Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Rivera by John Rivera Sedlar:New Conexiones,Playa Bar,Sangre, and Samba Menus.The Past, Present, and Future of Latino Cuisine in the US

John Sedlar River shopping at the Mercado Hidalgo in Tijuana(photo courtesy of Tomoko Kurokawa)

Rivera restaurant by John Rivera Sedlar is the most important Latino restaurant in the United States for fine dining, whether you use the terms alta cocina, nuevo latino, or any other title to describe the vanguard of latino gastronomy.

In music and in art there exist three levels of attainment:Imitation, Assimilation, and finally Innovation. In Latin America, you find all of these types of chefs and cooks, but in the US we mostly wallow in imitation when it comes to high Latin Cuisine. The sadest of these restaurants are found in Chicago, New York, and even here in LA when it comes to alta cocina.

In Chicago, Rick Bayless and his disciples, self proclaimed regional specialists, are about as relevant as a festival of cover bands. They've done nothing for the cuisine except to exploit America's inexperience with alta cocina, and to mimic and recreate recipes they've lifted from their travels. Really, you can do that yourself.

In stark contrast to these restaurants,Rivera stands alonside Enrique Olvera's Pujol and Patricia Quintana's Izote in Mexico City, Alex Atala's D.O.M in Sao Paulo, Gaston Acurio's Astrid y Gaston in Lima, and Leonor Espinosa's Leo Cocina y Cava in Bogota as restaurants reimagining their native cuisines, while remaining deeply rooted in tradition.

In the 80's, chef John Sedlar was at the forefront of the Southwestern culinary movement, drawing on his Santa Fe roots. His restaurants have always been cutting edge and many still recall his work at Bikini, Abiquiu, and St. Estephe.

Rivera recently unveiled a program of separate menus that has been the realization of a lifetime of travel and experience in Latin America. It's a journey from Northern Africa, to the Iberian conquerors of the Americas, to the indigenous cuisines of the Caribbean, North America and South America.

Rivera has been a hit ever since it opened and didn't need to complicate its business with menus that belong to the various rooms at Rivera, but John Sedlar is on a mission. Why hasn't this happened before in LA with such a huge Latino population? Why hasn't our community taken the lead? Well, the commercialists are moving in and trying to cash in on the Mexican food craze, but Rivera has carved the path for all to follow.And, he's challenging the young Latinos in his kitchen to learn and create. "You should be doing this stuff too", he scolded one afternoon.

Yet still, the restaurant remains casual and acessible to all diners, because, as much as John Sedlar loves history, art, and to create, deliciousness trumps all of his enthusiasms.

It's casual, chic, cutting edge, and muy caliente, the quintessential Los Angeles dining and bar experience with the addition of Julian Cox on the drink program.

The new menus even have a number you can call to have John Sedlar himself tell you a story about your dish.Just call 1-310-464-6884, and follow the prompts and numerical icons on the menus.

The Conexiones menu links three milenia of culinary development, and has elements of all the menus which you can order in either the Samba, Playa Bar, or Sangre rooms.

There is also a Tasting Menu for $70 from the Conexiones menu, in addition to small and large plates.

The dishes in this review are from a recent blogger event I attended plus my individual visits to Rivera.

Tortillas florales from Rivera's kitchen are now a household item here in Los Angeles. They could be taken for granted by those of us who see them at various events but, consider that this is house made mixtamal with proprietary spicing and an imprinted edible flower. The flavor is outstanding, and just like every proud Mexican mother's, these tortillas are unique and set the standard for the kitchen.

Just watch the young Oaxacan woman making these all day behind the Playa Bar, her craft is pure Mexican tradition, thousands of years old. Great tortillas are stand alone food, just like these, with a little dab of Indian butter, the house guacamole.It was called Indian butter out in the old West, Rivera's nod to California's culinary history.

The flan de elote is a mouth-watering corn and quinoa custard with a squash blossom sauce, topped with quinoa and squash blossom. This a decadent and savory custard that will leaving you wanting more.

The choice of an Equadorian crudo, or the tiradito version of ceviche is quite clever, as both Peru and Equador claim to be originators. Peruvian ceviche is the more celebrated version, and the greater expression, which would not be a surprise on this menu as much as its Equadorian counterpart. The choice of kumquat on the hiromasa fish reflects the European contribution of the acid component found in the Latin American raw fish bar. This crudo is fresh and refined, a cool taste to start off your dinner at Rivera.

The post-Columbian gazpacho is an elegant balance of tartness and savory nuances. It’s a dish that highlights the profound effect of the Columbian exchange on Europe. While many narrowly label Mexican cuisine as a fusion, they fail to acknowledge how much French, Spanish, Italian, and Portuguese cuisines have benefitted from the New World’s tomatoes.

Here, sweet golden tomatoes are the conquistadors.

My blog review on Rivera's Sangre menu from January of 2010.
(Spain and Portugal)

(Mexico and the Southwest)

If you'd like to know what goes on inside chef Sedlar's head, you simply must order the Cabeza de Oro. It is a golden head topped with all of the chef's favorite indulgences:foie gras,lobster,scallop,truffle, caviar, and jamon iberico.

The conquistadors sought gold and riches in the New World, but here at Rivera you can strike culinary gold with this dish. It's an altar to your mouth's desire.

Going to the beach isn't the same without a fine ceviche. The shrimp ceviche with orange, fresno chiles, avocado, onion and cilantro is excellent, a beautifully executed Mexican style ceviche.

Toritos are a popular Baja style of chile relleno, named the chile guero relleno on Rivera’s Playa Bar menu. This dish reflects the Asian influences in the northern Mexican kitchen, and is such a refreshing break from the usual chiles rellenos.

The stuffed Anaheim pepper is one of my favorite plates at Rivera. This powerful dish displays John Sedlar’s mastery of the chile relleno, taking a rather simple pepper, the Anaheim, and stuffing it with burrata cheese, martian red corn salsa, and cherokee tomoatoes.It's not on the current Playa Bar menu but you may order it, at least it wasn't the last time I went, but it will be added soon. Until then, do ask about this dish.

All the elements of this dish come together magnificently.

The clam tamalli is another stand out, part tamale and part clam au gratin, and 100% sheer delight.Seafood tamales are common in Mexico, but using the clam shell to steam masa is another John Sedlar curve ball that makes so much sense you have to scratch your head at something so obvious, yet untried.

This is a highly recommended Playa Bar starter.Rivera has delicious tamales all around.

(South America)

The argentine mushroom carpaccio is another cross-cultural dish that combines various mushroom flavors and textures with chimichurri spices.

Getting to the heart of the matter, the bolivian anticuchos are a modern take on the Peruvian street skewers, with tender sea bass marinated in traditional aji Amarillo.

When I told chef Sedlar that I really loved the feijoada he commented, “the great thing about it is….I don’t have to do it the way it’s supposed to be..”

I have enjoyed amazing feijoada all over Brazil, and have come to know it as the deeply pleasurable event that it represents. It’s a lazy Saturday afternoon at your family's house in the hip Lapa neighborhood in Rio de Janeiro suspended in caipirinha dreams. It’s a three hour Wednesday lunch at a boteco in Vila Mariana, Sao Paulo with your best friend that leads an unproductive afternoon at the office with happy snores, yawns, and nods.

This is comfort food, full of the soulfulness of two days spent in the kitchen listening to Seu Jorge.Rivera has captured the spirit and essence of feijoada in this dish, with tremendous flavor. The parts that make feijoada special are in the form of chopped bits mixed in with the beans, and the choice of tender lamb chops is brilliant. Just as when you sit down for a feijoada afternoon, Rivera offers a caipirinha shot in the form of a foam on the dish, be sure to yell out saude! (cheers)as you spoon this taste of Brazil into your mouth. The wine reduction sauce gives the feijoada the intensity that a long cooking imparts.


In hielo y fuego,ice and fire, the icy poblano sorbet is the fire and the jarabe de porto is the ice. This dessert is perfect, both witty and sophisticated, a new Rivera classic.

The Axtec garden of Xochimilco comes alive with a bold combination of native-American ingredients, chocolate, a lime pepper sauce, and an avocado mousse.

It's easy to miss the greater significance of Rivera if you dine fairly often, or even if you're just passing through, in the same way that the catchy pop hooks of Steely Dan mislead listeners unaware of their poetry and intricate harmonies and melodies.The setting is relaxed and the complicated menu is very easily accessed by all levels of diners.

The biggest problem with Latino fine dining has been that the great chefs of Latin America don't cross the border, with one exception, Javier Plascencia's Romesco in Bonita, CA, from Baja California.

John Sedlar was born in the US, but has deep Latin roots.He's a half-Latino raised in Southwestern kitchens, who has traveled, cooked,studied, lived and eaten all over Latin-America his entire life. His mastery of Mexican cuisine is evident in Rivera's tamales, culture of tortilla,Mexican syled desserts, mole,and Playa Bar menu.

The cooking isn't the product of recipe research, or anthropological approach, but an understanding of the flavors, and sensibilities of Mexican cuisine. John Sedlar's innovations are done with respect,sage understanding, and a limitless approach to pushing the boundaries, like his Latin American peers.

Next time you dine at Rivera, consider your good fortune as you sit down at the Playa Bar, the Sangre Room, or the Samba lounge. There is no restaurant like this in the country.This is a delicious journey to the past, present, and the future of Latino cuisine in the United States.

1050 S. Flower St. #102
Los Angeles, CA 90015
P 213 749 1460
F 213 749 7359


Food GPS said...

Rick Bayless continues to take a pounding from the Street Gourmet. The dishes at Red O are certainly subpar compared to what John Rivera Sedlar is producing at Rivera, and based on my meal at Topolobampo, that can't touch what Sedlar is doing either.

In its infancy, Rivera was good, but now, the restaurant is on a completely different level. I was so impressed with my most recent meal, particularly the burrata relleno with Martian corn salsa, feijoada and hielo y fuego. I'm looking forward to his encore at R26.

streetgourmetla said...

I think Rivera will get better and better. LA is where it's at right now. What I love is that, I'm not just impressed by how this food looks and by the craft like so many other meals we have, but I enjoy eating it tremendouosly.

Yeah, R26 is around the corner, John is just getting warmed up. Can't wait.

I see we loved the same dishes!

Yonatan Weic said...

Great foodie post!

It actually made me hungry hahahha :-)

keep up the good work writing more about great food

PS- Loved the pictures !

Yonatan Weic

ChristianZ said...

I've been dying to get here after reading about them and trying some of their stuff at East LA Meets Napa. Let me know if you ever want to meet here for lunch or dinner, preferably on a Saturday (although other times could potentially work).

Nicholas Gilman said...

" Rick Bayless and his disciples (have) done nothing for the cuisine except to exploit America's inexperience with alta cocina, and to mimic and recreate recipes they've lifted from their travels.

I'm saddened to see Bayless lambasted in this way. He has done much to promote the understanding and appreciation, not of 'alta cocina' (a misnomer if ever there was one) but of Mexican cooking in its regional variations. Before him, 'America' knew only '50's style tacos and gloppy enchiladas. He should get the 'Julia Child award for educating the masses'.

streetgourmetla said...

Nicholas Gilman-Thanks for coming on my blog and contributing to this conversation.

This posts is about Red O, and the Feast interview Rick did, as well as the circumstances surrounding Rick's involvement with Red O.This is such a curious position, that Rick is allowed to disrespect the local Mexican cooks and chefs,claim he's bringing us the real deal, while pimping this bad restaurant. I find it insulting, so do others in the food community, is he allowed because he's on TV and done so much for Mexican food?

Rick hasn't promoted anything but himself, and really Nicholas, alot of people have contributed to the rise of Mexican cuisine in LA and in the US. Regional knowledge has developed from within the latino communities. People that go to Red O haven't a clue about the regions, nor are they educated, but people know who Rick is, that's for sure.

Mexican chefs have been cooking authentic cuisine here for years, but it was Barbara Hansen, then Jonathan Gold, and now the blogging community that has promoted Mexican cuisine here, with respect and class. The cooks, chefs, taqueros, etc. here have been at it for years, and it's time they get credit for the work they do.

You don't want your friend insulted, well...neither do I wish my friends slighted.

A Julia Child award? I'd much rather see it go to our chefs, who without a line of salsas at Costco, have been pecking away year after year to educate Angelinos about Mexican cuisine.

I've always been a supporter of Rick's but I feel he's out of line, and when he puts such bold statements out in the public forum, he's subject to criticism.



nelehelen said...

I still haven't been to Rivera... Oh the shame... Everything looks amazing, especially the cabeza de oro. So, this is what I've been missing out!

Carl said...

I came on this article this morning on the bus ride to work while googling Chef Sedlar on my droid. It's a delightful article and the photos and food descriptions had me wanting to go back to Rivera for more immediately. I've been at the receiving end of many of the dishes you posted during two major Chef Sedlar designed meals this year. Clam tamales, and the chile quero relleno, gazpacho, tortillas florales, the perky, zesty Argentine mushroom carpaccio (which looks like Jackson Pollack's paintings), quail, lamb, chicken with stenciled herbs, lobster (oh the lobster was unforgettable), scallops, and the insane Flan de Elote that made me and my friends giddy with its homey warm texture. I've also been numerous times for drinks and food treasures in the bar seating...oh, the cocktails are great too. Rivera is a great place to spend an evening and Chef Sedlar is an all around gentleman and a great story teller in addition to being a master chef.

One more great reason to love being an Angelino.