I thought one of my favorite L.A. restaurants had closed forever. It’s back

Owners Lien Ta and Jonathan Whitener outside Here's Looking at You in Koreatown.
(Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

Did I feel a little skeptical the first time I sat down to a meal at Here’s Looking at You?

It was early spring 2018 and I was still wandering the country as Eater’s national critic. The energy at Lien Ta and Jonathan Whitener’s tiny, eccentric Koreatown restaurant was popping: loud hip-hop, scrunched seating, raucous crowd. Its menu, which at first glance could mostly be slapped with a “global small plates” label, looked like madness. How would a dish described as “blood cake, duck egg, green tomato relish, puntarelle” come together exactly? Or a frantic-sounding collision of “mackerel, Asian pear, turnip, kombu, horseradish?”

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Not long into dinner I understood: Whitener has the rare gift for uniting seemingly unrelated flavors and textures into whole expressions. Where others see random specks of light in the night sky, he sees constellations and narratives. And once he presents them on a plate, they make a universal sort of sense.

So the slab of blood cake was like an appealingly dense, subtly spiced pudding, and the egg oozed and tempered its overt richness; the relish, lacy and translucent, lobbed out acidity, and the puntarelle was a fresh, seasonal element that kept resetting the palate for more. Every dish clicked like this. And the volley of ingredients — salsa negra with frog’s legs, pork shank carnitas with kimchi, shishito peppers with tonnato and huamei (powdered preserved plum), Brussels sprouts with fish sauce and miso — brought so many of L.A.’s flavors under one roof in a way that felt reverential and connective.

I had other similarly stirring meals over the next months at HLAY. It was on my final list of Eater’s 38 essential restaurants in America for how deftly it evoked Los Angeles, and for the exuberance Ta and her team brought to the dining experience.

HLAY was not the kind of restaurant that was built to withstand a pandemic. In this week’s review, I lay out the context of its closing in July 2020 — billed as “temporary” then but such a loss it was hard to hold out hope — and then its improbable, triumphant and still fragile reopening in January. Ta and Whitener have returned with a small crew and a condensed menu, but its spirit is intact. I’m so, so glad HLAY is back.

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(Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)