Devoted followers of chef Josef Centeno were thrilled to hear news of the Lazy Ox Canteen, his eclectic -- forgive the cliché, but it does describe his style -- casual neighborhood restaurant that recently opened on the edge of Little Tokyo. Centeno finally has full leeway to call the shots in the open kitchen, with an extensive menu and blackboard specials that showcase his vision of a multi-ethnic, neo-urban cuisine where just about everything is available, everybody's welcome, and so much is possible.
Glowing filaments in oversized dangling light bulbs dialed down to a tolerable, intimate level (think Varnish) set the atmosphere in the rough-hewn wood surfaced room. As per what these times call for, it's an earnest, down to earth sort of deal compared to Opus, Centeno's former glossy, splashy place of cooking residence next to the Wiltern. Location of this one is a little odd and why anyone would want to eat outdoors there baffles. Yet thankfully the food ethic remains the same. Centeno's work gets into contrast: colors, textures, flavors. All done in a way that tells you this is a guy who loves to have fun experimenting in a this-might-be-interesting-and-cool-and-tasty way, and not for the sake of trickery, show, or gimmicks. Deciding what to order was hard. When we did finally set on our choices, they came out really fast and almost all at once, and some lukewarm.Centeno especially has a way with fried foods, much to the dismay of my cholesterol level. I had no idea what to expect with the crisp broccoli leaves; we were served deep fried battered flat greens that took up more room in my stomach than necessary, but I can't say I've ever had anything like them. Fries were killer (more on that later at Squid Ink). Pomegranate seeds gave a terrific tart crunch to soft beds of chicken liver crostini. Crisp quail served with fennel and apple salad was a highlight, and given its demure size I recommend it to anyone who should stay away fried fowl but is jonesing for something in that genre. Fat corona beans, pickled shallots, and rapini cover any sort of carbonized intensity the charred octopus might have had, but not to the overall detriment of the dish. Rich, gamey intensity of cavatelli with braised oxtail and rutabaga appealed the least, and the pasta component seemed incidental. A butter crunch salad with radicchio, satsumas, golden beets and thin sliced lettuces could've used a little more bite. Nice bonus that most of the dishes we ordered incorporated shades of green, orange, and magenta. Who doesn't love color-coordinated food?
Desserts of roasted Gala apples and a light tangy lemon trifle are modestly priced at $7. Single-digit dessert prices in restaurants of this quality seemed to becoming extinct, although we might be coming back to that again. Score one more for Lazy Ox, which also has an extensive wine and beer list.
So Centeno groupies, rest assured. He'll be at the Lazy Ox for a while (he's also a partner in the business), and it looks like he's got the motivation and space to plod along, work hard, and share the results. I'll be back to face those tough ordering decisions again, next time starting with the many things cooked under a brick.