Fat Hippo, 79 Clinton St, 212-228-0994. Rating: 3 L's
You can (sorta) credit Lehman Brothers with the recent bacon fad. As is characteristic of every economic downturn, much emphasis has been placed on comfort food lately. The more we tighten our proverbial belts, the more we loosen our literal ones to make way for tummy-coating ingredients with inoffensive flavors: molasses-thick soups and sauces, dense breads, liberal use of dairy in just about everything.
New York kitchens can’t help but add their own touch to this sort of fare. Bread and Barmarché veteran Ten Vong hops on the recent eclectic comfort food wave with Fat Hippo, the new occupant of Wylie Dufresne’s old 71 Clinton Fresh Food lot. It’s reminiscent of a downsized Cafeteria, with a similarly minimalist dining room and modest American menu.
Influences span from Cajun to Cuban, but the most eye-catching item is the only-in-America Burger Fondue ($10), which has been met with amusement and curiosity across the food blogosphere. It’s not, as I fantasized, a pot of liquefied ground meat, just a simple cheese fondue with bacon-topped sliders and fries for dipping. The rest of the menu isn’t as excessive: the pan-fried mozzarella balls ($6) steer mercifully away from greasy cheese-stick territory and a beet, olive and goat cheese tart ($6) could even stand to be a little heartier.
The entrées would be basic standbys at trendier restaurants (turkey meatloaf, grilled pork chops, smoked duck breast), though all have a little something extra. The pork ($13) is topped with a maple-jalepeño sauce and Vong swaps buns for rosemary focaccia on the Fat Hippo Burger and Veggie Burger (both $8). I had to try the Maryland crab cake ($14) — the menu calls it “authentic” and they mean it: Vong is a Baltimore native. It’s good, but outshone by a fresh corn and zucchini succotash and a side of killer mac and cheese — the grownup sort, with sophisticated cheese and rotini pasta. The only real disappointment was dessert: a chocolate bread pudding ($5) so dull and gummy I forgot what it was halfway through. It’s not on the menu, though, so hopefully it’ll be replaced.
The menu is clearly a bit scattered, but then again, so are the tastes of the Lower East Side crowd. Hippo’s one of those safe places to go when you’re not sure what you’d like to eat. Not everything’s outstanding, but it’s tough to complain about any restaurant in New York with prices so low — a three-course meal for two totaled under fifty bucks. How comforting.