I first met John Rivera Sedlar on July 18 at East LA Meets Napa, a fundraiser outside Union Station to benefit AltaMed Health Services Corporation. He was dispensing cups of Donaji, an ancient Meso-American cocktail made with Mescal, the rim of the fruit-filled glass lined with a mixture of salt, chile and finely chopped crickets. At that point, he was hoping to open his ancient-meets-molecular Latin concept near L.A. LIVE on November 1. Last Wednesday, when we finally sat down for an interview, Sedlar said his partnership with co-owners Bill Chait (operations) and Eddie Sotto (design) is tracking toward a January 15 debut. Sedlar also shared plenty of information about his vision and approach.
“This restaurant is very autobiographical,” says Sedlar. “It tells a story about Latin food, and Latin food in Southern California and all the inspirations that have led up to how we eat today.”
The space at the base of the Met Lofts building hosts three unique environments.
An enclosed dining room is called Sangre, which means blood in Spanish. “That’s why the color of the chandelier,” says Sedlar. “That’s why the conquistador helmet lamps are in the room. This room really celebrates the Spanish influence. Post contact period, all the animals, the pork, the horses, the cows [came from Spain].” We have our tequila collection in here because the Spanish brought distillation to the Continent.” The premium tequilas are kept in proprietary crystal bottles in lockers. The lockers are only accessible via Rivera’s private membership program. Each member receives a key.
The third room is called Playa bar. “It focuses on the seaside communities of Latin America and Mexico,” says Sedlar. “Very casual. Come in, have a couple Playa bar plates, some raw fish with some Serrano chilies on it, some cilantro, then have some tamales. In our Playa Bar case, our raw bar, we have tamales with ceviche. We have chiles rellenos…All the flavor profiles are bright and green [incorporating] cilantro, Serranos, garlic, peppers, onion, vinegar, lime juice and citrus flavors.”
“The menu sort of weaves throughout [Rivera],” says Sedlar. “It’s like a river going in and out of not only all these geographical areas, Spain, Portugal, South America, regional Mexico and the Caribbean, they’re all sort of woven together geographically, but they’re also drawn together chronologically. Our food mandate and philosophy is really to explore ancient foods, traditional foods, contemporary foods and futuristic foods. And where do those foods come from? What are the ingredients? What are the processes? Who are the chefs who cooked them?”
“I’ve always cooked in a Latin idiom, starting with Southwest,” says Sedlar, who grew up in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and lived in Spain for three years as a child. “We all got together, thought what restaurant can we build that would be meaningful, meaningful to who we are and where we’re at, and to how people are eating today, and to what flavors they like. People are pretty much over haute French cuisine with cream and butter. They like cleaner, crisper flavors, smaller concentrated blasts of flavors, and Latin food lends itself very well to that.
“It’s also a restaurant that educates about foods, the processes, the ingredients,” says Sedlar. “Perception is that Mexican food just doesn’t have the value. [People] don’t understand that the chilies are very, very expensive, that the preparation of these complex sauces takes a lot of labor…The food is very complex, but because they can go down the street and have $4.98 dinners with some mediocre margaritas, that was sort of the status quo for decades and decades, but now the food is busting out.”
“We combine ancient types of cooking with the new molecular gastronomy, with the foams and the gels and the spherification,” says Sedlar. “It’s the past and the future on one plate.” For example: “Mole,” with turkey made sous vide. served with caviar of cinnamon, a foam of guajillo chile, cubes of warm chocolate gel and a swirl of course nuts: pistachios, pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds and almonds.
At Playa Bar, expect exquisite seafood cocktails. Sedlar explains a single preparation: “We’re taking beautiful ahi, slicing it up and placing it on a cold plate. Then we take a bar mixer, add some ice cubes, add some olive oil, a fresh squeezed lime, some zest of Cara Cara orange, some cracked pepper, a little bit of ginger, and then we’ll shake it and get it very ice cold, and then we’ll pour it over the fish.”
“We were only going to do two or three [moles],” says Sedlar, “but I think we’re going to do much more now. I think with all the flightiness of food that people are ready for hearty flavors and comfort.”
Rivera’s menu will change frequently based on what’s fresh. Beginning in February, L.A. LIVE is launching a Sunday produce market, and Sedlar plans to be there weekly.
Sedlar was a spokesperson for Patrón tequila for 10 years. “[Seagram’s] asked me if I would help educate people about tequila. For 10 years we went around the country…We took groups to Mexico, really immersed ourselves in tequila, through a program called Experiencing Tequila. It was the most comprehensive tequila program that will ever be put together. Now Seagram’s doesn’t exist anymore so the program doesn’t exist…Now it’s transferred into Rivera here.” As a result, Sedlar will offer unique tequila programs, including seasonal tequila on tap using an Enomatic. “I infuse tequilas with certain fruits and vegetables and spices and seasonings. And you can have a flight of seasonal tequilas. We have our summer collection, our winter, our fall and our spring.” For the winter collection, expect blancos with cucumber, blancos with rosemary, blancos with sage, reposado with vanilla, reposado with café, añejo with dulce de leche, and probably a Bordeaux añejo combination.
It comes as no surprise that East LA Meets Napa offered a taste of things to come. Rivera’s signature margarita will be the Donaji that he served at the event. “Donaji was a princess,” says Sedlar. “Unfortunately she fell in love with a warrior from a neighboring tribe, which was taboo, and her father killed her. He sacrificed her for doing that. There are a lot of things named in her honor in Oaxaca, and this cocktail was one of them…We take some of the fruits and the mescal and put it in the beverage. Also we take the chapulines, the crispy, crunchy crickets you see on all the stands in Mexico. You can even find them here in Los Angeles. We chop them and we mix them with the salt and we put them on the rim of the glass.”
An “avant garde, interesting” dessert menu will utilize savory elements in sweet dishes. For example: caramelized tortillas with mole ice cream.
Sedlar also plans to incorporate huitlacoche into the menu. You probably know, but in case you don’t, huitlacoche is the pungent fungus that grows on corn. “A natural would be to make an empanadita,” says Sedlar, “but we just might make huitlacoche ice cream. Which would be aggressive.”
As for the location, South Park, which resides in the shadow of L.A. LIVE, was a clear choice for the trio. “South Park is the new West,” says Sedlar. “It’s got big skies. It’s got Pacific facing huge skies, new broad avenues and there’s an invigorating environment of expansionism. It’s the new Los Angeles.”
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December 27, 2008 at 9:35 AM
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