Lazy Ox Canteen: Good, But Not Quite Great (long)
Like many others, I was really bummed out when Chef Centeno left Opus ~2 years ago. For various reasons, I wasn't able to check out Lot 1 during his brief tenure there. So the last Centeno meal I had was his very last spontaneous tasting menu at Opus, back in September 2007. It was a spectacular meal - especially if you consider the much lower price point, it more than held its own against meals I've had at various Michelin-starred restaurants. On friend even swears it's the best meal he's ever had.
I heard about Lazy Ox earlier this year, and have been waiting eagerly for its opening ever since. I happened to be in Little Tokyo last Thursday afternoon, which also happened to be the restaurant's opening night, and took a peek inside while they were scrambling to finish some construction work (someone was buffing the bar) and set the tables. I told my friends, and four of us without familial obligations this Christmas Eve made a reservation.
I'll admit it's a little unfair when my last Centeno food memory is of a tasting menu. Thinking back a little further, the a la carte menu at Opus wasn't all spectacular the way the STM was (the STM really was too good to be true; it was probably inevitable that it should end). I never had anything bad, but out of everything I sampled, there were only a few truly amazing dishes (chilled octopus salad with crispy pork belly and pickled watermelon rind, and fresh melon granité with Tabasco come to mind). But I went in with very high expectations anyway, perhaps too high.
Here's the rundown of the food, in no particular order:
?whatever it is they give instead of bread (I couldn't hear what the server said it was): I'm guessing it was some kind of corn kernel - it tasted somewhat like unpopped popcorn, but without the tooth-chippingly hard shell. Whatever it was seasoned with, gave it a nice spicy kick. Fun to nosh on.
Calamari stuffed with oxtail and ricotta cheese, tomato sauce, pancetta: this was a special, and it was excellent. The calamari looked like large pasta shells, and were extremely tender. Centeno's fried calamari at Opus was the best fried calamari I've ever had, so it was no surprise that he would cook the squid so well. The ricotta also made the dish reminiscent of a typical pasta shell dish. Probably my favorite dish of the night.
Kennebec frites with dill and gallego sauce: they were the best shoestring fries I've ever had. Actually, they might be the best fries, period. I've never had fries with as much pure potato flavor. So good, we ordered it twice.
Seared branzino with smoked sesame, celery and fennel salad, olive-tomato tapenade: very well-cooked fish - crispy brown on the outside, flaky on the inside. My friend who ate most of it thought it was very good.
Assorted seasonal pickles with dill: a wonderful little starter. One friend actually thought it was the best dish of the night (which I suppose could be interpreted as a double-edged comment). The vegetables were cucumber (or perhaps gherkin, not sure), haricot vert, burdock root, and yellow beet (I think - I recognized the flavor, but for the life of me I couldn't place it with 100% certainty). The pickling juice was just perfect, not too vinegar-y. So good, we ordered it twice.
Beef tartare with juniper berry, fried quail egg, and olive oil toasted bread: there were also some mushrooms on the side (enoki and...something else). I thought the flavor of the beef did not come through enough. I also got a fair bit of gristle. While I would never expect it to compare to, say, the signature musk ox tartar at Noma in Copenhagen (I would and will fly to Europe again for that dish), I thought this dish could have been excellent; as such, it was a let-down.
Crispy buttermilk quail with caramelized cipollini onions and walnut-chile tarator sauce: this dish reminded me of the chicken karaage at Izakaya Bincho. I think it was one of several little acknowledgements on the menu to the restaurant being located in Little Tokyo. Compared to the chicken karaage at Bincho, I would say the batter isn't quite as good, but in general quail is more flavorful and tender than chicken. Watch out for bones. I think I would have preferred the duck that's on their online menu. Very good, but I was hoping for something on the level of Centeno's roast squab, which was so good it almost made me cry.
Sage Mountain Farm greens with mandarin orange, roasted beets, and yogurt dressing: (the menu said blood orange) I thought the dish was slightly underdressed. Each individual component tasted good, but they just didn't come together as a complete dish. It mostly tasted like a plate of greens. Very good greens though.
Poblano cannelloni with queso fresco cheese and romesco: I don't recall if I even got a taste of this one. I think it was a good, fancy version of a jalapeño popper. Consensus around the table seemed to be that it was good, but (see title of post).
Bacon wrapped pork terrine with pearl onions and baby cucumber: this was kind of a miss at our table. I think that it probably wasn't bad, just not our favorite presentation of pork. I probably liked it the most. I thought the two different flavors/textures of pork was interesting: first the bacon grabs you with its crispiness and saltiness, then the terrine takes over with a more subtle, refined flavor. The cucumber and radish salad was very good.
Wild arugula and mustard green broth with crispy pork belly and braised beef shoulder: the broth was outstanding, probably one of the highlights of the meal. The crispy pork belly, not so much - very crispy, but not much flavor. It was cut into thin strips, rather than cubes like he used to do at Opus. I don't think I tasted much beef at all. If the issues with the two proteins get fixed, it will be a great dish, but right now, it's just okay.
Khlii (Moroccan-style beef jerky) with fried egg and salsa verde: cumin-spiked and very complex. I can't decide if I would call this one of the better dishes, or just merely good. Quite a few of the dishes came with some kind of hard, toasted bread underneath, which in and of itself I'm not too fond of (not in that frequency, at least); I think the textural combination of the khlii and the bread just didn't do it for me (yeah, I'm a texture freak). Flavors were on point though.
Hand-torn egg pasta with sunny-side egg, brown butter and citrus vinegar: I couldn't taste much of the butter and vinegar; the flavor of cheese was stronger. The pasta itself was wide and almost paper-thin. Despite the butter and vinegar not quite coming through for me, it was probably my second favorite dish of the night, behind the calamari. (As a side note, a number of dishes were topped with eggs as well; again, not too fond of seeing such repetition in the menu, but I love a good runny egg, so I can't complain too much.)
To drink, I had Prosecco, Fantinel Brut Rose NV, Veneto, and Pinot Noir, Leyda '08, Chile. Both were inexpensive ($8). The Prosecco was very good; the Pinot Noir was a little weak, but otherwise good. If you're picky about stemware, they were served in stemless glasses, probably made by Bodum.
Roasted Bartlett pears with butter biscuit and cinnamon caramel: it was like a really good pear tart. I only had a bite, but it might have been the best of the desserts.
Lemon yogurt cake with buttermilk ice cream: friend said the ice cream was awesome, but the cake didn't really impress - not bad, but not that good either. I didn't taste it.
Chocolate paté with candied orange, coffee ice cream: (menu said chocolate ice cream) the chocolate was rather surprising; the dark chocolate flavor had great depth, but it never seemed too rich or heavy. I'm not a coffee drinker, but I liked the ice cream with the paté. I wasn't a fan of the candied orange, which was like tiny shards of orange-sugar glass - to me, such things just feel sticky and get stuck in my teeth, and aren't really pleasant to eat. It tasted really good though, and luckily it was just a little sprinkling.
Service was excellent. The room was fairly loud, but not obnoxiously so. The bill was, IIRC, just over $200 before tax and tip.
Overall, I liked the food. At its best, it was extremely good; however, there were a few too many little missteps here and there. In terms of bang for the buck, it fell short of the mark set by Centeno's spontaneous tasting menu. I would venture to say it was not far behind his a la carte menu at Opus (but nothing was as good as the octopus salad was). Compared to other tapas-esque restaurants, I would probably rank Lazy Ox a bit below AOC (although perhaps my high expectations are causing me to lowball a bit), and I prefer Izakaya Bincho over either of them. With the current economic situation and all that, I have to be extremely picky about where and how I spend my money, and Lazy Ox did not impress me enough to make me want to return very soon (and yes, I realize they've only been open one week). It really pains me to write that, because I really wanted to love this place, and I'm a big fan of Chef Centeno. If he ever decides to return to higher-end fine dining, I will be the first in line. But for the Lazy Ox Canteen, I'll be waiting a while before I return, and in the meantime hoping that the lows I experienced can be chalked up to the restaurant being very young and still working out the inevitable kinks, so that my next meal there can be as uniformly spectacular as I know Chef Centeno's food can be.