It's a shame that not every diner can sit down with Rivera's John Sedlar and listen to him tell the stories of his dishes while they dine. Sedlar is a gifted storyteller in person, however the power of myth, history, and culture are also embedded in every bite of the beautiful food he has on the menu at his popular and welcoming downtown restaurant.
On a bustling Friday night Rivera and Chef Sedlar welcomed LAist to spend some time at the table and in the kitchen and to taste their current dineLA dinner menu. The $44 prix fixe menu is serving double duty, however, which is a boon to future patrons of Rivera who may not be able to book a table before the end of this week, when dineLA comes to an end, because the dishes are a selected preview of what's to come in the next few weeks at the restaurant, and showcase Sedlar's epicuriosity for the roots of Spanish cuisine.
Although the act of eating, some may argue, is inherently violent, it's not often that violence is in fact a point of reference for a meal's inspiration. However, Sedlar explained to us in the softly-lit back dining room that the Spanish Menu was dubbed the "Sangre" menu, meant to evoke the violent nature of Spanish culture, from its riotous colors, intense music, and of course its food. Hoping to delve back to unearth what he calls the "DNA of the Spanish kitchen," the Sangre menu evokes the cuisine's Arabic and Mediterranean roots.
For dineLA, the menu consists of three choices per each of three courses, and while at most restaurants the significant issue is simply what to select, at Rivera they require that if patrons wish to partake in the dineLA menu that all members in your party must do so as well, an issue we'd never encountered and which presented the only sour note of the evening from a diner's standpoint. Any discomfort with that policy was eradicated, however, when Sedlar explained the exciting new menu program they'll debut shortly, wherein each of the rooms will offer a different supplemental menu to support the core Rivera menu, each showcasing a specific cuisine and region.
In the cozy dining area where we sat accompanied not only by our fellow diners but also the walled library of customer-owned private tequila bottles, the Sangre menu will be offered exclusively (yes, you can book a table in a particular room to ensure you can dine from that menu) and was our focal point for our dineLA meal.
We were fortunate enough to be able to try all of the dishes, and for the appetizer course that meant enjoying the Piquillos Rellenos (Stuffed Spanish Peppers, Chorizo, Golden Raisins, Gruyere), Caracoles Snails (Iberico Ham, Herbs), and Ensalada Flamenca (Sevilla-Style Salad of Beets, Oranges, Garbanzos, Moorish Spices). To hear Sedlar explain the origins of the snails dish, for example--a story about a childhood food memory from days spent living above a snail purveyor, whose walls were crawling with the delicacies, and which were prepared by Sedlar's Spanish housekeeper in a manner not unlike how he presents them to his diners today--is to fully appreciate the level of thought and detail that goes into each dish.
The quality and integrity of the food is apparent, however, in the most important place--your mouth. No matter the backstory, the beautiful snails are complex and herbal, dragged with their expected bounce through a fragrant brown sauce, lacking any of the chew the protein gets a bad rep for having when badly made. The cheery mild red peppers charred and filled with salty chorizo tempered by the sweet softness of golden raisins and soothed more by the queso were a favorite of the table, while the vibrant reds and golds of the beets did indeed evoke its namesake dance and the dancers' intensity and bold-colored costumes. Most exciting was the plating of the Sevilla flamenco salad, with the bewitching eyes dusted onto the plate using a blend of fragrant and earthy spices. As with any dinner at Rivera, you'd be remiss if you didn't order up a serving of the Tortillas Floras, which we saw made last year at LA Magazine's Food and Wine event.
For the entrees, each dish again was a chapter in the history of Spanish cuisine, with the Scallops Arabesque (Sea Scallops, Eggplant, Preserved Lemon, Ras El Hanout) reflecting the Arabic elements of the culture and food. Plump, perfectly seared scallops nestled in a cozy trio on a bed of eggplant so velvety and savory it was hard not to simply hijack the plate and selfishly scoop up each morsel with a large spoon. The Horse Latitudes (Striped Bass, Saffron, Artichoke, Spinach) is a tale of the sea and not the land, ergo the beautiful portion of bass tangled in salty, spiced veg that mimicked the fish's habitat. For meat lovers, Gitano (Rib-Eye. Pimenton, Jerez Vinegar, Patatas Bravas) is a hearty cut of beef perched on a bright orange-red sauce and next to bites of rich fried potatoes--and beneath a smoked paprika dusting you'll need to swipe your bites through.
While we were at Rivera to focus on dineLA, we couldn't turn down the opportunity to taste some of their other dishes, including their "Stimulus Package" pork tamale and the sumptuous comfort of the Duck Enfrijolada, which is made with goat cheese, duck, black bean puree between layers of blue-corn tortillas swimming in a chile rioja sauce, strewn with flowers and served with two spheres of purple potatoes. Our last dining experience at Rivera gives us the wisdom to tell you that should you be there at lunchtime, order this dish--it comes with a gorgeous poached egg midday, too!
To end the meal we saved room for dessert, which are thankfully on the light and mildly-sweet side on this menu. A beautiful selection of Spanish Cheeses made for some lovely salty post-meal bites, which we balanced out with the cool creaminess of the Estudio en Flan (Curry-Blackberry, Lime-Mint Pepper, Strawberry-Anise Sauces), each of which were enhanced by the beauty and restraint of the accompanying sauces. Last was the tender Zaragoza Olive Oil Cake, which came with the most gorgeous strawberry sorbet whose very strawberry-ness, if you will, was like a refreshing, cold-shower kind of brightening of the senses after a meal of darker, smokier flavors.
To get a closer look at the kitchen of Rivera you don't necessarily need an invitation. The open layout of the restaurant means that the kitchen staff will often return waves to passing pedestrians who stop to peer into the street-side windows, and the different rooms of the restaurant allow for diners to feel almost as though they were in a home, maybe at a party, where you can have a slightly different experience depending on where you sit.
For some, the dineLA experience can be had until the end of this week, while for others it may mean a cocktail or some tequila in the bar area and a late night snack, a lunch in the main dining room, or a seat at the communal table or food-bar area adjacent to the kitchen. Whatever your meal story, at Rivera what you eat is a story itself, and will become a story you'll tell about what you ate.