If you had gone to Saint Estèphe 25 years ago, pulled up to the valet in a Manhattan Beach mall also home to an Olive Garden, a Coco's and a Chili's, greeted the maitre d' and been escorted to a table in the bleached white dining room, you probably ordered the chile relleno with goat cheese, which was one of the restaurant's famous dishes. This was a different L.A. then, with Depeche Mode on the radio and Less Than Zero on the best-sellers list, and the internationalist good vibes from the 1984 Olympics just starting to wear off. Spago was the dominant restaurant not just in town but in the United States, and casual, highly flavored Spago-style grill cuisine was in its ascendency.
But Saint Estèphe, you could tell in an instant, was something else entirely. That chile relleno, for example, was listed on the menu as chile relleno, farci avec une duxelle et servi avec un sauce de chevre et d'ail, and the crispness of both the service and the dining room also hewed close to the original French. The roasted, peeled chile, when it came, was in the precise center of a very large plate, atop a pillow of cream sauce flavored with Laura Chenel's fresh goat cheese from Sonoma, which in the mid-1980s was as ubiquitous in a certain kind of restaurant as bacon is now, and stuffed with duxelles, a preparation of minced mushrooms cooked down in butter that has been a part of haute cuisine since at least the time of La Varenne. This was not smoky, crisp, herbacious California cuisine; this was classic French cooking with New World ingredients, and in fact the same duxelles had stuffed a steamed chicken breast at Saint Estèphe just a few years before. It was the birth of something, but of what it was hard to tell.
John Sedlar, who is chef at Rivera and Playa now, and who was the young auteur of Saint Estèphe then, is one of the most innovative chefs ever to wield a whisk in Los Angeles, a veteran of Jean Bertranou's l'Ermitage who created the institution of Modern Southwestern Cuisine at Saint Estèphe out of classical technique and the earthy ingredients he'd grown up eating as a boy in Abiquiu, N.M.
The first blue-corn tortilla chip came out of Saint Estèphe, as a single, crunchy star served as an amuse-bouche of three corn kernels and a swirly stripe of chile puree, and I think he was the first on chile-rubbed meat. He arranged American caviar, which was then considered vulgar, into abstracted rattlesnakes or into fierce-eyed kachina heads, like something out of a Hopi weaving. He raised the then-new art of plate-painting to new, squirt bottle–driven heights. (I remember his Painted Desert salmon, which positioned the fish against something like a Frederic Remington sunset, drawn entirely in flavored sauce.)
For the month of September, Sedlar has embedded the 1986 Saint Estèphe menu within the menu of his Rivera, and it is a fascinating look at the food at an important moment in Los Angeles culinary history, like a set by CSNY tucked into the context of a Neil Young concert. That chile relleno, that interplay between the goat cheese and the suave chile flesh, the impossible butterfat bomb of the cream sauce and the duxelles, is as precise an evocation of the past as anything I've ever encountered. I want to listen to Wham records again.
Saint Estèphe was a restaurant in a constant state of evolution, from classic nouvelle cuisine to what it had become by 1986 or so: still a French restaurant but transformed, so that the squab was served with a buttery puree of pinto beans instead of sorrel sauce; the red-wine sauce with the duck breast, formerly in the style of Bertranou, was spiked with hominy; and the jus on the saddle of lamb was amped up with tiny, spicy chiles piquins. In just a couple of years, the sauteed sweetbreads in the style of the Parisian chef Alain Dutournier, with turnips, pistachios and orange zest, had become sweetbreads with chile con queso, the favorite guilty pleasure of every Tex-Mex aficionado, although I suspect that Sedlar's version contained neither Velveeta nor Ro-Tel tomatoes.
But in the context of Rivera, Saint Estèphe is something entirely different: The eggs scrambled with goat cheese, cream and jalapenos, then put back in their shells, is less a challenge to the famous nouvelle cuisine dish of eggs with caviar than it is nostalgic comfort food, and the ravioli stuffed with carne adobada, a dish that had worked its way through the Cheesecake Factories of the world by the end of the Reagan administration, is less revolutionary than plain good. I loved that Painted Desert salmon, and the frieze of squirted cream sauces that framed the small piece of steamed fish — I once compared the pattern to an EKG chart — and the seared-scallop nachos with Roquefort. The slouchy blue-corn crepes were exactly as I remembered, down to the half-melted scoop of pumpkin ice cream. If I were you, I'd try to snag a reservation.
RIVERA | 1050 S. Flower St., dwntwn. | (213) 749-1460 | riverarestaurant.com | Saint Estèphe menu served through September at dinner. Hors d'oeuvres $9-$12; entrées $25-$27, desserts $9 (which, incidentally, is about what they were in 1986). Recommended dishes: huevos rancheros, chile relleno, Painted Desert salmon.