Review: Rivera, Los Angeles

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Photos by Ethan Pines

By the time we settle into our corner table, tequilas in hand, I’m lightheaded. I fear I’m outmatched tonight and could end up under the table. I’m dining at Rivera with The Blonde, The Sailor and a Tequila Baron. We haven’t even looked at the menus yet, and we’re already exchanging jail stories. That’s what I love about tequila.

I’m drinking a trio of infusions. The liquid in my first glass is amber, and although it tastes like vanilla, it goes down like tequila. The liquid in my second glass looks innocently like lemonade, but it turns out to be an exotic, almost sexual-tasting potion that hints of grapefruit and cardamom. The third glass in front of me is tinted red and makes me think of flowers and estrogen, which really isn’t to my liking, so I pawn it off on The Blonde. 

After a story involving a Harley and a Jesus beard, we wipe the tears from our eyes and take a quick breather to order a few pre-dinner snacks. We order a stack of tortillas florales, some “mini chips” with “dog’s snout” salsa and a third item curiously called deconstructed salsa. The tortillas prove to be the best call. They are thick, handmade corn tortillas with a big green leaf—that looks like an ace of clubs—pressed inside. (On another occasion, it’s a flower.) I don’t know how to describe the flavor other than to say it tastes like Mexico. The dog’s snout salsa is smoky and earthy, with a fully realized heat that sneaks up on you, but not so ferociously that it makes my nose water, as the name suggests it might. I’m stumped, though, by the mini chips that arrive with the salsa. Clearly these aren’t made for sailors or tequila barons, or even me and The Blonde. Our hands look enormous holding these tiny, delicate facsimiles of chips, which crumble and lodge themselves deep in the salsa every time we go in for a scoop. My gigantic hand pulls away with only a crumb—along with a smear of salsa on my thumb. What a dumb way to serve a chip.

Chef John Rivera Sedlar became famous in the ’80s and ’90s, first as a master of California French at Saint Estephe and later as one of the fathers of modern Southwestern cuisine at Bikini and Abiquiu, then disappeared from the scene for nearly 15 years. I’ll forgive the chip incident for a moment because the tortillas and salsa prove this chef has not only still got it after all these years, but he’s once again at the forefront of a movement.

Rivera is a beautiful restaurant with hardwood floors and interesting walls. On one, there’s an installation of video art; two other walls are made up of tequila bottles. In the lounge, there are a number of special “tequila chairs” designed by one of the owners. They’re comfortable and sexy but unfortunately not conducive to conversation. (We tried to begin our night in these chairs, but soon asked to be moved to our table after growing tired of shouting.)

Stymied by the chips, we’re all still famished and ready to place the rest of our order.

“I don’t care what else anybody wants,” says The Sailor, “but I’m getting the pork shoulder.”

“No way, that one’s mine,” The Baron says.

I fear a fight. What the two macho men are about to wrestle for is a variation on the famous Yucatán dish cochinita pibil, a pig shoulder wrapped in banana leaves. In the old days, this was cooked in a pit in the ground (and still is in some of the Yucatán’s best little restaurants). Here, it’s slowly poached, sous-vide style.

“We’re all sharing,” I remind them. But right about now the waitress comes by to tell us the kitchen has sold out of the cochinita pibil. I sense another fight. Our table goes solemnly quiet. It’s the most tragic news any of us could have possibly imagined. We order more tequila.

After a tale of an arrest involving a brawl with an Oklahoma cop, we’re again wiping away the tears of laughter that only tequila knows how to induce. Our first real course arrives, and the table goes quiet again as we start passing around the plates. First up is the tuna ceviche, loosely translated in the style of sashimi or crudi: beautiful slices of raw ahi drizzled with lime and topped with a few shavings of serrano chile and avocado. It’s delicious. (The restaurant features a ceviche bar, which looks like a sushi bar, but with a Latino twist.) Next up is a dish of black cod, perfectly cooked and buttery. Stenciled onto the plate next to the fish—using some sort of golden powder—is the universal symbol for radioactivity. Fearing a nuclear blast, everyone waits for me to taste it before they let it touch their tongues. But it’s not hot. It’s cumin powder, with hints of exotica that suggests South Asia rather than south of the border. We all agree this is the best appetizer on the table.

The duck confit unfortunately reveals itself to be somewhat dry, and a pork tamale doesn’t charm the way it should. The tamale is made from wonderful masa, but I reach my fork to the plate several times and fail to snag a single bite that includes even a smidgen of pork.

By now our sommelier has emptied two bottles of wine into our fancy stemware. It happens faster than it should, for he has emptied each bottle in a single pass around the table, filling our huge glasses with a quarter-bottle at a time. The wines are good, and ridiculously cheap. The selection is a very smart compilation mostly from Latin America and Spain, organized by grape. The sommelier tells us he was formerly a private cellar consultant, and this is his first restaurant floor job, which helps explain his nervous inclination to overfill our glasses (but doesn’t excuse it).

When our entrées arrive, there’s barely enough room on the table, given the clutter of wine glasses and tequila shots, but our servers perform a juggling act and somehow make everything fit. We’re still sore about not getting to try the cochinita pibil (on a subsequent visit, it’s excellent), but we take solace in the next best thing: a big fat pork chop smothered in mole sauce. I wish the meat were medium-rare instead of well-done, but we forgot to request it that way, so I’ll take the blame. I can’t be faulted, however, for the steak being similarly overdone. I asked for medium-rare but end up chewing on a rib-eye that’s more pinkish-brown than red. Thankfully, it’s a good piece of meat that’s able to withstand the punishment of flawed timing. The roasted chicken comes with a riddle written on the plate. The chicken itself is no riddle, though. Juicy, plump and fragrant, splashed
with lime—it’s gone in an instant. 

Desserts are fine, but not amazing. Our server describes the crema Catalana as a crème brûlée, but “pudding” is a better description. A chocolate tart does its best to get along with a relish of liquored-up pineapple. The best option is the baba, which is kind of like a donut hole filled with a creamy center that somehow reminds me of tres leches cake. We devour all three, even though we don’t love any of them, with a round of strong coffee, then contemplate another flight of tequilas—but decide it’s in our best interest to call it a night.

RIVERA
1050 S. Flower St., L.A.
213.749.1460

RATING
3 stars 

HOURS
Lunch, Mon.–Fri., 11:30am–2pm. Dinner, Sun.–Thurs., 5:30pm–10pm; Fri., Sat, 5:30pm–10:30pm.

WHO’S THERE
Bankers in need of tequila shots, dressed-up theatergoers, Lakers fans and hip young loft dwellers  

’80S FLASHBACK
Why does one of the toilet stalls have several chairs inside, allowing friends to congregate for whatever reason in a locked stall? 

ABOUT THE NOISE
Extremely loud in the bar and main dining room; much calmer in the side room

WHAT IT COSTS
Lunch, appetizers, $4–$12; entrées, $12–$27; desserts, $6. Dinner, appetizers, $2–$36; entrées, $21–$29; desserts, $7; corkage, $25; valet parking, $5 for the first two hours; beyond that, the price skyrockets.

What the stars mean: 0 = poor, unacceptable; 1 = fair, some noteworthy qualities; 2 = good, above average; 3 = very good, well above norm; 4 = excellent, among the area’s best; 5 = world-class, extraordinary in every detail. Reviews are based on multiple visits. Ratings reflect the reviewer’s overall reaction to food, ambience and service.

 

 

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