Chef Josef Centeno found his niche in LA cooking what he dubbed "guerrilla-style" food. It comes as no surprise that after opening Orsa & Winston, a tasting menu restaurant, he threw the rules out the window to offer an à la carte menu to, once again, make fine dining more accessible.
The menu alla carta caters to guests who don't want a full-blown tasting menu, or who are short on time yet still want to experience Orsa & Winston's Japanese-Italian hybrid fare. (Yes, Japanese-Italian, another great example of LA chefs taking back the word "fusion.")
"To me, Italian and Japanese go very well together—at least inside my head," Centeno said of the restaurant concept. "As far as Japanese being very simple and delicate, and Italian being very simple but very rustic and robust in flavor, I feel they intermingle very well, so I went with that and it works for us."
Alla more bang for your buck, there's an alla carta item that serves as a CliffsNotes version of the six- or 20-course tasting menus. It happens to be a breakfast dish. A Japanese breakfast, but you know, also Italian.
On Centeno's last trip to Japan in May, he made it his mission to eat as many traditional breakfasts as possible.
"We tried to have it every single day. It was cool that it was really based on seasonality," he said of Japan's morning meal. "One time we had a hot pot version; another one was more of a vegan type of Japanese breakfast. It really is whatever you want it to be."
He was inspired to use the Japanese breakfast format when he returned to Los Angeles.
"It just seemed like an all-in-one dining experience. It takes a little bit of all the tastes of what we have on the menu," he said. "All of it was based on some sort of soup, some sort of rice dish, some pickles, and some sort of seafood and usually some sort of egg, which is the base that I kind of follow."
"It's based off of what we're running on the tasting menu. It's just elements that are being utilized based on what we get in that day."
If the restaurant picks up tomatoes from the farmers market, they end up on the tasting menu one way and in the Japanese breakfast another. The latter can often be put together on the fly—not that you could tell by looking at it. Centeno is more than pretty good at the guerilla-style cooking thing.
Rice topped with bonito (that Centeno brought back from Japan himself) demonstrates the whole Japanese portion of the restaurant's concept, while other bowls on the wooden tray better represent the Italian touch. Take the "misostroni" served in a ceramic bowl briefly heated in the kitchen's wood-burning oven. Centeno took his idea of minestrone and mixed a tomato reduction with a miso base.
"Instead of getting the beans and pasta, you get the essence of minestrone, but in a broth form."
Obviously, the guy who perfected queso perfected a Japanese minestrone.
Although Orsa & Winston's Japanese breakfast has strong international influences, it didn't take the chef years and years of study abroad to capture those foreign flavors.
"I actually just started traveling, like, four years ago. I didn't start traveling until I was 38," the San Antonio native said. "Now I finally am able to get away a little bit and have a team that is strong enough that allows me to get away."
"I still get the phone call that the restaurant is flooding 6,000 miles away and I can't do anything, but they feel the need to let me know at 2 in the morning."
As for his own breakfast, it's pretty simple. Centeno goes for a croissant, something he spent six months mastering for his restaurants. He recently added a squid ink croissant to his baking repertoire.
"Squid ink—you don't have to use a lot, it goes a really long way," he said. "It doesn't affect the flavor negatively. It gives it a nice delicious flavor and goes very well. It's kind of perfect."
The croissant may be part of his day to day, but Centeno thinks Japan may have created the world's best breakfast.
"[With] Japanese breakfast, you can definitely carry on and begin your day actively. Maybe you don't get the same effect after an American diner breakfast. An American diner breakfast serves a very good purpose after a long night," he said. "Japan's just give you the right amount of calories to move on with your day. You don't feel bogged down."
He's right. A proper Japanese breakfast will give you just enough energy to catch the first train home after a bender, unlike, say, a full English or a Denny's Grand Slam that may not yield the same results.
Unfortunately, Orsa & Winston isn't available at the crack of dawn to save you from your impending hangover, and you probably don't want to be in a chic, downtown restaurant while you're wasted anyway. While the Japanese breakfast is a great way to start the day, Centeno's is just as good for dinner.