It was a pretty seamless transition. Josh Loeb and Zoe Nathan, who already found success with Rustic Canyon Wine Bar & Seasonal Kitchen, Huckleberry, and Sweet Rose Creamery opened Milo & Olive last December, naming their latest Santa Monica venture for son Milo, with Rustic Canyon executive chef Evan Funke overseeing the open kitchen. We ate there within the first week, and it was already on its way to becoming a neighborhood favorite. To end February, Funke left both posts, so the couple turned to talented friend Walter Manzke to fill in for two months before he and wife Margarita ramp up Republique. He was behind the stainless steel counter during our second visit, helped direct a solid seasonal dinner, and we certainly got the impression that the restaurant would keep rolling after he focuses downtown.
The space is compact, so the 24 seats are at a premium. People pile into the two communal marble tables or, even better, grab seats at the counter, which overlook the bustling kitchen activity and the aqua tiled Mugnaini oven that feasts on almond wood. Loeb and Nathan filled the space with plenty of temptations, including a counter filled with pastries, and racks of bread, bagels and bagged Verve coffee. Outside of that, they keep visuals to a minimum, except for a grid of 60 frames featuring drawings from local artist Gabriel Gigliotti.
Manzke pointed us toward some of his favorite dishes, including a number of items from the Veggies & Grains category. As we learned, Milo & Olive is a salad destination.
We started with a bright, crunchy salad starring slices of conical cabbage sourced from County Line in Petaluma, with supporting performances from crushed pistachio, grapefruit, lime, mint, and red onion. This was a nice, light taste of spring.
Multi-colored Baby Beets (9) lent their sweetness to feta, mint, crushed pistachios, and my favorite Italian grain, the always nutty farro. Most salads balanced sweetness with something tangy or tart, and multiple textures.
Manzke sent out a complimentary bowl of Branzino Ceviche ($16) with tender chunks of fish, fennel hearts, mildly spicy jalapeno, scallions, lime and sea salt. Ceviche wouldn’t normally fit on an Italian menu, but Milo & Olive doesn’t play just by Italian rules, and it had bright acidity and fresh flavors that said seasonal Santa Monica restaurant.
Crispy Duck Leg ($15) had concentrated flavor and joined sweet, chewy strips of Medjool date, frisee, green olives, radicchio, bitter greens and more crushed pistachio. This dish was more Mediterranean that Italian, but it worked.
Sausage & Grits ($18) featured creamy Anson Mills grits supporting braised greens and a pair of seared, fennel-flecked, chile-kissed patties the size of hockey pucks, made in-house from pork belly. This was not only my favorite dish of the meal, it was also that week’s Dose of Vitamin P.
Milo & Olive had improved their pizza since the early days in December (no surprise). The special ($16) combined rosemary cream, cauliflower, wild ramps and a bit of pickled jalapeno. The crust held up in the middle and remained was crispy at the crust, but still had good give.
Every dish was good to very good, with each plate only featuring a few select, market-driven ingredients. Meaning the flavors were clean and recognizable.
We didn’t even touch on the panoply of pastries and breads. So far, the green olive loaf and maple walnut sticky bun are my favorites. That’s kind of the beauty of Milo & Olive. It can have many identities. If you want it to be a seasonal California restaurant, it’s one of the best on the Westside. If you’re looking for pizza, they’re probably a Top 10 in L.A. option. They also have some of the best baked goods in town, and if you don’t want to battle waits for a table, they sell good loaves of bread, which allows you to DIY at home.