Photos can be found here: http://nochoiceatall.blogspot.com/200...
Late Tuesday afternoon, the LA Times food blog broke the news that Josef Centeno, the chef at the newly opened Lot 1 Cafe in Echo Park, was leaving the restaurant and, in the chef's words, "going underground." Even worse, the blog noted that his last day was only 48 hours away.
With that, Centeno's time at Lot 1 ended, sadly, about as quickly as it began.
In his short time in the Lot 1 kitchen, Centeno has received some pretty glowing media attention. Positive write-ups in the LA Times, Los Angeles Magazine, and the LA Weekly were outpaced only by the many positive reviews in the blogosphere.
Lot 1's compact, neighborhood feel looked to be the perfect stage for Centeno to conduct his symphonic style of cooking. By utilizing diverse combinations of cultures, flavors, textures and styles, Centeno was the up and comer in the Los Angeles dining scene. He had shed the over-wrought trappings of the slicker restaurants in his past and was just getting down to cooking good food.
But now he is leaving. And with little mention of any back story in the Times blog post, we took solace in the fact that the 48 hour notice gave us time to rearrange our schedule and head over to Lot 1 for one last Baco-laden lunch service.
When we arrived, Centeno was, in fact, manning the stoves in solemn service to his word. But we still needed to hear the news about his impending departure straight from the horse's mouth. So, after getting settled, I strolled back to the pass to look for confirmation, which the chef willingly gave. It was his last day.
Now, it isn't often that the Chef of a ten table restaurant has a trademarked food. Typically, food trademarks are left to the mega-chains serving dishes like the McGriddle and the Frosty. But Centeno does have his own trademark and it is the Bäco. Self-described by the Chef, the Bäco "looks like a gyro, has the feel of pizza, and you eat it like a taco." The LA Times calls them a "saucy, street-savvy creation." I call them delicious.
Yesterday, the Chef was serving five different Bäcos - The Bäco (pork belly and short rib carnitas); the Pesco Bäco (this day, panko crusted shrimp); the Vegetable Bäco (roasted eggplant); the Carne Picada Bäco (lamb sausage); and el Pollo Bäco (escabeche of chicken).
I ordered "The Bäco," which was the one that started it all. From the Times article:
"Like many great dishes, the bäco -- rhymes with taco -- has an accidental provenance. Years ago, after a long night at Meson G, the now-closed Hollywood restaurant where Centeno was then executive chef, he was cooking for his hungry staff. He took some of his flatbreads and piled them high with a choice pick of what was at hand in the kitchen: pork belly, short ribs, smoked paprika aioli -- even some of the salbitxada sauce (a garlicky almond-tomato Catalonian sauce) that had been paired with the ribs. It was a messy, lip-smacking, utterly delectable invention -- improvised street food with a global pedigree."
It was pretty good. I particularly love Centeno's preparation for pork belly. He cuts the belly into cubes and then cooks them to a crisp. The cubes turn into pure deliciousness, crispy on the outside with a creamy unctuous middle. In the past, Centeno has used these bacon-y croûtons to garnish a poblano soup I had when he was Chef at Opus. Here, they were adding a nice richness to my lunchtime sandwich.
The Bäco was also filled with beef short rib "carnitas" and dressed with the salbitxada, a smoked paprika aioli and sliced red cabbage. For $12 dollars, you were served the Bäco and your choice of one of four sides ranging from a fingerling potato salad to a cucumber and radish salad with yuzu vinaigrette. I ended up choosing the farfalle pasta with pine nuts, cumin-honey and a spiced yogurt dressing. The honey gave the pasta salad a real hint of sweetness. Over all, it was nice and light, especially when contrasted with the richness of the Bäco.
The others in the group had either the shrimp or the chicken Bäco, both of which were enjoyed. The shrimp Bäco came dressed with avocado, pickled cabbage and a garlic-chive dressing made with buttermilk and creme fraiche. The chicken Bäco was garnished with radicchio, pickled onion and zhoug, which is a sauce more commonly found Yemeni cooking made, in Centeno's case, with yogurt, green chiles, cardamom and cilantro.
I understand that some on this board have had disappointing experiences with the Lot 1 lunch service mainly in relation to the side salads and the overall cost of the lunch. Nobody in our group had the lentils, which seems to have caused most of the controversy. The pasta salad and the potato salad were well made and generously served during our visit - perhaps because it was his last.
For dessert, we split a couple choices. The first was a chocolate mousse, served with a touch of extra virgin olive oil, hazel nuts and fleur de sel. The mousse was incredibly dense and rich with a deep dark chocolate flavor. It was a well made version of an all too common dessert.
Our other dessert was a "stone fruit" crumble. Fresh peaches and plums are baked to order with what tasted like a pie crust and brown sugar topping and served with a side of vanilla bean gelato and unsweetened, whipped creme fraiche. Another nice dessert, especially considering the price point - $6.
It was a nice lunch that ended up being about $20 per person including tax and tip. The food was fun and creative and it was just too bad that we couldn't make it back for the dinner service that night. Here's to hoping he doesn't go underground for too long and to hoping that wherever he lands next, he stays for a while. Good luck to both Centeno and the owner of Lot 1, Eileen Leslie, as she moves forward with a new staff.