Otium - Thoughts from a Recipe Follower
This is an unusual review, not your average review. I don't have pictures. I'll not delve into the decor or the food or the wine. That neighbor of mine suggested the main writers for eat+drink LA have dinner together and each review the location separately. Great idea...but...as a recipe person...well, I wasn't sure what my angle was going to be.
Walking up to Otium, the space was lovely. It was just getting dark outside, the soft lighting inside was innovative, not the normal bare bulb look that so many places have gone with, updated and interesting. We had a great table towards the back where I was sitting facing the whole front of the restaurant with a peekaboo look at parts of the kitchen. I love that seat! Know what I thought to myself?
This restaurant is way too loud. Haven't we gotten over the open kitchen concept yet.
I once thought I judged a restaurant on whether I would or could make the food at home. For Otium, I wouldn't make the food at home. It's full of ingredients and separately created parts that come together to make a whole...that would mean cooking and cooking and cooking for a long time to get a single plate. I won't do that. Normally, I would say that's the mark of a good restaurant, being able to cook, combine and create something tasty and complicated. Normally, before I noticed that I no longer believe that. This fateful evening I said:
People can't make clean food anymore and instead rely on things being complicated to be good.
Hamachi - Coriander+Avocado+Lemon+Dill = Yellowtail crude - simple, clean food. In a sushi restaurant this would have been sent out near the beginning of a omakase meal. When it would arrive I would gush about loving Hamachi and how the flavors are SO good. Here I found myself not gushing...even though it was as fresh and flavorful as any other restaurant I've been too. The offering did seem out of place with the other more French country side offerings, but then so did the Pork with Pibil Sauce and I didn't hesitate to gush about that...even though the pork was overdone and dry. I like Pibil Sauce. I forgive many things if it has a good strong pepper flavor. I don't make Pibil Sauce at home.
Torteletti - the wonderful little pasta filled (in this case) with ricotta. I refuse to make my own pasta because I don't like cleaning up. I appreciate the chefs that take the time to make their own...but in this case, I smirked that they added truffles, shaved on the dish at the table.
Such a passé dish, I said.
Truffles make everything better...putting them on pasta is a no-brainer. Instead of enjoying the hell out of that dish (And it was GOOD. I always succumb to the power of the truffle.), I ate it and said:
Well, it's OK.
Why? Because I'm too snotty to allow a restaurant to be good if I've enjoyed a similar dish somewhere else. Either you blow me away with a new concept or I say it's OK and look bored. Apparently, I've had truffles shaved onto meals for too many years to just enjoy the flavors that I've come to love, and be OK with it being less than innovative.
The chef has created a squab dish that our server described for us at the request of one of the diners. Family recipe, home-style cooking, etc. Cooked and brought to the table whole, then carved table side. Our table member was thrilled to try it...I kept quiet for the moment. The presentation was lovely. They did a much better job of carving such a small bird than I have ever done or will ever do. The dish wasn't to my taste, but I admit it was cooked perfectly. The meat was juicy to the point of being almost a rare steak-like consistency. I rarely enjoy fowl...the dish didn't stand a chance with me. In my head...snide comments sprung up:
Table side carving - shouldn't that have died in the 80's?
Yes, I am that old. But why? Why would I judge the way the chef chooses to serve his family dish? Does that affect the flavor in the least? No. It didn't.
The pastry chef sent out Chocolate Four ways, St. Honore, a peanut butter and jelly ice cream riff, a tray of dessert cookies and truffles plus a Panna Cotta. The St. Honore was SOOOO good! Perfect recreation of a French classic. The profiteroles were crunchy outside and smooth, vanilla inside. I could barely tell where they piped the ice cream in and yet it was filled with icy cold goodness. The pastry cream had a nice hint of cappuccino but not overpowering. The pastry itself was flaky and crisp. This dessert was made to order, not sitting in back getting soggy. I would go back JUST for this dessert. My thoughts while sitting there?
I don't like the peanut butter ice cream thing...it tastes weird. I'm so sick of everyone making macaroons.
So blasé. My conclusion?
I'm really fucking jaded. I'm middle aged, well off, well traveled and well fed. And I'm jaded. I went to Otium professing that I had no idea what I was getting into. I didn't read about it. I didn't look at their website. I wanted to show up and try a new place without any preconceived ideas...which is such bullshit. I always have preconceived ideas. I walk into any restaurant and I'm already comparing it with everything that came before it. Either this new place has to blow me away with new ideas, looks, tastes, concepts...or I am comparing it with what I had for dinner the night before, or the week before that. I reserve this type of judgement for going to a popular restaurant or a restaurant with a pedigree. Take me to the local joint and I'm perfectly happy with whatever they have, no judgement.
But maybe there was something to my mood that night, maybe the restaurant was just OK. Nothing innovative...nothing exciting...maybe the chef hasn't found his niche that makes his food his signature on the world. Maybe the people working there are good chefs but not able to make food that feels like they own it. They don't remake the recipes, making them bend to their will, instead they make classics and try a new marketing tactic or just make solid, good food without much of a twist. Maybe that's enough to be a good restaurant in LA.
And maybe LA is one tough town to make headway because we demand new, innovative, interesting, edgy...and yet we like the classics. The St. Honore was divine. The fish crudo was fresh as any sushi restaurant. Nothing innovative with any of them, but so well executed I can't deny the chefs are amazing. Yet, I couldn't say those words while I was there. After thinking about the experience though, I would say the chefs are well trained, but not artistic yet. They haven't figured out or perhaps they haven't embraced their voice. They seem to be waiting to discover their full creative side. They will get it, just not yet.
I lied. I have one picture. It was the end of the night, we had all enjoyed a meal with way too much food (we over ordered...WAY over ordered) and were joking around. We were in a high mood. All the sort of thing that would make me think:
Wow, this was fun. We should do this again.
I took this picture of one of our own as we all smiled. I left with judgement about food, the decor and the restaurant. But this is really what we experienced and seeing it made me smile again.
Final thoughts: I won't be dragging myself downtown for another meal at Otium without a reason to be downtown. The chefs are good at their jobs. The food was well prepared. I never felt a spark of fascination at any of the dishes and could find similar food in various places closer to home. But if some one says:
Hey, let's meet at Otium.
I'll know what to order (anything with truffles and that St. Honore!) and will be prepared to push that little judgmental brain of mine back into the shadows while enjoying the hell out of traditional food that's well composed.