A look at Lazy Ox Canteen in Little Tokyo. The restaurant has a new chef, Perfecto Rocher.
Just a few words about Michael Cardenas, the proprietor of Lazy Ox, and the Cardenas brothers, who I know well from my restaurant days and when I was running Rhino Chasers Microbrewery. The Cardenas brothers are brilliant restaurateurs. Michael and Tom were both in senior management positions with Yuji Tsunoda (Chaya Brasserie in Beverly Hills, and owner of some of the most famous restaurants in Japan – two of which Kihachi, and Salon, in Tokyo, are two of the best I’ve been to. Yuji and his brother also acquired the rights to the Starbucks franchise in Japan about ten years ago). The third brother Vern has always worked the back end of the restaurants and has become a world renowned chef. After years of working with Tsunoda, the Cardenas brothers teamed up with Lee Maen to form Innovative Dining. Today they have a restaurant empire consisting of brands Sushi Roku, Boa Steakhouse, Katana, Robata Bar. Back to Lazy Ox Canteen. This restaurant is actually a passion project of Michael Cardenas and a separate business endeavor along with other new restaurants, Aburiya Toranoko and The Fat Spoon – all downtown in the Little Tokyo warehouse district – Scott
Below is a review of one of the dishes at Lazy Ox Canteen by Jonathan Gold Los Angeles Times Restaurant Critic.
Andoni Luis Aduriz, the chef of Mugaritz, in the countryside outside San Sebastian, Spain, may be the closest thing to a pure artist in the restaurant world today. He encases potatoes in thin coats of ceramic so his customers can experience the sensation of biting into a stone. He drives dark-chocolate nails into scoops of sorbet. He smears fish eggs on sheets of edible plastic or curls of edible construction paper. He even has a manifesto: “You don’t have to like something to like it.”
But in the food world, Aduriz is perhaps better known for his mastery of the slow-poached egg, a variation of the Japanese onsen egg cooked for nearly an hour in a water bath at precisely 62.5 degrees Celsius (144.5 degrees Fahrenheit), at which point the white has set to a fragile wobbliness and the yolk has thickened to the luxurious, flowing richness of a well-made crème anglaise. Aduriz’s egg inspired an 18-page feature in the first issue of the food quarterly Lucky Peach last summer. If you have noticed lightly poached eggs on practically everything lately, if you have wondered whether it is possible to eat asparagus in a restaurant that doesn’t have an egg on it, you partially have Aduriz to blame.
But even in a town drowning in 62.5 degree Celsius albumen, the egg that stands out is probably the huevo Andoni at Lazy Ox Canteen, the Little Tokyo gastropub now under the guidance of Perfecto Rocher — a perfect, creamy 62.5 degree egg nestled over tiny cubes of Spanish chorizo, ringed with mashed potatoes made by puréeing French fries and (if somebody else is paying) blanketed with shaved summer truffles. The white melts into the potatoes almost as if it were cream; the violently orange yolk oozes slowly, purposefully, less like a liquid than like a solid that has decided to slump into a nap. The paprika sharpness of the chorizo is pleasant, and the woodsy funk of the truffles is pure sex, but it is the egg that you remember — the egg that haunts your dreams.
Is the truffled egg worth $31, twice the price of almost everything else on the menu? That part is up to you.
Of course, we’ve been to the Lazy Ox before — a dark, narrow dining room jammed into the ground floor of a new condo complex, a wine-intensive beer hall powered by Black Sabbath and Sex Pistols tracks cranked up to concert volume. It is owned by Michael Cardenas, founder of the Roku/Katana Japanese restaurant empire, and its founding chef was Josef Centeno, who recently left to open his own restaurant, Bäco Mercat. It was probably the standard-bearer for the last generation of small-plate restaurants; notable especially for its long roster of vegetable dishes, and everyone liked it a lot.
What’s new is Rocher, who is what the columns used to call peripatetic. He applied four years in a row before landing an apprenticeship under Ferran Adrià at the late El Bulli in Catalonia but left a few weeks into the season to help Julian Serrano open a restaurant in Las Vegas. (He leapt from San Francisco’s Campton Place to New York’s Le Bernardin, to an uneventful term as the chef at Boulevard, the second restaurant of the Beverly Wilshire Hotel. He has partnered with Walter Manzke in several Los Angeles pop-ups.
There is no reason to believe that his term at the Lazy Ox is anything more than an interim gig, something to do while he prepares for late fall’s opening of a new paella-themed restaurant in the old Tudor House space in Santa Monica, also owned by Cardenas. Rocher is, as every Lazy Ox server will tell you, a third-generation paella chef from the countryside outside Valencia, the cradle of paella. It is the paella restaurant that is destined to make Rocher famous — propel him onto the speed dials of morning-show bookers and the rosters of chef conferences.
When you randomly stop by the Lazy Ox, the change in chefs does not necessarily assert itself. If you were a fan of Centeno’s delicious Kentucky-fried rabbit livers with hearts of palm, Rocher’s creamy dressing of arugula and avocado will not strike you as much of a departure. The charred shishito peppers with the shaved, cured dried tuna called mojama; the beef carpaccio with pickled shallots; and the spicy caramelized cauliflower with toasted pine nuts are pretty much the same. Centeno’s style also drew heavily from Spain — romesco sauce everywhere. You can still get the goopy Lazy Ox burger with Cantal cheese.
But there is Rocher’s salpicón, a kind of chopped salad of diced amberjack with roasted piquillo peppers, tangerine segments and herbs, bound with a light cream sauce; a basket of “boca bits,” the chicken-skin equivalent of fried pork rinds, with a sweet dipping sauce of whipped yogurt flavored with a little curry; and grilled octopus tentacles served with fennel and tomatoes cooked down into a sunken, intense, sweetish mass. He roasts yams to a pillowy softness, drizzles them with yogurt, and flavors them with tarragon and cilantro — the cloying sweet-potato sweetness is all but subsumed into the licorice smack of the herbs, like a dish from a region of southern India you can’t quite place. There is grilled squid, set upright like a line of chessmen on vividly green vegetable purée.
And on Mondays (why only Mondays?), you will find Rocher’s vegetable paella, with red peppers, onions and lima beans, massive pans of plump Valencia bomba rice piled only a fraction of an inch deep. The maximum surface area ensures maximum caramelization: The paella is made with bean broth instead of meat broth, but it is impossible to think of it being richer, the flavor more concentrated, the individual grains chewier or more distinct. You will take the big, steel spoon, and you will scrape mightily at the paella pan, and you will liberate the small but crucial scraps welded onto its surface, in a crude but necessary effort to extract it all. You will contemplate returning on a Friday for a stab at the squid-ink fideuà, a squishy, tar-black mess of calamari and toasted vermicelli made in these very paella pans, and then you will dig at the crust once more.
A Little Tokyo gastropub has a new chef, Perfecto Rocher, who has a few tricks up his sleeve, including a remarkable paella.
Location: 241 S. San Pedro St., Los Angeles, (213) 626-5299; lazyoxcanteen.com
Prices: Snacks and small plates, $6-$16; larger plates, $15-$28; desserts, $8.
Details: Lunch, 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Monday to Friday; brunch, 10:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday; dinner, 5 to 11 p.m. Sunday to Thursday and 5 p.m. to midnight Friday and Saturday. Ox happy hour, 5 to 7 p.m. Monday to Friday. Credit cards accepted. Beer and wine.