This is the latest posting from my monthly series of LA-focused food articles for The Staff Canteen website
Less than a decade ago Downtown LA was a dire place synonymous with boarded-up structures and the homeless of Skid Row. It was where people came to work but not to play, a ghost town at night and during weekends. But over the past few years, the area has experienced a phenomenal revival. Derelict old buildings have been restored and turned into hotels and apartment blocks, new bars and eateries have sprung up everywhere and today, Downtown is home to some of LA’s most celebrated restaurants.
One of a handful of chefs who have pioneered this restaurant revolution is Josef Centeno. Known for his creative menus, skilful cooking and gutsy flavours, served up in a trendy setting that is as laid back as a Californian hippy, he’s taken Downtown LA by storm. “The last five years in LA have been incredible and you’re pretty lucky to live here if you like to eat,” he says. “In San Francisco and New York you have a very established restaurant scene, with diners who really know how to eat. In LA it’s still growing and it’s given young chefs like me the opportunity to come to a major city and get their feet wet.”
Over the past three years, Centeno has opened three restaurants that have helped to define not just Downtown but LA’s fledgling dining scene. There’s Bäco Mercat, with a menu of small plates inspired by the flavours of the Mediterranean and signature flatbread sandwiches that are filled with soft-shell crab, lamb meatballs or beef tongue schnitzel. Then there’s Bar Amá, which serves Tex-Mex comfort food with a modern twist. And there’s Orsa & Winston, a contemporary restaurant that has – together with Ludo Lefebvre’s Trois Mec and Ari Taymor’s Alma – helped to cement a new wave of fine dining restaurants in LA by embracing tasting menus of high-end food but rejecting the usually accompanying formalities.
Although very different in their cuisine, all of Centeno’s restaurants have one thing in common: they offer accomplished cooking, great drinks and a vibrant atmosphere all at an affordable price. Indeed Centeno seems to have had the Midas touch with his restaurants, which collectively serve up to 600 diners a night. But he hasn’t just got lucky and it is years of hard work that have helped him fine-tune his winning formula.
Fine Dining Background
Growing up in Texas, Centeno realised he wanted to be a chef when he worked at a vegetarian student café while studying English and Anthropology at college. From there he moved to New York to work at some of the city’s top fine dining destinations, including Daniel Boulud’s Daniel, Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s Vong, La Côte Basque and Les Célébrités. “They were all very classic French restaurants, the gastronomic temples of the time,” he recalls. “But it was a hard grind and they were ruthless kitchens. You fought everyday to keep your job. It was intense. In those days being hit or humiliated was normal and I know so many people who quit because they couldn’t stand it. It takes a sadomasochist to make it in this industry.”
He says he gained ‘stamina’ and developed a ‘tough skin’ but after six years, he’d had enough and left ‘cold, dark’ New York for the sunny climes of California, where he landed a job with acclaimed chef Ron Siegel at Charles Nob Hill in San Francisco. “That really set a different tone for me. I came from very classic French sauces and techniques to this very fresh, light style of cooking,” he says. “I started learning about simplicity, about using incredible ingredients and not messing with them.” He then joined David Kinch at Sent Sovi and followed him to the now two-Michelin-starred Manresa, which he opened as chef de cuisine: “David taught me how to think outside of the box, how to search for the best ingredients and keep the flavours simple.”
It’s this philosophy of simplicity that has stuck with Centeno, who left Manresa in pursuit of opening his own restaurant. He moved to LA, where after working in the kitchens of Meson G and Opus as ‘Band-Aid chef’ (taking over after previous chefs had been fired) and running a short-lived eatery called Lazy Ox Canteen, he opened Bäco Mercat in the Old Bank District Downtown in 2011. The restaurant was an overnight success, drawing in punters with its inventive small plates, including a host of interesting vegetable dishes – Caesar Brussels sprouts, blistered green beans or caramelised cauliflower – along with paper-thin Catalan pizza (coca) and its delicious flatbread sandwiches (bäco) – including the now iconic original bäco made up of crispy pork belly and beef carnitas.
Bar Amá opened in 2012 just around the corner as homage to Centeno’s mother and grandmother. “It’s the puffy tacos and enchiladas I grew up with and I’ve put my spin on it with the amazing produce that we have here in California,” he explains. It’s a restaurant that doesn’t reinvent Tex-Mex cuisine but by using top quality ingredients elevates traditional dishes to new heights. This includes things like Nana’s Frito pie, a dense stack of Fritos with chile con carne made from tongue, and crema; or fideo with octopus and kielbasa, a pasta-based version of paella.
“The menu at Bäco started out with everything that I think is delicious which was a really broad range of flavours,” Centeno explains. “When I opened Bar Amá, I extracted everything Mexican from it and for Orsa & Winston I’ve taken the more Japanese and Italian influences.”
New wave of fine dining
Arguably his most ambitious project, Orsa & Winston (named after his dogs), may mark Centeno’s return to fine dining but it embodies a very conscious move away from the classic French restaurants he trained in. “There is a whole demographic of people in LA who want to experience fine dining – the high quality ingredients and the execution – but they don’t want the white tablecloths and can’t afford the high prices,” he says. “This restaurant is for those people. It’s not cheap but it’s still accessible for the level of ingredients that you get.”
The 33-seat restaurant serves three fixed-price menus (five-, eight- and 20-courses priced $60, $85 and $195 respectively) as well as a family-style, four-course menu at $50. Diners are given no choice over what they are served and are simply asked about allergies before putting their trust in the hands of the kitchen. The menus draw on influences from both Japanese and Italian cuisine, with dishes such as raw Tasmanian sea trout with yuzu kosho, shaved radish, olive oil, pink grapefruit and micro herbs; Koshihikari rice (risotto-style Japanese rice) with sea urchin and geoduck; or homemade ravioli filled with egg yolk and goat’s milk ricotta accompanied with braised beef cheek, English peas and pickled red currant. The food is playful, imaginative, delicate yet full of flavour. The dining room is understated; rock music plays in the background and staff uniforms comprise white shirts, black jeans and Converse. Diners are not expected to dress up and talk quietly, they’re there to relax and simply enjoy the thrill of the food.
“I was back in New York recently and had to wear a jacket and tie to eat at a restaurant. I’ve never felt more uncomfortable,” Centeno says. “By contrast, just last week, these guys came into my restaurant dressed in Brazil soccer jerseys and trainers. They sat down, ordered a $200 bottle of wine and had the eight-course menu. I thought: ‘This is exactly what I wanted to create – a place where people come and feel comfortable.’” And with that Centeno has created exactly what LA diners want too.
This article was first published by The Staff Canteen.