Growing up in Spain, I became accustomed to the rhythms of small-plate dining early on—the tumbler of Valdepeñas red, the toothpick in the potato omelette, the garlicky scent of razor clams, the stacked saucers tallied to calculate the bill. When A.O.C. embraced the format back in the early aughts on West 3rd Street, I was delighted. It took courage to delve into a form of eating that was relatively unheard of in L.A. outside of dim sum halls. During the recession, a phalanx of other restaurants would follow suit, in part because cropped portions were fashionable but also because of economics: Diners could walk away having, at least theoretically, spent less while the management could squeeze more money from every bite.
The ladle is swinging in the other direction, with chefs trading that hypercasual ADHD style of dining for its more focused sibling: the tasting menu. Spread over multiple courses, the plates may be no larger, but they are more coordinated, each intended to dovetail into a seductive whole. Substitutes aren’t allowed. The chef is decidedly in charge. Ludo Lefebvre gave the format a validating boost when Trois Mec opened a year ago, offering a single tasting menu and nothing more. Recently Ari Taymor of Alma and Miles Thompson of Allumette switched over to tasting menus as well.
The ranks are only growing with two high-profile additions: Maude, from Top Chef Masters host Curtis Stone, and Orsa & Winston, from Josef Centeno, who’s earned a national reputation with downtown’s Bäco Mercat. That’s roughly where the similarities between the two end. At Orsa & Winston, Centeno is cooking in the imaginary borderland between Italy and Japan, crafting a four-course family-style tasting menu for $50, five- or eight-course extensions ($60 and $85, respectively), a smattering of dishes that can be ordered solo, and—why not?—a 20- to 25-course omakase extravaganza for $195. There’s remarkably little overlap between the options, too. Thin as a blade and dotted with grilled kumquats, the whole rosemary-laced sayori fish I was served one night at the counter sparked a conversation with the person beside me: It wasn’t part of her menu, nor was her vivid green English pea-and-nettle soup on mine. Done wrong, a tasting menu can seem like an overglorified banquet, where every plate is the same out of necessity. Done right, it offers a chef the opportunity to carry on a dialogue with the diner, illustrating not merely how ingredients relate to one another within a dish but also how one dish can relate to the next.
At Maude, Curtis Stone runs with that notion, delivering what is in essence a doctoral thesis on a given element. The month he opened, the theme was citrus, with each dish from his $75 nine-course menu intended to showcase the fruit he gets from farmers and local canyon groves. (Next up: artichoke.) Step into the dining room along South Beverly Drive and you might think you’re in a Belgravia supper club. The 25-seat interior is tight and contained, with white ceramic-tile walls, retro lighting, and an open kitchen that faces an almost industrial-looking wall of bottles. Botanical art and a long turquoise banquette add a dash of color to the space. Stone, known for his Celebrity Apprentice gig before hosting Top Chef Masters, named this, his first restaurant, after his grandmother, whom he channels with mismatched china and silverware. Before he landed on TV, Stone worked for Marco Pierre White—the London tabloids report on his antics so often, they simply refer to him by his initials, MPW—a chef who transmits the bounty of England (the grouse, the sole, the heritage breeds) through serious French technique.
Stone’s cooking isn’t necessarily cross-cultural, but he does cast a wide net, taking inspiration from many lands. Spanish pink cava gelée glistens like diamonds on a tiny oyster topped with caviar. A gorgeous bhaji, an Indian onion fritter, sits on a swoop of lime-cilantro cream, while tiny mussels are delicately fried before being popped back in the shell on a cushion of deep-hued aioli that you might dab with your finger when no one is looking. General manager Ben Aviram strikes a civilized starting note when he pours a measure of flinty Greek Moscofilero into a tulip glass so fine, you feel the stem would snap if you held it too tightly. The spiny lobster crudo basks in a crimson turnip cream, lemon pudding and citrus salt giving it lovely sharp angles. A translucent leaf of Serrano ham—both cured and dried—is concentrated enough to counter the acidity of the navel orange in a steaming cup of carrot-orange soup. In the eighth and penultimate dish—a juicy rectangle of Snake River Farms’ rib eye—Buddha’s hand citron pudding rides through the luxurious richness of the cut, which is accompanied by a browned, rosemary-laced square of potato rösti and tender braised beef cheek. Not that the citrus is always that pronounced during the progression: It’s faint at best in the mandarin gelée capping the terrine of chicken and black trumpet mushrooms. When the most assertive flavor (and it can be aggressive) comes from a quenelle of mustard sorbet set on a scattering of sunchoke crumble, you might wonder if the single-ingredient thing isn’t slightly forced. This conceit didn’t detract from my meals here, but challenges may lie ahead for the kitchen as it works its way through the seasons.
Where Maude hides behind a frosted-glass door in Beverly Hills, Orsa & Winston blazes downtown, fronted by a wall-size window that looks onto 4th Street. The tables, floors, and wineglass shelves are bare wood; the lone decorative element is a photographed brushstroke of umeboshi-soy paste magnified into a mural. It was around the corner, at Bäco Mercat, that Centeno introduced L.A. to the merry pileup of oxtail hash, cheddar taters, and horseradish yogurt he wraps in a pita-like pocket. Then came Bar Amá, next door to Orsa & Winston, where he pays tribute to the Tex-Mex he grew up on in San Antonio. If that restaurant marked a homecoming, Orsa & Winston speaks to the venues where Centeno became a cook: New York’s La Côte Basque and Los Gatos’s Manresa, under David Kinch.
Rather than the pearl-buttoned western shirts you might see at Bar Amá, the corps of waiters here dons white spread collars and narrow navy ties. Amid the buzz, wine director Sally Kim carefully wipes the expensive glassware free of lint. The place is unabashedly ceremonial, a cool, knowing alternative to white tablecloths as Centeno, to borrow the actor’s cliché, takes you on a journey.
You taste deeply charred octopus tentacles sitting on an impasto of fermented black garlic. Then comes sunchoke-egg custard in a hand-thrown cup, cleaving at the touch of a spoon in a way that frames the fruitiness in a gooseberry vinaigrette. Bonito flakes lend an exquisite tang to fennel panna cotta, while the brunoise of rhubarb acts like mostarda on the kampachi. More than once I’ve found myself on the fence about the restaurant’s Italo-Japanese compact—crudo has never struck me as having the ancestral power of sashimi—but tasting the “vitello tonnato,” a roulade of seared veal holding a strip of bigeye tuna set off by a middle layer of deep green blanched shiso leaves, I’m all in.