In the morning, Milo and Olive is still calm. You can sit at one of the eight counter seats eating a bowl of stone-ground grits with sautéed chanterelles and an egg, sunny side up, feeling as if you’re part of the working crew. A cook weighs out pizza dough on a digital scale; another checks a broad pot steaming on the stove. A young woman in a pink hairband peers into the wood-burning oven and tends to the embers. Meat is being fed into grinders for sausages. When an order for muesli comes in, a tall Tupperware container appears and a moist scoop is plopped into a cup. Adorned with thin slices of one of the organic pippins on display, it is a great way to begin the day.
Soon the quiet will be shattered. That communal table where a guy happily reads Lopez and Plaschke over a cup of coffee and buttered toast will fill with a crowd here for chef Evan Funke’s rustic cooking and Zoe Nathan’s neotraditionalist baking. By high noon the atmosphere could be called a collision of sorts. A woman with a Saint John’s Health Center ID clipped to the lapel of her pantsuit tucks into a salad of Coleman Family Farms lettuces with squishy cubes of Hachiya persimmons. A teen who has appropriated his grandfather’s hopsack blazer savors the fried lemon wedge atop the calamari. Two guys at the counter look like they gave up on the Kogi line. Over at the other marble-topped communal table, a bunch of women in good haircuts sporting all the shades of Eileen Fisher commemorate their get-together with cell phone pics.
With a menu that’s unchanging from 11 a.m., when breakfast mode is shed, to 11 p.m, when the last pizza with Calabrian chiles goes out, Milo and Olive is one of those ventures that seeks to obliterate demarcations between meals. Lunch, dinner—these are abstract junctures to a growing cadre of places (the Larder, Maison Giraud, and BLD come to mind) that can feed you mightily with nary a look at the clock. Milo and Olive both fits into the trend and marks a watershed for Nathan and her husband, Josh Loeb, who oversees the business.
Their talents first came together in 2006. That was when Nathan was hired as pastry chef at Loeb’s new restaurant, Rustic Canyon (marriage came later), a place that slung a moneyed canyon vibe onto produce-driven cooking (with plenty of pricey bottles of Oregon pinot noir). Huckleberry, a bakery and café the couple debuted in 2009, highlighted Nathan’s faux-innocent pastries. It was an immediate hit. Hers is an approach that is as dependent on the romance of baking as it is on rigor. Nathan’s breads are gorgeously unaffected, their floury surfaces white from the proofing baskets; her pastries have a hard-won lightness, the sticky buns just the right amount of butter, nuts, and sugar. The offerings are stringently executed but not frozen by professionalism; everything seems like it’s been prepared that morning for the best PTA bake sale ever. But Huckleberry has a romanticized coffee shop as its ideal, keeping food choices to soups, salads, sandwiches, and rotisserie chicken that it stops serving at 7 p.m.
Milo and Olive, which sits along Wilshire between the old Santa Monica tobacco shop the Tinder Box and a high-end women’s consignment store, ramps up the degree of difficulty considerably. With an open, beamed ceiling and a mere 24 seats, it’s not much larger than the Sweet Rose Creamery, an ice cream place in the Brentwood Country Mart the couple found time to open in 2010. Wine bottles vie for space in the bakery case, and reservations aren’t accepted—which explains the dagger stares you get from the queue of diners if you linger over an empty plate. Milo and Olive aims to be a spot to grab takeout or nab a seat for a quick bite, but it also wants to lay claim to some culinary cred—an all-day provisioner that can still give shout-outs to its farmers while showcasing quasi-garagiste wines like Donkey & Goat’s Roussanne from the Sierra foothills. It may be casual, but this is gastro territory.
van Funke came up through the brutally difficult kitchen at Spago, working under Lee Hefter for three years. Some of the intelligent efficiency of that kitchen—at full speed it can serve 500 diners a day—is clear in Milo and Olive’s menu. The skillet of freshly steamed clams draped in tendrils of parsley and the fry-up of calamari served with a shot of soupy chimi-churri are the only two dishes in which all the ingredients are taken from a raw to a cooked state at the time of ordering; everything else that’s not a dessert can be whipped together with pre-prepped ingredients and a flurry of movements: a splash of stock, a pinch of butter and herbs. At its best this style has a certain bravado, as if Funke were on a mission to see how much clutter can be stripped from a dish without losing quality. Big slabs of McGrath Family Farms pumpkins seem to have been pried moments earlier from a roasting dish. The accompanying drizzle of buckwheat honey and a hit of black pepper lend the soft flesh a layered complexity. Crackling duck leg, a moist confit beauty, rests atop a jumble of See Canyon apple wedges, chestnuts, and charred brussels sprouts, a hint of saba and red wine agrodolce providing all the torque the combination needs.
Though always robust, the dishes are the product of some delicate fine-tuning. Tuscan kale has been blanched not an instant longer than necessary, so it never becomes cabbagey; chopped into a chiffonade, it has crispness that parries the richness of the ricotta that enrobes the long strands of ziti. Roasted cauliflower is cut into the tiniest florets, so they’re close in size to the pine nuts and plump raisins that are mixed in with fried rosemary needles; the whole makes for a brilliant modernist chopped salad. Dense with cannellini beans and winter vegetables, the white bean soup is so intense, I could swear a bucket of ham hocks has been cooked in the broth, and yet it is vegetarian.
Since a bakery is one of the restaurant’s taproots, there’s plenty of dough used in its many forms. Funke’s pizza is not as singed and gossamer as Sotto’s or as billowing as Mozza’s. With a thick, chewy brown crust, the pie is straightforward; the raft of dough is a staple, not a statement. And while chunks of earthbound butternut squash overwhelm one pie, the version that carries a payload of anchovies, black olives, and red peppers is spot-on. For the wood-fired garlic knot (essentially a peasant take on the caviar-filled beggar’s purse of the 1980s), dough is wrapped around heaps of steamed garlic, tied with a cord, and baked. Hearty and unpretentious, it’s a delicious combination soaked through with garlic juices.
That may sound like the kind of appetizer you’d like to tear into with companions. But there’s no telling when it will materialize before you because the kitchen keeps producing food with no sense of coursing or pacing. This is the drawback to Milo and Olive’s reach for the definitive democratic dining experience: Food arrives whenever the cooks are done with it. You eat so randomly that a meal becomes a series of unconnected events. The skillet potatoes are wonderful—crusty from the oven, with shards of browned garlic—but you’ve finished them by the time the herb-flecked chicken meatballs appear. Then comes the radicchio and arugula salad with deep-fried capers that you’d planned to start with. Had you known it would bring up the rear, you might not have asked for the glass of big red Spanish Sierra Salinas.
Timing aside, the most notable flops on the menu are the two crostini dishes: One is a thick slice of country bread heaped with too much ricotta and drenched in olive oil. Even if the bread is naturally leavened and the ricotta is from Bell-wether Farms, the thing is sloppiness masquerading as wholesomeness. The other crostini swaps melted Gian-duja chocolate for the cheese, splashes on yet more olive oil, and is finished with sea salt. Recipes for this gambit are all over the Web; there must be an audience, but with so many foodie ingredients smooshed together, the concoction seems like an unwitting spoof of modern, precious eating, a special dreamed up for Portlandia.
The desserts to order are displayed by the coffee urns in an array of layer cakes and chocolate-wrapped tortes that would make Wayne Thiebaud proud. The hominess of the warm carrot cake is heightened by an impasto of freshly applied cream cheese frosting marked by the back-and-forth movements of a spatula. Cut straight from a baking tray, the pear tart captures the functional and idealistic undercurrents of Milo and Olive. A fork slices through the poached fruit, first to a finger width of pastry cream and then to a puff pastry crust. Heck, yeah. It’s so good, I want to sit back and dab at the last crumbs from the plate. But can I do that with all those people backed up between the pastry counter and the door? More people press in as the manager delivers a stack of brown pizza boxes to a Range Rover idling at the curb. A waiter is reaching over heads with tumblers of Melville chard. The clock has struck ten, and one stranger is explaining farro to another. It’s time to let someone else join the fray.
Milo and Olive
2723 Wilshire Boulevard Santa Monica
Best dishes: Mushroom and grits with sunny-side-up egg, white bean soup with winter vegetables, crispy duck leg, anchovy pizza, poached pear tart
Drinks: Craft beers and short but smart wine list
Atmosphere: Except for breakfast, bustling
Noise Level: Loud
Kid Friendliness: Fine
Price Range: $6.50 (garlic knot) to $20 (mushroom pizza)
Hours: Daily, 7 a.m.–11 p.m.
Parking: Street only
Reservations: Not accepted
Credit Cards: All major
Contact: 310-453-6776 or miloandolive.com