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Quirky and communal in Los Feliz

Times Staff Writer

To anyone who hasn’t already been, it’s kind of hard to explain Hillmont, the alternative Los Feliz chophouse from Cobras & Matadors founder Steven Arroyo. So I don’t even try. It’s more fun to turn up a few minutes late to find friends already seated at one of the long communal tables, grooving on the scene. They may have already ordered wine, but most probably they haven’t figured out that the idea is to set your own place. For that purpose, the table holds stacks of napkins and silverware stuck into a jar. The amiable servers provide the menu and a verbal rendition of the specials scrawled on a roll of butcher paper mounted to the wall. And -- bet you haven’t seen this before -- they clothespin the order to a line that runs above each table.

Hillmont’s quirky, Eastside sensibility suits the neighborhood to a T. The restaurant, which gets its name by combining the names of Los Feliz’s two main drags, Hillhurst and Vermont, fits right in with the vintage clothing stores, funky book and record shops and other eccentricities along the two boulevards. It doesn’t make a show though. It’s so discreet, in fact, it’s hard to spot in the shadows on Hollywood Boulevard. Look for the clashing colors of Wacko: It’s just east of that. Exposed brick walls and colored glass lanterns with a suggestion of the souk warm the cavernous interior.

It actually reminds me a bit of the workers’ restaurants set up in Paris in the 19th century. I remember going to one years ago in Paris and enjoying the lively unpretentiousness of it all, the huge room lined with tables, and the sense of camaraderie. Everybody loves a bargain, from a plumber to a count.

The crowd is almost as eclectic at Hillmont, mostly young, mostly groups of friends out for a nosh in the neighborhood. But also, there are a surprising number of couples on dates. It’s comfortable and companionable, less threatening than a restaurant that spells “date,” with cozy tables and candlelight.

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Early on, the food was just OK, but main courses were all less than $20 and came with watercress salad and a choice of one side. At those prices, you could afford to be forgiving.

A year later, Hillmont no longer seems to be such a bargain. Only half the entrees are under $20, and some are as high as $32 (for a recent special). Now salad is priced separately, but most entrees still come with one side, or at least something else on the plate.

The menu has its modest virtues, but the execution is marginal. I love the atmosphere, though, and so keep going back, hoping for better. The spirit of the place is beguiling, despite the lapses in the kitchen. The music track is always interesting: One night they played the entire “Abbey Road” album before switching to something punchier.

Recently, on a sweltering summer night, I enjoyed the chunky summer gazpacho garnished with avocado. That elusive sweetness and crunch suggests jicama, but it’s really watermelon and honeydew melon mixed in with cucumber and green peppers. Hillmont’s Caesar salad featured limp hearts of romaine in a dressing with so little flavor it left me wondering if someone had forgotten the garlic and Worcestershire. The cheese was bland, and for ornament, a couple of vinegary white anchovies called boquerones were draped over the top. For $9, the kitchen has to try harder. The iceberg wedge salad is a better choice, if you like golden raisins in your salad.

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Fanny Bay oysters, some of the biggest I’ve ever seen, were delicious, another night, served on the half shell, piled into a metal saucepan. They’re a wonderful treat. I wish I could say the same for the mixed seafood grill for two, a messy assemblage of scallops, mussels, clams, prawns, greasy sand dabs and tasteless king crab legs. Save your $35 for a seafood platter at Water Grill.

To cut to the chase: The best steak is the 10-ounce, 28-day dry-aged New York Strip. Although it isn’t as flavorful as its credentials would suggest, it’s a perfectly decent steak. And like all the beef here, it comes with a choice of one side. French green beans would be my recommendation, or the pommes frites, fried with skins on to a deep gold. There’s also a floury corn and potato pancake that’s something like a latke studded with corn kernels. One night, mac ‘n’ cheese is a sorry sludge. Another night, the waiter actually asked one of my friends whether she’d like it crispy or not. Nobody had ever asked her the question before, and as a macaroni and cheese fanatic, she loved it. When it came, it was just as advertised, browned on top, with squiggles of tooth macaroni coated in cheese underneath. Dry-aged rib-eye is acceptable too, but skirt steak has a strange livery taste and texture.

Rule of thumb: Avoid the seafood in a place devoted primarily to meat. A surf ‘n’ turf special is notable only for the acrid taste of the jumbo sea prawns. I was just glad no one had ordered the halibut, because you could smell it two tables over, and it wasn’t exactly enticing.

The pork chop is the best of the meat items. Fat and juicy, it has some bacon tucked into the center and makes a great combination with the sauteed wild mushrooms. Never mind that neither shiitake nor Portobello is wild; they’re deep in flavor and served up generously.

Slabs of baby back ribs, a special one night, are slathered in sticky sweet barbecue sauce, but massive enough for two or more to share.

The trick at Hillmont is to order conservatively and carefully -- the Shelton Farms roasted half-chicken makes a fine supper.

The wine list is all West Coast and includes 16 wines by the glass and a handful of half bottles. They’ve cheated a little by adding a couple of French Champagnes, and although individual choices could be more interesting, prices are fair.

Desserts won’t send anybody into raptures, unless you’re a chocoholic who must have your flourless chocolate cake, whether it’s devastatingly good or not. This one is just ordinary. The best dessert I tried was a huge hunk of baklava oozing honey, with a ball of commercial ice cream on top. Big enough for four to share, you could call it a communal dessert.

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As a restaurateur who is not a chef, Arroyo is stronger on concept than execution. I get the feeling that at all of his places, he doesn’t spend big on either chefs or ingredients, so it’s no surprise the food is more workmanlike than thrilling. He has a genius, though, for creating an atmosphere that absolutely suits the moment. Faults and all, like Cobras & Matadors and Cobra Lily, Hillmont is, if anything, an original.

*

Hillmont

Rating: *

Location: 4655 W. Hollywood Blvd., Los Feliz; (323) 669-3922.

Ambience: Alternative chophouse with communal tables, motherly waiters and orders clothespinned to lines overhead. Lighted by colored glass lanterns, it’s basic and hip.

Service: Friendly and earnest.

Price: Appetizers, $6 to $9; main courses, $16 to $32; desserts, $7 to $9.

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Best dishes: Summer gazpacho, mac ‘n’ cheese, pommes frites, French green beans, sauteed “wild” mushrooms, dry-aged New York strip, roast chicken, stuffed pork chop, baklava with ice cream.

Wine list: West Coast only (with the exception of a couple of Champagnes); it fits on the back of the one-page menu. Corkage, $15.

Best table: The one in the front corner. No reservations, so it’s moot.

Details: Open Tuesday through Thursday 6 to 11 p.m.; Friday and Saturday till midnight; Sunday till

9 p.m. Beer and wine. Parking on street or in lot next door.

Rating is based on food, service and ambience, with price taken into account in relation to quality. ****: Outstanding on every level. ***: Excellent. **: Very good. *: Good. No star: Poor to satisfactory.


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