Some people may drown in the stress of opening a restaurant. Chef Josef Centeno is the exact opposite of those people. “I kind of thrive in this environment,” the San Antonio native said. “I start to break down if I’m not moving. I guess I’m kind of like a shark.” We’re in the dining room of his new restaurant, PYT, a vegetable-centric concept that took shape only a short time ago. “I think probably three weeks ago I was sitting inside [Ledlow] early in the morning, just kind of looking at the space, and it just kind of hit me, why don’t I do a vegetable restaurant that primarily focuses on vegetables?” Centeno split his Ledlow space in half with a newly constructed wall, did some redecorating, and PYT was born.
Championing vegetables isn’t new for Centeno. His other restaurants, such as Bäco Mercat and Bar Amá, have always offered plenty of menu real estate to produce, a residual effect from his roots. “Vegetables have always been a very important part of my cooking since the early days back in New York,” he said. “Then it evolved even more when I moved to san Francisco, being exposed to the incredible ingredients, produce that’s available.” He was taught to let the vegetables speak for themselves with very simple preparations, and now, years later, he is doing just that.
The PYT menu offers a range of fresh and comfortable, from Rancho Gordo beans with olives to hand-torn pasta with brown butter. Centeno is pulling from the corners of his culinary history, bringing in an international set of flavors that don't really fit into one neatly packaged box. It’s not all vegetarian, either, despite the vegetable spotlight. Diners will find items such as grass-fed Angus rib-eye available; it’s just not central to the concept. PYT's cocktails fall under the same produce-driven theme. Bartenders use housemade kombuchas to give juice-spiked drinks their acidity.
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For Centeno, PYT is an opportunity to literally get to the root of the food he’s serving. “You don’t just call a number at the end of the night and your meat and produce show up,” Centeno said. “I think it’s important that we all know where the source is coming from.” The team has partnered with LALA Farm, a biodynamic, organic urban farm by the L.A. Leadership Academy in Lincoln Heights, to grow food for the restaurant. “We were able to contribute some money to the program, and myself and a lot of the team members would go and help out on different days,” Centeno said. “It’s just really inspiring to see this started from dirt, we kind of had a part in it, and now it’s producing fruit and vegetables that we’re able to cook.” The restaurant’s menu will change according to the bounty of LALA Farm and L.A. farmers markets.
The new concept appears to be a passion project, one that will require an open mind from an American public often looking for meaty meals. While Centeno doesn’t feel that the restaurant screams vegetarian, it could be a tough sell for a certain sect of the dining population, but a satisfying order of the chapati with koji-corn butter could sway any carnivorous naysayers.
400 S. Main St., downtown; (213) 687-7015, pytlosangeles.com.