In the new movie, “Chef,” Jon Favreau plays Carl Casper, a Los Angeles chef who agrees with his restaurant’s owner to “play the hits” for an influential critic, resulting in a horrible review, a very public shame spiral and (temporary) unemployment. For leading chefs like Carl Casper, it would be easy to play the hits, and customers would probably continue to fill seats, at least for awhile. However, truly innovative chefs continue to push, never satisfied with the hits. In L.A., one such chef is John Sedlar.
Chef Sedlar became synonymous with Modern Southwest Cuisine in the ’80s and resurfaced in L.A. preaching “New Latin Cuisine,” casting a far wider culinary net than his native New Mexico. Rivera became a hit when Sedlar opened an eponymous restaurant with restaurateur Bill Chait near Staples Center in 2009. Yes, Rivera became popular with businessmen, politicians, sports fans and critics thanks to dishes like tortillas florales, duck enfrijolada and Julian Cox’s cocktails. However, Sedlar is a man who is always tinkering, so he changed the format and menu entirely this year. Yes, you can still find an abbreviated printed menu at Rivera, but much of the experience now revolves around Loncheras, “a procession of mobile service carts and hand-carried trays that deliver directly to guests an array of small plates infused with the pulsing spirit of New Latin Cuisine.”
The restaurant’s service format was indeed inspired by a visit to State Bird Provisions in San Francisco, though the food is quite different, and Rivera’s carts are decidedly more modern, with screens that play video, and soon enough, will even speak. During my recent dinner at Rivera, carts delivered dishes like steamed artichoke “bowl” with shrimp and lobster salad, served with romesco; a purple-spined sea urchin serving as a pedestal, holding red cabbage slaw and plump mussels; and a roasted squash filled with goat cheese and ground pork.
I should probably single out a particular dish from the Loncheras carts, many of which I really enjoyed. However, the most praiseworthy dish to hit my table showcased Sedlar’s whole Loup de Mer A La Plancha ($55), a crisp-skinned Mediterranean sea bass seasoned with rosemary, salt and olive oil, which was beautifully seared. A squeeze of lemon, a spoonful of red chimichurri, and I couldn’t wait to lift my fork to the flaky white fish again, and again. Sedlar also served the fish with four other sauces, in case the red chimichurri wasn’t enough: romesco, salsa verde, aji panca, and aji amarillo.
While it’s exciting to see Chef Sedlar push his high-tech, New Latin vision forward (on wheels), I was still happy to see that he also still casts his fishing line in a classic sea.