Bäco Mercat is Josef Centeno's new bar down in the Old Bank district, a dim, close space just south of Pete's. It has been getting some attention lately for the crunchy, paper-thin Catalan pizza called coca, and for its many cocktails based on shrub, a 19th-century concoction of fruit, sugar and vinegar that turns out to be exactly what you want to be drinking when even the idea of a Manhattan is too much. (Shrub is an artisanal thing, the bartender's equivalent of the ambitious jams and preserves flooding Etsy at the moment.)
Bäco Mercat has a substantial roster of aggressive ales and of homemade soda pop, and cheerfully serves both vegan dishes and giant slabs of cheese, both chicken 'n' waffles and Sichuan “ribs'' fashioned out of chicken thighs. There is almost nothing coming from his kitchen that Centeno doesn't think couldn't be improved with the addition of a fried egg or a bit of yogurt.
The ideal customer would be someone who knows what salbitxada is, but also doesn't get upset if she accidentally splashes a little on her shirt. If Bäco Mercat were any more of the moment, it would be a Pinterest page devoted to Tumblrs of itself, so that restaurant and metarestaurant could devour one another like Jung's famous snake swallowing its own tail.
But above all, Centeno is smart, working flavors and combinations with a deftness you wouldn't necessarily expect in a bar. If the local convergence of haute cuisine and pub food has a birthdate, it may well have come during Centeno's tenure at Opus in Koreatown, where he began serving endless, open-ended tasting menus at only $10 a course — it's where a lot of young Angelenos first discovered that fine dining could have a lot in common with izakaya. His Lazy Ox is still the sharpest of the gastropubs: He understands that Angelenos grow up eating Mexican, Japanese and Middle Eastern food, which all taste basically awesome when filtered through French technique.
At Bäco Mercat there is a salad made with both roasted tiny Brussels sprouts and the leaves that need to be stripped off Brussels sprouts in order to make them small enough to roast — it's a chef's trick, but the flavor of the vegetable is revealed in more dimensions than you may have thought possible. A chile relleno is served on a sloppy, juicy bed of ground-pork sauce that tastes a bit like Texas chili but also twists around toward an Italian ragu. The cultural oscillations put you off balance; you never know quite where you are with the dish.
Seared octopus is sauteed with ham hocks — it is hard to tell where one ends and the other begins. An “English breakfast'' is more or less a fried egg draped over a spicy hash made with black pudding — you kind of get the overtones of a London fry-up without the queasiness afterwards, which strikes me as just right.
A bäco itself is Centeno's invention, a kind of flatbread sandwich, vaguely resembling either a pita wrap or a steroidal taco, with which Centeno has flirted since he was at Meson G almost a decade ago. A bäco is goopy, vaguely spicy and often refers to the Eastern Mediterranean. It may taste a little like a falafel, or a crisp shrimp bánh mì, or possibly a chicken salad sandwich by way of Algeria. One of the best bäcos comes with fried veal tongue. The original is made with the Catalan pepper-almond sauce salbitxada, bits of pork belly and crunchy, porous cubes of what Centeno calls beef carnitas, made from flatiron steak.
Some new small-plates restaurants are content to serve you hamburgers and fries. Others bring in influences from Singapore, Copenhagen or Tokyo. But the menu here reads almost like a graduate exam in culinary poststructuralism, mixing flavors from Italy, France and western China, Georgia (U.S.) and Georgia (Eastern Europe), Tuscany and Peru. Centeno's take on posole includes a chile-red pork broth, crisps of beef and pork and house-made noodles that happen to look exactly like what comes out of a packet of Top Ramen. Chicken thighs are somehow manipulated to resemble fried pork ribs, then glazed with a sweet, vaguely Sichuan-style chile sauce; whole shrimp are fried with salt and pepper pretty much as they are at Cantonese seafood restaurants — you eat them entire, shell, head and all.
I found myself ordering foie gras there the other night, which surprised me a bit. Through experience and modest study, I know that the animals it comes from are among the most tenderly raised livestock on earth. If I were to catalog my most transformative culinary experiences, I suspect foie gras would figure in almost a third of them. But there are only a few sanctioned ways to prepare it, and its costliness encourages cooks to be conservative. Sear, deglaze, serve with fruit — I'm not sure I'd specifically ordered it in years. Still, with the upcoming and unnecessary ban creeping up on California, it is exactly the right time to eat foie gras. And the dish was smart — I think it was supposed to be a deconstruction of pate en croute, with seared duck liver instead of the meat paste, shards of crisp pie crust instead of the usual damp pastry, and sauteed grapes in place of the customary gelée. It was spectacular.
I would be negligent if I didn't mention Centeno's banana cream pie, which may be the best in Los Angeles at the moment. Forget what you know about the genre: This is a cloud of banana-flavored cream heaped onto caramel-coated wisps of pie crust, a dessert that gives the impression of ultimate richness but is actually rather light. It is a pastry tour de force.
BÄCO MERCAT | 408 S. Main St., dwntwn. | (213) 687-8808 | bacomercat.com | Lunch, Mon.-Sat., 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m.; dinner, Mon.-Sat., 6-11 p.m.; brunch, Sat., 10 a.m.-2:30 p.m. | MC, V | Full bar