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My last memorable restaurant experience in 2020 was in November at one of the city’s modern classics: A.O.C. on West 3rd Street.
I couldn’t have known the meal would be a finish of sorts to the year. It was about two weeks before the Los Angeles County Department of Health suspended outdoor dining as COVID-19 cases spiked (and then kept climbing through the holidays). The interior courtyard of the restaurant’s rococo Spanish-Californian building was full that night; a staff member instead led me and my partner to a makeshift patio in an adjacent parking lot.
We tugged our table and inched our chairs closer to the nearest portable heater. The world felt dark in many ways.
Amid so much bleakness, the qualities that make A.O.C. a fundamental part of the city’s dining culture held fast. Our server’s we’re-in-this-together warmth still rings in my chest. My fellow hadn’t been to the restaurant since before its 2013 relocation, several blocks from the cramped bar where Caroline Styne (the wine director and front-of-house ace) and Suzanne Goin (the chef) first opened A.O.C. in 2002. He’d never had the bacon-wrapped dates stuffed with Parmesan, one of Goin’s signature bites. We started there, with the tiny, porky cylinders hurling oversize flavors and textures as we bore into them.
The menu laid bare the season: pear and Manchego salad scattered with hazelnuts; sliced duck breast paired with an elegant apple-potato-bacon gratin; and a side of sweet potatoes tangled with spinach and sauced with nutty-smoky romesco. It was the kind of all-around-great meal that leaves you smiling to yourself — that puts you in a mind to reach over and hold your beloved’s hand on the car ride home.
We recalled that evening when we booked a birthday dinner at A.O.C. in late April. Fava beans and green garlic had replaced root vegetables. Strawberries and last-of-season blood orange segments hid in a salad’s extra-peppery arugula leaves.
Now that it’s July, apricot slivers and halved cherries tumble in the greens. Another salad, a mix of tomatoes that varyingly pop and squish, summons Greece with its other ingredients: purslane, inky olives, sharp feta. Fresh thyme perfumes prawns baked in the wood oven and served over sunny cornbread pudding.
These concentrated tastes of summer are unmistakably A.O.C. The setting is new, though, so eating them feels as if the dishes have somehow passed through a mirror’s reflection. Last month Styne and Goin opened a second A.O.C. in Brentwood, replacing the sprawling, ambitious Tavern that the two of them had run since 2009.
They wholly reconsidered the space, doing away with the glassed-in atrium and created an overall tone that’s clubbier and more timeless. Step to the right of the entrance into a dim room that retains the long bar from its Tavern days. Shades of charcoal, eggplant and walnut set the mood. A drink called the Yorkshire Sour (bourbon, lemon and strawberry dashed with rhubarb bitters) feels appropriate here, at least before you disappear into the deep wine list. The decibels can be thunderous when the room fills to capacity.
The other direction leads into a brighter area where the decor seems rightly designed around its mesmerizing green and gold wallpaper; I can imagine staring into its ornate, inkblot patterns in the breakfast room of a top-flight Parisian hotel. Beyond this stretch is an intimate alcove that’s still lively in sound but probably the restaurant’s quietest nook.
If the two A.O.C.s share little in common physically, they are identical twins philosophically. The menu redoubles the communal, small-plates ethos that Goin and Styne led the charge to codify in Los Angeles. The bounty is Californian; the oomph of flavors draws on cuisines distinct to the many cultures that exist around the continents-spanning Mediterranean Sea. Harissa slashes through the richness of beef cheeks. The bright, earthy and sour intensities of za’atar, sumac and labneh with preserved lemon surround lamb chops like a flashing aura.
Goin’s particular genius is in striking a taut balance: She follows the mantra of “let the ingredients speak for themselves” while also pushing flavors to heady extremes.
Sometimes this deftness comes through unexpectedly, as in what looks like a simple side of Swiss chard. The greens sponge up the saffron butter in which they’re sautéed; by the time the chard reaches the table the spice’s color and musk have permeated to a cellular level. It’s rich and fresh and a little bitter and all-around glorious.
Goin’s sly use of tension may best be savored in her long-running Ode to Zuni, a crisp-skinned roast chicken with soothing bread salad that riffs off of Judy Rodgers’ magnum opus recipe. Goin slips in fennel and green olives to disrupt the pure comfort-food vibes.
I’ve never had an experience at A.O.C. — either of them — that was less than solid. It can be downright thrilling right now in Brentwood with the key players on hand — the smooth service that lights up the room, the dishes powerful and dynamic in their fine-tuning.
A tip: Order something from the menu’s top section, labeled “to start.” The bacon-wrapped dates are listed there, as is the gratifying, always-changing “farmer’s plate” of roasted vegetables and spreads with grilled toast. It may sound random, but something about kicking off with one of these sets the timing on the right track. They zip out of the kitchen, helping to calm hunger, and then the rest of the courses tend to flow in a pleasing rhythm.
I brought a few first-timers with me to meals in Brentwood. Their reactions to some of the prices — $25 for a small fillet of sea bass with mustard and pancetta, the smart wines by the 6-ounce glass priced mostly in the teens to mid-20s — remind me that A.O.C. is essential, but it isn’t inexpensive.
At both locations, Goin and Styne have a decisive advantage in the dessert department: pastry chef Shannon Swindle, who has been with their group since 2019. I’ve been admiring Swindle’s sweets since we both worked in Dallas a dozen years ago; his precise, seasonal sensibility melds organically with Goin’s. In the same way that I seek focaccia covered with cherries and Taleggio or summer squash with chermoula among the sides on the savory menu, I’ll skip over Swindle’s chocolate torta and butterscotch pot de crème (wonderful as they are) for his of-the-moment fruit creations.
Back in November, his apple upside-down cake with sherry-soaked raisins and garam masala ice cream capped our evening with spice and cheer. Lately he’s been baking buttery apricot cake sprinkled with caramelized pistachios; frying ricotta fritters served with clouds of lemon cream and blueberry-verbena jam bleeding purple juice; and sending out peach and berry crumble still bubbling in its small cast-iron skillet, with vanilla ice cream atop melting like estuaries over craggy streusel.
It’s rare to the point of uncanny that an institution can duplicate its success — not just the cooking style and the systems but its spirit too. Goin, Styne and their team have pulled it off.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.