Review: At Ledlow, Josef Centeno is serious about American cuisine

At Ledlow, start with a vegetable plate and a brandy old-fashioned: Small-town American eating for a new era

When people ask about the modern way of eating in Los Angeles, the succession of wildly variant small plates followed perhaps by a big, shared platter of meat, I sometimes refer them to Josef Centeno, who got the style started here when he was chef of the long-defunct Koreatown restaurant Opus a decade or so ago. Other chefs had done the neo-tapas thing here before, of course, including Sang Yoon at Father's Office and Suzanne Goin at AOC, but Centeno was somehow more aggressive about it, careening back and forth from Asian to Mediterranean to Latin American flavors and structures, many of the dishes emphasizing vegetables instead of meat or fish, all of them congenial to a cocktail or an odd glass of wine.

His term at Opus ended with a kind of endless tasting menu, as many small courses as you cared to eat for 10 bucks a plate. He made haute cuisine accessible to a lot of people who couldn't imagine going to a place like Spago, the French Laundry or Mélisse. It was the furthest thing from a burger bar.

Centeno, as you probably know, is now a baron of downtown dining, and the bit of real estate around 4th and Main, where he owns the restaurants Bar Amá, Orsa & Winston and Bäco Mercat, is occasionally referred to as Centenoland. But nobody quite expected him to take over Pete's, the artsy burger bar that was the first restaurant in the neighborhood, and nobody was quite expecting him to do what he did.

Pete's was a place you stopped into for a burger and a plate of blue cheese fries at 2 in the morning after a show. Centeno's Pete's was a place where the chalkboard menu listed things like beef tongue salad and caramelized sunchoke remoulade, and the size of the steak went down from 32 ounces to 4. At the old Pete's, you could have a Michelob with your short-ribs instead of a bottle of Dieu du Ciel peppercorn rye. Pete's wasn't quite a dive — it had pancetta-wrapped scallops and pappardelle with lamb — but it was a neighborhood restaurant, a place you could show up to in a worn hoodie and paint-spattered shoes.

The old regulars complained. Centeno changed the name of his restaurant to Ledlow Swan and then to Ledlow. It became, one imagined, one more symptom of the gentrification of downtown.

But really, Ledlow is still a neighborhood restaurant, although a restaurant for a very different neighborhood. I noticed after the fourth time I had been in that I tended to start every meal with a plate of raw and grilled seasonal vegetables and a brandy old-fashioned, as if I were dining in the one restaurant in a small Wisconsin town.

The vegetables were fairly spectacular, of course, a long plank with blistered okra, charred stems of broccolini and grilled puntarelle, along with half a dozen other things, arranged into a composition that might have tempted Chardin to pick up his brush. The brandy old-fashioned, a cocktail I have never seen outside the Upper Midwest, was served in a glass mounded above the rim with super-cold crushed ice — it would have been a hit at any Elks Lodge in Racine. Afterward there might have been fried butterball potatoes with pears and grapes, chicken meatballs in cream, a tower of crisp-edged braised beef tongue stacked into a Jenga formation with apples, or a plate of Mrs. G.W. Sanborn's shrimp with lightly boiled eggs and dressed lettuce, a dish borrowed from James Beard's "American Cookery."

In his way, Centeno, master of genre cooking, is trying to make a bold statement about serious American cuisine, with a forthrightness and sense of purpose we haven't seen since Larry Forgione opened An American Place in Manhattan in the 1980s, and he is bold in his plainness. His chicken is inspired by Beard's approach to coq au vin, and somehow the red wine sauce with olives and a hint of orange reads more American than Provencal. The grilled seafood cocktail could have come out of a fine restaurant in Savannah, Ga. — the huge shrimp, touched with smoke, are especially fine.

Centeno's unconventional version of Low Country shrimp and grits — enhanced with cheese, garnished with grilled sausage, topped with a runny fried egg and sluiced with hammy red-eye gravy — turned me off the first time I tried it (cheese is not friendly to shrimp) but was ultimately persuasive, almost too American in its abundance.

If you remember Centeno's term at the Lazy Ox, where he was the first chef, you may recall his paleron, a cut of beef chuck also sometimes known as the flat iron, which he slow-cooked and served with kumquats on a gooey bed of Cream of Wheat. It's a really good braising cut, laced with cartilage that softens into lusciousness after a few hours in the pot, richly beefy, its essence becoming one with the braising medium. That dish, renamed "braised beef shoulder," makes a reappearance on the Ledlow menu — spoon-soft meat, deeply reduced red wine, and the sharp, sweet tang of stewed kumquats. It was one of the best dishes of 2009, and it is one of the best dishes on the menu today.

As you might expect from a restaurant like this, you will find some self-consciously American desserts, including a sugary, eggy chess pie with cardamom-flavored whipped cream; an apple crisp with frozen custard; and a baked Alaska — an igloo of browned meringue concealing an interior of pistachio ice cream and chocolate cake. But what you'll really want is the Grand Marnier soufflé, an airy, bittersweet taste of the American 1960s, moistened with thin custard, the piercing flavor of orange zest tamed to a contented sigh.

jonathan.gold@latimes.com

Follow me on Twitter @thejgold

Ledlow

Downtown baron Josef Centeno boldly reexamines traditional American cooking.

LOCATION

400 S. Main St., Los Angeles, (213) 687-7015, ledlowla.com

PRICES

Small plates, $9-$14; salads, $12-$14; larger plates, $19-$32; desserts, $9-$12.

DETAILS

Open 8 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily. Credit cards accepted. Full bar.

RECOMMENDED DISHES

Vegetable platter; caramelized sunchoke remoulade; grilled seafood cocktail; braised beef shoulder; Grand Marnier soufflé

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