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A server sets the table at Orsa & Winston.

In the Land of Josef

by Lesley Balla | Photography by Andrea Bricco | Angeleno magazine | December 21, 2013

While sipping cava inside Orsa & Winston, we felt like voyeurs watching the world of 4th Street come to life outside. As we waited for our amuse-bouche—a lovely bite of fresh and silky sawara, or Spanish mackerel, on a small pool of spicy heirloom tomato puttanesca—loft-dwellers walking their dogs, bargoers heading to the dive across the street, and the down-and-out looking for coins on the sidewalk made their way past the windows. Most looked up for a sign out front (there is none), peeked in or walked through the door to try to figure out what this new bustling restaurant was.

So it goes in the constantly evolving scene in downtown Los Angeles, where restaurants and bars and lounges pop up in previously empty storefronts or replace less successful ones with exciting new concepts.

It’s not every day I can say a meal was bite-for-bite one of the best I’ve had in a while. But, as he’s done with his other restaurants, Bäco Mercat and Bar Amá (the former around the corner and the latter, an ode to his Tex-Mex roots, right next door), chef and owner Josef Centeno has created his own hybrid cuisine to delicious effect.

Centeno, a chef who picked up tricks, tips and technique, but kept searching for a permanent home, is no stranger to this magazine. Before landing at the Lazy Ox Canteen, where he wowed with superstuffed flatbread sandwiches (the bäco), crispy pig’s ears and ultraseasonal small plates, he was voted Angeleno’s Best New Chef in 2007 for wowing at the now-defunct Opus, and was recognized again for his hybrid sandwiches and creative global bites at Bäco Mercat in 2012.

How can one chef make three places within a few hundred yards of each other different enough to attract customers at each one? Decor and menus, of course, but Bäco and Bar Amá are obvious siblings, with the same vibe and similar small plates and cocktail offerings. However, Orsa & Winston, named for the chef’s two adorable little dogs, is a complete departure in concept, design and presentation.

The room is much more understated and smaller than his other two spots; it’s minimal in design with nothing more than a giant swath of wallpaper and an open kitchen where the action takes place. It’s comfortable, however, and rather homey in its starkness. Centeno can’t help that; he oozes a relaxed contentedness both in spirit and on the plate.

Where Orsa & Winston really veers from the pack is that the menu is essentially prix fixe, with five-course, nine-course and Super Omakase options (though antipasti dishes are now available upon request). The antipasti items are not full entrees, but rather small plates to enjoy with a glass of wine or two, based on ingredients Centeno and his crew are excited about that day. Super Omakase dinners are by reservation only, and you’ll sit at the chef’s counter for the entire 20-course (or so) ordeal. Even if you order the five-course option, the meal results in a flurry of special additions so you don’t leave feeling like you missed out for not getting one of the larger menus, nor are you hungry.

Restaurants offering only set menus are all the rage right now: not just via tasting menus, but places where a la carte isn’t even an option. You’re there to dine on what the chef has planned for the evening, with few, if any, changes or special requests allowed (although all will probably cook vegetarian menus if alerted ahead of time). There’s something rather comforting about just sitting back and letting the experience take you.

The menus here change regularly, if not daily, and sometimes even mutate throughout the night. The focus is an almost equal balance of Japanese and Italian influences, where koshihikari rice, a short-grain Japanese rice, becomes as creamy as risotto, rich with squid ink and Parmesan cream, and topped with fresh, local sea urchin. A first course might be a beautiful piece of pink toro topped with black trumpet duxelles and tongue of fire shelling beans, a perfect blend of sea and Earth. Tonnato, that classic Italian sauce made with tuna and often served on veal, is instead made with black cod. It’s tremendous with the milk bread focaccia, another Ital-Asian hybrid that comes as two loaves with housemade chive butter.

Things just kept getting better on our last visit: thin slices of coppa di testa, or pig’s head charcuterie, dotted with pickled baby zucchini; two beautifully plump bay scallops from Nantucket with cannellini beans and delicate sauce ravigote; charred slices of abalone with burnt milk and cherry blossom sauce; and plump little agnolotti stuffed with purple Okinawan potato, served with lamb cheeks and a ragout scented with rye. Every single bite was as delicious as the one before.

Our server not only rattled off every ingredient like a studied pro, but when she decanted our wines with every course—from a lovely Northern Italian Lugana to an Alto Adige Kerner and wonderful Junmai Daiginjo sakes—names and information just poured from her, as if she’s been serving this stuff all of her life. It was just the right speed for the meal, the location and the night.

Centeno’s culinary kingdom in the Old Bank District is just one way the neighborhood, as with all of downtown, is changing. But to be able to hop from one restaurant to another—three different concepts from the same chef within yards of each other—and feel like you’re in completely different spaces, even different parts of the globe, is the feat of pure talent.