Two new restaurants can be found off the trodden path
By Harvey Steiman
Opus and Bin 8945 are both fresh Los Angeles restaurants that are delivering serious food and wine without taking themselves too seriously. But no one would mistake one for the other. At Opus, in the Mid-Wilshire district just west of downtown, 20-foot-high ceilings frame a spacious dining room that hides behind a big, busy bar scene and a quiet, comfortable smoking lounge. Meanwhile, over in West Hollywood, the cozy confines of Bin 8945 bring to mind a neighborhood wine bar in Milan or Paris—stylish enough to stand out from the crowd but clearly not aiming for luxury.
Opus chef Josef Centeno (formerly of Meson G in Hollywood and Aubergine in Newport Beach, Calif.) likes adding surprise ingredients to wake up familiar dishes. On my visit, he sprinkled a tiny dice of crisp salt pork on an excellent yellowtail sashimi and threw in shredded, preserved lemon for additional zip. He added fresh jalapeño to a deeply satisfying pork ragù with strozzapreti, a pennelike pasta with extra flange; the peppers provided extra zing. First courses hover around $10, pastas $13 and main courses $20.
For any adventurous chef, the trick is to pique a diner’s taste buds without making the dish weird. Centeno clearly seeks harmony in incorporating creativity, as in his version of carbonara, where the egg goes on top, sunny-side up. Breaking the yolk bathed the pasta in yellow and made the creamy dish even richer. And you can taste the freshness and solid technique of a good modern kitchen in dishes such as juicy grilled jidori chicken with Meyer lemon marmalade, and beef short ribs cooked in red wine, served over a polentalike, adult rendition of Cream of Wheat.
At 175 listings, Opus’ wine list emphasizes value. Markups are relatively low, and most of the wines are priced at less than $75. You won’t find many trophy bottlings, although Spring Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley from the excellent 1987 vintage ($90) sneaked onto the list. Other good choices are M. Chapoutier Châteauneuf-du-Pape La Bernardine 2003 ($59) and Joseph Phelps Chardonnay Napa Valley Ovation 2002 ($60), both of which have had the benefit of a couple of years in bottle.
Best of all, Centeno’s food is balanced enough to showcase all the good wine. It’s clearly the class act in a resurgent neighborhood. On the same block as the Wiltern theater, where the Dandy Warhols were playing the night I visited, Opus has become a mecca for smart, young Angelenos who enjoy good food and wine and a nice ambience but don’t want to spend a fortune on it.
Bin 8945, which opened last summer in West Hollywood, most succeeds with its wine; it has more than 700 selections in its book. Executive chef Michael Bryant, a protégé of Norman Van Aken, joined the team only recently. Although he sometimes overreaches, he always aims for bold flavors. His edgy food and the deep wine list put many stuffier places in the city to shame.
Sandwiched between a Starbucks and a row of fancier bistros that advertise happy hour more prominently than they do dining, Bin 8945 appears to be the least prepossessing eatery on this busy block of Santa Monica Boulevard. The dining room seats 40 tightly, with some tables spilling out onto the sidewalk. When the place is full, it’s loud. It’s also casual: A folded linen napkin was placed on a paper place mat imprinted with a trompe l’oeil depiction of a presentation plate. A real plate would just have to be removed anyway.
The menu offers nine first courses, priced between $11 and $19, and seven main dishes, in the $26 to $29 range. Much of the food seems intentionally geared toward red wines. Poached lobster swam in venison consommé. Chorizo added a meaty note to steamed mussels. Fries were done in duck fat, and Bryant’s shredded duck ham (rather like confit) with pasta would render almost any red a little sultrier.
But the menu gives white wines their due. Snapper escabèche filled a row of five crisp miniature tacos topped with guacamole ($11) and found a happy match with a glass of Zöhrer Grüner Veltliner 2003 ($12), still floral, crisp and fresh from its screw-cap bottle.
Bryant puts chorizo foam on a sliced American Wagyu culotte steak—a great idea. Not so great: a dish of frankly sweet chocolate sauce and crumbled graham crackers on sautéed sweetbreads. Too weird, that.
The wine list has attitude (and a few typos). It offers only four California Chardonnays, though one of them is Ridge 1997 ($60). Italy, Spain, Australia and New Zealand get only brief nods. But the ups outnumber the downs. There are two red Burgundies among the more than 50 wines by the glass. For dessert, why not sip a glass of Ramos Ruby Port ($8)?
The Bordeaux page has plenty of mature options, topped by Lafite Rothschild 1979 ($440), Mouton-Rothschild 1979 ($400), Wine Spectator 1988 Wine of the Year Lynch-Bages 1985 ($285), and Trotanoy 1990 ($240). Among the Burgundies, big spenders can go for Comte Georges de Vogüé Bonnes Mares 1985 ($720), Domaine Arlaud Charmes-Chambertin 1995 ($190), or take a chance on Henri Jayer Bourgogne 1982 ($155). In addition, there are about 20 vintages of California icon Ridge Montebello, dating back to the 1980 vintage.
Managing director David Haskell, who has worked at Guy Savoy in Paris, Le Cirque and Aquavit in New York, and Aubergine in Newport Beach, Calif., knows his way around the wine world. His father, a serious collector, supplied some of the older wines. Haskell and assistant sommelier Josh Goldman like to create five- to 10-course dinners matching small plates with wines from the by-the-glass list. Guests can choose a bottle of wine and have Bryant cook for it, or order from the menu and let Haskell or Goldman match different wines with each dish. Bringing your own wine is also welcomed—corkage is only $15, and the fee is waived if you also buy a bottle off the list.
Clearly, both Bin 8945 and Opus are aimed at young adults. And as different as they might appear, they share a singular mission: to deliver a knowledgeable dining experience for anyone who takes food and wine seriously.
8945 Santa Monica Blvd., West Hollywood
Telephone (310) 550-8945
Web site www.bin8945.com
Open Dinner, Tuesday to Sunday
Cost Entrées $26-$29; tasting menus $75-$100
Credit cards All major.