Wednesday, August 31, 2011

St Estephe at Rivera-Back to the Future of Modern Southwestern Cuisine

Steve Garcia and John Sedlar circa 1981, photo from LA Times

1981 was a big year for food in Los Angeles. It was the first wave of new cooking in the City of Angels when a then 23-year-old John Sedlar created Modern-Southwestern cuisine, applying French-technique to his Southwestern roots. Spago hadn't even opened yet, and goat cheese was considered a luxury. It's amazing how far we've come as a city, and a whole community of food lover's race to the next new thing, far too young to even take it for granted.

It's very hard to fully understand the legacy of St. Estephe today. There isn't a restaurant standing that equals this level of expression in modern Southwestern. Even the Bobby Flay's and other current practitioners of this genre cook more casual. Speaking with owner/partner Bill Chait of Rivera,Playa, Picca, Sotto, and the upcoming Short Order, he was able to put St Estephe in perspective."John was part of a small group of chefs that were bringing the first progressive restaurants to Los Angeles.""It was an exciting time in the restaurant business and then the recession came,many restaurants closed, and we sort of lost momentum for some time." Simply, Sedlar was doing something in style and presentation that hadn't been done before. There were many firsts.

In 1981, St Estephe was as foreign to me and my family as any such fine dining experience. I was basking in the luxury of Van de Camp's pork 'n beans and TV dinners--we were a struggling single parent family of three; my mom, younger sister, and I. On the weekends with my father, it was the traditional cooking of my grandmother from Aguascalientes, Mexico.

I recall one fine-dining experience in Los Angeles around 1978.My grandmother on my mom's side and I caught a TWA flight from Sacramento to LA to see the Dodgers, visit relatives, and have a lobster dinner. I remember the wine list having chablis and blush(rosé), and lobster was the most expensive item on the menu--"get the best thing on the menu", said my grandmother. Lobster it would be. This would be the first and last fancy restaurant until I was an adult.

I loved 1981. I was rolling in Kennnington terry cloth shirts and OP pants from Miller's Outpost, wore out cassettes of AC/DC, Journey,Van Halen and Led Zeppelin on my Walkman, and lived for the cheap thrills of slow dancing at my junior high school socials. It was a memorable time for me. I had moved on from my first girlfriend and first make-out session(Wendy Herrera,we're still friends), made the leap from flute to the saxophone, and had just seen the original Van Halen on tour in support of their third album--meanwhile, John Sedlar was making history.

Modern Southwestern came out of Chef Sedlar's experience cooking in New Mexico as a young man--this is his heritage. Sedlar is our elder statesman here in Los Angeles. We live in a time where chefs are popular on television, and have become pop culture icons--none though can claim to have created an original style:twice.

Little did I know that I'd get a shot at St Estephe here in 2011, to witness and taste a piece of Los Angeles restaurant history that I could only before read about. At a preview dinner last week I had the honor of going back in time to 1981, at Rivera, home to Chef Sedlar's second revolution. For the entire month of September, diners can take journey of the senses to St Estephe, to reminisce or to discover Modern Southwestern for the first time at its 30 year anniversary.

Fireworks amuse bouche, shows the stars and stripes of New-Mexican hospitality.

An edible Kachina of American caviars with chopped egg and endives. This dish is a delicious way to commune with Hopi and Pueblo native culture--all flavors in balance.

This southwestern scramble will satisfy any aficionado of huevos rancheros, this author included.

Tamale of Salmon Mousse in a cream of cilantro sauce.

A master of rellenos:Chef John Sedlar. Chimayo chile relleno stuffed with mushroom duxelle,accompanied by a paint of garlic chevre sauce. This is sublime, like a southwestern chiles en nogada. A benign heat, savory filling, and cream sauce all delight in their perfect harmony.

Scallop nachos served with gorditas and a roquefort cream sauce.

The famous salmon painted desert with a trio of sauces will make you want to savor the moment. It's almost a shame to dig in, but you'll manage.

Roast breast of chicken served with wild spinach greens, jicama and jalapeno vinegar sauce. I enjoyed this plate tremendously--so flavorful and comforting.

Dessert was dazzling and fun. Neon tumble weeds with fresh fruits and cactus cookies.

Finally,blue corn meal crepes with pumpkin ice cream.

It's easy to overlook Chef John Sedlar these days. He was on TCM for a minute, and did Iron Chef America, but he's no media hound. He's humble,polite,keeps his opinions to himself, and is busy these days running between his two restaurants: Playa and Rivera. He's in his kitchen and his spare time is for the Museum Tamal project. While many other chefs beg, borrow, and steal their recipes and concepts--Sedlar is an original. Sedlar represents experience, patience, and substance during a time when pop-culture chefs are sometimes marketed as relentlessly as Justin Bieber. Like Miles Davis, he created a modern fusion, then retired only to return and lead again.

I will be making time to visit St. Estephe this month at Rivera starting with the Garcia/Sedlar reunion this Wednesday night. Just like Marty McFly, I gotta get back in time to 1981, when Member's Only was a jacket, and Friday nights were the Love Boat and Fantasy Island.Well, for a 7th grader it was. If I could only get Wendy Herrera to go with me!

30th Anniversary of St Estephe at Rivera all all through the month of September.For reservations click here.

(The meal for this preview was courtesy of Chef John Sedlar and Rivera restaurant)

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

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Bar e Restaurante Ellas,Rio de Janeiro-Cachaça for Cachaçeiros

I'm not exactly up on my Brazilian liquor laws, but there appears to be little regulation of booze in Brazil. This is a good thing.

I've written about my favorite bar in the world before at the Praça da Republica street food fair in São Paulo. There I took a harsh shot of low cocktail-grade cachaça from a wooden cart that rasped my throat. I still smile when I recall that blissful moment, after tropical rains had withdrawn from downtown Sampa.

Cachaça is the third best selling spirit in the world and the traditional liquor of Brazil, yet remains somewhat of a mystery in the US. Oh yeah, 99.99% of that consumption happens in Brazil--only Germany(2nd largest market), the US, and Britain sell an amount worth mentioning.

In the US we carry a handful of artisanal cachaças--Germana is the most esteemed--the rest are mixers like 51, Ypioca and Velho Barreiro. The most succesful are the 3-distilled brands that are straight to the US market, or geared towards the US consumer:Cabana, Leblon, and Sagatiba.

In Los Angeles, bartenders use the 3-distilled brands and know nothing of traditional brands, all of which are double-distilled. Brazilian churrascarias(Brazilian AYCE steakhouse) are more likely to carry 51, and Ypioca for caipirinhas(Brazilian national drink); they also make them better than our popular bars. It's not clear that Brazil will be exporting small production cachaças anytime soon.

The best way to experience this curious beverage is to travel to Brazil. Cachaçeiros(cachaça aficionados, or drunks) are coming into fashion these days. Long regarded as a low class hootch, Cachaça has been receiving its just due. Bars like Rio's Academia da Cachaça have hundreds of bottles available for tasting and for sale. The Academia is a must while in Rio, but if you be a true cachaçeiro, deeper must you dip into the botecos(pubs), bares, and pes sujos(dirty feet bar, or dive).

Back in 2008 I came across Bar e Restaurante Ellas while waiting the guys at Amerioca Tours to check me in to my apartment. It's a quiet, little eatery and bar just a block and a half from Avenida Atlantica on the Copacabana Beach.

Ellas is a restaurant that provides a por kilo(buffet food by the kilo) service during the day, and is a bar a night. They serve porções(portions), which are bar bites likes sausages and cheeses; they carry typical sandwiches such as roast pork leg, and have prato feito(full meals). The food is unremarkable, but there's much more going on here if you scan the bar. I judge a bar on its booze, and due to Brazil's loose liquor laws,it's wise to take a peek at all these little bars and botecos you encounter. You'd be surprised at some of the ambitious selections from owners that aren't so beholden to distributors and labels. 51, Ypioca, and Velho Barreiro have are king, queen, and prince in respect to caiprinhas and batidas(cachaça with fruit shakes), but appear to have the freedom to line their shelves with small producers.

There are cocktails and Brazilian beers, a variety of spirits for mixing, but they also happen to have a master's collection of cachaças--mostly from Salinas, Minas Gerais. Salinas is to Minas Gerais as Pauillac is to Bordeaux. These are the best:Salinas, Beija Flor, Seleta, Boazinha, Lua Cheia,Canarinha, Teixeirinha, and the legendary Anisio Santiago(formerly called Havana).

Ellas is an inexpensive joint that's perfect for your own private cachaça tasting. I love the variety in aging, and types of wood barrels used--everything from oak, to balsa, to Amazonian woods. Cachaça has so many colors and flavors; it's my favorite spirit. Us cachaçeiros don't mind a little heat, we're in touch with our inner bebados(drunks).

The last time I was at Ellas--back in 2009--I decided to begin the day with a pair of cachaças. It was late morning and I sat down at the table not noticing a stack of license plates. A man asked of it was okay if he sat with me, of course, since I had hijacked his table. We mostly talked about his journey from various jobs before becoming a hawker of personalized license plates. He slurped away at some pasta while I slid into a shot of Boazinha.

Boazinha is distilled from fermented sugar cane juice(as are all cachaças), aged for two years in balsa wood, and has an alcohol content of 42%. It has a pleasing viscosity, strong flavors of balsa, and a balanced sweetness. This is as fine a cachaça as any you'll ever encounter.

I like to take extra time with cachaça, and my new friend was the perfect distraction. Let's just talk and sip, all other things can wait.

Round two is unforgettable. Anisio Santiago is one of the most expensive cachaças in Brazil.

Anisio Santiago started to produce his cachaça on his ranch, called Havana, in the 1940's. In 1946, he became the first producer to distinguish his product with a brand, back then named after the ranch--Havana. This bottle set the whole industry on the path to becoming a world class producer of quality drink from its sordid past as an indulgence of the wretched.

The man behind the bar said it would cost me about $17 USD for a shot and began to put it back on the shelf when I stopped him. Pour! "Are you kidding? That's like an fucking cocktail at a trendy bar in LA." I grabbed it before he changed his mind on the more-than-reasonable price.

The name changed to Anisio Santiago(name of founder) due to issues with the use of the word Havana for a non-Cuban product.

Anisio Santiago is aged for 8 years in balsa wood, and clocks in at 44.8% ABV. It has refinement and balance while remaining a true cachaça, worthy of a high end restaurant in the Beverly Hills of Sao Paulo--Jardins--yet seems right at home in this sleepy hole-in-the-wall. This was fortune; a first-class ride in an unlikely venue.

Cachaça is one of the last frontiers of the spirit world. It hasn't established its proper place in the hall of venerable inebriants, and is mostly consumed in mixed drinks. This makes the cachaçeiros all the more select in number and conviction. Whether it be pinga, aguardente, or simply cachaça; you can find sanctuary at Bar e Restaurante Ellas, where comrades in arms meet to sip the hours away.

Bar e Restaurante Ellas
R. Almirante Gonçalves 29 lj A - Copacabana
Rio de Janeiro, RJ | CEP: 22060-040
Open from breakfast 'til late
(21) 2287-3879

Monday, August 15, 2011

Top Shill Alum Marcel Vigernon and the Pico de Gap Truck Bring About the Tacopacalypse

Tacos have taken a beating here lately in Los Angeles. The first wave of fancy taco trucks that chased the new LA street food movement created by the Godfather, Chef Roy Choi, and Kogi's honk heard round the world brought forgettable tacos from Kogi's impetuous imitators. The next wave focused on ethnic cuisines, mostly steering clear of further taco infractions. The Sunset Strip; once the domain ruled ruled by rock gods: Doors, Van Halen, and Guns n Roses; has become the Tortilla Strip: Rosa Mexicano, Pink Taco, Pinches(Fucking)Tacos, and Cabo Cantina.

Last year, a slew of new restaurants capitalizing on Mexican cuisine's increase in popularity--run by non-Latinos including chef Rick Bayless--added to the stomach-moving violations. These attempts at upscale tacoing were laughable--they even made Sunset magazine taco spreads look chic.

The so-called gourmet food trucks(or better, Luxe Lonchero, as coined by Gustavo Arellano of the OC Weekly) have never bothered me. I prefer traditional stands and vendors but I loved a few of the fancy trucks. Although there are some that have associated me with them, I only have written about a handful of trucks on this blog. I don't dine at gourmet food trucks, but I support what they do--I haven't been a critic of these businesses. I've been indifferent to the most obnoxious of the commercial trucks, but I do agree with Roy Choi and Josh Hiller that things have gotten out of hand.That piece was written before we heard about this Pico de Gap. Pico de GAP is guilty of high crimes against street food culture, and the Los Angeles urban scene. We've gone from Art Walk to City Walk.

Nixtamalization, the food science that makes tortillas possible has existed for thousands of years, and as long as these flat-breads have been around, natives of the Americas have been filling them. Today the taco continues to evolve in Mexico with endless styles of tortillas, fillings, and constructions. Even the worst versions of this ancestral food in Mexico are better than 99% of what we have here in the US, but those mediocre taqueros still respect the tradition. They undergo a formal training as much as any other food specialist.

Chef Marcel Vigneron has Declared War on Tacos

I thought I'd seen it all until I heard the Gap was doing a taco truck promotion with chef Marcel Vigneron I about ruptured a blood vessel in my eye. Nothing wrong with a little commerce. Roy Choi did the menu for the ESPN truck to promote World Cup:chido! Camarena Tequila executed a successful campaign with tequila infused tacos. When they were getting started the marketing team enlisted bloggers including myself to take them to the best Mexican street stands in LA, and they tried in earnest to hire traditional taqueros to create their menu. On their recent run they used a member of Rivera's kitchen to design their menu. In both of these cases the promotion was a "good fit", but a taco truck isn't a one-size-fits-all when it comes to marketing.

Why didn't the Gap go with a Mexican taquero? It seems the only spot for a Mexican on the Gap Trucks would be making the pants that come with the tacos at a maquiladora somewhere along the Mexico-US border. Actually, the GAP no longer manufactures in Mexico, as they were able to find Indians and Bangladeshis willing to work for even less. In light of its child labor violations and sweatshop practices in the Third World, I find it odd that the GAP would attempt to serve an ethnic food.

We all are wearing clothes made in a sweat shop, yes, but this is ridiculous--the Pico de Gap Truck!GAP is one of the largest clothing retailers along with corporations like Wal-Mart;they are the principal players in driving down wages and promoting sweat-shop practices worldwide.

Is there no one in Chef Marcel's entourage that has the balls to tell him that this was a douchey move?


 Chef Marcel has Fallen into the Gap.

As for the tacos? I wouldn't be caught dead at the Pico de Gap Truck. Clearly the menu and style is drawn from our gabacherias(non-Latino owned taquerias) here in town. Cotija cheese isn't a common condiment at a real Mexican taqueria; it is used more by antojitos vendors. Cotija is never used on lamb, which is almost always prepared as barbacoa:pit-roasted. Should cotija be spinkled on everything? Probably not. Radishes are served on the side, not in the taco. It's almost as if Chef Marcel saw condiments meant for other foods and threw them all in the store bought tortilla.

Chef Marcel muses about how he has to change everything he cooks up a little as to suggest he's on the edge--perhaps the chemical fumes of deconstructivist cooking have warped his thinking. The tacos are traceable to local, trendy presentations. Looks a lot like Tinga with all that cotija madness.

Just having a well-braised lamb doesn't make a taco--I'm sure Chef Marcel can braise a lamb--it's every component. I really enjoyed the Hatchi dinner at Breadbar Chef Marcel did a while back;I thought it the best tasting I had the entire Hatchi series, but participating in such a farce doesn't make much sense, even for the money. This isn't the gig of a serious person and stains the toques of our other celebrated chefs that are working hard to make LA the place to cook.

And what was that about how "Pico de Gap", because we're bridging the gap between tradition and cool? Good grief!Serio?

In the video he boasts of all the hotspots the truck will be hitting--like the Glendale Galeria?

Maybe Vigneron should have stuck to his bag of tricks, or have done his homework? I had a taco of foam served in a mason jar at Pujol in Mexico City. It was brilliant; you could taste and smell the chicharron taco as if you were on the street. And when you hit the gritty, little spot of chicharron at the bottom of the jar it was like striking gold.

There are tons of contemporary and avant-garde style tacos in Mexico, and your amateur effort doesn't even register.Many chefs around town work really hard to incorporate other cuisines and ingredients into their repertory with dignity.

Some of our chefs have come under fire for their celebrity indulgences and have been unjustly lumped in with chefs like Marcel. Our chefs have confidence and attitude,they're on TV and have tattoos, but in the end they are humble people with respect for their profession AND other cultures.

Even if Vigneron could pull it off, it'd still be the fucking Gap Truck. It's most disconcerting when Chef Marcel's tacopacalypse gets de-pantsed by a fashion show to plug the GAP's line of pants.(note: the commercial has been removed from the internet, so I've substituted another video)

There's nothing nifty nor hip about the Gap truck, but the Pico de Gap Truck has some interesting things you might not have known.

Here are the Top Ten things you didn't know about the Pico de Gap Truck.

1) Chef Marcel will resonate with Mexicans as they remember the valiant Wolverine and his brave visit to DF during the swine flu panic. "Mira, el taquero parece como el pinche Wolverine, que no?"

2)Chef Marcel's turn as a taquero inspired a traditional taquero in Mexico City to start a molecular gastronomy cart.

3)The Pico de Gap truck will always arrive fashionably late to "design" an authentic Mexican feel.

4)Chef Marcel will now incorporate nixtamalization into his avant-garde techniques.

5)The actual uniforms used on the truck are by Banana Republic.

6)Pico de Gap employees got lectured for nicknaming the truck "the sweatshop ".

7)The original name for the Pico de Gap truck was "A Day Without a Mexican".

8)Chef Marcel will be replaced on the second leg of the Pico de Gap truck by a street vendor from Mumbai.

9)The Pico de Old Navy will be hitting up high school campuses and Citywalk in the fall.

10)If there is a Hell, then Pico de Gap is its truck!

Pico de GAP! Stop your awful sweatshop and child labor abuses. Leave our Redwoods and our tacos alone.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Street Gourmet LA on Bizarre Food Baja,Mexico is Finally Online

Bizarre Foods Baja, Part 1

Bizarre Foods Baja, Part 2

Bizarre Foods Baja, Part 3

Last year I had the honor of consulting and appearing on Bizarre Foods Baja , Mexico. I'm in part 1, but stay tuned for my favorite restaurants, stands, markets, and chefs in this episode including: Benito Molina's Manzanilla,Mariscos Ruben, La Cahua del Yeyo, Buffalo BBQ, La Diferencia,Taqueria del Sur, Kentucky Fried Buches, Mercado Hidalgo, and much more.

This is the Baja I love as shown through the daring palate of world citizen-Andrew Zimmern. Provecho!

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Plate by Plate:Project by Project LA's 9th Annual Tasting Benefit this Saturday!

This Saturday August 6th Project by Project LA's 9th Annual Tasting Benefit to raise funds for AYC Youth and Family Services will take place at Downtown Los Angeles' Vibiana. Tickets for this year's event are available here. General admission is $150. This event brings one of the most eclectic gathering of restaurants and chefs in Los Angeles:Chef Walter Manzke, Sotto,Chaya Brasserie, Chef Laurent Quenioux,Guelaguetza, Jitlada,Maximiliano(debut!),Picca, Night and Market,Starry Kitchen, and many more.

Check out Plate by Plate's 2011 preview video

I had a fantastic evening at last year's Plate by Plate tasting at the California Science Center. It's a chance to sample a broad range of restaurants with the movers and shakers of LA's asian community. Check out my experience at Plate by Plate 2010.It's one of my favorite nights in Los Angeles.See you there this Saturday.

Plate by Plate: Project by Project LA's
9th Annual Tasting Benefit

Saturday, August 6, 2011
214 South Main Street
Los Angeles, CA 90012