There is an exciting, curious phenomenon happening in restaurants around the world. Several talented chefs are discarding the practice of cooking their usual dishes in favor of inventing new cuisine, rethinking the traditional with unusual ingredients until they are new dishes. Last month we wrote about Jordan Kahn at Red Medicine, who has created a whole new Vietnamese genre of food. The New York Times just wrote about the brilliant chef Grant Achatz of Chicago's Alinea, who will be opening a restaurant called Next with a rethinking of dishes from many ages. Heston Blumenthal of London's Fatty Duck is doing the same, as is Wylie Dufresne at Manhattan's WD 50 and Laurent Quenioux at Bistro LQ here.
While perusing the menu, order some Playa potato chips... crispy delicious.
And now Chef John Sedlar has come roaring back into the fray, after a self-induced exile of more than a decade (a tamale museum? Yes, maybe this year; it will feature five centuries of culinary history, touching upon everything from the Chumash Indians to the recent Test Kitchen) and an opening of Rivera downtown. When Neal Fraser and friends decided to abandon Grace on Beverly Blvd in favor of a move downtown, John and partner Bill Chait swooped in and grabbed the central location for an upscale rethink of their Rivera... and have succeeded on a grand scale beyond what I ever expected. Quite simply, Playa Rivera (7360 Beverly Blvd, 323-933-5300) is a hot, hot scene, serving up John's brilliant reinvention of what I have called pan-Latin cooking. It's a little Mexican, a little Spanish and Portuguese, even some Brazilian and Indian... all played out against the chef's early upbringing in our American Southwest. (His family was military, and he tells me he had been exposed to French, Spanish and California cuisine before the age of 10, then growing up in the small town of Abiquiu, New Mexico, just north of Sante Fe and just south of Georgia O'Keefe's studio in Taos. Years later I reviewed his restaurant called Abiquiu in Santa Monica.) John trained as a young chef under the legendary Jean Bertranou at L'Ermitage (where I ate my first very rare duck breast, and loved it.)
Maize corn cakes are topped with fresh burrata cheese and greens.
It was some 25 years ago that I traveled down the 405 Freeway to Manhattan Beach to investigate a new restaurant there called Saint Estephe which readers had been hailing as the new coming. He became the first member of what I call my "Follow the Chef" club, a handful of talented chefs whom I have followed throughout their careers at different locales. (He entered the Guinness Book of Records in 2000 by building the world's largest tamale (one ft in diameter and 40 ft in length) for the Indio food festival, and battled Iron Chef Morimoto in a Modern Southwest/quail competition.) It was at St. Estephe that I saw the glimmerings of what would later become his all-out assault on true Southwestern cuisine, utilizing his French techniques to prepare the dishes. (Not Tex-Mex, there is a big difference.)
Twice-cooked duck breast is one of the more exciting dishes on this varied menu.
It was Pulitzer Prize-winning food writer Jonathan Gold who called John "the Roberto Bolano of L.A. cuisine," referring to the impresario whose mind spins off into a hundred directions at once. And Gold's wife, Laurie Ochoa, wrote in the L.A. Times, "Genius or madman?" I found an old review by Craig Claibourne of the New York Times, who opted for the former assessment: "Sedlar is one of America's treasures, a genius in the kitchen." And I so much admire John's program to bring fifth graders from Boyle Heights to Rivera to teach them restaurant etiquette and healthy eating.
The loup de mer is my favorite seafood dish on the exciting menu.
Speaking of the new place, John has said, "Although Playa means beach or seaside, there is no sand here... it's really about freshness and youth, just life... light... and flavorful." The former Grace space has been reworked whimsically, so the chandeliers are like orange sea creatures ('anemones' is what Penny McTaggart called them), while the massive floor-to-ceiling bar has a ladder to let the bartender reach the top bottles. There are a dozen specialty cocktails (all $13), and I stuck to a Pisco Sour while Patty Eisenberg tried the A Oaxacan The Clouds, made with Mezcal and roasted farm tomatoes. Skip this, and go for a Dark & Stormy. Large wine selection, many beers, the spirits specialist, Julian Cox, from Rivera, will meet your needs.
The food is cosmopolitan Latin, each dish a pleasant surprise. Some tapas, some main courses. When you first sit down, I suggest you ask your server to bring Papas Salsa Verde ($7) while you peruse the menu. These are, essentially, the best potato chips you will ever eat... Kennebec potatoes thinly sliced and fried, served with a dollop of avocado, chiles serranos and cilantro. And get an order of Lipsticks ($13), red Fresno chiles, crab, corn, olive oil sorbet... lipstick peppers stuffed with crab, a visually striking and delicious starter. I wandered to the front of the bar, where a trio of Mexican women were making tortillas from maize balls, pressing them out and quickly frying them on the griddle. There is starter of Tortillas Florales ($8), these pancakes served with organic flower petals and Indian butter (guacamole). Next up was one of the best small dishes of the night, Maize Cake Salsa Semilla ($9), a pancake topped with fresh (really fresh!) burrata, salsa verde, arugula, amaranth and sea salt. Another wonderful small starter, Maize Cake Breakfast ($11), a perfect 63 degree fried egg atop pan-seared potato, truffle cheese espuma and black trumpet mushrooms. Followed by a third winner: Ensalada Flan de Elote ($9), a fresh corn custard, huitlacoche sauce, queso cotija... the huitlacoche is the corn fungus, much like truffle in flavor. A dish I did not like: Octo-Palm ($13), grilled octopus. It may have been an off-night, but I found the shellfish to be tough and rubbery. Not to matter, there is so much wonderful to follow.
Humitas ($15) was a surprising and tasteful dish: think of a large Baja surf clam shell, filled with red pepper, queso ranchero, Fresno chiles, olives, chile verde pesto. A humitas is a pre-Columbian dish of cornmeal dough (maize). Even more to my liking, Chiles Gueros Rellanos ($18), tempura chiles, crab, corn, soy, ginger, scallion. And then there is the Tamalli Chateaubriand ($13), wild mushroom duxelles dumpling, juicy sliced filet mignon, chipotle bérnaise... so delicious and different. Fish lovers will find two main plates to delight them here. Skate Wing ($18) is a difficult dish to cook correctly, but there it is done perfectly... tamarind-cinnamon gastrique, red lentils with chorizo, purslane salad... the gorgeous piece of striated fish was a bit salty, but we finished it with pleasure. My favorite was a Pan-Seared Loup de Mer ($25); the sea bass filet was served with five sauces: romesco, chimichurri, verde, aji Amarillo, aji panca. A very satisfying seafood dish.
My friend David Rapoporte joins me in the love of duck, so we greedily seized upon the Twice-Seared Duck ($19), garbanzo cream, pepitas, white and black sesame, blood orange olive oil. We all dug into the Puerco ($26), a pork tenderloin which had been rubbed in chile, served with salsa verde, pea tendrils, manzana and sage. There are several interesting sides, all $6 or $8. Think Alliums, vinegar-carmelized whole shallots, cipolini and cabolla verde. Oven-roasted cauliflower, kale, and Swiss chard... all delicious.
Desserts from Pastry Chef Rommel de Leon are in keeping with the wondrous food... like Amarillo ($8), ripe mango atop corn shortbread, with passion fruit and tamarind gelee with black rice ice cream. A pineapple-coconut Bread Pudding ($8) was not my favorite, but I loved the Luma Mezcal ($8), a chocolate cake with glaze, mescal ice cream, caramel popcorn, Spanish peanuts. Our server, Miller, who remembered me from a visit to Literati 2, told us that Kevin Luzande was John's Chef de Cuisine, along with a large staff of men and women. Incidentally, there is a large table in the front window which is perfect for a party of six or so, so try for it when reserving.
John Sedlar's Playa is a fascinating and worthy addition to our L.A. dining scene. Yes, it is loud, hot, buzzy, fun... but don't be mistaken... the food is robust, earthy, mostly delicious and interesting. I think they will settle in nicely on Beverly Blvd. and be a mainstay for quite awhile. Enjoy!
To Subscribe to Jay Weston's Restaurant Newsletter ($70 for twelve monthly issues), email him at firstname.lastname@example.org