If ever there was a restaurant that invites gawking, Otium is it. A cube of polished wood and Miesian girders, it sits atop Bunker Hill beside the honeycombed Broad on Grand Avenue, a well-irrigated lawn and a grove of gnarled olive trees distancing it from the pavement. With MOCA across the street and Disney Hall up the way, the structure has the reserved modernity of a pavilion at the Venice Biennale—and a Latin name to match. (It means “leisure.”)
Just because you’re speaking the language of Virgil doesn’t mean the place is affected. A crisscross of I-beams soars above diners having truffles shaved over Anson Mills polenta, thick and steaming as a bowl of the Korean porridge juk. The music thuds; the plates are heavy speckled stoneware; the waitstaff sports dark blue polos; and manager Christian Philippo, who donned a suit at République, oversees the operation in a plaid shirt and jeans. Taking advantage of the 20-foot-high ceiling in the loftlike space, New York graphic designer Stefan Sagmeister hand-painted a bar wall with a thicket of branches that spells “Inside Out, Outside In” beside a roll-up door that separates the fire-pitted patio from the dining room, its pale wood tables stretching, almost like an infinity pool, to a glass wall cantilevered above Hope Street.
Even more captivating than the city views is the large kitchen, where the crew in heather gray T-shirts crowds along counters that, rather than being perpendicular to the seating area, spill right into it. Diners are often invited to step in to peer over the busy team’s shoulders as a half Thai snapper and marbled rib eyes cook over the flames. This is a restaurant intending to be open to all, down to the dark wraparound counter, there to accommodate people who show up without a reservation—a gutsy move, given all the chatter that preceded the place well before its November debut.
Throngs have become standard fare when Sprout Restaurant Group (Bestia, Broken Spanish, Sotto et al.) embarks on a new project. Bill Chait, who recently stepped away from the company’s day-to-day operations, had a knack for partnering with buzzy chefs, and he was true to form with 36-year-old Timothy Hollingsworth, who packs a slender yet eye-popping résumé. A rugged-looking guy with a swept-back blond forelock, he grew up outside Placerville in the Sierra foothills, where his dad worked as a building contractor. Hollings-worth was inspired enough by the French owners of the restaurant he washed dishes at to study their language at Cosumnes River College so he could better follow such venerable texts as Larousse Gastronomique. Perseverance got him into the French Laundry in Yountville. He snipped the herbs in the planters, embellished the prune tartlet with Vacherin at the cheese station, and eventually became chef de cuisine, a position he held for four years.
Hollingsworth possesses a style that’s informed by the soft-shoe formality of his training but is impressively wide-ranging. He uses the old means of lightening a hollandaise with egg whites (it’s in Julia Child’s 1961 Mastering the Art of French Cooking) to levitate a potato puree that is contrasted with a streak of blackened onion (a technique used with salsa tatemada), the duo forming a platform for a rectangle of baked cod. For his crudo he toasts strips of nori over almond wood, grinding the seaweed into a powder and transforming it into a briny essence that shades the delicate morsels of a hamachi loin. After a beef stock simmers for three full days, the kitchen fortifies it with Serrano bones to create the ham bouillon that is poured over pudgy Castelmagno-filled tortellini, the pearly stems and caps of freshly cut matsutake mushrooms adding a subtle roundedness. Clear and golden, the broth recalls a consommé, but this is something you hungrily eat, not demurely sip.
Despite fitting on a single sheet, the menu is fairly sprawling. There are homey dishes like spit-roasted half chicken served with bouquets of petite lettuces and parsley (so good that I’ve impolitely sucked the burnt lemon-tinged juices off the wing). There’s gooey stuff, too. A cast-iron platter of crisp Yukon Golds is a delicious pileup, with pools of melted goat cheese from Andante Dairy, one ingredient underscoring the earthiness of the other. Hollingsworth’s charred squash with pepitas melds with a scoop of house-made ricotta, a smidgen of concentrated coffee sauce girding the pair.
It’s good, though on an off night the squash wasn’t sizzling, causing the dish to lose its magic. The roasted cauliflower varied as well, arriving one time as a finger-thick wedge and another as a honking half dome that drowned out the sprinkled sultana raisins, chopped almonds, capers, and grapes accenting it. And while the hiramasa fillet is buttery soft, the preparation could do with a little less precision: The fish has a classic diamond pattern from the grill, but it would better hold up to the mirin and vinegar in the accompanying bowl of rice if it sat longer in the ceramic donabe smoker (picture two Japanese bowls stacked mouth-to-mouth). Instead the emphasis seems to be on creating those grill marks.
Maybe the decision to throttle back on the smoke has something to do with the year Hollingsworth spent as a pitmaster at the Studio City barbecue joint Barrel & Ashes, which he owns with Rory Hermann. Hinting at the interlude, the “Everything” crust he applies to the braised short ribs—a blizzard of chopped, fried shallots along with sunflower, caraway, poppy, and sesame seeds—is a playful variation on the bark you’d get from a smoker. Of course he could just be channeling a bagel shop.
The inspiration is more direct with the funnel cake, a spider’s web of fried dough sporting dollops of airy foie gras mousse that look like whipped cream. Hollingsworth slips a little duck stock into those clouds, emphasizing the lush liver flavor enough for it to mingle with the preserved strawberries and sweet reduced grape saba. There’s a similar sleight of hand with the duck breast, a dish that relies solely on technique rather than artful contrast. Dry-aging the meat for a couple of weeks—you can spy the birds hanging in the kitchen’s see-through fridge—intensifies the gaminess and rids them of water. That way, when seared in a pan, the meat is easier to keep rare as the fat darkens. As a final move, a ribbon of chocolate boosted with a malty stout is brushed beneath four thick slices, a tiny garland of pickled turnips resting on the side. It’s soulful but quiet, the rigor of the many steps amplifying the power without being showy.
For me, that fine balance says a lot about the venture. Between the setting and the chef’s background, Otium could be a redoubt for the one percent. It could be a strained museum commissary, too. But the place defies categorization in the most modern of ways, being both casual and refined, a destination restaurant that has the turnover of a neighborhood spot. In the early afternoon people come down from their glass towers for expense account lunches while tourists wander in after seeing all those Koonses and Basquiats. By nightfall the Music Center crowd’s plates have been cleared as excited couples file in. Later it’ll be groups of friends. Maybe one will splurge on the chef’s table, hewn from a single tree trunk, which fronts the kitchen’s glowing embers. With the skin of the Broad practically vibrating in the dramatic uplighting, the pastry chef splays out deconstructed baba au rhum with pineapple chips as the last rose petal notes of a Jura red whisper in my glass.
Best Dishes: Hamachi with nori crust, butternut squash with pepitas, tortellini with ham bouillon, cod with burnt onion, duck with pear and chocolate sauce, polenta with mascarpone and truffles, baba au rhum
222 S. Hope St. (entrance off Grand Ave.), downtown, 213-935-8500
Drinks: Growing list of bright, acidic wines well suited to the food; creative cocktails
Atmosphere: Everything from drop-in to special evening
Noise Level: Punishingly loud later in the evening
Kid Friendly? If you must
Price Range: $12 (scallops) to $58 (beef with sumac)
Hours: Lunch Tue.-Fri., 11:30-3; Dinner Sun., Tue.-Wed., 5:30-10 and Thu.-Sat., 5:30-11. Brunch Sat.-Sun., 10:30-2:30
Parking: Valet ($8.50)
Credit Cards: All major