By now, fine dining has been officially "dead" just long enough that its resurrection seems inevitable. The challenge, as it returns, will be to keep the new iteration from falling prey to the pitfalls that put it out of style in the first place — to create something fresh and vibrant within a genre that seems inherently stodgy. With our surfeit of talented chefs, and a blessed freedom from loyalty to old money and tradition, Los Angeles just may be the city to lead the reinvention.
Indeed, quite a few of our best chefs are taking a step back toward fine dining, without the now-unfashionable fripperies. Gone are the quiet rooms and the formal service. Gone are the white tablecloths, or any tablecloths at all. These chefs are retaining the one part of fine dining that excited and challenged them as young cooks — the food — and rejecting the accompanying formalities. Would you like some N.W.A with your $95 tasting menu?
Of the handful of new restaurants in L.A. going this route, none exemplifies the trend more plainly than Orsa & Winston, Josef Centeno's new(est) downtown restaurant. In some ways this is Centeno's return to his roots: As a young chef, he was steeped in fine dining at Daniel and Manresa, among quite a few other extremely high-end restaurants. But Orsa & Winston is also a testament to everything he's done since, the ways in which he's mastered the bright, acrobatic flavors and cultural mash-ups that made his restaurant around the corner (Bäco Mercat) and his restaurant next door (Bar Amá) so successful.
Orsa & Winston has a tasting-menu format, which Centeno is billing as Japanese/Italian omakase. At $50 to $195 per person, depending on the menu you choose, eating here is a commitment, in terms of both price and time, as well as the lengths to which you'll be forced to trust the chef (you are asked about food allergies, but otherwise the menu is a surprise).
Instead of being a fusty temple to haute cuisine, the room is plain. It's quite pleasing, with a view of the twinkling lights of Fourth Street, but unadorned apart from an artsy swish of paint on the wall and two large light fixtures over the chef's counter. Service is professional, knowledgeable and completely unassuming. While it's not a loud restaurant, "Fuck tha Police" may well be part of the soundtrack to your meal.
Consider this a warning about Orsa & Winston: You will be overfed. You can expect to leave full. You can expect far, far more than you bargained for. No matter which menu option you choose — the five-course tasting, the nine-course tasting or the four-course, "family-style" meal — you can expect three to five more courses than the menu promises. Extras come in the form of amuses and palate cleansers, a string of small desserts surrounding one or two larger desserts, or just a full-on extra dish or two that Centeno, standing calmly in the open kitchen at the back of the restaurant, has decided to include.
You're likely to begin with a shot glass of savory panna cotta — perhaps flavored with fennel pollen, or a sweet fall squash. It's a lovely beginning that sets the tone for the somewhat more restrained style of cooking Centeno is exhibiting here. While the food at his other restaurants often bowls you over with flavor from the outset, Orsa & Winston shows what he's capable of when that exuberance is tempered just a little.
There's "breakfast in a shell," a soft-cooked egg in its shell, which has benefited from the addition of pancetta, semolina and sherry cream (you are instructed to mix them together and scoop out with a tiny spoon). It's a play on the same meal-in-an-eggshell every high-end chef has been doing forever, but Centeno's version is a little bolder, less concerned with daintiness and more with flavor. The audacious tang of the sherry, in particular, gives this the kick it needs to make it sing.
Both the Japanese and Italian influences are subtle, more inspiration than straightforward guidance. Yuzu makes its citrusy tang known throughout the menu, while a course of milk-bread focaccia, which comes in soft, generous rolls served with testa and umami-rich black cod tonnato, feels like the heart of the meal.
There are dishes that seem a little too much like the small plates available anywhere in town — burrata with slightly woody sugar snap peas that had an odd bitterness, or a beautiful but familiar kanpachi with satsuma and shiso.
But also, always, a few dishes will bowl you over: You absolutely can't find them anywhere else. For example, a small dish of satsuki rice with uni, geoduck and the soft acid of tangerine is both simple and astounding, and demonstrates the success Centeno can find when the wildness of his creativity is pared back just a little.
The family-style option will leave you no less full. In fact, on the night I shared it with just two other people, our meal ended with an entire 7-inch pie (the crust like shortbread, the pear filling a soulful ode to autumn). While the family-style food is less fussed over, and more rustic, that doesn't mean it's less satisfying — I enjoyed spooning bowls of house-made pasta flavored with the best mushrooms from the markets, plus a punch of yuzu. Where my other meals at Orsa & Winston felt like a treat and a journey, the family-style meal felt festive and relaxed.
There is also a "super omakase" for $195, offering 20-plus courses, which must be booked in advance and can be consumed only from the perch of a stool at the chef's counter. I did not partake. Not only can I not imagine the act of endurance it would require to ingest twice (or more) the already insane amount of food offered with the nine-course option, the idea of doing it while sitting at a counter on a stool frankly sounds like torture. For you, it may be an amazing treat — just be aware of what you're getting into.
Which brings us to the list of questions you ought to ask yourself when deciding whether to visit Orsa & Winston. Do you want to be surprised, and delighted, and most likely overfed? Or do you just want the pleasure of Centeno's considerable talents on a far less committed level?
Orsa & Winston is a fine example of an excellent chef's imagination and divine guidance taken to a glorious extreme, where raucous music and very good wine and all the inspirational fodder absorbed over a career of cooking are allowed to run wild. It's also a fascinating step toward a new generation's model for fine dining. You should absolutely want to take this ride with this chef.
But ... would I rather eat at Bäco Mercat? Probably.
ORSA & WINSTON | Three stars | 122 W. Fourth St., dwntwn. | (213) 687-0300 | orsaandwinston.com | Tues.-Sat., 6-11 p.m. | $50-$195 per person for 5- to 20-plus-course tasting menus | Beer and wine | Street parking