Restaurant Review: The Excitement and Arrogance of Downtown’s Otium

The falafel dish consists of three modest balls over a smear of chickpea with pretty pickled condiments.
The falafel dish consists of three modest balls over a smear of chickpea with pretty pickled condiments.
Anne Fishbein

Good lord, Otium is a ravishing production. The luminous box nestled beside the imposing Broad Museum is straight out of Central Casting for a breathtaking, chic restaurant that thrums with energy, that feels somehow like a living, breathing organism made up of art and food and beautiful people. The ceilings are impossibly high, and panels of glass raindrops (teardrops?) cascade from above, hung on thin wires. The place is literally an art installation: A visage of tangled green vines on an interior wall spells out words like a secret code in a woodsy fantasy novel, and massive fish swim across the back of the building. They just happen to have been put there by Damien Hirst.

The kitchen was built to feel like the kitchen of someone's home (a multimillion-dollar home, but still), one that you walk through to get to the bathroom, past an army of cooks on either side tending to food and flames and the place where they meet. There's the requisite trendy-restaurant soundtrack, the one that's vaguely electronic but also understated. It makes you feel as if you're in a commercial for some kind of smooth Italian liqueur and gives the gorgeous hostesses a beat to follow as they strut through the restaurant.

Is all of this magnificence enough to divert you from the fact that you've been sitting at your table for 20 minutes and no waiter has yet stopped by? Perhaps. Chef Timothy Hollingsworth's menu is long, so it'll take you a while to peruse. You've likely ordered a drink at the bar before you sat, given that there's no way your table was ready when you arrived, and your crabapple cocktail made with chamomile and VSOP is keeping you somewhat entertained. These things are distracting enough that you might not resent the lag in service this one time.

By the third time, it's not that cute. Sitting at Otium and waiting to be noticed as the ice melted in my long-finished cocktail became déjà vu–like, eventually. Over time, the flash and wow of the place lost some of its luster, or at least its diverting qualities.

It's unlikely you need the who/what/when/where/why of this restaurant, seeing as it was fervently anticipated for almost two years before it opened, but here's the short version: In February 2014, the news broke that Hollingsworth — the longtime chef de cuisine at Thomas Keller's French Laundry, a role that earned him the James Beard Rising Star Chef award in 2010 — had been tapped to helm the kitchen at the restaurant that would be attached to the new Broad Museum, and that he would be doing so in partnership with Sprout restaurant group, which is responsible for almost every blockbuster restaurant in town.

If you expected something from Hollingsworth more in line with French Laundry, you'll be disappointed. This isn't fine dining or anything close. Rather, it's more like a souped-up version of every trendy restaurant in town, the open kitchen turning out small plates made with esoteric and luxury ingredients in a format we've seen many times. But here it's on steroids. The menu is almost comically ambitious in length, and all the touchstones of modern American cooking are there: sea urchin on truffle-buttered brioche toast spears wrapped in lardo; various creative raw fish preparations; house-made pastas; brawny cuts of meat with bone marrow; Asian-ish dishes; Middle Eastern–ish dishes; Americana-inspired dishes.

Certainly the food here is at times playful, an attitude best evidenced in the funnel cake topped with gobs of smooth, rich foie gras mousse and fresh strawberries, along with whispers of shaved fennel. While it doesn't quite get to the heart of what makes the food you'd find at a state fair so irresistible, the dish is imbued with the joy of both high- and lowbrow eating.

The two most obvious places from which Hollingsworth draws inspiration are the raw bar and the open flame, and both have prominent places in the physical restaurant, the raw bar taking up the space between the bar and the kitchen, and the kitchen itself gleaming with plenty of contraptions for flame cooking. The raw seafood dishes are some of the most reliably delicious things on the menu, whether it's scallops served on their own shells with a drizzle of citrus and sweet pepper or a plate of raw amberjack beautifully kissed with yuzu and jumbled with smoked tangerine and crunchy nubs of chicharron.

Cooked seafood, too, is a strong suit. Black cod served with sea beans and clams is meltingly delicious, and while the flavors on the blue prawns are familiar rather than inventive (chili, lime, peanut, curry) the prawns themselves pop with freshness.

It would be silly to suggest that there isn't great talent in this kitchen, and that some of the dishes served here aren't masterful. But not everything is given the attention it deserves, and I get the feeling that your experience at Otium can depend massively on who you are and possibly even on how you look. There aren't that many restaurants left that have a kind of caste system, and while at any restaurant there will always be VIP guests who get treated better than the rest of us, the bad old days of wildly different kinds of hospitality and cooking, depending on how much you matter to the host or owner or chef, are gone. But the lack of care I experienced for such a high-reaching restaurant, both in service and on the plate, is otherwise inexplicable.

Fromage blanc, green apple, quince, macadamia
Fromage blanc, green apple, quince, macadamia
Photo by Anne Fishbein

I can't imagine, for instance, that Hollingsworth would serve to someone he knows the steak that I got. Promised medium-rare, it was cooked to a decisive well-done, apart from one lone slice that was kind of rare-ish in two spots and well-done everywhere else (I have no idea how this was accomplished). What an utter waste of what was obviously once a beautiful piece of dry-aged meat. My crime, perhaps, was to have ordered the smaller portion, the one that costs $55 as opposed to the $85 version.

There's a certain arrogance to the uncaring service, to the unacknowledged cooking mistakes and to the falafel dish, which consists of three modest balls over a smear of chickpea with pretty pickled condiments and costs $16 and tastes like ... falafel. Not stunningly good falafel, not bad falafel, just falafel. Walking through the kitchen is nice, it's fun, but it has the downside of allowing you to see that those falafel balls are cooked far ahead of time rather than to order and are sitting out beside the fryer. The same is true of the funnel cakes. Does this affect the flavor, the enjoyment? It would be hard to argue that it doesn't. The very thing that makes a funnel cake so irresistible is its piping-hot, just-fried quality, that brief moment when oil and dough are still caught in the hot magic of fusion. I'd be lying if I said that I recognized this flaw in the funnel cake when I ate it, before I knew it had been sitting out. But it also might explain why I didn't adore it a little more, why it failed to activate my childhood glee receptors.

Otium is engorged with sparkle and magnetism, and Hollingsworth is reaching farther with this menu than many would dare. If you're a known chef or celebrity, or if you've got a couple hundred extra bucks lying around and want an exhilarating night on the town with some exciting food thrown in, Otium is very nearly a don't-miss experience. But I'd be remiss to send a regular diner here, one who might feel fleeced after spending $200 on two cocktails and five plates of food, being ignored by the staff and leaving hungry.

If you fit more into that regular-schmo category, my advice would be this: Stop by the bar and drink a cocktail — they're delicious. Order that amberjack dish. Or hell, get the foie gras funnel cake, just for the pure fun of it. Take it all in — the beauty, the spectacle, that intangible feel of being at the very center of a scene at its most vibrant. Then take your awesome self and go eat dinner somewhere else.

OTIUM | Two stars | 222 S. Hope St., downtown | (213) 935-8500 | otiumla.com. | Lunch: Tue.- Fri., 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m.; dinner: Sun., Tue.-Wed., 5:30-10 p.m.; Thu.-Sat., 5:30-11 p.m.; brunch: Sat. & Sun., 10:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. | Plates, $12-$85 | Full bar | Valet parking

Restaurant Review: The Excitement and Arrogance of Downtown’s Otium (4)
Anne Fishbein

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