Some people credit Sang Yoon and his Father's Office, others perhaps Ludovic Lefebvre's first pop-ups or Roy Choi's Korean tacos, but Josef Centeno may be the prime mover behind what we've come to think of as modern Los Angeles cooking; the small plates, multicultural influences, modest prices and exquisitely sourced produce that have once again nudged the city into the front ranks of world cuisine.
Centeno was chef de cuisine at David Kinch's Manresa, the influential Northern California restaurant known for its intimate relationship with its garden, and first became known to Los Angeles diners when he became the chef of the tapas-driven Spanish restaurant Meson G.
But it was at Opus, an odd Koreatown place driven mostly by rushing through dinner before shows at the adjacent Wiltern, that he really came into his own. The open-ended tasting menus at the restaurant were a connoisseur's secret: two courses or 20, priced at $10 apiece, everything from crudo to abstracted pupusas to elegant vegetable presentations from all over the globe, each of them crafted with chefly care. It could have been tapas, it could have been izakaya or it could have been Venetian cicchetti, but it felt like a new version of a degustation menu, tailored for adventurous Angelenos rather than for the tamer European palate. Opus should have been the most successful restaurant in Los Angeles. It wasn't. Centeno soon moved on.
While there has been a lot to admire in all of Centeno's ventures since Opus, including the brunchy food at Lot 1, his stint at Lazy Ox and his own restaurants Bäco Mercat and Bar Amá, there was also the sense that he was holding back, that the projects, no matter how admirable, were just placeholders until he moved back to form.
With Orsa & Winston, a small restaurant next to Bar Amá, Centeno is back to form. It is technically possible to wander into the dining room and order a plate or two and a glass of wine, but the basic unit of consumption at Orsa & Winston is the tasting menu, five or eight small courses that can vary wildly depending on the evening you come in, veering between traditional Spanish flavors and new French classics, rustic Alice Waters-like arrangements and sushi bar chic. There is a team of chefs in the open kitchen, and a big wood oven and countless hours of prep, but you are aware only of the food in front of you in the dim, gray room. Each plate, you suspect, is a tiny glimpse into Centeno's obsessions.
So one day may include fennel panna cotta with cypress seeds; a bright egg yolk in its shell with pancetta, crème fraîche and sherry vinegar in the manner of Paris' l' Arpege; a bit of truffled sunchoke soup with pickled muscat grapes; and seared celtuce, a kind of early-spring Chinese celery root, with squash purée, toasted brioche crumbs and a bit of hedgehog mushroom gravy — a California-French meal straight out of the eclectic, garden-centered Manresa playbook.
A week later, you may be served instead raw big-eye tuna wrapped in fried veal, a composition of yellowfish head — sautéed sinew, a briefly seared scrap of eye muscle, a scoop of cheek tartare seasoned with the Japanese spice paste yuzu kosho — followed by courses of sautéed jack mackerel crusted with sesame seeds, shad roe encased in buttery, crisp potatoes, grilled needlefish stuffed with rosemary sprigs and rare roasted pigeon breast. You could be at a progressive Japanese izakaya, even given that the shad roe is drizzled with a bit of Italian-style salsa verde, that the squab comes with a bit of French-style demiglace and that courses of Italian-style charcuterie, English-pea soup and squid ink pasta with uni and nettle pesto come in between.
What ties Centeno's cooking together? What might a plate of grilled greengage plums with fresh ricotta, rhubarb and tamarind have in common with a take on the Japanese egg custard chawan mushi flavored with sunchokes, celtuce and smoky wild mushrooms? Obsession to detail, I suspect — the tweezer-placed herbs, the drops of exotic oil and the miniature, perfected scale. The use of local produce when relevant, and of global products — those plums are from New Zealand — when they're not. The will to mix traditions without losing sight of the fact that they are traditions: Raw Tasmanian sea trout is garnished with Japanese yuzu kosho, shaved French breakfast radish, Mediterranean olive oil, California pink grapefruit and microherbs presumably from Ohio. It tastes like Italy, Japan and Spain. It tastes like Los Angeles.
Orsa & Winston
Josef Centeno, one of Los Angeles' most influential young chefs, has returned to form.
122 W. 4th St., Los Angeles, (213) 687-0300, orsaandwinston.com
Prix fixe only: five courses, $60; eight course omakase, $85; chef's counter, $195.
Open 6 to 11 p.m. Tuesdays to Saturdays. Credit cards accepted. Beer and wine. Street or nearby lot parking.
Menu changes nightly.