Opus occupies huge, awkward quarters fitted into the Wiltern building 17 years ago for Mario Tamayo’s Atlas, a supper club with pan-Latin food that probably wasn’t much better than what your aunties served at bridge parties in the 1950s but helped to jump-start the idea of the velvet-rope lounge that has dominated the Los Angeles restaurant scene ever since. Its first incarnation as Opus was as a high-end steak house with organic inclinations overseen by Sara Levine, who has since gone on to the Pasadena wine bar Vertical. Levine’s cooking was sure, but her restaurant never quite worked — the intimacy of her food seemed lost in the gargantuan space, a handsome, masculine dining room with soaring ceilings, leather tabletops, a glassed-in demi-patio for smokers, more tons of rusted metal than you’d find at a Richard Serra exhibition, and flat screens in the bar that show both the ball game and old Murnau movies without the sound. The crowds, half Korean and half not, swelled only when there were big concerts at the theater next door, and even then less for her cuisine than for the universal emollients of big meat and Scotch.
Enter Joseph Centeno, a young but accomplished veteran of some of the best California kitchens, including Manresa and Aubergine, a chef in search of a big stage. Centeno seems determined to grow into the giant space.
This is the deal at Opus, although you won’t find it on the menu: chef’s-choice tasting dinners that cost $10 a course, boom-boom-boom until you cry “uncle,” well-chosen wines to match each course if you’d like, and ingredients as rare and exotic as any on Earth. (The minimum number of courses seems to have risen from three to four, and the last time I was in, the waiter confided that Centeno may tend to run out of ideas around course 14 or 15. Eight seems about right.) At Sona, six courses run $89; at Providence, five courses cost $90; at Melisse, just four tasting courses are $95 and up. Cooking of Centeno’s high caliber at this price is not just reasonable, it may be the greatest bargain in Los Angeles fine dining at the moment.
A pre-appetizer of crunchy, golden cubes, the size of craps-game dice, breaded and deep-fried, is served with a jigger of watermelon gazpacho that emphasizes the similarities between the flavors of watermelon and cucumber. When you bite down on one of the cubes, it spurts hot corn soup into your mouth, not quite scalding but more than warm, and you follow it with the shot of iced gazpacho, cold chasing hot, tart chasing creamy, spicy chasing bland. Taken individually, each of the components is uncompelling, almost annoyingly so. Combined, the dish takes on a lively complexity, a dancing, satisfying whole.
A lot of chefs are comfortable with the broad statement, the roast chicken whose flavor changes in quality and intensity with each bite, the bowl of warm polenta laced with melted butter and mountain herbs that intersect differently in your mouth from one spoonful to the next. Centeno is more of a quick-juxtapositions guy, whose dishes tend to make their point in a mouthful or two, and whose beauty comes with these quick hits being piled one on the other — thin scallops of raw foie gras cooked in the heat of a bowl of Cantonese-style rice congee; sesame-crusted mackerel fillet with the corkscrew-shaped tubers called crosnes; fried abalone with charred romaine; a cream of masa soup spiked with crackly rabbit “carnitas” that has all the sensations of a great taco in liquid form. You can order from the menu, and have a perfectly good meal of torn pasta, grilled chicken or steak, most of it sauced with brown butter, a signature flavor, but you will miss what makes the restaurant so special.
On the tasting menu, on any given night, you might come across a soup of roasted poblano chiles and hazelnuts, garnished with halved grapes like a take on the old Andalusian almond gazpacho, and spiked with a crisp handful of roasted cubes of pork belly. There is often a martini glass containing diced hamachi, lightly marinated in umami-rich white soy and crowned with a little scoop of celery sorbet and a sprinkling of soaked broom-cypress seeds that have a pop like piny caviar — it’s an updated take on the bowl of tuna nuta that traditionally begins omakase sushi meals. (Centeno, like many Los Angeles chefs of a certain bent, appears to be addicted to the exotic products available at Le Sanctuaire, the Santa Monica shop that has become to kinky cooking in the United States what Babeland is to kinky sex.)
Crunchy nuggets of sweetbread may show up on a luxuriously rich bit of tongue that has been cooked so long that it has collapsed into a purée. Rare roasted squab in a dribble of red-wine sauce may be set off with the sharpness of fresh shiso. At some point, you are bound to come across The Egg, an eggshell emptied of everything but its coddled yolk, then stuffed with honey, cream o’ wheat and smoky bacon — all the sensations of breakfast in a couple of gooey spoonfuls. Was Centeno inspired by a meal at Denny’s? Or is he channeling instead the influence of three-star Parisian chef Alain Passard, who is famous for his concoction of maple syrup and soft-cooked egg? The great thing about Centeno and his brand of American high-low cuisine is that it may not matter much either way.
Opus, 3760 Wilshire Blvd., L.A., (213) 738-1600 or www.opusrestaurant.net. Open Mon.–Thurs. 5:30 p.m.–10 p.m., Fri.–Sat. 5:30–11 p.m. Full bar. Valet parking. AE, MC, V. Tasting dinner, $10 per course, four courses minimum.