The discovery of a new dish, wrote Brillat-Savarin, does more for human happiness than the discovery of a new star. This week's splash of happiness is the maize cake Bombay Taj as served at Playa, John Sedlar's beachy new small-plates restaurant in the old Grace space on Beverly.
A "maize cake" is Sedlar's new unit of consumption: a thickish, palm-sized tortilla patted out from freshly ground nixtamal, passed across a griddle just long enough to crisp the surface while leaving the interior soft and steamy. It tastes a little like the thick, handmade tortillas you sometimes get at Central American restaurants, but the freshness of the masa makes it a little sweeter, a little more rough and ready.
The last time I stopped in, there were eight maize cakes on the Playa menu, and nobody expects the number to stop there.
The surface of the Bombay Taj is smeared with a kind of masala paste, both tart and hot, and dotted with bits of chewy, pungent mango pickle and a bit of seasoned yogurt. The spicy maize cake supports three or four cubes of pork belly, cooked with duck fat to a melting softness over many hours, and crisped a moment before serving.
What we're talking about here is basically a luxury-class carnitas taco, a combination of well-cooked pig, salsa and tortilla that you've probably tasted a hundred times, but twisted 90 degrees, made new by the sharpness of the pickle, the mephitic breath of the cumin and turmeric and the careful construction of the masa platform.
One of my favorite cookbooks, a pamphlet on Mexican cuisine published 30 years ago in Mumbai, describes a tortilla as a thin Mexican chapati made from a special kind of slaked corn, and for the first time I kind of get it.
Do you fold a maize cake and eat it like a taco? Do you pick it up and nibble around the edges as if it were a sope? Are they more like huaraches? The maize cake, which you also can get with smoked salmon and crème fraîche, fresh burrata and toasted seeds, poached egg with hash browns, or spiced shrimp with braised cabbage and a sort of mustard-cream Dippin' Dots made with liquid nitrogen, is something different — the basis of a taco made new. I use a knife and fork. The huarache wins.
If you spent much time in this restaurant when it was Muse in the 1980s, staring at the fish tank, road-testing a pair of pointy boots or a pink, asymmetrical bob, the dining room will come as a shock. The kitchen is suddenly open, ceilings blown out to 20 feet, and the light fixtures replaced with fuzzy, white glowing things that resemble the kinds of hats Carol Channing used to wear.
The main room is dominated by the bar — a library of artisanal spirits rises to the ceiling — and Julian Cox's cocktail program, which includes drinks made with tiki bitters and yerba maté–infused scotch, mezcal with roasted tomatoes and sage, and tequila with Barolo Chinato and bitter Sardinian honey, pushes the boundaries of the esoteric into strange, uninhabited grounds. The place is congenial to both multicourse meals and quick snacks, an after-work glass of albariño and a late-night stop for chocolate cake and coffee. Playa, at least in its early weeks, is an easy place to fall into.
By now, almost everybody with an Open Table account probably knows Sedlar's story. He worked under Jean Bertranou at L'Ermitage in the 1970s, opened his own St. Estephe in a Manhattan Beach shopping mall in the 1980s and married classical French technique with the flavors of his native northern New Mexico to create what became known as Modern Southwest Cuisine. His Bikini in Santa Monica was probably the first serious Latin fusion restaurant; his Abiquiu reintroduced ageless New Mexican dishes to Los Angeles. And then he disappeared from restaurants for 15 years, becoming the public face of a tequila distiller and the founder of a nascent tamale museum before popping up again with Rivera, his wonderful modern Mexican restaurant near Staples Center.
The Playa kitchen, which is more fun than the somewhat rigorous Rivera, is Sedlar's playground, equipped with all the toys and esoteric ingredients of the modernist kitchen, but more playful — a lot of the dishes are plated on glass-covered photographs of northern New Mexico, including scenes from Easy Rider, which filmed in the area when he was a kid.
Sedlar is a tamale specialist, and his versions here include his Javier Plascencia–influenced version of Chilean humitas, capsules of masa and fresh corn kernels combined with chopped Baja surf clams and steamed in huge clamshells.
There have always been chiles rellenos in his restaurants, and here you can find both thumb-size chiles gueros stuffed with seafood and fried tempura-style, and big pasilla peppers stuffed with cheese, herbs and chorizo, over a vinegared puree of burnt tomatillos.
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You probably should try the warm potato chips layered with a sauce of chiles and avocado; the grilled octopus with hearts of palm; and his famous tortillas florales, made to order, with flowers pressed into them as if they were the pages of a romantic's scrapbook, served with a tiny bowl of pureed avocado.
The main-course proteins are predictably less compelling than the smaller dishes — the sous-vide chicken with crisped skin is too wet, kind of a dud — but the chile-rubbed pork tenderloin is juicy and stingingly spicy, the duck breast with whipped garbanzos is tasty and the skate wing with cinnamon is lovingly and accurately fried. And you can always get another maize cake for the road — try the one with Greek meatballs and yogurt.
There are many desserts at Playa — chocolate cake with mezcal sorbet, sliced mango with black-rice ice cream, and a pineapple-coconut bread pudding — but the megarich pastel café, a kind of rowdy Mexican take on a classic marjolaine, is the one to get every time.
PLAYA | 7360 Beverly Blvd., L.A. | (323) 933-5300, playarivera.com | Open Sun.-Wed., 5:30 p.m.-mid., Thurs.-Sat., 5:30 p.m.-1 a.m. | All major credit cards accepted | Full bar | Valet parking | Small plates $7-$16, large plates $19-$27, desserts $9 | Recommended dishes: maize cake Bombay Taj, surf clam humitas, pasilla relleno, skate wing