Fire is at the core of Odys + Penelope. Walk in and, center stage, the smoldering, crackling kitchen is stocked with an array of grills framed by what looks like a proscenium arch. Behind the busy chefs flames sputter from a pair of pulley-lowered cast-iron grates; the riveted vault of a smoker looms beside them while a cord of split wood waits nearby in a towering architectural bin—red oak in one compartment, applewood and almond in the others. Donning a camo cap and tending to the embers is Quinn Hatfield, who launched the restaurant with his wife, Karen, in early January. Raised in Greensboro, North Carolina, he didn’t have to travel far in that part of the country to find an epic example of the state’s hand-chopped, vinegar-laced brand of pork barbecue. So this is a homecoming of sorts. In addition to the pulley-packing grills, he uses an Argentinean model with thick bars to impart a deep sear on the skirt steak he serves backyard style with a relish of Fresno chile, cilantro, and radish. He cranks up the smoker at 11 a.m., the beginning of a six-hour process to convert honking beef short ribs into a carnivore’s delight of luxuriant meat encased in caramelized bark. Seeing the little cup of molasses-based dip that comes with it, purists might argue that barbecue is supposed to highlight the meat’s natural sweetness. But it’s a bit of an homage to Memphis, and with the tang of apple cider vinegar and cracked pepper, I like it just fine.
“I’m a meat eater. I was cooking this way at home,” Quinn told me over the phone one morning when I called to ask about the dramatic leap that Odys + Penelope represents for him. Quinn has removed layers of artistry, shifting away from the sauté pans and burnished copper sauce pots that were central to his cooking at Hatfield’s. The original version of that restaurant opened on Beverly Boulevard in 2006 with a floor plan so tight, you were careful not to swing the door too far for fear it would hit Karen’s hostess stand. From the start, however, the food—drawing on Quinn’s years working in New York for David Bouley and Karen’s tenure doing desserts for Claudia Fleming at Gramercy Tavern and for Jean-Georges Vongerichten—was defined by tasteful restraint. It was apparent in the meticulous way the layers of hamachi, prosciutto, quail egg, and garlic beurre blanc were built into a croque madame and the labor-intensive crust of mint and date on the rack of lamb.
Relocating to the storied Citrus space on Melrose in 2010, the Hatfields created a room as urbane as their food, with actual acoustics, good china, and a glass-fronted kitchen that housed a brigade in white toques. This was fine dining at a time when other restaurateurs were rolling in a more casual direction. Maybe that’s why, three years ago, they cut the ribbon on the Sycamore Kitchen, a breakfast-and-lunch counter service where you can sit in a parasol-filled courtyard and enjoy a roasted chicken sandwich with crusty white bread and Meyer lemon confit before chasing it with one of Karen’s blueberry financier muffins. Sycamore was so much more in keeping with the times that news of Hatfield’s impending closure last New Year’s didn’t surprise me, pained as I was to hear it.
Hardly missing a step, the couple was already finishing plans for O+P, which occupies a conceptual middle point between Hatfield’s and Sycamore. It radiates the professionalism of a serious dinner spot, but one that’s laid-back enough for the waitstaff to wear the uniform of choice today: blue jeans. Exposed trusses stretch high above the space, whose bare-brick walls and sheer square footage recall the days when it was part of Continental Graphics. A beveled-edge wood bar extends along one wall, black banquettes along another. Uncovered during the renovation, the trio of Corinthian columns up front inspired the allusion to Homer’s Odysseus and his long-abiding wife, Penelope. If the moist, bracing combination of cured salmon and avocado in a herb-flecked tzatziki is another Greek allusion, it’s typically low-key. Maybe more emblematic of the changes is spotting diners dunking airy cheese puffs into ramekins of bright red romesco. When that happens in a Quinn and Karen Hatfield restaurant, you know it’s a new day.
Wood-fired cooking is having its moment, with restaurants like Redbird, Tar & Roses, and Chi Spacca giving diners a front-row view of turning spits and red embers. But while the presentation may be more noticeable these days, cooking over a live flame is part of a grand tradition among restaurants here. Neon signs were advertising “charbroiled steaks” along L.A.’s black-and-white streetscapes of the 1930s and ’40s. Michael McCarty and Wolfgang Puck picked up the thread in the early ’80s, when they had truckloads of wood delivered alongside the produce. By 1989, half of Campanile’s menu seemed to come off the grill. I’m not even getting into Pollo a la Brasa on Western and its wall of glowing logs, or such yakitori standard-bearers as Shin-Gen-Gumi in Gardena, where headband-wearing cooks tuck paper fans in their apron strings, keeping them at the ready to stoke the coals under your skewer of chicken livers.
Although Odys + Penelope didn’t exactly invent the notion of cooking over burning wood, it’s tough to find another restaurant of this caliber that has gone whole hog with the grill. Quinn and Karen call the place a churrasco, which brings to mind Brazilian restaurants where waiters wearing knee boots serve an endless supply of massive skewered meats. In reality, the churrasco part of O+P’s one-page menu is fairly minimal. That doesn’t mean it isn’t great. The pork belly exterior of the porchetta starts out as pearly white as a Roman senator’s marble bust. After turning slowly on a skewer over mesquite for an hour, it has been transformed into an insane hybrid of pork cracklings and crème brûlée wrapped around a plump roll of tender boneless roast. A dollop of green tomato mostarda on the meat ties into the bed of lentils brightened with diced onion and pickling juice to counter the richness. My favorite cut, however, may be the sirloin cap—also from the churrasco. A few slices are laid out as plainly as at a church supper, the smokiness of the pink meat accentuated by the dab from the small container of horseradish crème fraîche beside it.
Quinn has a knack for knowing when to augment the flame’s effect with a touch of something more opulent. Citrus peel shaved over whole Australian blue prawns balances the nice char left by the Argentinean grill. Lemony hollandaise beneath the asparagus frames the nutty greenness of the fire-licked stalks, and the béarnaise beneath the tri-tip is no less airy. (That’s a lot of butter-enhanced sauce if you happen to order the asparagus, too. Putting the béarnaise on the side of the meat would help.) Then there’s the beef. Cut from that last triangular section of the bottom sirloin—a staple in the style of grilling that came out of the Central Coast’s Santa Maria Valley in the 19th century—tri-tip would cramp up were it cooked right over the flame. Patiently raising and lowering the grate to modulate the heat results in petals of soft flesh. A similar technique is behind the branzino, its blistered skin a rustic foil for the buttery sauce with spring onions and cherry tomatoes. Quinn shows even more patience with the lamb neck. Sitting for hours in the smoker before being chopped and mixed in with swirls of green hummus, chickpeas, and yogurt, the meat—served in firm lettuce leaves—is intense and fabulously squishy. Don’t expect to see the dish on the menu, though: It’s always on special because, as in any proper Tar Heel ’cue joint (the Skylight Inn in Ayden comes to mind), no meat is reheated here; they start fresh each day, and when they run out, that’s it until tomorrow.
As meaty as all this might sound, Quinn, who’s had market menus and vegetarian menus in every iteration of his restaurants, kind of soars with plants. An oregano- and parsley-laced chimichurri emphasizes the pristinely fresh pea tendrils and pods. A finishing spoonful of walnut-tarragon pesto cuts through a creamy bowl of shaved cauliflower and millet. For the Farmer’s Dozen, he tosses mint leaves into roasted whole carrots, radish, and toasted pepitas. While the Persian garlic sauce seems light on garlic, the lacy batter on the maitake and oyster mushrooms doesn’t need the help. More impressive are the onion rings that come with the sirloin cap. Plumped up for 12 hours in ice water, they stay firm after being dredged in flour and fried. A final hit of paprika, sugar, and salt sends them over the edge, delivering serious pleasure with what seems a simple garnish.
Since her days at Hatfield’s, Karen has built a wonderful simplicity into her desserts, too. She was at the pastry station in the last period of the original Spago when she met Quinn, who was working the grill. At the Sycamore Kitchen, her days begin early as she and her team bake trays of oatmeal-brown butter scones and dark ale spice gingerbread. By dinnertime Karen is two doors up at O+P, the gracious hostess in a sleeveless jean jacket.
I’ve ordered her pavlova on every return visit just to see how blissfully surprised my different dining companions are when they taste it. Three tiny meringue shells are filled with slightly tart Greek frozen yogurt and sit on a strawberry-rhubarb compote. Other than with that Australian classic, she’s riffing on the songbook of American standards. She folds candied pecans into the ice cream accompanying a sticky toffee pudding. Scattered with powdered sugar, her cornmeal fritters arrive warm enough to melt the honey butter that comes with them. But it’s her chocolate pie that may be the most potent of all. An unabashed wedge, it whispers something about home baking, albeit with a marvelously thin crimped rye crust and an intense filling that supports a peanut crumble. There’s also a scoop of almost fizzy vanilla-malted ice cream. It’s elegant, but with the spirit of Whoppers malted milk balls in there, too.
127 S. La Brea Ave.
Best dishes: Blue prawns with buttery potatoes, branzino, porchetta, sirloin cap with crispy onions, creamy cauliflower and millet, frozen yogurt pavlova, sticky toffee pudding, chocolate pie
Drinks: Short wine list with section for older wines; full bar
Noise Level: Reasonable
Kid Friendly?: They even have high chairs
Price Range: $6 (cheese puffs) to $42 (short rib)
Hours: Mon.-Thu.: 6-10; Fri.: 6-11; Sat.: 5:30-11; Sun.: 5:30-9:30
Parking: $7 (valet)
Credit Cards: All major
Contact: 323-939-1033 or odysandpenelope.com