When it comes to vegetables, Josef Centeno was ahead of his time. When most chefs were still building menus with boring salad offered as a grudging concession to the idea that not everything must be draped in lardo, Centeno was dedicating whole sections of his menus to bright and creative vegetable combinations. When I originally read about Bäco Mercat, the first of Centeno's growing family of restaurants downtown, I understood that I should be excited for the oxtail hash and the beef tongue schnitzel contained in the taco-sandwich hybrid called bäcos, which the chef had invented. But when I first ate at Bäco Mercat, it was the long list of vegetable dishes that blew my mind: blistered okra with tomato and sesame and the dusky tickle of fenugreek; sunchokes in a riot of tarragon tossed with buttered croutons; Japanese eggplant cooked to a caramelized smoosh, set against the cooling snap of cucumber and luxuriant creaminess of feta.
That first meal was in 2012, a year after Bäco Mercat opened. Since then, the rest of the cheffing world has woken up to the joys of vegetables, and it's become a trend for meat-eating chefs to open vegan or vegetarian or "vegetable-focused" restaurants. Most of those chefs could learn a thing or seven from the vegetables section on Bäco Mercat's menu, the one from five years ago or the one from today.
All of this makes it a little ironic (or perhaps inevitable?) that Centeno would himself open a vegetable-focused restaurant, right next door to Bäco Mercat. P.Y.T. is in the former Pete's Cafe space, which Centeno took over in 2014 and opened as Ledlow. Late last year, he cleaved that space in two, leaving the northern corner of the building as Ledlow and turning the rest into P.Y.T. The restaurant isn't entirely vegetarian or vegan, although the majority of the food is meat-free.
When considering Centeno's other restaurants, I've struggled with the question: Why wouldn't you just go to Bäco Mercat? That seems especially relevant here, given all of the above — the vegetable dishes at Bäco are some of the best in town.
But Centeno is doing something slightly different at P.Y.T., something that makes this newest venture relevant in its own right. Where all the food at Bäco — meat and meat-free — is aiming for maximum flavor and contrast and excitement, the food at P.Y.T. is more focused on the soul of the vegetable itself, and the best way to frame singular ingredients so they shine.
This ethos makes for food that's presented in a slightly simpler format, and dishes that are built around produce that Centeno obviously chooses carefully, perhaps even obsessively. The meal starts with an amuse that's usually a green vegetable, cooked simply, presented with a little salt and citrus. One day it was broccoli rabe with grilled lemon for squeezing; another evening it was lightly cooked sugar snap peas served with sweet mandarin orange. These dishes prepare you for what's to come by encouraging you to really taste the produce itself, rather than the will and creativity of the chef.
That isn't to say there's a lack of creativity at P.Y.T., just that it's a slightly different brand of creativity from what you see at Centeno's other restaurants, one that's built on trying to tease out and highlight the essence of these vegetables.
This was perhaps best evidenced with a dish Centeno served early on, in which he figured out how to get the most turnip-y flavor from a turnip by wrapping it in a hoja santa leaf and baking it for hours in a salt dough crust. He'd bring the whole thing to the table and crack it open in front of you, cut the turnip into pieces, and drizzle it with some shiso-inflected chimichurri. The essence of hoja santa that had lightly infused the vegetable and the shiso in the sauce brought out the turnip's wilder, more anise-adjacent qualities, while the hours in the oven turned its sugars in upon themselves. It was like turnip squared; turnip to the power of turnip.
Many dishes are set up in this manner, with contrasting ingredients used to amplify the main ingredient's best qualities. Roasted Japanese sweet potato comes with slivers of tart apple and butter shot through with nori. Both the apple and the umami-rich butter act to magnify the sweet potato's funky sweetness. A porridge of hand-milled rye and rolled oats has enough pecorino in it to give you a slight understanding of what polenta must have tasted like before corn (polenta is one of Europe's oldest food staples and was made with other grains before Europeans arrived in the New World). But the cheese and even the pickled beet greens and urfa chili that top the dish are really there to heighten the taste of the grains themselves.
Even the cocktails are made to showcase vegetables. Don't order the celery margarita and expect some kind of clever celery garnish on a classic margarita. The drink tastes like celery, like the very essence of the aggressive, vegetal fibrous stalks. It turns out tequila might be a better companion to celery than peanut butter or cream cheese.
I have two main quibbles with the restaurant. One is desserts — I wish Centeno was as playful and creative with the sweeter produce of the season as he is with the savory section of the menu. As it stands, there's a lovely peanut pudding and a chocolate cake that's almost too sweet, but none of the offerings makes enough use of fruit in the same way the chef approaches vegetables.
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The other is pricing. I realize that the sourcing here is immaculate, and there's perhaps a convincing argument to be made that you should pay just as much for these vegetable dishes as you would for meaty small plates. But $32 seems like an awful lot for one soft-shell crab (the one nonvegetarian dish I tried; there are always one or two on the menu), even with a large pile of greens beside it. A very small plate of crispy rice flavored with piri piri and topped with an egg costs $15. You can easily spend $60 for two people at brunch or lunch with no drinks and walk away hungry.
But the main takeaway from P.Y.T. is that one of our city's most innovative chefs has found another dimension to his relationship with fresh produce. It is unsurprising, I suppose, that among this new wave of vegetable-focused restaurants, Josef Centeno's is by far the best.
P.Y.T. | Three stars | 400 S. Main St., downtown | (213) 687-7015 | pytlosangeles.com | Dinner: Tue.-Thu., 5:30-10 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 5:30-11 p.m. Lunch: Mon.-Fri., 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Brunch: Sat.-Sun., 11 a.m.-2 p.m. | Plates, $10-$39 | Full bar | Valet (dinner only), street and nearby lot parking