Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Elevating Latin Cuisine – The Sophisticated, Stylish Dishes of Rivera Restaurant (and Home of Fantastic, Fresh Cocktails)

During my first visit to Rivera Restaurant, I found myself wondering why it took me so long to pay this restaurant a visit. Perhaps it was the feeling of inundation at yet another new, stylish eatery opening up in Downtown L.A. (part of a boom of restaurants opening all within the last year or so). Or maybe it was the early pictures and glimpses of the menu that seemed like it was the Mexican equivalent of P.F. Chang's, focusing more on drawing in the mainstream. And it didn't help that there was another brand-new, chic Latin cuisine restaurant (Casa) opening up around the same time, in the same area.

But after hearing many good reviews about Rivera from mollyomormon and many others, I decided to stop by one evening last month, and 5 visits later, it's easy to see why Rivera has become one of the standout restaurants in Downtown L.A. with its relaxed, but stylish setting, wonderful cocktails, and elegant execution of Latin cuisine.


Rivera Restaurant is the result of a lifelong dream of Executive Chef John Rivera Sedlar. A native of Santa Fe, New Mexico, Chef Sedlar grew up seeing Mexican and Latin cuisine being treated as "second-class cuisine," with many people thinking that it was mainly about tacos and burritos, etc. He saw how elegant and fancy American and European cuisine was presented, and hoped to one day present Latin cuisine in the same light; to create a restaurant that could really elevate Latin cuisine to a similar level, and to that end, Chef Sedlar trained under Chef Jean Bertraneau (learning the classical French cuisine techniques), and even went on a real-life Anthony Bourdain/No Reservations-esque 14 year journey across Mexico, South America and the Caribbean to hone his skills. Rivera is the result of all of that.


Walking into Rivera, you find yourself immediately looking over at the simple, but stylish bar, helmed by head bartender Julian Cox. Glancing over the bar area, I notice piles of fresh fruit, herbs and vials of homemade fruit- and herb-infused concoctions that Julian and the rest of the bartending crew use for the various signature cocktails at Rivera.


On my first visit, we begin with the simplest of Prologos (Snacks) on the menu: Tortillas Florales (Housemade Nixtimal Tortillas, "Indian Butter").


These turn out to be visually beautiful (and tasty), handmade Tortillas, thick and crisped on the outside, with an edible Flower cooked into each one(!). It's cute and delicious with the Avocado-infused "Indian Butter."



Next up is their Bacalao Negro Fresco (Seared Black Cod, Serrano Ham Crisp).


The Black Cod is wonderfully cooked, first poached and then finished with a perfect searing resulting in a crispy, sexy crust, and a super-moist interior. Of the 3 times I've ordered this dish, it's been great every time. The Black Cod is *so* fresh and pure in its taste, with no hint of any bad brininess. The Serrano Ham adds a nice salty accent to each bite of the Black Cod, with the Jicama slivers adding that very fresh, crispness and textural contrast.

The housemade Salsa Verde (made from Serrano Chiles) also deserves mention for its fragrant, even-burning heat that accents the fish wonderfully without overpowering. And finally the Oregano-Mint "decoration" on the side of the plate is whimsical and fun, and another nice accent to the dish. Excellent! :)


While the Bacalao had some cute plating design, the Pollo Con Citricos (Pan Roasted Chicken, Citrus, Carrots, Wilted Spinach) represents something a bit more provoking, interesting, and curious, with its brazen "Courtesy is not a sign of weakness" lettering spelled out across the plate using Cumin and Turmeric.


The various messages that appear on the dinner plates is something Chef Sedlar wanted to try: He's a firm believer in the dinner table being a place not only to eat, but to commune and talk about things. So these messages are put on certain dishes to serve as a catalyst for that goal. :) It's interesting and different, and doesn't bother me.

The Chicken itself is another great dish: The Pan Roasted Chicken is extremely fresh and moist, cooked with a bit of Olive Oil, Rosemary and Thyme, served with some Purple Peruvian Potatoes.


The Fletan (Seared Halibut, Tomatillos, Tempura Chiles) is an exercise in perfectly cooked fish when Chef Sedlar is overseeing the kitchen.


The Halibut is like the Pollo Con Citricos, but even more so: Cooked simply in Olive Oil with some Salt and Black Pepper, it's very light, but not bland. The Tomatillos are thinly sliced and sprayed with a Citrus-infused Olive Oil, adding a nice hint of tart to the moist, flaky Halibut. But on another visit (on a Sunday), when Chef Sedlar was off, the Halibut was a bit overcooked around the edges.


The Duck Enfrijolada (Duck Confit, Goat Cheese, Stacked Blue-Corn Tortillas, Black Bean Puree, Chile Rioja Sauce) is another striking presentation, showing off the deep, dark colors of their Mole ("Mo-Leh") Sauce in an elegant manner.


The initial star of the dish is the housemade Chipotle-Cabernet Sauce: It's complex, with a good aroma that engages your sense of smell immediately, with a good creamy background and a slow burn.

But as you dig deeper, tasting a bit of the Blue-Corn Tortillas with the Chipotle Sauce and the Goat Cheese and some chunks of the Duck Confit, that's when the true beauty of this dish really shines: The flavors work beautifully, with the distinct, sharp Goat Cheese meshing nicely with the fatty, moist Duck Confit chunks of meat, and it all combines with the Blue-Corn Tortillas and Chipotle-Cabernet to enter into an earthy loveliness. Delicious! :)


Our final entree of the evening is their Maya Puerco Pibil Sous Vide (Banana Leaf Braised Pork Shoulder, Peruvian Potatoes).


After seeing the words "Sous Vide" in the description, I wasn't sure what to expect with this dish: Would it be like a Yucatecan Cochinita Pibil, or something far different? It turns out to be nice, generous slices of Braised Pork Shoulder presented on top of a Banana Leaf; another stylish presentation.

The Puerco Pibil itself tastes very clean and fresh, with a good tender quality to it, but also retaining a firmness in its texture and structure. It's nothing like the usual Cochinita Pibil I've seen locally, but it's a unique presentation and successful dish overall. I would've liked a bit more of the meltingly tender aspect with this Pork Shoulder, but otherwise, it was good.


For dessert, we decide to try one of their daily specials and one of their regular items. The Olive Oil Cake with Fresh Strawberries and Creme Fraiche & Strawberry Sorbet is a nice way to finish off dinner.


The Olive Oil Cake is very moist and well-permeated with Olive Oil but it's never overpowering. The Fresh Strawberries, Creme Fraiche Sorbet and Strawberry Sorbet combination adds just the right level of sugary sweetness and a touch of natural tartness to keep it from ever getting too saccharin.


The Baba Cachaca (with Citrus and Dulce De Leche) is something wildly different: It starts with some Bread soaked in Cachaca (a Brazilian alcoholic beverage made from Sugarcane), and then layered with Grapefruit and Cream.

Initially the Cachaca and the alcoholic content has a good punch, and the bitterness of the Grapefruit slices adds to the strangeness, but then you start tasting the subtleties of the combination, and a small dab into the Dulce De Leche swaths on the plate gives each bite a light sweetness to balance out the alcohol and bitter notes.


Overall the first visit was a pleasant, enjoyable evening, and on our way out - passing by the vials of housemade fruit- and herb-infused syrups - I was reminded to try their signature cocktails for my next visit. :)


For the second visit, we begin with their Tamal (Braised Pork Short Rib, Seasonal Mushrooms, Guajillo Sauce).


The Oyster Mushrooms are fragrant, but a bit dried out, but its aroma really opens up the flavors of the Kurobuta Pork in the Tamale. The Kurobuta Pork is tender and well-seasoned, but the highlight would have to be the Masa dough itself: Very moist and refined, the texture is perfect for the Pork filling.


Eager to try their cocktails, I begin with the Sabertooth (Cachaca, Lime, Eau de Vie, Blueberries). Taking a sip... refreshing, relaxing, real bits of Blueberry pulp; just delicious. The Sabertooth is thankfully not overpowered by the alcohol (as is too often the case), and you can taste the care and effort put into this drink. This is a serious cocktail, with Bartender Julian and staff using local Farmer's Market fresh fruit for their concoctions, and it shows.

It's also interesting to note that they use custom Ice Cubes from Neve Luxury Ice. The ice cube is one huge block of ice that's designed to minimize melting, so that the cocktail doesn't become diluted with water over time, while still keeping the drink properly chilled. (And after finishing the Sabertooth, the Neve Ice Cube retained about ~90% of its original size and shape; very cool. :)


My guest orders the Clover Club (Gin, Raspberry Preserve, Egg White, Lime). This is definitely a stronger drink, with the Gin front-and-center, but smoothed out with the Raspberry Preserve's light sweetness and the Egg White and Lime. It's a bit too much Gin for my tastes, but my guest loved it.


Our next starter arrives: Piquillos Rellenos (Stuffed Spanish Peppers, Chorizo, Golden Raisins, Gruyere).


This is another beautiful presentation, visually engaging, and it makes me all the more eager to try it. While the Chorizo flavor isn't very apparent, it adds enough to enhance the mild, sweet Gruyere and Golden Raisins combination. The only slight disappointment is that it was served at room temperature (both times I've ordered it).


But possibly the best starter to try would have to be Chef Sedlar's Cordorniz Cubana (Grilled Quail, Black Beans).


Succulent, juicy, tender Quail that's cooked just through... there's a light smokiness, and the Frijoles Negros (Black Beans) is surprisingly light and earthy, with an enchanting light spice note from the Achiote Peppers. Quail can be so easy to mess up, but after Animal, I'm happy to have found another restaurant that shines with its Quail dish. Outstanding!


Their Mole (Kurobuta Pork Chop, Mole, Market Fresh Vegetables) is another example of Chef Sedlar's deft touch in combining the traditional with modern touches.


The Mole ("Mo-Leh") Sauce is immediately accessible, yet still layered enough to have you yearning to know more about the complex sauce. There's a good Chocolate note, along with a nice low burn. It's not going to rival Moles La Tia anytime soon, but it's a solid Mole Sauce.

The menu lists the Mole Sauce as being the star of the dish, but after biting into a bit of the Pork Chop, the clear winner is the excellent Kurobuta Pork Chop. Of the two times ordering this dish, the Kurobuta Pork Chop has been cooked just right: Tender, juicy, yet still with a great meaty, firmness, this is one of the best Pork Chops I've had in a while.



At this point, my guest orders another cocktail to try: A Good Night (Bourbon, Orange Zest Bitters, Tequila, Honey, Cherry). This one is definitely for all the Bourbon lovers out there. It's strong, but the Bitters, Honey and Cherry help take some of the edge off this drink. My guest loved it, but this is something that's a bit too potent for me. :)


Their Purple Rain (Vodka, Violet, Ginger, Rosewater, Thai Basil) on the other hand, is just beautiful and stunning, visually and taste-wise.


It's absolutely refreshing and completely enjoyable to drink as a beverage, with the Ginger, Rosewater and Thai Basil giving each sip a natural floral scent with a great taste. One of my new favorite cocktails. :)


We continue onto dessert, starting with the Estudio en Flan (Three Different Styles of the Classic Dessert, with Three Complementary Sauces).


This is a fascinating dish, not because of the presentation (which is well done), but because of the 3 densities of Flan presented. Starting from the left side, the first Flan is the lightest, having a far more light and airy consistency than the usual Flan found around town. It's absolutely wonderful by itself, but you can also dab a bit of it in the Strawberry Anise Sauce, Black Pepper Caramel, or Blackberry Curry, and entice your senses even more. (^_~)


The middle Flan is the Flan with the medium density; it tastes familiar and is the one most similar to the standard Flan dessert found around town. It's also delicious in its own way, but the densest Flan is the most curious. It's definitely thicker and more viscous in some ways, but still delicious. Ultimately it's a great play on textures with the same type of dessert, and something I've found myself ordering again and again.



For my 3rd visit, we begin with Caballito de Sopas Dobles (Two Latin Soups, Different Flavors, Different Temperatures). For this evening, it's Arroz Con Leche with a Lamb Veloute. The Arroz Con Leche is really light and smooth, and at room temperature. It's layered with the Lamb Veloute as the 2nd layer, which is so pure, buttery and completely permeating Lamb goodness at a warm temperature. The result is a shot of 2 different flavors slowly combining at 2 different temperatures in your mouth.

The Cordero Vasco (Basque Lamb Chops, Chorizo, Piquillos, Olives, Capers) arrives soon after.


I love Lamb in general, so I couldn't wait to try this. Unfortunately the Lamb Chops were a touch too salty, but were still moist and supple for the most part. It was cooked about medium to medium-well in doneness, and looking back on the dish, it was probably the combination of Chorizo, Capers and general Salting of the Lamb Chops that did this dish in for me.


I decide to start with their Strawberry Fields (Blanco Tequila, Velvet Falernum, Strawberries, Cucumber, Mint) cocktail, which turns out to be yet another winner on their amazing Cocktail Menu. Imagine super-vibrant Farmer's Market Strawberries, freshly muddled, with Cucumber and Mint, blending just right with the Blanco Tequila. It's like the best Fresh Fruit Smoothie that's been Spiked (just a touch). (^_~) This has become another favorite cocktail of mine.


The Pato al Vino (Duck Confit, Rioja Reduction, Cascabel Chile) shows off some of Chef Sedlar's French Cuisine training with a very good rendition of Duck Confit. The Duck tastes fresh, succulent and still tender, with a crisped skin. The Rioja Reduction gives it a nice layer of flavor, but the Duck Confit can stand on its own as well.


Perhaps the only disappointing item I've had on the menu is surprisingly the Jamon Iberico de Bellota Pata Negra (World's Finest Ham, Housemade Bread).


I've only had Jamon Iberico de Bellota previously at The Bazaar, where I fell in love with this type of Cured, Free-Range Pork immediately. At The Bazaar, the Jamon Iberico de Bellota was lightly salty, but so vibrant and just stunning, and gristle-free.


But here, with the Jamon being hand-carved to order, it tasted like a completely different type of Jamon. It was extremely salty, and each piece we tried had some noticeable gristle. Looking back on my pictures, they look slightly different. I'm not sure why the two are so different (perhaps different brands), but this was one disappointing dish.


The Crema Catalana (Almonds, Xerez Creme) thankfully rebounds nicely.


This dessert is really aromatic, nutty and lightly sweet. The Powdered Sugar Almonds add a nice touch as well, giving a playful crunch to the creaminess of the rest of the dessert.


Finally, their Mexico City Sundae is an explosion of intensity: It's a Vanilla, Habanero(!), Passion Fruit Helado (Ice Cream), topped with Roasted Pine Nuts and Caramel.


It's wild and spicy and truly completely intense! Surprisingly it's not too sweet, and it's the most bizarre thing to be eating Ice Cream, and experiencing a spicy burning sensation, while also being cooled by the Ice Cream. :)


Service has been attentive and solid for the most part. During my first visit, our waitress seemed a bit distant at times, with us having to flag down a secondary server in the area to take care of our needs at times. But on the 2nd, 3rd, 4th and 5th visits, the service has been just fine. Prices range from $2 - $44 (for the Jamon Iberico), with most dishes in the $10 - $20 range. Cocktails range from $6 - $15. We averaged about ~$50 per person (including tax and tip).

With an elegant, but relaxed atmosphere, outstanding cocktails, and simply delicious creations by Chef Sedlar, Rivera is quickly becoming one of the best reasons to dine in Downtown L.A. One of the most subtle achievements, but my absolute favorite thing about Rivera, is its refinement. This isn't about the negative connotations of the word, but about the fact that Chef Sedlar and the kitchen staff have focused on creating dishes that are generally never too salty (except the Jamon), never too oily, or too sweet. Chef Sedlar set out to create a restaurant that celebrates Latin Cuisine and can elevate it to a level that rivals that of many fine American and European restaurants. From the interesting plating design, to the stylish atmosphere and delicious cocktails, to the restrained but excellent food, he has succeeded with flying colors.

Rating: 8.5 (out of 10.0)

Rivera Restaurant
1050 S. Flower Street, #102
Los Angeles, CA 90015
Tel: (213) 749-1460

Hours: [Lunch] Mon - Fri, 11:30 a.m. - 2:00 p.m.
[Dinner] Mon - Sat, 5:30 p.m. - 10:30 p.m.
Sunday, 5:30 p.m. - 10:00 p.m.
[Late Night] Thu - Sat, 10:30 p.m. - 1:00 a.m. (special late night menu served until 12:00 Midnight)

http://www.riverarestaurant.com/

18 comments:

Food, she thought. said...

I love Rivera! You are genius for going when it was light and getting such great pics. One of the things I love is the plating. The duck Enfrijolada looks delicious. Was the Mexico City Sundae on the menu? I have not seen it on the menu before, but tried it the other night at a special tasting, and wonder if he put it on the menu and I missed it.

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Food, she thought,

I'm glad you love Rivera, too! :) Like you, I think the plating is just lovely and really enhances the way you enjoy dinner.

Definitely give the Duck Enfrijolada a try next time. :)

The Mexico City Sundae looks to be something the kitchen is experimenting with. When we went, we saw that the kitchen was sending it out to multiple tables (perhaps they were gauging the reaction to see if it was something to permanently add?). It was fun, definitely. :)

weezermonkey said...

Yummy! FYI, Rivera now has a great cheap late-night menu. You can get stuff like the duck enfrijolada for just $8 after 10:30!

Not sure if the portions are still the same, but this is what my downtown resident flyers tell me. :)

choisauce said...

I've been to rivera for julian's amazing cocktails atleast 20 times in the last few months but it wasn't until last night I had the full dinner experience. all I can say is WOW. chef sedler is truly amazing down to the details of spices and presentation of each dish. next time, u MUST try the 2 soups/2 tastes/2 temperatures/1 shot glass. I also had the lamb chops (I think I could eat about 50 of them lol), sous vide pork shoulder (tender amazing), and mexico city sundae! (love the burning in the back the throat =P). I'm dying to return and try some more! new summer menu in 2 weeks!

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Weezermonkey,

That's great news. :) $8 for most of their entrees for Late Night sounds like a winner for sure. :) Hope you've enjoyed your visits there (or if you haven't gone, give it a shot next time).

Exile Kiss said...

Hi choisauce,

Thanks. Yah, I've had their 2 Temperature Soup before - nice and light - and I'm glad to hear your first dinner experience went very well. :)

glutster said...

Duck Enfrijoladas?!

Can't wait to try these guys at the East L.A/Napa event, so are you coming?

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Teenage Glutster,

Yes indeed. :) The Duck Enfrijoladas were delicious; let me know what you think of them. :)

That East L.A. event sounds really cool; I hope I can make it out.

Pinkfoodie said...

I've had Rivera on the bottom of my list of restaurants to try, although after reading your review, I might have to bump it up. The Mexico City Sundae sounds great and I look forward to tasting the Feltan.

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Pink Foodie,

Yah, like you, originally I wasn't sure what to expect from the place. But I'm glad I finally made it out to the restaurant. It's not going to change your world (^_~), but it's a nice Downtown L.A. restaurant and a place I'm happy to go back to if my friends want to go. :)

Ravenous Couple said...

amazing review. we loved his dish at Taste of the Nation (which included those edible flower tortillas) and definitely have to try this soon..

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Ravenous Couple,

Thanks. I missed the Taste of the Nation event, but I'm glad to hear his dish was excellent there. I hope you enjoy your visit to Rivera. :)

Kung Food Panda said...

You know, I've only been here for the drinks, but heard great things about the food as well.

One thing you should try next time in terms of cocktail: Blood Sugar Sex Magic! They had a $5 cocktail night on the 3rd and I was lucky to try a few until I got pretty buzzed. Great place and great vibe. Great write up as always!

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Kung Food Panda,

Thanks, and thank you for the great tip on the other cocktail; I'll have to try that next time.

Hope you like their food; it's definitely worth trying a few of their items, and what's nice is that you can order from the full menu at the bar, so if you want to snack on something while getting drinks, there's no reason not to. :) Let me know how your visit goes.

Gastronomer said...

Thanks to committing to FIVE whole visits before writing this up. Your enthusiasm for the place got me really excited about the food.

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Gastronomer,

Thanks. :) I hope you enjoy your visit to this restaurant as well. Let me know how it goes. :)

Daniel S. said...

Excellent review and great, well-exposed pictures. Rivera has to be one of the best things that's happened to the LA food scene in recent times.

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Daniel S.,

Thank you. Totally agree that Rivera is a wonderful addition to the L.A. food scene. Glad to hear you enjoy Rivera as well. :)

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