Unless you were to go to Odys + Penelope with a ravenous hunger and a well-conceived plan for eating your way through the savory part of the menu and saving room for sweets, I might suggest you start with dessert. Why? Because there are many chocolate pies in this town, many sticky toffee puddings, many tarts and frozen treats accompanied by the fresh fruit of the season — but very few of them are as beautifully executed as the desserts of Karen Hatfield.
That chocolate pie, its texture perfectly fudgy, comes with a rye crust, and it will make you wish that more pastry chefs experimented with greater variations of flour. The rye's slightly wicked bite buttresses and tempers the chocolate's sweetness and gives the dessert a depth of purpose that approaches philosophy, or perhaps religion. Whatever, it's great pie.
The sticky toffee pudding is an archetype, a round of dank cake with a slick toffee surface, its dark sugar flavor seeping into every nook of the dessert. A stack of apple cubes cooked to tenderness but not mush nestles up against its side, giving the pudding a subtle burst of freshness that's not too fresh, that doesn't ruin the basic indulgence of the thing.
I could go on. All of the desserts here are worthy of consideration.
This comes as little surprise, as Hatfield has proven herself an extremely talented baker and pastry chef over the years. Her projects with her husband, Quinn Hatfield, have always had stellar desserts and baked goods. When their fine-dining operation Hatfield's closed at the end of last year, loyal customers mourned the loss of the restaurant's signature dish, the yellowtail sashimi croque madame, but I mourned the loss of the sugar and spice beignets, the creative ice creams and sorbets, the tartlets and pies and pain perdu.
Following that closure, the couple quickly opened Odys + Penelope (they also own the still-operational Sycamore Kitchen). This restaurant is similar to Hatfield's in size and aesthetics — large, open room and clean lines, though with a far more rustic feel here — but different in purpose. It was billed as a modern churrascaria, a spot less focused on composed plates and more focused on cooking over a flame, on the myriad ways fire and smoke can touch and improve meat. In that pursuit, the kitchen is outfitted with all manner of open-flame contraptions: a Brazilian churrasco, a wood-fired grill, an Argentine brasero.
The wine list is short and passable (just), and the savory food is the food of the moment: quality produce and meats, often prepared quite simply.
Service is strangely anxious, as if someone were holding a gun to the heads of the servers, demanding that they SMILE AND BE OBSEQUIOUS! On the way to our table one evening, the hostess indicated to the waiters that they should move aside by issuing a few flicks of her wrist as if she were shooing flies. Perhaps it was playful. It did not seem to be.
There are revelations to be had on the savory side of things as well. I was disappointed, at first, that the Farmer's Dozen, which is advertised as "12 seasonal raw and roasted veggies," was in fact a tossed salad when I had expected a small veggie plate, perhaps, or something more creative (quite a few of those 12 are different varieties of lettuce, I'm assuming). But man, what a salad. Grounded by pepita butter — a paste made of pumpkin seeds — and the sweetest of roasted carrots that had been lovingly kissed by fire, the ultra-fresh lettuces, herbs, lush avocado and roasted turnips were as delightful as any assortment of vegetables could be.
Like everywhere else, Odys + Penelope has a roasted-beet salad with blue cheese, but here it gains heft with the addition of warm roasted peewee potatoes and smoked chicken. Like everywhere else, here they serve a crostini appetizer, but rather than chicken livers (the crostini topping du jour) Hatfield tops his grilled bread with an impossibly creamy, generous pile of crabmeat, with fennel and Fresno chili for a slight prickle of intrigue.
And, as you might imagine, there's a lot of meat: meat that's been smoked, meat that's been grilled, meat that's been churrasco-ed and brasero-ed. The most glorious of these is the applewood-smoked short rib, a lumbering slab on the bone that is as supple and fatty and tender as meat can be while still retaining its form. It comes with a sauce they're calling "Western Sweet," which tastes as damn close to ketchup as any barbecue sauce I've ever had, but you can choose an assortment of other sauces if you're willing to pay $3 extra.
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The lick of an open flame gives and can also take away. It's a hard way to cook. I had a slow-grilled Wagyu tri-tip that had a gorgeous, deep pink color but was unrepentantly chewy, and a maple-miso eggplant stacked Jenga-like, which was totally raw and woody on the inside. A grilled swordfish was more remarkable for the delicious jumble of barley and mushrooms beneath it than the fish itself, which was a little tense in the flesh.
Ah, but those desserts. There was even one inspired by the bane of my childhood, the pavlova, that made me swoon. In this iteration, cups made of impossibly light meringue held scoops of frozen yogurt surrounded by the freshest, sweetest strawberries and a tiny smattering of cocoa nibs, which gave it playful dimension.
This is not Hatfield's 2.0, nor is it a slightly more casual version of Hatfield's. In fact, for all the chatter about the Hatfields going more casual, this restaurant is barely any cheaper than its deceased fine-dining older sibling. But it is a progression, a moving forward that feels in sync with the city, and this part of the city particularly. Just up the street, Campanile has given way to a more boisterous endeavor. Here, two very good chefs look to evolve as well. For the most part, it's a pleasure to be privy to their odyssey.
ODYS + PENELOPE | Two stars | 127 S. La Brea Ave., Fairfax | (323) 939-1033 | odysandpenelope.com | Sun.-Thu., 5:30-10 p.m.; Fri. & Sat., 5:30-11 p.m. | Entrees, $19-$42 | Full bar | Valet parking after 7 p.m.