturally, and we would have loved to have been given a couple more pieces of the crispy bread on which to enjoy it - as it was, we were left with over half a disc of the liver, which was a little overwhelming without the crunch.
The meal continued to improve with the next course. The Berkshire pork chop, served with green beans (below), was relatively juicy and tender, and the peach BBQ glaze was subtlely sweet and smoky.
The sea bass with artichoke potato "hash" on a bed of spinach (below) really benefitted from the generous pat of summer truffle butter resting on top, which complimented the perfectly cooked fish well. The hash, however, was really interesting in concept, but not so much in execution - it was overly dense, in need of some salt, and sort of tasted...stale, like the mound of hash had been sitting for awhile before getting topped with the bass. Overall, though, the elements of the dish worked together pretty well, and left a favorable impression.
The pudding pie with butterscotch (below) was probably the most disappointing dish of the night, as the "pudding pie" consisted of about 85% crumbly dry crust topped with whipped cream and drizzled in butterscotch sauce. But we enjoyed the accompanying scoop of goat cheese ice cream.
The donut with cinnamon ice cream and blueberry compote (below) brought us back around to a certain extent. While texturally, the donut was a little chewy, it was just the right amount of sweetness, and the cinnamon ice cream was delicious.
If I were an ad guy, I'd tell you that First & Hope is worth a try, if you happen to be downtown at dinnertime. It's a wonderful place to grab a pre- or post-show drink - the bar really is lovely. And the food is fine, although inconsistent and expensive for what you get. But if a Mad Men-like atmosphere is all you crave, I'd almost suggest ordering in, then settling on the couch with a homemade martini and flipping on Netflix streaming...