At this rate, chef Josef Centeno will one day have a restaurant in every storefront in downtown L.A. The rapid creep of his closely grouped restaurant empire now includes Bäco Mercat, plus his mezcal-and-queso–fueled Tex-Mex spot Bar Amá around the corner, his tasting menu–only project Orsa and Winston (which is temporarily serving yakitori), and now his fourth venture within a two-block stretch, Ledlow.
Following the trajectory of Ledlow has been a little bit head-spinning. Last summer, Centeno announced that he would be taking over Pete's, the space directly next door to Bäco Mercat, which had been serving diner-type food since 2002. The name would remain Pete's. The building was renovated, the interior converted into a classic white-walled, tile-floored, light-filled space, anchored by a marble bar along the back wall. Then after opening, possibly because too many people wandered in and were confused by the new restaurant/old name, the name was changed to Ledlow Swan. Within a few days that name had been pared down to Ledlow.
Centeno's involvement has changed the restaurant completely: The food is undoubtedly 100 percent better than it used to be, the scope of the operation much more ambitious. Now an in-house baker makes breads and croissants and pastries daily; now Centeno is providing downtown with a serious spot for breakfast and coffee as well as lunch and dinner.
But still — I've heard some nearby residents, many of whom love Centeno's other restaurants, express disgruntlement at the transformation of Pete's from a decent, affordable neighborhood option to another high-end restaurant on a stretch that now houses quite a few. For some meals, at some points in your day/week/life, quality matters less than cost and reliability. Pete's had a place in people's routines, and Ledlow doesn't fit in quite as neatly.
What is Centeno trying to achieve with Ledlow? Does it have a function vastly different from his other three restaurants that makes it necessary? Bäco Mercat, Bar Amá and Orsa & Winston all have distinct personalities — each of them carries a purity of vision that makes three different restaurants from one chef in a one-block radius seem reasonable. What's the vision for Ledlow?
Initially, Centeno said he was going back to the basics, looking to present pure American cookery. "I wanted to do my version of classic American dishes, much of which is rooted in early–20th century cuisine, which also fits in with the history on this block," he said in a press release ahead of opening. We were to look forward to lobster Newburg, Waldorf salad and smothered pork chops.
The reality of Ledlow, at least two name changes and four months in, is not so straightforward. Yes, an underlying guiding principle of Americana is detectable, and some dishes on the menu are unequivocally classic: There are Parker House rolls that arrive in a cast iron skillet, golden on the outside and gorgeously fluffy on the inside, served with a side of pimento cheese made from an old-school recipe that produces a smooth cheese spread rather than the more of-the-moment chunky version. Nightly specials include serious throwbacks, such as beef stroganoff and turkey pot pie, made with care and hitting on all the comfort receptors you'd expect.
Where Centeno really hits his stride is with dishes that nod to the past but have just enough of this chef's playful sensibility and penchant for bold flavoring that they feel both classic and modern.
Perhaps no dish on the menu encapsulates this aesthetic as well as the vegetable crudité, which is a far cry from the bland carrot and celery sticks of 1960s cocktail parties. Centeno takes the best produce of the day, grills some and leaves some raw, and lays it all out in a jumble on a wooden board along with a small pot of house-made ranch for dipping. There might be delicately charred Brussels sprouts, okra cooked to the lightest crisp, radishes and turnips and multicolored baby carrots. This indeed is the crudité of 2015, an old idea made fresh.
The same can be said for a deviled egg and ham plate, which is basically a slightly deconstructed egg salad composed of chopped up deviled eggs, cornichon, tarragon and slices of ham. It feels at once vintage and brand new.
Braised beef shoulder showcases the best of crockpot cookery (whether or not it was done in an actual crockpot), and comes over silken cream of wheat. Kumquats added to the red wine braising juices give it a tropical note, a left-field brightness that takes the dish from good to great.
Ledlow's Americana concept would benefit if the menu were slightly pared back, and kept more to the dishes that follow the old-becomes-new-again narrative. But one of the hallmarks of a Centeno restaurant is his overwhelmingly long menus — while Ledlow's menu doesn't achieve the insanity of Bar Amá, there is a lot of food to choose from, some of which strays too far from the original intent. There are creative veggie dishes, such as charred broccolini with uni, that are very cool but somewhat out of context, and hew too closely to what's served at Bäco Mercat. Fried eggplant and beef ragout is just plain odd, a beefy bolognese of sorts that has intense vinegar as its main flavor.
Even some of the nostalgia simply doesn't work. Grilled seafood cocktail, which lays out three treatments of the day's best seafood on a large platter, turns what were obviously pristine oysters into chewy nubbins — why grill small, sweet oysters of that quality? Desserts are an obvious place for the vintage theme to shine, but alas: While the baked Alaska is a looker, a large swirl of meringue set ablaze before you, its Luxardo cherry base makes it entirely too sweet. Chess pie has a crust as stiff as old leather, practically impossible to cut through. A towering Grand Marnier soufflé comes out a little undercooked, its top lacking the sugary stretch that should contrast so beautifully with the soft eggy interior (in this case too soft, too eggy).
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The last thing you want when people bite into your baked Alaska is a new understanding of why the dessert fell out of fashion in the first place. For much of this food, Centeno can't quite manage to throw off fuddy-duddy constraints or, conversely, recognize dishes that don't seem to fit the theme and which you might find on another menu, one that is inconveniently right next door.
Not for the first time, Centeno may actually be ahead of his time: Classic American cookery is likely to make a resurgence in the next few years in a big way — look forward to casseroles and thermidors and composed salads galore. Our midcentury fascination can be limited to furniture and cocktails for only so long — before we know it, we'll be eating like Mad Men as well as dressing like them and lusting after their coffee tables. But Ledlow needs purity of intent to be the first major restaurant to present this vintage sensibility successfully.
There's a sly brilliance to the food that works at Ledlow, and not only that, it works in a wholly original fashion. If the history of the space, the history of American cookery and the history of this chef could find an easier balance, we might have something game-changing on our hands.
LEDLOW | Two stars | 400 S. Main St., dwntwn. | (213) 687-7015 | ledlowla.com | Breakfast and lunch, daily 8 a.m.-3 p.m. Dinner, Mon.-Thu., 5:30-11 p.m.; Fri. & Sat., 5:30 p.m.-mid.; Sun., 5-10 p.m. | Plates, $6-$32 | Full bar | Street parking