Professor Gourmand — Adventures in Centenoville I: Orsa & Winston

Some background may be in order here. You know I’ve been having Saturday brunch at PYT, one of Josef Centeno’s restaurants, every week since early April. Chef Josef operates four other restaurants nearby, at the corner of 4th and Main Streets in downtown Los Angeles. Ledlow, which serves American comfort food, is just to the north of PYT and they share facilities; Bäco Mercat is just to the south of it. On 4th Street between Main and Spring, he operates two more: Bar Amá, his interpretation of Tex-Mex cooking, and Orsa & Winston, a tasting menu emporium. I met the chef at brunch one Sunday in May, and I said I was going to explore the other four places that weren’t PYT. I expected to cover all four of them in one post, but after a spectacular dinner at Orsa & Winston, I just can’t wait. It’s different from the other four.

Orsa & Winston. The flagship of Josef Centeno’s empire. Each night the restaurant offers a six-course menu (plus amuse and intermezzo) for $85, with a wine pairing for $50. The restaurant has been doing this for going on four years, and the critics generally agree it’s one of the best tables in Los Angeles. In his initial review of the restaurant (3/7/14), Jonathan Gold wrote,

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.

After a brief description of Centeno’s chefography, he said Centeno had returned to form with Orsa & Winston:

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.

It was on Eater.com’s heat maps (“Where to eat NOW in Los Angeles”) for the first five months of 2014, and Alan Richman put it on GQ’s list of the 25 best restaurants in the country of 2014. More recently, Eater.com reviewed the LA Weekly list of Los Angeles’s 99 Essential Restaurants for 2017 and Farley Elliot had this to say:

The one big whiff: Orsa & Winston

Rodell herself dotes on Josef Centeno’s Orsa & Winston in her big on Baco Mercat, saying: “Orsa & Winston delivers one of the most interesting, thoughtful tasting-menu experiences around.” Yet it doesn’t make the final cut, which is a bummer for a place that is really firing on 12 cylinders right now. From the wine to the hospitality to the food on the place, Orsa & Winston is one of the city’s best individual dining experiences, period.

Finally, Jonathan Gold did a survey of tasting menus in Los Angeles this March — this is the list on which I found Le Comptoir — on which he described Orsa & Winston within the context of Centenoville:

Orsa & Winston is more or less the fine dining in that lineup, a tasting-menu restaurant that mostly but not entirely crosses the structures of Mediterranean cooking with the strictures of Japanese technique.

It’s not on Eater’s 38 Essential restaurant map at this writing (although Centeno is represented on it by PYT), but it’s #20 on Jonathan Gold’s Top 101 restaurants of 2016, and that seems appropriate. Matthew Kang at Eater thinks that’s too high, but I don’t see that Lukshon at #3 on Jonathan Gold’s list is that much better. It’s all relative, I guess.

So to the experience. Yes, spectacular. I walked in, took the seat at the counter that offered the best view of the kitchen, and I waited. They made the usual inquiries, to which I replied, still water, no big slabs of red meat — but what followed the no red meat announcement was a question about game birds that included guinea hen. GUINEA HEN. A game bird with a flavor that has been described as between chicken and pheasant that I order if it’s on the menu anywhere without even thinking about it (like I do with sturgeon in the fish category). Of course, guinea hen! I said. Then the parade of dishes and wines began.

First, an amuse. Brunch at PYT starts with one, lunch at Bar Ama doesn’t. Spinach, stems and all, lightly sautéed with sesame seeds, a take on the Japanese goma-ae. Tasty. This was accompanied by a small cup of burnt bread soup. This was new to me, and it was tasty too so I did some investigation after the fact. Not surprisingly, I guess, it’s French. From the New York Times:

The cookbook author Jennifer McLagan developed this recipe for a simple toast soup, a rustic dish that stretches leftover bread into a comforting meal, after tasting an upscale version of it at a restaurant in Paris. She includes it in her 2014 cookbook, “Bitter: A Taste of the World’s Most Dangerous Flavor.”

On the other hand, there’s also a long tradition of bread soups from Italy, but these soups all involve vegetables. This is more austere than any of those. So immediately, learning new things.

Then dinner began. I was so excited by the first course — kampachi (amberjack/yellowtail) with cherries, pine nuts, micro sorrel and smoked chile oil — that I ate half of it before I remembered I needed a picture of it. Crudo has become commonplace on restaurant menus of all kinds over the past few years but a dish like this explains why that has happened. Writing five days after this dinner I still have a vivid taste memory of this dish. With it, a bone-dry Riesling from the Rhineheissen region of Germany. The first of six excellent pairings.

Next, an egg cup containing what was described to me as an egg based on a dish served at Arpège in Paris, served with a demitasse spoon. “Breakfast in a shell,” they called it. This is apparently a fixture on the tasting menu: Jonathan Gold mentioned “a bright egg yolk in its shell with pancetta, crème fraîche and sherry vinegar in the manner of Paris’ l’ Arpege,” in his initial review. The sherry vinegar wasn’t evident, but there was a layer of semolina between the egg yolk and the crème fraiche, and some black caviar from the sturgeons of Northern Italy atop it all. To complement it, a nice fizzy Lambrusco, organically produced and fermented in the bottle with the most minimal amount of dosage which produced another bone-dry wine. Next time I’ll try not to dribble any of the yolk on the counter. Delicious. excellent pairing too — brunch-ish.

The third course? A Japanese sardine, sautéed, on a bed of English peas in crème fraiche with roasted sugar tomatoes. Excellent, well-thought out plate. Meaty fish. The wine pairing? Another bone-dry wine, a grüner veltliner from western Austria. Perfect with the plate. But NONE of this prepared me for the fourth course.

First, a bowl appeared, and I guessed it was for the shells of one of the components. Then an artistic bowl: risotto made from sushi rice with an emulsion of Parmigiano Reggiano, topped by a Hokkaido sea urchin, the whole thing surrounded by three Manila clams, and micro greens. Hokkaido sea urchin. Firmer and sweeter than what we get from the Santa Barbara sea urchins we see so frequently in local restaurants. JUST delicious. This was paired with a mostly Sauvignon Blanc (with Colombard and Gros Manseng grapes) from Gascony, the southernmost Atlantic province of France. I didn’t know they even MADE wines in Gascony, but here it was, and it was a perfect pairing with a complex dish.

And even THAT didn’t prepare me for the final savory course. Yes, guinea hen — a leg, the breast and the liver — with cherries, peaches and plums, on a bed of grits (the source of the guinea hen was South Carolina, so, naturally . . .) The sauce was made from the drippings and duck fat and some other ingredients, but just WOW. Sort of like the impact of the sturgeon dish at Here’s Looking at You, but here with poultry, and a bird that tastes like chicken if chicken tasted good. Tuscany this time for the pairing, but nothing you’d expect. From the Sequerciani Vineyards on the Adriatic coast, wine made from a grape called foglia tonda, an ancient Tuscan grape that’s similar to sangiovese but more robust. It’s outside the Denominatione d’Origine Controllata (DOC) system, classified as a Tuscan IGT (Indicazione Geographica Tipica) wine, and as Victor Hazan has noted, some of the best Italian wines get this classification because they operate outside the DOC rules (Chianti, for example, can have no more than 90% sangiovese grapes, the other 10% must be white wine grapes, according to its DOC). Again, something new, and, again, something spectacularly delicious and the most appropriate pairing for the guinea hen possible. This is why you go to a restaurant like Orsa & Winston.

An “intermezzo” followed. A small dish of cucumber granita topped with a dollop of mascarpone cream. Yummy, and a nice palate cleanser for dessert.

And a modest yet perfect dessert course. A torta de maiz topped with a perfect strawberry from Harry’s Berries, a tiny sprig of mint and a bigger dollop of crème Chantilly (whipped cream with vanilla). The final wine was a sparkling Nebbiolo (this is the grape that they make Barolo, Barbaresco and Barbera from in the Piedmont). Another wine I didn’t know existed, another wine I will now seek out.

Coffee after. Amazing dinner. Chef Josef came over after I had finished dessert, thanked me for coming in, and gave me a pointy piece of chocolate that reminded me of the chocolate bar at Scratch. I asked about how often the menu changes and was told it’s pretty much daily based on ingredient flow (the same things that mean you can’t always find smoked trout on the PYT menu), but that there’s a complete overhaul of the menu once a month. I’m trying to figure out my July and August dates now. If this kind of dining appeals to you, run, don’t walk. It DOES taste like Los Angeles. Reservations are necessary.

Orsa & Winston, 122 W. 4th St., Los Angeles, (213) 687–0300, orsaandwinston.com. Dinner: Prix fixe only: six courses, $85; chef’s counter, $195. Open 6 to 11 p.m. Tuesdays to Saturdays. Lunch: a la carte, noon to 2 p.m. Tuesdays to Fridays. Credit cards accepted. Beer and wine. Street or nearby lot parking.

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