Behind the wall of windows that look into the showplace kitchen, cooks in tall toques bob and weave around the stoves in an intricate choreography. Everyone is focused. There's not much talking going on. At the center of it all, look for the compact, closely shaven man sans hat and wearing a striped apron: That's Quinn Hatfield, chef and owner, with his wife, Karen, of the new, improved Hatfield's in Los Angeles.
Moving from the restaurant's small Beverly Boulevard digs into the old Citrus space, the Hatfields have all their ducks in a row: an understated and glamorous dining room and bar, a well-priced menu, tempting cocktails and desserts, a professional staff and adept sommelier.
The new Hatfield's is, in short, a gracious restaurant for grown-ups. No pounding soundtrack. Nothing amateur or awkward. Still, although it's always satisfying and often excellent, it sometimes lacks excitement.
Look what you're getting for the money, though: Hatfield's tasting menu is not $300 or even $160, but a relatively modest $59! Given the number of people in the kitchen and dining room, not to mention the cost of the space and the top-notch ingredients, I seriously don't know how they do it.
At its best, the cooking is very, very good. Start with one of Hatfield's signature appetizers, his croque-madame. It's fun and delicious, grilled brioche rounds sandwiching supple slices of yellowtail sashimi and salty sweet prosciutto. A sunny-side-up quail's egg sits jauntily on top.
Warm cuttlefish salad is a study in textures — cuttlefish cut so fine it resembles an Elizabethan ruff, slashes of baby arugula, an earthy sunchoke purée and the nutty crunch of fried artichoke shavings. A salad of fresh Monterey Bay squid with Blue Lake and yellow wax beans plays some trompe l'oeil; the squid is cut to mimic the blond wax beans, another play on texture, goosed up with a dash of ginger chermoula.
His seared foie gras is interesting, lightly crusted with pain d'épice (dark spice bread) to give it just the hint of sweetness and served with beluga lentils and an apple purée accented with rosemary.
The dedicated mid-career chef (he's 37 years old) has gone with a small menu, half a dozen appetizers, half a dozen main courses. Plus, you can order dishes from the two four-course seasonal menus (one a vegetarian, and both priced at $59) a la carte. And that's where many of the more interesting dishes reside.
Hatfield has a good touch with pasta. Agnolotti stuffed with ricotta and lots of mustard greens are delicate and supple. Squid ink garganelli tossed with bright-tasting Dungeness crab and the season's first English peas in a rich lobster butter is delightful.
If you don't think there's any such thing as reverence for the past in L.A., just talk to a few of Citrus' old regulars, who are wont to wax nostalgic about the glory days when white market umbrellas unfurled under the roof and the crowds came out for Michel Richard's wildly inventive cooking. Not to mention his pastries.
Since Citrus closed in 2001, chefs and restaurants have come and gone from this spot. So when the Hatfields looked at moving from their modest little restaurant on Beverly Boulevard to this sprawling space, they took a big gamble. No one has been able to make the space really work. On the other hand, it's never really looked this good.
Stripped down to its elements, the room is sophisticated and urban, decorated in a pale palette of bleached bone and cream. A giant light fixture shaped like a honeycomb dominates the center of the room. Upholstered banquettes are laid out in long rows. And cement-colored friezes impressed with the shape of wheat or corn hang on the back wall. Tables are spaced far enough apart that you're not sitting elbow to elbow with your neighbor. You can't overhear their conversations either.
A standout among the main courses is another of the chef's signatures: date-crusted lamb. The dates' exotic sweetness works magic with the double-cut lamb chops. Hanger steak and short ribs each get one side of a plate, paired with a graceful spring onion confit and a wonderful smoked potato purée.
And a pan-roasted New York steak is a revelation, the beef has so much flavor and unexpected depths. Served with soy-glazed long beans and a tiny pot of spaetzle noodles with some silky bearnaise in which to dip them, it's a fantastic deal for $32. It's not a huge steak, but every bite is tender and delicious.
Black cod en croute is another beautiful dish, as light as anything on the menu. The top surface of the fish is bright gold and crisp, the flesh custardy and moist below, wonderful with the bright sweet acid of oven-dried tomato and a velvety eggplant purée.
But other dishes don't work so well. A roasted sunchoke salad with French feta and falafel crumble is just OK. I jumped on the charred Japanese mackerel from the tasting menu, but instead of something gutsy, it's fussy and overworked, piling on the flavors of oven-dried pineapple, avocado, fried shallots and nori-infused salsa verde.
The presentations in general — painted sauces, purées drawn across the plate, ingredients teased into patterns — can seem fussy and dated.
Long Island duck breast is tasty enough, but ugh, what about that whiskey-prune smear, which is also supposed to go with diced butternut squash and quinoa porridge? The texture is a turn-off and it's not a good match for the duck. And buttermilk-steamed chicken breast with Japanese pearl barley and chanterelle mushrooms is like baby food for adults.
I miss the gutsy cooking Hatfield did at Cortez in San Francisco when he first crossed my radar. It strikes me that at this restaurant (and the old one as well) his cooking is too polite. He's playing it safe with the menu too, which has hardly budged since the restaurant opened at the beginning of February.
Desserts from Karen Hatfield are always a pleasure though. Don't miss her sugar and spice beignets shaped like soft little pillows and served warm with a complex Venezuelan chocolate fondue and a charming milkshake shot dressed up with preserved ginger. Wow. Or her elegant lime pie, a dreamy filling sitting atop a wafer of crust. Very elegant and pretty. Tangerine semifreddo bombe made with a honey almond nougat glacé is light and refreshing. Beautiful too. And her hot chocolate soufflé tartlet explodes in the mouth with flavor.
Peter Birmingham (you might remember him from Norman's or Pourtal) is one of the more passionate sommeliers around. As desserts arrive, he might show up at the table, twinkle in his eye, and pour a glass of dessert wine to pair with each plate. It's very esoteric and wonderful stuff — a Brachetto d'Acqui from Piedmont, Italy, a marvelous Muscat from Alicante in Spain and a lush Grenache-based Port-like wine from French Catalan country. The wine list, at this point, though, seems left over from the previous restaurant.
While everybody else is running as fast as they can for the food truck, pop-up restaurant or small-plates dive, here's one heroic and hardworking chef who is standing his ground and going for fine dining. I, for one, am cheering for Hatfield's all the way.
6703 Melrose Ave. (at Citrus), Los Angeles; (323) 935-2977; http://www.hatfieldsrestaurant.com
Dinner appetizers, $14 to $21; main courses, $26 to $36; desserts, $7 to $10. Four-course menu (including a vegetarian one), $59 per person. Lunch appetizers, $11 to $12; main courses, $15 to $22. Three-course lunch menu, $29. Corkage fee, $25.
Sunday to Thursday for dinner from 6 to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday 5:30 to 10:30 p.m.; and for lunch Monday to Friday from 11:45 a.m. to 2:15 p.m. Full bar. Valet parking, $6.
Rating is based on food, service and ambience, with price taken into account in relation to quality. Four stars: Outstanding on every level. Three stars: Excellent. Two stars: Very good. One star: Good. No star: Poor to satisfactory.