“How are you feeling?”
She looks at me with genuine concern as she asks me this. She is removing yet another empty dish from the counter in front of me. It was filled with a velvety, unctuous custard made from sea urchin roe, topped with tiny, perfectly square nuggets of fried, salty mortadella. After three bites, the bowl is sadly empty, wiped clean. I ran my finger around the inside of the vessel and then licked it.
“I’m feeling really good,” I say, surprising myself. “I think we’ve planned it just right.”
The uni custard is the 14th dish in tonight’s “super omakase,” and as with every dish that has come before it, I have wanted one tiny more bite, one more fleeting moment to savor. But I know my own limits, and the end game is still several dishes away.
Only four people per night – the ones seated at the small counter overlooking the kitchen – get to splurge on Josef Centeno’s grand tasting menu. When I called to reserve these seats, I was informed this meal could stretch for several hours, for as many as 25 courses. So I took preemptive action. “Can we stop at 18?” I asked.
“Only 18? Are you sure?” the manager responded.
So now my waitress is checking in on the state of my contentment after course 14. I’m starting to think maybe I should have gone for the full monty, but I know better. I’m almost at my threshold now. I remind myself of the wispy fried pork skin buried beneath a flurry of shaved Piedmontese truffle that set the tone for the night. That was two hours ago. I remember the tuna eye flap – what an odd piece of the fish to be eating – and recall how it reminded me of toro, but with more flavor, more blubbery oiliness. Visions of squid-ink pasta flash across my mind’s eye, wrapped around sour caviar-like globules of finger lime with a single, unexpected blast of chile on the last bite.
“And the egg,” says my partner, as we start rattling off the dishes we’ve already devoured. Ah, yes, the egg, a brown eggshell filled with coddled yolk and crème fraîche and pancetta, with a swirl of maple syrup and balsamic vinegar.
“And the braised potatoes with purple Brussels and watermelon radishes.” I never knew Brussels sprouts came in purple.
“And the live scallop with green curry.” That was decadent.
“And that green faux pasta made from lettuce stalks.” Ah, yes, that was unexpected.
Centeno took a circuitous route to arrive at his new flagship. After training at ultra-posh Le Côte Basque and Daniel in New York, he mostly worked on the fringes of gentrification in Los Angeles – Koreatown, Echo Park, Little Tokyo – before finding his comfort zone at the edge of Skid Row, where he now owns three wildly successful restaurants within a block of each other.
No matter the surroundings or the odds, the chef has always seemed at ease in the kitchen, and never more so than at Orsa & Winston. This is his most impressive proposition to date, a 36-seat, stripped-down culinary lab hiding behind a discreet storefront in downtown’s once-forgotten bank district.
Diners have four options: five courses, nine courses, a four-course family-style dinner, or the epic omakase; à la carte doesn’t exist. The menu reveals nothing but the number of courses and the price.
The menu is described as a blend of Japanese and Italian, which is possibly a reference to the chef’s own melting-pot family tree. But at no point in the meal here does anything seem particularly Italian or uniquely Japanese. This is quintessential Centeno.
Yes, he serves a freshly baked bun that arrives straight from the oven, quivering and steaming like Japanese milk bread, but with the more familiar seasoning of Italian focaccia. And yes, there is plenty of raw seafood, like a refreshing Tasmanian sea trout tartare with yuzu. The chef makes tagliatelle pasta as deftly as an Italian granny. And rice porridge is fastidiously stirred like risotto, then layered with raw, 40-day dry-aged Japanese wagyu beef. Japanese? No. Italian? No. Fusion? No. Labels are useless here.
When I ask my waitress what I might expect for the four-course, family-style dinner on my third visit, she shrugs, saying,“Hard to tell. I’ve seen him do really big steaks and roasts, or whole fish.”
The first course turns out to be a sharable bowl of raw geoduck clam and tai snapper with puffed black rice and pickled rhubarb. The second is a whole Japanese needle fish, which is one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen, roasted in the wood-fired oven with kumquats no bigger than peas.
“The kumquats come from the chef’s rooftop garden,” we’re told.
The fish is about the size and thickness of a traditional barber’s comb, but with a face like a spear. I’m looking at it, and fear runs through my veins. All I can think is: “Bones! This is going to be nothing but bones.”
I hate tiny fish bones. Or at least I thought I did.
I love this dish. I don’t mind for a minute having to eat in slow motion, methodically chewing with my tongue rather than my teeth in order to prevent myself from swallowing a sharp needle. This fish is that good. Fortunately, this is a tiny fish with only a few bites of meat on it’s skeleton. Were it any larger, I would tire quickly of the whole process.
The miniature fish is followed by a gargantuan pork T-bone, which weighs at least three pounds. I can smell the caramelized flesh even before I notice the heavily charred hashmarks from the grill. A waiter presents the whole chop, then quickly whisks it away to be carved. Meanwhile, here comes a side dish of hand-rolled green pea cavatelli flavored with duck confit. The chop returns not sliced but quartered into four massive chunks – pink throughout and dripping with hedonism. Even when opting for four courses instead of 20, the end-game comes only when someone screams “Uncle!”
Every time I’ve written about Centeno’s restaurants over the years, I’ve always had one nagging complaint: The desserts have never lived up to whatever preceded them. Happily, here, just when you think you can’t eat another bite, some of the best dishes of the night start to arrive: a spoonful of hand-chipped pomegranate granita with shaved green apple, a plum crostata so hot you’ll have to blow on it, a cheesecake made with cloud-like housemade ricotta, or a deliciously clever riff on the flavors of tiramisu. Pastry chef Isa Fabro previously worked at Hatfield’s, and she is unquestionably an important rising star on the local scene.
“Still feeling good?” my waitress asks as she removes my third empty dessert plate, winking. She already knows the answer.
Orsa & Winston
Rating: 3 1/2 stars
Where: 122 W. Fourth St., Los Angeles
Hours: 6-11 p.m., Tuesdays – Saturdays
Don’t miss: Cross your fingers the chef is still playing with needlefish, geoduck clams and rice porridge.
About the wine: Smart, wonderful Italian wines rarely seen elsewhere.
About the service: Savvy, casual and attentive, teetering on the edge of grace.
About the noise: Lively bordering on boisterous, but never so loud that conversation becomes impossible.
County health inspection: A
Cost: Four courses, family style, $50; five courses, $60; eight courses, $85; omakase, $195. Wine pairings, $40 – $100. Corkage, $35, limit one.
What the stars mean:
0 = poor, unacceptable
1 = fair, with some noteworthy qualities
2 = good, solid, above average
3 = excellent, memorable, well above norm
4 = world class, extraordinary in every detail
Reviews are based on multiple visits. Ratings reflect the reviewer’s overall reaction to food, ambience and service.
This article originally appeared in the Los Angeles Register. (Website for Los Angeles Register is down; link might be broken.) To view more of my work for the Orange County Register, check out the archives. I also invite you to follow me and join the conversation on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.