John Sedlar's cooking has always been kind of a moving target. From his early days bringing to Los Angeles the Southwestern cuisine he grew up with in New Mexico, with his restaurants St. Estephe, Bikini and Abiquiu, through his work at his top-rated downtown restaurant Rivera, he's been playing with cuisines and flavors.
He treats his dishes much as he treats the exhibits of his Museum Tamal (also a moving target), as works of art, using stencils for spices, making the plate a political statement as well as an edible work of art. He put his kitchen garden on the roof of his restaurant Playa (it's still there, though the restaurant is not), and has talked for some time about wheeling out his food on dim sum carts.
Sedlar's carts have finally arrived at Rivera: He's not only got meals on wheels but is playing with the whole idea of mobile food. He's calling the new dishes his lonchera menu, the name for the old-school taco trucks, which thankfully still roam the streets along with new-wave food trucks.
And not only does Sedlar have carts but he's got food moving around on trays, too. Which seems fitting coming from the man who gave us the tequila chair.
Rivera has operated as both test kitchen and culinary art show since it opened in 2009, so adding carts and trays makes more sense here than it might at another restaurant. The carts, which servers start wheeling in your direction soon after you've taken a seat, are filled with small plates to choose from, so you feel like you're suddenly in either a dim sum palace or a throwback first-class airplane.
There were four carts on a recent night, starting — as all dinners, vacations and art shows should — with a tequila cart. The jars of booze were flavored, rather like aguas frescas, with cucumber, pineapple, pomegranate, mango, watermelon and blood orange, and made a marvelous, low clinking sound as they wheeled by, like the drinks cart of your airborne dreams.
Next came a cart with starters, small dishes including a colorful, shaved papaya salad with paprika and a grilled lime; a grilled chile encasing a mound of shrimp ceviche; and an artichoke filled with all manner of lovely stuff, as well as sauce for dipping.
While the carts circle, you can order food from a stationary server and a more traditional menu, including maize cakes ("not tacos"), which included one consisting of a fried oyster with chile verde remoulade and another of a happily massive amount of pork belly with black kale and cacahuate salsa. Also available are Sedlar's famous pastrami tacos (which made an appearance at the late, lamented Playa), his flan de elote, and a new dish that seems already very much at home amidst Sedlar's pan-Spanish creations: red chile pulled pork gyoza.
While all this is arriving, there are more carts, including one with an impressive statue and spiky sea urchin shells filled with chile remoulade, mussels and uni, as well as goat cheese and pork tamales in whole acorn squashes. Then there were trays (grilled panela cheese with citrus; broccamole with chips in tall fluted glasses), which started circulating about midway, as if the flight had morphed into an art exhibit.
And after all of that came a dessert tray, with glasses filled with many things, among them olive oil cake, strawberries, creme fraiche ice cream and strawberry sorbet. More carts (Sedlar says he has another one in the works, including an iPad with a short film on it, something like a Spanish version of Kubrick's HAL 900). More trays. More sculptures, and finally the chef himself, who seemed very amused by the whole production.
"Everybody wants to eat super fast. Fast in, fast out. It's about mobility," Sedlar said. But he has menus, too, "for the 10 people left in L.A. who still want them," noting that these last 10 holdouts were confusing his staff, most of whom were swerving around Rivera's three dining rooms as if they were at a go-cart rink.
Sedlar may have his meals on wheels inside his restaurant, but if he ever decides to move his lonchera menu to the actual streets, he's already got his drivers. And the food, which is remarkable, mobile or stationary.