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EARLY BIRD: The Lazy Ox Canteen

The eclectic tavern is rustic, inviting and just what Little Tokyo needs. And the menu? A brilliant melting pot of flavors.

December 21, 2009|By S. IRENE VIRBILA | Restaurant Critic
  • Chef Josef Centeno prepares "Khlii" a (Moroccan-style beef jerky) with fried egg and salsa verde at the new downtown restaurant, Lazy Ox Canteen.
Chef Josef Centeno prepares "Khlii" a (Moroccan-style beef… (Barbara Davidson / Los Angeles…)

The street is brightly lighted and wide for downtown. A couple with a baby carriage cross the street. An urban warrior stops to chain his bicycle. A couple of downtown hipsters saunter over. They're all headed for the new The Lazy Ox Canteen .

After a lengthy odyssey through this and that restaurant, Josef Centeno (Meson G, Opus, Lot 1) has partnered up with Michael Cardenas, founder of the Sushi Roku empire, and finally has his own place. His food. His way.

"Welcome to Little Tokyo!" calls out Cardenas, sporty in tattoos and a cap worn backward, as he greets newcomers. Set on San Pedro Avenue between 2nd and 3rd streets and beneath a luxury apartment building, Lazy Ox Canteen is rustic and inviting with its salvaged wood walls and broad sidewalk terrace.

It's been open only a few days, but already the restaurant feels as if it's been dishing up food to an enthusiastic crew of regulars for, if not years, then months.

It all sounds good. For nibbles, there's Moroccan-spiced beef jerky on toast with a fried egg on top or delicious chopped chicken livers, Tuscan style, on toast, topped with a slice of bacon. Cod brandade fritters, straight from the fryer, are delicious with a sunny yuzu citrus aioli.

The menu is mostly small plates, but not all that small, really, including salads, such as blue lake bean salad with hazelnuts and tarragon dressing or greens with blood orange and roasted beets. Brick-roasted mussels with Thai chile sauce makes a good dish to share: Just scoop up all the fiery juices with a shell or a piece of bread. And don't forget an order of Kennebec frites.

Looking around, I notice that plates are going back to the kitchen without a speck of food left. That's enthusiasm. And why not, when you've ordered the crispy fried buttermilk quail with walnut sauce or the braised pot roast with cream of wheat, and this is brilliant -- kumquats and red wine. Mmmmm. And for dessert, a creamy tapioca and rice pudding brulée served with a Sichuan pineapple sauce.

Centeno plucks references and dishes from all over the globe, borrowing from Japan here, Italy and the Mediterranean there, North Africa or his grandmother's kitchen.

Lazy Ox Canteen is just what Little Tokyo could use: an eclectic tavern. Good start!

But wait: Cardenas isn't done. He's already planning a Japanese grill restaurant next door.

irene.virbila@latimes.com

The Lazy Ox Canteen

Where: 241 S. San Pedro St. (between 2nd and 3rd streets), Los Angeles.

When: Open 5 p.m. to midnight daily. Lunch coming soon.

Price: Appetizers, $4 to $7; salads, $9 to $12; pasta and grain, $10 to $13; vegetables, $6 to $8; mains, $18 to $23; desserts, $7.

Contact: (213)626-5299; www.lazyoxcanteen.com.

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