Is it possible to begin a restaurant review with a tracking shot? Because the entrance to the new Rivera seems to require one, following the stroll from the parking valet to the big plate-glass window that runs the length of the kitchen, at a boulevardier’s pace revealing the mooks wrestling big pots of stock, the cooks fishing plastic cocoons out of an immersion bath, the flashing blades of the prep stations and the billowing flames of the hot line, easing into the serenity of the raw bar, where the ceviche and crudo are assembled with clean-room precision.
Then the main dining room unfolds: crisply attired waiters, lounge-style banquettes, a backlighted strip, where a mirror would run in a brasserie, glowing with details from Goya and Velázquez paintings that ooze by like scenes from a long-forgotten art-history seminar. If sound penetrated the glass (it doesn’t), this is about the point where you would hear the crack-crack-crack of a smartly brandished cocktail shaker and the excited bar conversation that always seems to rise above the overchilled music on the sound system. A screen thickens into a sort of neo-Mayan frieze, like something abstracted from a Frank Lloyd Wright textile block, the evening’s menu is posted in a frame, and you are finally at the door, having absorbed almost everything you need to know about the restaurant before you set foot inside.
Rivera, a sleek new restaurant a few steps from Staples Center, is the new culinary home of John Rivera Sedlar. It is a good place to stop for an elegant dinner or a few tapas after a Lakers game, for a proper cocktail flavored with fresh chiles and maybe ground grasshoppers, or just a shot of mezcal. Tucked a bit south of the maitre d’ station is Sedlar’s inner sanctum, a hushed, dark, intimate dining room whose walls are lined with glowing bottles of custom-distilled tequila engraved with the names of the restaurant’s best customers, and whose tables are populated with a healthy cross section of the local Latino power structure. The wine list leans toward the best producers in South America and Spain, and includes both relatively inexpensive bottles from Navarra and Yecla and grand vintages from winemakers like Palacio and López de Heredia.
Sedlar was once one of the most innovative chefs ever to wield a whisk in Los Angeles, a veteran of Jean Bertranou’s l’Ermitage who created modern Southwestern cuisine at his Manhattan Beach restaurant St. Estephe out of classical technique and the earthy ingredients he’d grown up eating as a boy in New Mexico, and he raised the then-new art of plate-painting to new heights. (I still remember a dish called Painted Desert Salmon that positioned the fish against something like a Frederic Remington sunset, drawn entirely in flavored sauce.) At Bikini in Santa Monica, he cobbled together the first draft of pan-Latin fusion cooking several years before the style hit Miami — he called his version of the Nicaraguan nacatamal a Mayan TV dinner. It is sometimes hard to imagine a time without blue corn-tortilla chips, without piñon vinaigrettes, spice-rubbed quail or ancho-chile cream sauces, which were born not on the windswept plains of Arizona but in an ostensibly French restaurant in a Manhattan Beach mall.
Sedlar, though, exited the restaurant game 15 years ago, trading in his toque for a gig as a tequila spokesman and his dream of a grand tamale museum, and the restaurant culture has changed. Sabbaticals are not unheard of in the business — both Jonathan Waxman and Joël Robuchon opened extremely successful restaurants after several years spent out of them — but cooking is a physically difficult trade, and it is almost as difficult to return to the kitchen as it is to return to, say, the NBA. When Rivera opened a few months ago, it was clear that Sedlar was anxious about the molecular-gastronomy guys, Spaniards like Ferran Adrià and José Andrés in particular. What had been revolutionary about Sedlar’s cooking was now almost commonplace; what had been most visually striking was as totally ’80s as a Devo song or a Thierry Mugler bustier. And he probably overcompensated by moving too far in the direction of foamed this and sous vide that.
His first menus included things like little thimbles of tomato, chile and lime essences that were supposed to come together like a salsa when you juxtaposed them with a chip, and a deconstructed turkey mole that I’m still trying to figure out. It’s tempting for a chef to skew Spanish in Los Angeles — the local La Española is perhaps the most brilliant Spanish charcuterie house in the United States, but although the seared black cod sprinkled with snips of fried Serrano ham, the tiny grilled lamb chops with piquillo peppers and Spanish chorizo, and the grilled prawns with Espelette pepper may have been delicious, they weren’t his, and the flavors didn’t resonate with the Latin-American bent of the restaurant.
But restaurants take time to settle into their skins. And Rivera seems to have gelled, even the few dishes that really hadn’t before. Sedlar was famous at St. Estephe for serving two soups in one bowl, swirled in a kind of yin-yang pattern. Here he layers hot soup and chilled soup in a single jigger — red tomato and yellow tomato; red pepper and yellow pepper — so that as you drain the glass, the hot soup fades to a cold, sharp creaminess in your mouth, a cinematic fade that adds a sort of three-dimensionality to the contrast of the flavors. At St. Estephe, Sedlar served wispy tortilla chips on a plate that appeared to be empty until you discovered that the pattern on it was really a smear of sauce. At Bikini, Sedlar was notorious for a different kind of presentation — religious groups protested his insistence on stenciling the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe in powdered chiles on a plate of meat — and you are likely to run across it occasionally at Rivera too, perhaps lamb chops with a version of the fleeing-family caution image posted on freeways close to the border, or a slogan like “Courtesy Is Not Weakness” stenciled in curry powder.
Here he serves tiny tortilla chips with a calmed-down version of Yucatan-style charred habañero salsa. Paddlefish caviar comes with freshly made potato chips and a chipotle-tinged cream; guacamole with handmade tortillas into which fresh herbs have been pressed. As terrific as his take on the chile relleno is (a cold, pickled pasilla stuffed with gooey burrata cheese), the chilaca salad is even better, a thoroughly charred chile laid across sliced cara cara oranges and dressed with a simple vinaigrette.
I loved the mussels steamed in a puddle of yellow chiles and the Peruvian brandy pisco, and the free interpretation of tuna ceviche was good, but the main-course fish still tends to be overcooked by Los Angeles standards: As gorgeous as a transparent green mosaic of thinly sliced tomatillos may be on a plate, the sea bass has spent too much time over the flame. A slab of salmonlike Tasmanian sea trout lacked the succulence that it can have at a restaurant like Providence, although the pile of quinoa and spinach it was draped over was swell.
Still, the Yucatecan cochinita pibil, spice-rubbed pork traditionally wrapped in banana leaves and pit-steamed, becomes almost impossibly luscious when the banana-leaf package is cooked for many hours at a controlled temperature in a water bath — the luxurious effect is amplified when you drag a forkful of the pork through what seems to be the marinade reconstructed in the form of a paste. The stacked enchiladas of duck and black beans nicely cross a traditional New Mexican form with the wilder flavors of the Yucatan. The kurobuta pork chop sauced with a dense mole is delicious. And unlike every other chef working the Latin-fusion riff, when Sedlar prepares something like a banana-leaf tamale with short ribs and exotic mushrooms, he understands the most important thing is that the tamale itself be first-rate.
Rivera: Lunch, Mon.-Fri., 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m.; dinner, Mon.-Sat., 5:30-10:30 p.m.; Sun., 5:30-10 p.m.; late supper, Thurs.-Sat., 10:30p.m.-mid. Full bar. Valet parking. All major credit cards. Dinner starters $10-$14 ($44 for bellota ham); main courses $16-$29; desserts $7. Recommended dishes: caballito de sopas dobles; chalaca chile salad; steamed mussels with chorizo in pisco broth; puerco pibil; duck enfrijolada.
1050 S. Flower St., dwntwn.; (213) 749-146 or www.riverarestaurant.com.