You may think that what our country needs now, in light of the state of our financial markets, is a healthy dose of accountability, responsibility, and job-creating stimulus, and I’d agree with you. But what we might also need to make it through this period of swan dive economics is something called Burger Fondue. Yes, folks, mini-burgers, the size of silver dollars, dipped into a molten lava of melted cheese are my suggestion for how to weather our recession (er, depression?). Now, hear me out. It’s not that I am in denial about the deep financial hole we’re in, but in all honesty, we’re going to be in this economic abyss for a long time, and in my view the best way to ride it out is serious amounts of old fashioned comfort food shared among friends. What’s better? And that’s the goal of the happily named restaurant, The Fat Hippo.
Located in the former temple of haute gastronomy, Wylie Dufresne’s storied 71 Clinton, the Fat Hippo is an about-face from its predecessor. If Wylie chose to look forward and break convention, chef Ten Vong is looking backwards to comfort classics, giving us an exercise (heck it’s more like a full-on triathlon) geared toward guilty pleasure favorites from pan-fried mozzarella balls with herb roasted tomatoes ($6) to pork chops with stuffing ($13), and free range turkey meatloaf with green bean casserole. You’ll be expecting June Cleaver to stroll out of the kitchen.
While the menu reads like it might be served in a wood-paneled den circa 1975 with shag carpeting and a Hi-Fi playing records, the renovated space is set to the sounds of an iPod (playing everything from Echo and the Bunnymen to Bowie), and rather than boast the design equivalent of bell bottoms, it’s sleek and super mod, with U-shaped banquettes of white button tufted leather, a 12-foot exposed brick barrel ceiling, and a sleek bar fashioned from smooth polished wood.
Diners, who tend to congregate in large groups snuggled into banquettes or in close knit pairs at the welcoming bar, are also of the mod fashionista set; the women look like they’ve just strutted off the runway or a plane from Miami—sun-kissed, dewy, and gorgeous—while their male counterparts are all uniformly dressed in grungy hipster gear topped off with tight wool caps with various levels of facial hair from mustache to lamb chop sideburns, to full beard. Somehow it’s very Brooklyn meets South Beach.
While the restaurant is BYOB for now (their liquor license should arrive in a few days so call in to check on that), bar manager and partner Jordan Sorman will eventually be serving beer, wine and classic cocktails including South Sides, Brooklyns and Manhattans mixed with homemade sodas and fresh juices. Indeed, his homemade ginger ale kept me quite happy throughout the evening.
The menu, as I’ve alluded to already, is humble and stays true to Ten’s vision of global comfort, the best of which includes a dish that you’ll no doubt spy on every table in the room—the (soon to be famous) burger fondue ($12). Yes, friends, Ten has done the world a huge favor by combining six juicy little sliders (they’re each about the circumference of a quarter) with a pot of bubbly cheesy fondue that you can pepper with bacon, onions and bits of green tomato. Forget dipping apples or bread, dipping a burger, now that’s genius. You’ll love them.
Ditto the Trailer Park Chicken Sampler ($15), a three part combo meal that includes a fantastic buttermilk marinated Southern fried leg (crunchy on the outside, tender and wonderful beneath the skin), a beer-can roasted chicken breast (delicious) and a pile of bright collard greens that had been sauteed with smoked thigh meat instead of bacon which actually made them taste borderline healthy (but is not). My only quibble with this dish was that the accompanying raisin sauce on the plate overpowered the chicken with cloying sweetness. There needed to be some balance to the sauce—heat or vinegar or something other than sticky honey-like sweetness—and the absence of a counterpoint left me reluctant to finish it off.
A similar problem exists with the chile and chocolate-glazed spare ribs ($8). A pair of long and lovely ribs arrives slathered in a dark mole-style sauce, but the meat itself is bland (though soft) and the thick glaze adds little to the taste equation. There’s no spice, no heat, no tang, and consequently little reason to continue eating them after the first bite. Ditto the beet and olive tart ($7)—a lovely handmade crust is pinched into a small circle and filled with earthy roasted beets and frosted with a sweet beet jam, but I could not really discern any bracing flavor from olives or even a bit of tang from the crumbled goat cheese that the menu promised. Again, I was left in a one dimensional flavor universe that was drab and dull.
But Ten shows a deft command of balance of flavors in a salad of grapefruit and feta with spiced pecans ($5) and a smashing dish of hot and sour calamari ($6)- ringlets of squid bathed in a Thai-style peanut sauce fired up with chiles, ginger, garlic, and lime and showered with crushed toasted peanuts. It’s served in a small bowl with some grilled bread, but I’d turn this into an entrée with Jasmine rice in a heartbeat.
It would be far more pleasing than the Steak and Eggs ($15), which reads with such promise and fails to deliver. The hanger steak, while nicely seasoned, is tough and chewy, and the toad-in-a-hole egg toasts includes eggs that have been overcooked to the point of being more suited for a nice bowl of egg salad. The only bright note of this dish was the green tomato gratin: a terrific riff on fried green tomatoes that takes it one step further by adding a layer of bruleed cheese. These are available as a side and you might just add them to your order rather than going for the steak and eggs.
Speaking of sides, these are a big part of the menu at Fat Hippo, and as you’d expect, they include classics like mashed potatoes ($3), green bean casserole ($3) and mac n cheese ($4), along with Ten’s fun take on stuffing that’s heavy with hunks of pulled pork ($3). You could easily make a meal of a few of these sides, and a bowl of hot and sour calamari and a platter of burger fondue and be very content.
Not that you really need dessert after a meal that no doubt will include burgers dunked in a pot of melted cheese, but if you’re in the mood for something sweet, desserts change nightly and have included a chocolate bread pudding with peanut butter mousse and a buttery pineapple upside down cake.
There’s a degree to which I feel like culinary criticism has no place in the world of the kind of wallet-friendly, shoot-from-the-hip comfort food being served at The Fat Hippo. In some ways it’s counterintuitive. I mean, here’s a group of guys who’ve been friends for a while (Ten and his partners used to all be roommates), who opened a place to serve the neighborhood and fill a void by offering crowd-pleasing eats that make you nostalgic for the good old days. On the other hand, even comfort food deserves a bit more careful attention to basics like balance and flavor.
Either way, the hits outweigh the misses and the cheery staff and sincere welcome that you feel while eating here adds a lot to the experience. It’s a good formula and one that is on target for our challenged financial times. Burgers dipped in fondue sauce may not be part of the stimulus plan but maybe they should be served in Congress. I think they’d generate overwhelming bipartisan support.