On a recent trip to Los Angeles, I had the transformational experience of dining with a friend at Otium, newly opened Fall 2015. Chef Timothy Hollingsworth—the longtime chef de cuisine at Thomas Keller’s French Laundry in Napa Valley in which role he earned the 2010 James Beard Rising Star Chef award—takes cues at Otium from cold and heat, those extremes represented in raw bar and wood fired offerings.
Like an exquisite wooden box, the restaurant’s structure itself rises from a mini grove of olive trees which glow with uplighting, rooted in a grassy park shared with one of the hottest tickets in LA—the Broad Museum. Otium opened September 2015, and dinner hours began in December.
Consistent with the indoor/outdoor connection impressed by the restaurant’s mixed woods and metals and vine mural décor on a massive wall adjoining the bar, the idea of a seamless continuation extends to the format of the menu, which follows from beginning to end with none of the defining course barriers one typically expects. Yet it makes sense and didn't feel overly designed or heavy-handed.
Among options like Sencha Tea (Campari, Blended Scotch, Fennel) and Unfiltered Sake (Yuzu, Green Chile, Ginger, Japanese Cucumber, Vodka), I eventually settled on the Crabapple (Chamomile Verjus, Honey, VSOP). It was a lovely little work of art displaying a paper slice of apple held aloft by a single circular glacier of ice. And most importantly, it tasted good. I like this approach to ice, as it seemed to melt more slowly and didn't dilute the drink.
As we enjoyed cocktails on the patio, a staff member circled from the other side of the planter barrier between our seat and the grassy park, and, with small shears, decisively clipped petite herbs from the planter and took them inside. I’d read somewhere that some of the herbs and plant-based ingredients are grown onsite. We were seeing it in action!
My friend and I shared two plates (she is a pescatarian and keeps kosher, and these options worked well for both of us).
One taste of the first course, and I realized that this was not intended as just a meal, but as a fully integrated sensory experience. While I perhaps always associate taste, followed by aroma, as defining characteristics of my food, texture took a lead role on these plates, reminding me what a key element texture is in our culinary experience.
The hamachi tasted fresh-caught and was butter on the tongue. That the sour tomatoes were skinless continued the soft, buttery, melting experience. The avocado paste at the right was swiped onto the plate and dashed with some spices. Their ever-so-slight crunch mimicked the minimal grill crust on the fish. I'd eat this every day.
I had to ask my friend about Buddha's Hand, and in case you aren't already touched by Buddha, turns out its a very dramatic citrus fruit with a stunning, deep yellow color and lots of octopus-like tentacles. I felt captivated by the movement of this dish . . . it was as if the painted nori paste gestured waves, the black rice "cup" a miniature tidepool into which the fluke, sliced citron, salmon roe, and herbs had drifted, being captured there as the tide retreated. The crunch of the black rice chip, the pop of the salty salmon roe in the mouth, the zing of the thinly sliced Budda's hand, and the buttery fluke transported me to somewhere exotic and undefinable. I hope to go there again.
This is where the textural magic reached its crescendo. I'm not sure where the leeks were, but I didn't miss them too much. What made this dish remarkable was the crushed "Black Sesame Cashew." It enhanced the perfectly cooked duck with subtle cashew and black sesame flavors, and added a crunch that made me feel like I was having lots of fun on a Saturday night! The tangerine added a bright flash, and the reduction was not overly sweet as one too often finds with duck. I hope to repeat this crunchy enhancement at home with meat dishes; it would go nicely with pork or chicken too.
I did not photograph the dessert, unfortunately, but we chose to share the day's ice cream: vanilla with orange granita. Again, the texture dynamic punctuated this dish. I'd never before thought of pairing two frozen deserts that normally stand on their own, but the creamy ice cream and the crunchy granita were just right.
I left feeling not only that I'd eaten a top notch meal, but that I'd been invited to consider something new. And perhaps most importantly, the food and the surroundings Invited conversation that refreshed and enriched a decades-old friendship. If you're in LA, go to Otium, and I think Chef Timothy Hollingsworth's textures, innovation, and attention will shine through for you, too.
The Savory Pantry Helps Bring Texture to Your Table!
- Home Grown Tomatoes: Sprinkle delicious heirloom tomatoes from your own garden or a nearby farmers market with Sal de Ibeza Flor de Sal or M. Gilles Hervy Fleur de Sel. Nothing compliments the summer's best tomatoes like some good salt!
- Follow our Extra Virgin Chocolate Sorbet Recipe, which incorporates Bourbon Smoked Sea Salt.
- "Sweet Piggy": Top vanilla ice cream with a pinch of our All Natural Bacon Salt! It's sure to sweep them off their hooves.
- Vanilla Ice Cream with Sal de Ibeza Flor de Sal. Scoop and sprinkle; you've got creamy and crunchy, sweet and salty!
- Pure Cane Lemon Sugar atop vanilla ice cream.
- Place our Handmade Sweet & Spicy Glazed Pecans in a baggie and gently break with the back of a spoon. Sprinkle over vanilla ice cream. Try the same with Handmade Scottish Shortbread.
- Offer Fran's Gray & Smoked Sea Salt Caramels straight from the box.
Otium was dubbed by Los Angeles Eater as “The biggest opening of 2015,” an opening eagerly awaited for two years. GQ Magazine sites it among “The five coolest places to eat in LA.” The LA Times says, “Your next restaurant has a movie trailer.” (See the trailer here.) We don’t get those in Little Rock.