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John Sedlar roves the Spanish-speaking world at his remarkable new downtown restaurant that’s worthy of four stars
Sometimes a chef can compress everything he feels about cooking into a single creation. I don’t necessarily mean a signature dish—a term that smacks of the cranked-out showstopper. Rather I’m referring to the sort of creation that emphatically declares, If you want to know who I am, here it is. At Rivera, John Sedlar’s new restaurant, his first in 14 years, tortillas florales is that preparation. The more you consider the warm, earthy disks, the more you understand the cook behind them. Sedlar’s commitment to indigenous authenticity radiates from the nixtamal, the corn paste that has been used to make tortillas since the days of sun worship. He serves his with what he calls “Indian butter,” a puree of avocado, garlic, and chile that dates back to 1940s California, when most Anglos couldn’t pronounce guacamole. It is a joke, of course, a sly one that speaks to Sedlar’s sense of whimsy. His insatiable curiosity is evident as well; he found the tortilla recipe among a collection of photographs gathering dust in a Mexico City bank vault. His professional finish, so French in its rigor, completes the dish; the tortillas arrive form fitted in a crisply folded white napkin, which highlights their radiance like the collar of a Sunday shirt.
No one would argue that this is a terrible economy in which to open a restaurant. For people in the business, weeknights are obstacle courses that must be traversed to reach another busy weekend. Nevertheless Sedlar may have opened Rivera at the right moment. A central paradox of Los Angeles cuisine has been the disproportion between the powerful Latino influence on the city and the dearth of chefs who engage with that influence. For ages—well, since Sedlar left his breakthrough restaurant, Saint Estéphe in Manhattan Beach, in 1990—Susan Feniger and Mary Sue Milliken of Border Grill and Ciudad were it. Today L.A. is experiencing something of a resurgence of restaurants exploring la cocina and its many facets: La Casita Mexicana in Bell, Lotería Grill in Hollywood, and Provecho downtown, to name a few. It is into this more fertile world that Sedlar, at once newcomer and elder statesman, returns with the most imaginative and provocative restaurant of the past year.
Rivera’s ambitions should come as no surprise, for Sedlar has exhibited rare range from the outset. His first job, in the early ’70s, was at the Bullring in Santa Fe, where his French boss segregated the menu: enchiladas on one side, veal normande on the other. He later trained under Jean Bertranou at L’Ermitage during the frontier days of L.A. foodiness. At Saint Estéphe nouvelle cuisine would be his mold—lighter, fresher, more direct—but he poured into it the traditions of the Southwest. His pozole had primal heft, while its texture had the clarity of a double consommé. The kernels of hominy that dotted its surface were as considered as any exquisitely placed lardon. Maybe because Saint Estéphe was in a mall in Manhattan Beach—or maybe because it was in Manhattan Beach—Sedlar decided to start a new place in Santa Monica. His restaurant, the splashy but unfortunately named Bikini, was Southwestern, too, but without the intimacy of Saint Estéphe. In post-riot, postearthquake L.A., it stumbled. Changing the name to Abiquiu, after the New Mexico home of Georgia O’Keeffe, did not help. He split from the restaurant in 1995 and began a period of study, consulting, and serving as a spokesperson for Patrón tequila. It was all too easy compared with the travails he had endured. “I wanted to take a year off,” he says, “and I ended up taking 14.”
On the ground floor of the new Met Lofts building at 11th and Flower, Rivera is within walking distance of the Staples Center and L.A. Live. The design by Eddie Sotto is refined but inviting, a succession of tan leathers and low lights. There is an abundance of seating areas: on the sidewalk, at what might be called a ceviche counter, at the bar (which has an impressive selection of flavored tequilas), and in two dining rooms, one of which contains a communal table. Some of the lamp fixtures are modeled on conquistadors’ helmets. The spelling on the menu is drawn not just from contemporary Spanish but also from ancient dialects. The chile pasilla relleno is tender and juicy and served chilled in the traditional Mexico City manner, but what grabs a diner’s attention is the accompanying stencil: the silhouette of illegal aliens that can be seen on signs along the southern reaches of Interstate 5. These touches could come across as strident if they weren’t executed so damned perfectly. The highway sign, achieved with a blend of spices, looks as if it were cut by a laser.
Sedlar isn’t about sticking it to Lou Dobbs. With Rivera (Sedlar’s mother’s maiden name), he is surveying the Spanish-speaking world in its entirety. An Air Force brat, he spent part of his childhood in Seville and Zaragoza, where the United States had bases, and he clearly adores the douceur of Spanish living: the sherry, the siesta, the paseo, even the meddling chaperones. This link between the Old World and the New, between the ancestral and the modern, informs his cooking. What better to follow those atavistic tortillas than a selection of olives with various stuffings that you can just pop into your mouth? So it goes throughout the meal, profundity and effervescence like wires that spark when they touch. The chile relleno is dense, but the mussels finished with a tiny julienne of Spanish chorizo is all lightness and charm. The churrasco, or rib eye, so cleverly formulates the ubiquitous steak entrée that I’ll even forgive Sedlar the dab of onion foam. The cochinita pibil, banana leafbraised pork shoulder, an interpretation of the Yucatán classic, illustrates Sedlar’s restless intelligence. The meat is cooked 17 hours in the leaf, which imparts a distinct licorice note to the achiote-seed-and-bitter-orange marinade. Accompanied by veal jus, poached yams and radishes, Peruvian potatoes, and grilled scallions, the dish, like so many at Rivera, manages to be a wondrous contradiction: original and familiar at the same time.
It’s not often one gets to describe vegetables and desserts in a single paragraph, but in Sedlar’s case, doing so makes sense. With both he is pursuing a similar end—finding delicate ways to convey intensity. The black beans (which also accompany the superb grilled Cuban quail) have an internal heat from having been cooked with chipotle; the white beans are imbued with fried sage and olive oil. Two of my favorite sides are the puree of carrots and the quinoa with spinach. The first has the airiness of a mousse passed through a silk screen five times. The second could have been abstemious—think of good-for-you versions served at bad vegetarian restaurants—but instead is a lush indulgence. Desserts offer an equally subtle interplay: crepes with a mojito sauce (mint, white rum, and lime); crema catalana, a rich custard with a sheath of caramel brittle; and best of all, baba cachaça, a pastry based on the classic baba au rhum but soaked in Brazilian sugarcane liquor, brightened with seasonal citrus slivers, and crowned with a swirl of dulce de leche.
Twenty-six years have passed since Sedlar opened the doors of Saint Estéphe. A career that began for him in a Santa Fe kitchen, using native ingredients in the shadow of the padre-built cathedral, has culminated in one of the most urbane dining spots in Los Angeles, a restaurant that is unapologetic about the swath of its inspiration. During a meal I’ve found myself peering at the electronic images projected on the dining room wall. The centuries seem to speak through them. Here are gold coins that look as if they were retrieved from a sunken galleon, Mayan temples, Aztec pottery, a metate. Sedlar has been exploring the culinary relationship between Spain and the Americas for his entire professional life, never more fearlessly than he has with Rivera.
Photographs by Jessica Boone