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Southern Discomfort: First & Hope Supper Club

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Trying a new restaurant can be like going on a job interview. You're hungry, you want--or need--something new, and you throw caution to the wind and hope it's a good fit. Maybe you dress up a little, put the proverbial best foot forward for that crucial first impression, and hope that the prospective place lives up to your expectations. Tune out your inner Trump foisting his finger upon you and declaring your doom! Fingers crossed...this could work out great.

If the mantra of the real estate biz is "location, location, location," then First & Hope has that nailed. A stone's throw from the Music Center, Disney Hall, and a multitude of Downtown offices, a bar-restaurant with higher-end offerings perfect for the before or after theatre crowd could well be a life saver. So, for the live entertainment set, the commute gets a big ol' checkmark in the "pro" column.

Recently we were invited to check out First & Hope, and it was an offer we could not only refuse, but looked to with, well, high hopes.

The first look inside First & Hope is pretty stunning. It's a beautiful space, seemingly plucked from the halcyon days depicted in Mad Men's earlier seasons, with hostesses dressed in vintage cocktail dresses, plush banquette seats, curvy deco-era lines in the furnishings. The supper club's breathtaking elegance is only slightly sullied by the center panel of lights that changes colors--oh, hello, sudden explosion of blue everywhere!

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Seated and acquainted with the drinks and food menu, First & Hope extends their handshake to you, the newbie, with their cocktails. It's a bubble-centric menu featuring a number of classic drinks, or riffs upon the classics, many of which include champagne, and many of which fall on the sweeter side. For the effervescent enthusiasts, then, this is your bar. For example: Russian Spring Punch (Grey Goose vodka, raspberry & cassis, and "a bit of bubbly"), Elle for Leather (Famous Grouse scotch, vanilla syrup & "a touch of effervescence"), and Pisco Punch (cloves, Pisco, pineapple syrup, citrus juices - & "of course topped with Charles Heidsieck Champagne!")...notice a trend? These were cocktails we couldn't fall in love with, though, despite how good they looked on paper. Out of balance between the sweet and the champ, each sip hit up front and sugary, then finished sour.

And so this meeting is underway. Some small talk, first. This came in the form of an amuse bouche--a beautiful, perfectly cooked piece of fingerling potato with creme fraiche. Just like the sparkling chatter ("So nice to see you!") that breaks the ice, this first bite is delectable, and holds the promise of better to come.

Time to get down to business. The motif at First & Hope is supper club, but the menu has a distinct Southern sensibility, with takes on comfort classics twisted up with "down home" flavor. Grits, fried chicken, pot pie, macaroni and cheese, "soul-rubbed" meat all sing a song of the South. Well, we were tuned in, and ready to listen. Let's let F&H put their cards out on the table and see if we've got a deal.

Unfortunately, this was one of those cases where the fine print of the dish descriptions and the ingredient list revealed that there was more than meets the eye going on in the kitchen...and, with a couple of applause-worthy exceptions, this was not a good thing.

The Crabmeat Justine Pot Pie had neither pot, nor pie. Instead it was a wan disc of toast on a cold pile of crab; an austere, chilly, and stingily-sized presentation ($13). Promises, promises...a pot pie by rights should afford you that satisfying plunge of the fork into the steamy, gravy-soaked depths beneath buttery, glistening crust, and leave you clutching your stomach in that post-indulgence comfort food stance of "ohhhh...I can't believe I ate all that!"

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The Popcorn Shrimp & Grits (Jumbo Shrimp, Corn Relish, Popped Corn Cream Sauce & Creamy Grits) was a shoulder-shrugger, another confusing plate pairing lackluster seafood with a bland starch ($17). The Back Yard Garden Salad was another let down, first because it promised ingredients that didn't show up (fiddlehead ferns, I'm talking 'bout you) and second because the veggies that were there couldn't settle on an appropriate texture (world's floppiest carrot and squeaky raw baby squash, I'm talking 'bout you). The saving grace of this $13 bowl of veggies and mount of greens was the worship-worthy Green Goddess Dressing that came on the side.

But just when you think all hope is lost, something stunning appears at the table. It's totally over-the-top (see above: too many ingredients) but, dammit, it's fun, it's interactive, it's a conversation-starter, and it tastes delicious. It's All About the Cheese-Mac and Cheese Flight ($16). Yes, that's right. It's a set of three macaroni and cheese dishes, all quirky variants on the traditional, each in its own crock, served on a large slate with designated accessories and chalked-on descriptions.

Make no mistake: It's outrageous. But it works, because you're spooning up mouthfuls of pasta swimming in triple cream brie and taking a bite of honeycomb with it for that sweet, silly kick. There's a little glass of beer to go with the corkscrew pasta in Porter Beer Cheese topped with rye bread crumbs--a little mouthful of your favorite deli nosh without the meat. They gambled on this one, and won.

The entree section reads much the same as above. Low points in spades that harken back to what seemed so promising at the onset. With lovely ground chuck, the Moonshine Meatloaf didn't need the foie gras, and probably not the gin flavoring, and definitely not the bacon wrap. Heavy flavors and an unpleasant texture took what could have been Southern Comfort to the realm of the comatose ($27). Same for the fried chicken in Neenaw's Picnic Basket, only here consistency was an issue; some pieces were burnt, some tender, some dried out ($17).

Case Study: The Fingerling Potato Issue. Remember that potato so delicately done as an amuse? This was the last time the F&H kitchen produce a properly cooked potato for the remainder of the meal. Rock hard and un-forkable, they showed up in place of a menu-promised "Bistered Potato & Pearl Onion Hash" with the meatloaf and in the potato salad with the fried chicken basket. Thanks to excellent, attentive, and jovial service, though, we were able to chat with our server about it; his return explanation of "they're meant to be al dente" didn't sit well.

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The highlight of the entree section was the Duck, Duck, Goose (Sugar & Spice Seared Duck Breast, Duck Leg Confit, Roasted Foie Gras, Spring Onion Hoe Cake & Wilted Baby Mustard, $28). No potatoes here to ruin the show, and while the dish as a whole a little ambitious, each component showcased the precise sort of restraint that makes for a successful preparation. Excellent seasoning on the breast, just the right amount of fattiness detectable in the confit, and a beautiful bite of foie gras.

So pretty much everything has been laid out on the line here in this dining tete-a-tete with First & Hope. The contract is wordy, and the product proves that perhaps they need to do some streamlining before a deal is struck and you'll agree to come on board. Can they sweeten the deal with dessert? If they're sticking to the tongue and cheek, for the most part, I'm sold. The LAPD Doughnut Shake Down (Boston Cream Pie Doughnuts & Chocolate Dipping Sauce with Strawberry Milkshake, Strawberry Compote & Strawberry Whipped Cream) is a win for the slurp-worthy shake. Other offerings push a bit too far; the "Porky Pig Banana Split" (Bacon & Banana Ice Cream, Jalapeño Hot Fudge, Brandied Cherries & Caramel Pork Rinds) is ridiculous enough to order, and then just ridiculous, while the Lemon Meringue Beehive (Coconut Macaroon, Lemon Curd, Lemon-Thyme Ice Cream & Toasted Marshmallow Beehive) is pretty, it's also pretty sweet.

Of course, in a job interview, it's up to them if there's a future relationship; here is where the metaphor, and the meal end. It's clearly an issue of priorities: A bite before or after a show, and First & Hope could be your new favorite watering hole for select cocktails and certain dishes. Though we didn't specifically try them out, they have several "Cocktail Hour" specials running on different nights of the week from 5-7 that offer affordable sips and bites, like Fondue Fridays, where you can get fondue and 50% off 50s-inspired cocktails. Sometimes a place just isn't a good fit, and while First & Hope has the niche market covered, unless they pink slip some of the dead-weight ingredients and get the prep up to performance standards, this supper club might not be your cup of bubbly.