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Hatfields' technique at Odys + Penelope lends itself to myth

Jonathan Gold
Contact ReporterLos Angeles Times Restaurant Critic
The couple behind Hatfield's, which @thejgold admired, opens Odys + Penelope, which he loves

Will I riff on for a while about the name of the new restaurant Odys + Penelope? I will not, although it is hard not to. I spend more time than I probably should contemplating the thoughts of faithful Penelope when her disguised husband, Odysseus, slaughters her hapless suitors on his return to the palace after decades abroad. Did he really think that Penelope didn't recognize him? Schmuck.

Anyway, Odys + Penelope, twee punctuation and all, is the new restaurant from Quinn and Karen Hatfield, longtime proprietors of the now-closed restaurant Hatfield's, as well as of the wonderful breakfast spot Sycamore Kitchen just a few doors down the block.

It is a new restaurant space, apparently once a warehouse, then slated for a branch of the stylish Austin, Texas, Mexican restaurant La Condesa that never quite opened, but the dining room feels as if it has been around for decades, all stripped brick, raw wooden rafters and an open kitchen that dominates the far end of the restaurant like a theater's proscenium. That rustic assemblage of wood and bare metal is actually the storage area for split logs. In the kitchen itself, slabs of meat sputter and hiss over a shimmering trough of cherry-red coals. The restaurant smells good, like herbs and campfires, meat and liquor.

Odys + Penelope was undoubtedly intended as a modern-primitive grill in the style of Asador Etxebarri in the Basque country or Francis Mallmann's kitchens in Argentina, fragrant places that speak exclusively in the language of smoldering wood.

The most emblematic dish here is probably the sirloin cap, a beef cut almost nonexistent on U.S. menus but revered as picanha in Brazil, where it is the unchallenged star of the churrascaria menu. As a good Brazilian chef might, Hatfield rubs the meat with salt and pepper, slow roasts it over embers and serves it at room temperature, sliced thin. But Hatfield dry-ages his meat for a length of time almost unthinkable in Brazil, where freshness is prized over tenderness and the aromas that develop through aging, and the complex tartness of his sirloin cap is profound and delicious. The sugar-dusted tangle of crisp fried onions on top of the steak, which might seem bizarre taken out of context, are just right. If you are on a churrasco jag, you might also consider the tri-tip, what Brazilians call maminha, or the grilled skirt steak, like but not identical to fraldinha. You will be eating these meats with things like Bearnaise sauce and puréed carrots instead of chimichurri, and you will be happy enough.

The most unexpected grilled meat dish here owes almost nothing to South America: The gigantic applewood-smoked short rib, cooked until it threatens to but does not collapse under its own weight on your fork, is a close cousin to the beef ribs in the best Central Texas barbecue pits, crusted with black, salty bark, bursting with juice and kissed with a smoke ring so vividly red that it looks as if somebody marked the meat up with lipstick. You will ignore, as you should, the wan cup of sweet barbecue sauce served on the side.

But Odys + Penelope is never quite as meaty as you might think it would be, and for every smoky slab of protein you will probably end up with two of vegetables — a finely chopped kale salad perhaps, butched up with segments of tangerines and chewy bits of dates; or chicken-fried wild mushrooms served with a garlicky dipping sauce; or a kind of neo-pasta in tomato sauce made with spaghetti squash instead of noodles. It is hard to imagine a meal here without a salad the menu calls the Farmer's Dozen, a mélange of roasted carrots, shaved watermelon radish, roast baby turnips, charred romanesco cauliflower and a bunch of other things, seasoned with a roasted pumpkinseed purée.

I always admired Hatfield's. Odys + Penelope I actually love.

It's almost unprecedented, the sheer number of times I've tasted something here and been surprised not by unusual combinations or the rarity of ingredients but by the flawless demonstration of technique. I still have no idea how a seemingly raw dish of shaved Brussels sprouts with almonds and dried apricots managed to have the rounded flavor I tend to associate with deeply caramelized vegetables, or how the cherry tomatoes garnishing the grilled branzino manage to taste summer-ripe even in the first weeks of spring.

My favorite dish at the restaurant may be the bowl of cauliflower and millet painted with a sharp almond-basil purée. How does Quinn Hatfield tame the locker-room funkiness of cauliflower into sweet, nuanced nuttiness? How is it possible to tame disparate ingredients into a smooth porridge? Does the creamy richness come from a lashing of ricotta, or has the chef discovered a way to coax the texture from starchy stirred millet the way an Italian chef might from Arborio rice? I couldn't tell you at the moment — the question may require months of further study, supplemented perhaps by glasses of Douro or even Beaujolais.

Karen Hatfield has been one of the most interesting pastry chefs in Los Angeles for years, but she has finally become a star. The Hubble telescope has studied mysteries less profound than the crunchy millimeter of graham cracker at the base of her buttermilk tart, the delicacy of her Pavlova and the crisp yet friable perfection of the rye crust on her chocolate pie.

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Odys + Penelope

Quinn and Karen Hatfield's latest restaurant is an ode to meat, plus some exquisite desserts.

LOCATION

127 S. La Brea Ave., Los Angeles, (323) 939-1033, odysandpenelope.com

PRICES

Starters, $6-$16; "mains,'' $19-$26 (more for large-format meat dishes); vegetables, $5-$6; desserts, $9-$11.

DETAILS

Dinner 6 to 10 p.m. Mondays to Thursdays, 6 to 11 p.m. Fridays, 5:30 to 11 p.m. Saturdays, 5:30 to 9:30 p.m. Sundays. Credit cards accepted. Full bar. Valet parking.

RECOMMENDED DISHES

Fried wild mushrooms, creamy cauliflower and millet, dry-aged sirloin cap, applewood-smoked short ribs, chocolate pie.

jonathan.gold@latimes.com

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