The Lazy Ox Canteen is known for many things: The New American menu peppered with global influences. A soundtrack booming with The Animals and Soft Cell. The compact dining room outfitted with naked light bulbs and a pair of ox horns. Its unassuming setting -- a calm Little Tokyo street near Skid Row. Most notably, its creative kitchen that helped propel founding chef Josef Centeno to national acclaim.
When Centeno left in fall 2011 to open Bäco Mercat, L.A. newcomer Perfecto Rocher took the helm. He added dishes from his native Spain like paella and chef Andoni Luis Aduriz-style eggs to favorable reviews. Rocher cleared out last fall, hoping to launch a solo venture -- and may have garnered enough attention to succeed.
Other Oxers have also climbed the chef ladder. Original sous chef Mario Alberto opened the admired, if short-lived, Peruvian eatery Chimú and is now chef at Laurel Hardware. Another former sous chef, Kevin Lee, spearheads "Project Ivanhoe," the Korean-tinged dinner menu at Local. He plans to open his own restaurant in a few years. Outside of the kitchen, one-time Lazy Ox cook Ellen Bennett founded a chic apron company.
Now another up-and-comer, Travis Chase, is putting a new stamp on the three-year-old restaurant as executive chef. The 29-year-old describes his cooking as "approachable" with creative, experimental tweaks. "You could do old school French techniques every day, or you could have a lot of fun," he says. Witness his brainstorm for a tasting menu: "It could be Ode to the Octopus ... tentacles everywhere!" he says, wiggling his fingers in the air. The last special menu featured Italian black truffles, inducing diners to linger for hours over scallops, steak tartare, chestnut risotto, and halibut -- all garnished with the precious fungi.
The everyday menu is less-extravagant but still intriguing, including oxtail ragu atop house-made tagliatelle and pan-seared octopus with lima beans and bacon. One of Chase's favorite Ox items is a spin on "Toad in the Hole." The classic British dish consists of a puffy crust drenched in onion gravy with sausages nestled inside. At the Lazy Ox, Chase tucks bacon inside a toasted brioche bun, spoons on brie mornay sauce and a sous-vide egg, then tops it all with an acidic salad and crunchy bacon. He's keeping some Centeno classics on the menu too -- fried pig ears, caramelized cauliflower, and rice pudding.
Chase earned a Culinary Arts degree in his native Chicago before decamping to luxury hotel kitchens. He credits chef Brad Parsons of The Fairmont Chicago for teaching him to cook light, a la "spa cuisine." After a few years he sought a change of pace and moved to Seattle. He took up the chef's mantle at The Tin Table and presented a local, seasonal menu -- plus much-demanded fries tossed in truffle salt. There, New Orleans-trained chef Bo Maisano introduced him to Southern-style flavors and seafood techniques. The "learn as you go" method appeals to Chase. "You can learn from your dishwasher, or your line cook," he says. "Everyone teaches and everyone learns all day -- that's what makes a kitchen so beautiful."
That drive to boost his culinary skill prompted Chase to relocate again. After nearly four years in Seattle, he motored down to L.A., another city with a robust dining scene. The warm weather beckoned, as did the diverse local produce that crams farmers markets even in the chill of winter.
Chase aims for a 30% vegetarian menu and enjoys scoping out the Santa Monica Farmers Market for unusual greens like the "lollipop sprout," a kale-broccoli hybrid. Meat and fish round out the menu. Global flavors such as Asian fish sauce and Indian curry come into play, as do techniques like smoking (with a high-tech "Smoking Gun"), sous-vide and dehydration. Says Chase: "We use the oven quite a bit for random adventures."
The menu doesn't point out all these ingredients and techniques, he notes, and that's intentional. Chase encourages diners to "figure out" their meal as a fun way to learn about food. "Do they know why a sous-vide carrot tastes like that, why it's sweeter than normal?" he asks rhetorically. "Because it sits in that bag, the juices can't go anywhere."
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Chase's new role has indeed proved yet another learning opportunity. Veteran L.A. chef Octavio Becerra (of newcomer Circa and the recently-shuttered Palate Food + Wine) drops in a few times each month to share advice as consulting chef.
Chase is also doing some mentoring of his own. When he left Seattle, he persuaded Tin Table colleague Rhian Peterman to move to L.A. and join him at the Lazy Ox as sous chef. "Rhian's a bad-ass," Chase says. "He'll be better than I am one day." And the Lazy Ox chef cycle continues.
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