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Lazy Ox Canteen - Chef Josef Centeno is BACK!!! - warning: very long post.

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Fate dealt me a great favor this past Thursday evening as I ended up in LA overnight from behind the orange curtain for business.... and it was the night that this restaurant opened it's doors!

I just read the other review of Lazy Ox and checked out the blog. The food pics look very nice and I was also at the Lazy Ox on opening night. I remember Chef Josef Centeno very fondly from his days at Opus. I used to LOVE eating there and the food was spectacular, so I was very happy to hear of Lazy Ox opening and the possibility of eating his food again.

I ate an enormous amount of food sitting at the bar all by myself and I think several of the dishes were different from the other poster, and so I am starting this separate review thread. Here are my thoughts…

Space is very nice, small and active, but quite nice with an open kitchen and small bar. Service seemed very eager and excited to be open. The feel and vibe of the place was on the trendy side, but not overly so. My overall description would be that this is fine dining in a trendy/cool space done in an accessible style and price point. Overall, service was very good, but I expect that part of that is due to everyone being VERY focused on having a great opening night. I’m sure as the day to day grind of having been open for a bit settles in, there will be your normal “new restaurant” miscues and tweaking. I think this is completely normal and acceptable and I also feel that Chef Centeno and restaurateur Michal Cardenas will have a strong focus on creating a world class service experience to match up to Chef Centeno’s super freakin’ tight food.

Enough about that stuff… here is what I ate (yes, I DID eat all this all by myself) and what I thought of it…

Khlii (Moroccan style beef jerky) served with fried egg (up) and salsa verde – really good. The spiced (cumin? Earthy) flavor of the khlii served as an excellent foil to the richness of the egg and tang of the salsa verde. This is served on a piece of bread/brioche. Quite a nice little starter.

Bacon Wrapped Pork Terrine with pearl onions and baby cucumber – A very high quality and perfectly executed terrine wrapped with a solid, smoky bacon. Really, really good. Served also with some toasted brioche, mustard and the pickled radishes and cucumber. I love me some pig and this delivered.

Cream of Pasilla Soup with Crispy Pork Belly – Pasilla is a chili pepper that is often called Ancho and comes from the Poblano area. This is a creamy textured green soup with crispy pork belly and slices of red grapes… the fruit in this soup is reminiscent of some the ‘fruit in the soup’ themes I’ve had in the past from Chef Centeno. This soup had very strong flavors and the crispy pork belly was absolutely spot on. One note is that the spiciness of this soup is not in the mild category and depending on your tolerance of heat/spice, it might be considered very spicy to some (not me, but it is above average in spice level). My recommendation would be to drink beer with this soup, not wine – unless you have a very nice half-dry reisling or gewurtz… or maybe even a nice Vouvray/Chenin Blanc.

Hand Torn Egg Pasta with egg (up), brown butter and citrus vinegar – Really great comfort food. I mean seriously great pasta and egg dish. It was pretty perfect. Generous portions of the pasta. Just lovely. Can be filling, so beware.

Caramelized Merquez Sausage with licorice pear, black garlic and charred tomatillo – DUDE. This was some seriously kick ass sausage… I ain’t even kidding a little bit. This was one of my favorite dishes. The other poster did mention the sausage was a bit on the smaller side, but I think given the fact that it is a pretty rich and heavy protein and this is really not an entrée but really more of a tapas level small plate, the portion was very appropriate. All I know is that it was a crazy good sausage and I LOVED it.

Charred Octopus with pickled shallots, lima beans and calamansi vinaigrette – I really like octopus and this did not disappoint. To me, this felt more like a warm octopus salad and the flavors were very rustic in nature and the coarse texture of some of the accompaniments matched quite well to the smooth, tender texture of the charred octopus. One note… I was surprised to see pomegranate seeds as a component to this dish and thought it more than a little odd… until I tasted them with the rest of the dish! Wow… seriously great contrast and flavor profile by putting these in. Thumbs up.

Crispy Buttermilk Quail with caramelized cipollini onions and walnut-chile tarator sauce – This was my favorite dish of the night. I really love small birds, they taste so darn great (had guinea hen tonight by the way – served with some killer sweet corn ravoli). I really love quail, and this was maybe one of the best expressions of quail I’ve had in a LONG, LONG time. There is a restaurant in SF called La Folie (chef Rolland Tassot) that used to serve a half quail roasted and stuffed with seared foie gras and topped with black truffles – this dish was up there in terms of showcasing a kick ass version of quail and loving it. This dish is really crispy and fried and the quail was perfectly succulent and tender underneath. The preparation really made this ingredient completely approachable for people who may not have had quail before. Awesome dish.

Braised Beef Paleron (pot roast) with cream of wheat, kumquats and red wine sauce – Braised (forever probably) beef was really great. Meet was “spoon tender”, just falling apart with a deep, rich beefy flavor that only comes from hard core braising and putting the absolute perfect sear prior to the braise. The starch component of the cream of wheat seemed to be a bit playful, but I suspect there are some who may scoff at this combination… if they knew what it was… I think if the menu described it as a creamy puree of wheat polenta, people may like it more. Either way the smoothness of this worked quite well with the dish. The kumquats (more fruit with the protein) added a really terrific flavor contrast to the dish that worked very, very well.

Lemon Curd dessert – I forgot to write stuff down about this, but I recall very clearly that the lemon curds were NOT overpowering, but rather had a nice delicate lemon flavor that tasted great without assaulting you with strong lemon flavors.

Overall, I was very, very happy with my meal at the Lazy Ox Canteen and more than a little happy to Chef Centeno back in front of a stove. Several of the dishes certainly carried themes that were very recognizably “Chef Centeno Classics”, but they all seemed updated in very thoughtful ways. One thing currently missing from the lineup was Centeno’s awesome and amazing “bacos”. According to Centeno, the bacos may (MAY, not for certain) make an appearance in January. I hope so, because they were truly awesome.

My experience has been that Chef Centeno has always pushed the boundaries of foods, flavor profiles and what to expect. Sometime, as adventurers do, the combos have failed, but they are invariably very interesting. Now that he has hooked up with a serious veteran restaurateur in Michael Cardenas the focused nature of his food is really developing into something special. It was very good to see a chef of Centeno’s caliber and talent able to express himself so well in this setting and clearly Cardenas knew how to spot this talent and showcase it in style.

Final detail – currently it seemed that the Lazy Ox only has a beer and wine license, not a full bar. The beer selection is very good on both draft and bottles. The wine list was also pretty well thought out and well balanced with some good unique offerings.

My recommendation… RUN, don’t walk to Little Tokyo and grab a seat at the Lazy Ox Canteen, but leave a seat at the bar open for me!

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