"I'd be remiss not to tell you this," Ami Lourie says to my family and me in the midst of our meal at Osso. "You have to go look at the moon." We slip from our table and step out of the large gothic front doors onto First Street, just west of the L.A. River, and look toward the lit-up skyscrapers of downtown rising out of the night. Hanging low above the buildings a little off to the left is the moon: huge but mostly dark, a waxing crescent sliver that looks like an eclipse given the distinct outline of the entire lunar body. It's dark in the neighborhood, and we stand there mesmerized by the city and the universe, made all the more lovely because it feels like a gift from our waiter, who must have sensed in us a thirst for this type of magic, along with our thirst for the Crémant de Loire La Divina sparkling wine he had recommended from the list.
Osso has a lot going for it, not least of which is service that feels so very personal. That Lourie, the front-of-house manager and main service provider at Osso, manages this type of warmth while also excelling at classic professionalism is particularly impressive. It's also a product of the fact that the restaurant isn't very busy, that the few tables have taken up so little of Lourie's time that he was able to step outside and keep tabs on the moon.
You get the feeling that Osso, which will reach its first birthday in June, has struggled with finding its personality and its audience. Is it a cocktail bar? A full-fledged restaurant? A performance space? A brunch destination? (There was brunch for a while; now there is not.) Just another trendy downtown restaurant with a bar program serving internationally influenced small plates?
I'll admit that it was that last impression that held me back from making Osso a priority, a sense that we'd seen this all before: the cocktails, the small plates, the middle ground between a destination and a neighborhood spot (the latter being tough in the quiet end of the Arts District, a neighborhood still finding its population). I somehow missed that both of the chefs, Akira Akuto and Nick Montgomery, had fascinating stories, Akuto with a Korean/Japanese/American background and Montgomery having cooked under some of the best chefs in New York and Chicago as well as the great Frank Stitt in his home state of Alabama. Both of them cooked at David Chang's Momofuku Ssam Bar in New York. (Lourie, too, has a David Chang connection, having managed three of his New York City restaurants.)
Perhaps the most obvious draw of Osso is its location, a former brothel built in the late 1800s that most recently was the One Eyed Gypsy. The building is owned by Dana Hollister, who also owns Cliff's Edge (and is currently caught up in a legal dispute about whether she or Katy Perry is the rightful purchaser of an estate/former convent in Los Feliz). In recent years Hollister has used this location for everything from an event space to a bar to a burlesque den. The room has the character of a flamboyant and baroque archeological site, where the layers of history are visible and only half-revealed. Rococo beaded light fixtures drip from above, tiles and pressed metal and exposed brick take turns covering the walls and ceiling. It feels like a worn bordello in the best ways possible. Occasionally jazz musicians show up and jam on the small stage off the main room, at which time the place seems transformed into some kind of glamorously brooding nightclub from another era.
And yes, the food from the two chefs is made up of international small plates, and no, you wouldn't really be able to distinguish it from any other similar menu in town by looks alone. But like the service at Osso, the food is familiar in style and exceptional in execution.
There's a jumble of just-tender-enough marinated squid mingled with slivers of fennel, red onion and pops of fresh, juicy citrus, the blood orange in particular making its darkly sweet presence known. A bowl of sugar snap peas and pea shoots, peppered with small nubs of almonds and bacon, has a milky dill and kefir dressing that mimics ranch but is vastly more elegant.
Pastas are uncomplicated but still somehow surprising, like the delicate tagliatelle noodles tossed with walnuts, sharp cheese and a bracing amount of preserved lemon. The corned oxtail dish with spaetzle, cabbage and rye crumbs is one of the finest examples of German comfort food in town.
There's a lot of that here: comfort food elevated to fine-dining levels, not by way of luxury ingredients or cleverness but through the simple act of very good cooking. A "potato terrine" served over romesco is like the soignée version of Waffle House hash browns, the layers of potato impossibly thin and crunchy and delicious. Order the sourdough toast with house-made butter to understand just how good bread and butter can be; get the rye brownie for dessert to indulge both your childish and your sophisticated dessert needs.
The dish that has received the most attention is the fried chicken, and for good reason. It comes in a bucket, and your waiter will wheel it to your table on a cart that holds multiple kinds of hot sauce for you to sample and use. Because it's cooked in a skillet as opposed to being precooked or done in a fryer, it takes about 30 minutes to arrive, but it's worth the wait. That skillet makes all the difference, to the flavor of the oil and therefore the crust, as well as to the juiciness of the interior. Washing it down with that Crémant de Loire from the short but fun wine list, I was reminded of the intense joy in one of the world's great pairings: fried chicken and Champagne.
You could treat Osso as a restaurant or as a cocktail bar, and barman Jordan Young makes a compelling case for the latter. He focuses mainly on classics and knows how to make a mean Sazerac or French 75. But the short list of original drinks offers some strange and beguiling sips, such as the Beverdusa Punch, which combines bourbon, rye, scotch, Saint Germain, sencha tea and lemon, and comes topped with a crumble of cinnamon and pink peppercorns. There's a bar menu that complements drinking, with everything from salt-and-pepper potato chips to a classic patty melt.
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I can understand why Osso hasn't found its audience yet and why people might not have made the trek to this dark corner of downtown to try another cocktail, another small plate. But I certainly hope word gets out that there's something special happening here, and that the crowds do eventually arrive. As much as I appreciate service so personal it's capable of sensing the need for a magical moon sighting, Osso deserves to be busy enough that no one inside would have time to even notice such a thing.
OSSO | Three stars | 901 E. First St., downtown | (213) 880-5999 ossodtla.com | Tue.-Sat., 5 p.m.-2 a.m.; dinner menu served 6-11 p.m. | Plates, $6-$35 | Full bar | Street parking