John Rivera Sedlar is best known as a chef — an admired, lauded, seminal one — but he may, in fact, be a museum curator trapped in a chef's body. (With Museum Tamal, Sedlar, does in fact, get to unleash his curatorial impulses somewhere beyond the dinner plate.) The visual panache and precision of Sedlar's cuisine, on abundant display at Rivera, stretches back at least as far as Saint Estèphe, the Manhattan Beach restaurant whose menu he'll be reviving during the month of September.
[Photo gallery after the jump.]
There are classics like the Painted Desert, a salmon steak on a large white plate, its emptiness coated with a trio of sauces: peaks and waves of green and red chile salsa against a bed of shallot cream sauce.
When the kachina mosaic arrives, it takes a moment to grasp that it's comprised mostly of assorted caviars (along with condiments like chopped egg and onion) and adorned with endive “feathers.”
Even the amuse bouche, known simply as Fireworks, doesn't lack for flair. Star-shaped tortilla chips sit on a bright turquoise plate painted with striations of red chile and avocado salsa.
Yes, there's something utterly, thoroughly 1980s about all of it: the brown, rust and turquoise color scheme, the phallic New Mexican lightning bolts, the whole Southwest theme. Fortunately, enjoying Saint Estèphe doesn't require one to break out the terrycloth headbands and the Members Only jackets. The dishes all come from Saint Estèphe's menu circa 1982 – 1983, but something Sedlar's chile relleno seems to leap across the decades, standing out in any era.
It sits bare and unmolested, either by soggy batter or heavy-handed deep-frying. It isn't cooked to mush. It doesn't ooze with cheese. Grilled and flayed of its skin, the chile has sweetness, a bit of heat and some real body. It's stuffed with tender mushroom duxelles and accompanied by a pool of light, creamy chevre sauce. It's earthy, rich and satsifying yet remarkably light.
Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but if there's any downside to Rivera's cooking, it's the preponderance of terrible, Southwest-in-name-only menus he has probably inspired. There's a brilliant scene in “The Devil Wears Prada” where Meryl Streep as the Anna Wintour-esque editor explains to hapless intern Anne Hathaway the downmarket path from couture runway to discount chain bargain bin.
You go to your closet and you select out, oh I don't know, that lumpy blue sweater, for instance, because you're trying to tell the world that you take yourself too seriously to care about what you put on your back. But what you don't know is that that sweater is not just blue, it's not turquoise, it's not lapis, it's actually cerulean. You're also blithely unaware of the fact that in 2002, Oscar De La Renta did a collection of cerulean gowns. And then I think it was Yves St Laurent, wasn't it, who showed cerulean military jackets? And then cerulean quickly showed up in the collections of 8 different designers. Then it filtered down through the department stores and then trickled on down into some tragic casual corner where you, no doubt, fished it out of some clearance bin. However, that blue represents millions of dollars and countless jobs and so it's sort of comical how you think that you've made a choice that exempts you from the fashion industry when, in fact, you're wearing the sweater that was selected for you by the people in this room. From a pile of stuff.
Sedlar was only 23 years old when he and co-owner/sommelier Steve Garcia opened Saint Estèphe in 1981. What began as a California-French restaurant evolved into an icon of New Southwest cuisine. Sedlar wasn't alone, but he was in the vanguard of American chefs marrying gourmet cooking techniques with southwest influences. Every time you see frog legs in “margarita sauce” or a chipotle burrito deep-fried to within an inch of its life, it's nice to know you can seek the real thing, the original — at least for a month.