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


gourmetpigs said...

I'm definitely going to try and check this out! The blue cornmeal crepes sound great. And wow, that photo from 1981 :P

Anonymous said...

Thank you for the puff piece.

streetgourmetla said...

Hey Gourmetpigs-I just went back for the 30 year reunion last week, was a blast. I will go at least 2 more times this month.Fun!