Josef Centeno’s Orsa & Winston is The Times’ Restaurant of the Year
What does it mean to be an exceptional Los Angeles restaurant? None of us could have known how complex the question would become in 2020.
But Josef Centeno’s adaptive, graceful version of excellence in the maelstrom is one reassuring answer. On a culinary level, complexity has always defined his career. No one cuisine or style can express his hyperdrive creativity; his bio includes the poshest tasting menu settings as well as hidden barebone pubs.
He runs four restaurants. Bar Amá downtown and Amacita in Culver City channel the Tex-Mex heritage of Centeno’s native San Antonio. The cooking at Bäco Mercat in DTLA begins in the Mediterranean regions before pingponging around the globe.
Then there is Orsa & Winston, which opened next door to Bar Amá in September 2013. With its 35 seats, the 1,200-square-foot restaurant has always functioned as a workshop for Centeno’s evolution as a chef and leader.
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Orsa & Winston serves a multicourse menu that successfully bridges Japanese and Italian flavors; rice porridge pooled in Parmesan cream with seafood (perhaps uni or Hokkaido scallop) became a dish that synthesized his aims. Centeno constantly parses ingredient pairings to find the connections between the two cuisines — abalone grilled over binchotan charcoal with a Cal-Ital duo of kumquat and garlic leaf, duck with cherry blossom mostarda, a tart of ume and preserved apricot with yuzu curd — but he never contorts food into bizarre conflations in service of the restaurant’s premise. If a berry clafouti or sardine escabeche finds its way into the mix — well? The fluidity between cuisines feels organic to Centeno’s cooking and to the pluralism of Los Angeles.
Neither did the restaurant restrict itself to tasting menus: Last year brought a ramped-up a la carte list of “snacks” (arancini with blue cheese, Calabrian chile and mozzarella; squid ink spaghettini puttanesca; salmon in green tea dashi) that could easily stretch into a meal. Savoring homemade pastas at lunch was a noontime escape.
Then the pandemic detonated, and Centeno suspended dine-in service at his restaurants six days ahead of the mandatory mid-March shutdown. For a few weeks he closed altogether, spending his days cooking for hospital workers and dying fabrics for his clothing line, Prospect Pine. (Yes, he makes masks.) His businesses have reopened with skeleton crews.
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Nonetheless, everything that makes Orsa & Winston special feels magnified in the crisis. Centeno built a takeout window into the restaurant’s façade: For comfort, he serves cheeseburger sandos on milk bread; for nourishment, there is a grain bowl of brown and black rice with jammy shoyu egg, yuzo-oregano dressing and whatever vegetables the weekly markets provide.
Those willing to venture out for a special occasion can book a safely distanced table for two, set up in the adjacent alley, encircled by planters that create an improbably romantic oasis. Centeno continues to create tasting menus that muster the world while framing L.A.’s sense of place: Last week he served Dungeness crab brightened with yuzu kosho cream, peach salad with sheep’s milk ricotta, and grilled Wagyu flatiron steak jolted with a relish of umeboshi and shiso. Next week will bring fresh imaginings, the welcome kind of mystery in uncertain times.
For the delicious ways it reflects the cultural mosaics of our city — and for the resilience of its chef-owner, whose warmth and ingenuity inspires when we need it most — Orsa & Winston is Restaurant of the Year.
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