L.A.’s Mama Lion Is Your Spot for Caviar and Smothered Tater Tots
Executive chef Michael Hung, who was chef-de-cuisine at San Francisco’s Michelin-starred La Folie before running the kitchen at downtown L.A.’s Faith & Flower and Beverly Hills’ Viviane, is known for his mastery of classic technique and his love of Continental cuisine. He’s also a chef who thinks a lot about the vibe of a restaurant. Hung studied the history of clubby old-school dining destinations like Hollywood’s Dan Tana’s and Manhattan’s 21 Club when he created the menu for Mama Lion.
But beyond the oysters on the half shell, the fresh bucatini and the dry-aged steak, Mama Lion is also a place for an attractive young crowd to enjoy playful bar food paired with strong cocktails and bottle service.
“I’m definitely drawn to…what was served in a lot of these older supper clubs,” Hung says. “But it’s also Koreatown, and it’s a younger demographic that likes more casual things. As far as the menu, I wanted to make sure there was an elevated feel to it. But at the same time, I also wanted people to be able to get drunk and get down.”
So he’s serving soul-warming smothered tater tots with a short-rib ragout.
“It’s basically chili cheese fries,” Hung says. “We’re just rethinking it a little bit. My perspective is always going to be very technique-driven. I always find that if you take a little bit of the extra step with technique, you can still have the same comforting flavors, but everything ends up being better. We’re going to choose better ingredients. Instead of onion powder, we’re going to use real onion and real garlic. Instead of boiling it hard, we’re going to cook it low and slow, so that the meat is unctuous and tender.”
Hung, who’s also serving avocado samosas (“basically a fried fritter” with a really crisp outside and a rich and creamy filling) and Isaan-style sausage, says a lot of his inspiration comes from an appreciation of comfort food and the realization that comfort food doesn’t have to be simple or inelegant.
“This is something I learned from Traci Des Jardins,” says Hung, who once worked for the famed chef’s Jardinière in San Francisco. “She always used to tell us that rustic doesn’t mean sloppy. Rustic is a flavor profile. It doesn’t mean you just throw stuff on a plate. What you’re focusing on is how do you take that flavor profile and really stay true to it and, as a matter of fact, amplify it.”
Hung and partner Abby Gavino (who says she loves chili cheese fries so much that she could eat them every day) recently launched Ardour Hospitality, the restaurant group that’s in charge of the food at Mama Lion. They’re also working to open a “Cal-Asian” restaurant near the pier in Hermosa Beach and have their eye on a La Brea Avenue location. Stay tuned for more elevated comfort food.