It would be hard to overestimate the influence of John Rivera Sedlar on the Los Angeles restaurant scene. Twenty-five years ago at St. Estephe, not coincidentally the first New American restaurant in the South Bay, he was the original fusion chef, marrying the impeccable French technique he had mastered in the kitchens of L’Ermitage with the flavors imprinted onto his palate as a kid in New Mexico. He was the first serious French-trained chef to incorporate a whole range of chiles into his cooking — neither chile-rubbed quail nor chipotle cream sauces existed before he started serving them — and is regarded as the father of what came to be called modern Southwest cuisine. You can probably blame him for the blue-corn tortilla chip too.
Sedlar’s next restaurant, Bikini, eliminated the French structures almost entirely — if it wasn’t the first pan-Latin restaurant, it was pretty close — while his Abiquiú presented his refined New Mexico–influenced food. And then in the mid-’90s, he disappeared, not from the face of the earth, exactly — there were always intimations of a tamale museum in the works — but from local kitchens.
So it is not much of an exaggeration to say that among a certain strain of hungry Angelenos, Sedlar’s reappearance at Rivera, an elegant new restaurant a block or two from Staples Center, is a big deal. And past the open kitchen, past the bar, past a casual-dining area where you can stop for a tapa or three after a Lakers game or a concert at Nokia, is Sedlar’s new inner sanctum, a hushed, intimate dining room lined with tequila bottles lit as if from within and populated with a healthy cross section of the local Latino power structure. Sedlar has apparently been up to a lot since we saw him last, and his cooking, mostly small plates, skews a bit more Spanish than before — seared black cod sprinkled with snips of fried Serrano ham; tiny grilled lamb chops with piquillo peppers and Spanish chorizo — with a slug of influence from the molecular-gastronomy guys.
Where at St. Estephe, Sedlar was content to serve two soups in one bowl, here he layers them, Adriá style, in a single shot glass, so that as you drain the glass, the hot chile soup turns suddenly cold and creamy in your mouth, adding a sort of three-dimensionality to the contrast of the flavors. The Yucatecan cochinito pibil, spice-rubbed pork traditionally wrapped in banana leaves and pit-steamed, becomes almost impossibly luscious when the banana-leaf package is cooked for countless hours using controlled-temperature sous vide. Cold chiles rellenos may be common enough in Mexico City but are still unusual in L.A. — here, Sedlar serves them blackened, lightly vinegared and stuffed with local burrata cheese. 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 that the most important thing is that the tamale itself be first-rate. This is a Mexican restaurant Los Angeles has needed for a very long time.
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Lunch Mon.-Fri., 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m.; dinner Mon.-Sat., 5:30-10:30 p.m.; Sun., 5:30-10 p.m. Full bar. Valet parking. All major credit cards accepted. 1050 S. Flower St., downtown, (213)749-1460 or www.riverarestaurant.com.