By S. IRENE VIRBILA
8:18 PM PDT, March 31, 2009
I have to confess I took my own advice and ate at Rivera more times than I really needed to. I couldn't help myself -- Rivera's food is so utterly unique. I couldn't believe it was actually that good and had to keep pinching myself. But the hyper-talented chef nailed it every time, virtually every dish, a remarkable feat in a restaurant hot off the presses.
Despite the odd location on the ground level of the Met Lofts building, the space designed by Italian architect Osvaldo Maiozzi and designer (and business partner) Eddie Sotto is beautiful, a long, sleek room with ceviche bar and a huge, square communal table at one end. Banquettes hug one long wall beneath a 40-foot electronic mural of evocative and poetic images (Maya ruins, agave, lizards, abstract forms) that dissolve into one another throughout the evening. The small bar features bronze and leather tequila tasting chairs designed by Sotto and riffing off the R in Rivera -- Sedlar's middle name.
Compared with his cooking at Abiquiu, his late Santa Monica restaurant, Sedlar's food here is less tricked up, more elegant and focused. At last, here's a chef who doesn't get caught up in a cartoon -- POWEE! WOWEE! -- celebration of Latin cuisine, using the blunt force of chile to punch everything up.
Sedlar, who in the 1970s cut his teeth working under the late great Jean Bertranou at L'Ermitage, shows a beguiling finesse in the way he combines the vocabulary of Latin cuisines with a command of French technique. He manages to seamlessly integrate chiles and spices into his dishes. Nothing sticks out or hits you over the head, and yet the result is fascinating and complex.
And boy, does he have an eye. He puts plates together with brilliant slashes of color and contrast that are just as effective on the palate as the palette -- and that's not even including the plates that come ornamented with Pop-art slogans, such as "Courtesy is not a sign of weakness," stenciled in powdered chiles and spices.
A swatch of banana leaf is unfurled to make a frame around the fluffy tamale studded with braised pork short rib and hedgehog mushrooms. A long roasted chilaca chile pepper marches down a line of juicy Cara Cara orange slices in a vinaigrette infused with black garlic. A rectangular plate with an inset the size of a cigarette pack holds flavorful grilled quail, slivered oyster mushrooms and black beans with a hint of sweetness and smoke. Duck enfrijolada -- one of the best dishes here -- is a stack of blue corn tortillas and shredded confit bathed in black bean purée and a deep scarlet-black Cabernet chile rojo sauce scattered with crimson rose petals.
But before all that, you must start with an order of the tortillas florales: four little corn tortillas, handmade and still warm, tucked under a napkin. The corn is freshly ground nixtamal, and each tortilla has a sprig of herb or a flower pressed into its surface. Browned from the griddle, they're like fossils embedded in the tortilla's surface. The taste is incredible, earthy and basic. Spread a little of the buttery smooth avocado butter on top: heaven.
Another must is the xnipec or "dog's snout" salsa, so-called because it's supposed to be so hot it makes your nose run like a dog's snout. Don't be afraid. Though it's made with charred habanero, it isn't that hot, more a marvelous melding of smoke and earth, bright-tasting and a deep mahogany in color. It's served with fried tortilla chips cut into thin, sharp shards that remind me of cactus needles. I scoop and scoop and scoop until all the chips are gone and ask for more.
Both are brilliant with a pretty perfect margarita: lots of lime, not too sweet, on the rocks. Or one of the exotic tequila-based cocktails or infused tequilas mixologist Julian Cox puts together every day. Right now, I'm in love with the pink peppercorn and pomelo. But there's also blood orange, cinnamon, etc. The flavors change all the time, and you can order them in a flight of three 1-ounce pours. Sedlar knows his tequilas. He's been the spokesman for Patrón tequila for years.
Wines to match
The restaurant also has a fine wine list of mostly bottles from Spain, Portugal and South America. Here's the chance to taste wines from up-and-coming regions in Spain, for example, or some minerally Vinho Verde or exceptional dry reds coming out of Portugal right now. The stemware is gorgeous and servers all know how to pour wine correctly. The list was put together by master sommelier Steve Geddes; the sommelier on the floor is Jordan Ogron, who grew up in Kenya and is a relaxed and thoughtful presence. Take advantage too of the fact that Rivera's list offers a number of sherries and, even more rare, Madeiras by the glass from $5 to $128, the latter for a 1907 D'Oliveira Malvasia.
Allow Ogron to suggest a red, perhaps a Numanthia Tempranillo or Clos Mogador Garnacha for the pato al vino, an appetizer that features more of that duck confit, which has to be the best in town right now, for its depth of flavor, silky texture and the way the flesh falls away from the bone. Notice how Sedlar plates the duck leg on white porcelain, allowing a pool of Rioja reduction the color of a rare violin's varnish to follow the contours of the duck. It's ornamented only with a single, short green-black chile pepper. If Sedlar hadn't become a cook, he could easily have been a painter.
Another great wine dish is Kurobuta pork chop napped in a velvety black mole that spills into a shallow puddle accented with toasted pepita seeds. The mole is an intricate embroidery of flavors, so tightly massed it's impossible to pull them apart. That's great, but the Maya puerco pibil, pork braised in a banana leaf, takes pork shoulder to a whole new level of tenderness.
In fact, in all of my visits, the only dish that misses the mark is piquillo pepper stuffed with Gruyère -- the cheese is too rich and heavy.
Desserts are pared to a few, most ideal for sharing. Like the baba cachaça, a yeast cake soaked in the white Brazilian spirit rather than the typical rum. It looks like a religieuse pastry dressed up for a wedding with frilly whipped cream peeking out from the cake and a clutch of grapefruit and blood orange segments on the side to set off the aching sweetness. Estudio en flan is a study of three tender, differently flavored flans, a perfect ending to a fascinating meal.
Until now, Sedlar has been performing to a half-full house. The question is whether the kitchen and staff can perform at this same high level when the restaurant is truly busy. Right now they have plenty of time to do everything right. Sedlar is still fussing with the menu and the ceviche bar isn't yet in full production.
What goes down once the crowds start coming in earnest will determine whether Rivera will become one of L.A.'s great restaurants. What Sedlar has proven is that he's more than capable of cooking at the highest level. And also that he's one of L.A.'s most original chefs. Sui generis.
RATING: *** 1/2
LOCATION 1050 S. Flower St., Los Angeles, (213) 749-1460, www.riverarestaurant.com.
AMBIENCE Cozy and elegant Latin restaurant with ceviche bar and communal table at one end, banquettes along the wall and a small bar with specially designed tequila tasting chairs. John Sedlar pulls out all the stops with a terrific small plates menu.
SERVICE Friendly and professional.
PRICE Snacks, $2 to $6; starters, $9 to $44 (for jamón iberico de bellota pata negra); larger plates, $16 to $29; sides, $5; desserts, $7.
BEST DISHES Tortillas florales, xnipec, grilled quail with black beans, duck confit in Rioja reduction, tamale, chilaca chile salad, pork chop in mole, Maya puerco pibil, duck enfrijolada, baba cachaça, estudio en flan.
WINE LIST Fine list of wines from Spain, Portugal and South America, plus sherries and Madeira by the glass and tequila-based cocktails. Corkage fee, $25.
BEST TABLE One along the banquette or a corner seat at the communal table.
DETAILS Open 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday to Friday and 5:30 to 10:30 p.m. Monday to Saturday, and 5:30 to 10 p.m. Sunday. Late night menu served 10:30 p.m. to midnight Thursday to Saturday. Full bar. Valet parking, $5 with validation.
Rating is based on food, service and ambience, with price taken into account in relation to quality. ****: Outstanding on every level. ***: Excellent. **: Very good. *: Good. No star: Poor to satisfactory.
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