Review: Playa, Los Angeles

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Mushroom tamale with filet mignon. Photo by Peden + Munk

He’s done it again.

With Playa, John Sedlar has proved once more that he’s among the most important chefs of our time. Not because he’s infallible or because every dish is perfect. And certainly not because he’s been on TV. But because he’s a true visionary who’s created yet another immensely interesting and highly original restaurant using flavors that are for the most part familiar.  

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The interior of Playa; bartender Julian Wayser; papas verdes. Photos by Peden + Munk

His story should be well known by now. The Santa Fe native pioneered modern Southwestern cuisine in Los Angeles in the ’80s and ’90s, then he just disappeared. He left the restaurant scene altogether. He traveled. He made tamales. He occasionally popped up as a consultant. And then a couple of years ago, he staged a spectacular comeback with Rivera downtown. He showed that although he’d been away from the scene, he hadn’t stopped thinking about the evolution of Latino cuisine.   

With Playa, he’s still at least two steps ahead of anyone else in this genre. Tortillas are never just tortillas. And although his cooking is firmly rooted in history and tradition, the chef is clearly not inhibited by either. Venezuela and Peru are just as likely to provide inspiration as India or Israel. Sedlar cooks with a unique point of view that is always refreshing, even if I don’t always like what’s on my plate. Fortunately, I have found far more things to enjoy than to whine about. So here are five things I truly adore about Playa, and three things I’m having a hard time wrapping my arms around.   

Things to love, No. 1
The potato chips. It sounds ridiculous, I know. But the papas salsa verde are the top reason I’m planning to return. They’re sort of like nachos but made with Kennebunk potatoes instead of tortillas. They’re liberally salted and drizzled with a creamy avocado tomatillo sauce that offers a smooth, subtle kick of serrano chile. I didn’t discover these until my third visit, and that’s probably a good thing. Each petite order that I received arrived with about six or seven chips—at more than a dollar per chip. Three chips into our first batch, The Redhead and I look at each other and know exactly what the other is thinking. Instantly we both turn to look for our waiter. “We’ve got to get more of these!”  

Things to love, No. 2
The chipotle tamale. This is an extraordinary dish. The tamale is a revelation of lightness, tasting as much of mushrooms as of masa, with the former creating a sort of buoyancy in the latter. The tamale comes with several slices of filet mignon, drizzled with a buttery chipotle béarnaise sauce. The filet tastes more like rib-eye than tenderloin, so it makes me wonder whether the chef used sous-vide to infuse the meat with more fat. Flawless.   

Things to love, No. 3
The chiles rellenos. Forget everything you’ve ever known about chiles rellenos. Sedlar has completely reinvented the stuffed pepper not once, but twice. The better of the two dishes is the one with chiles gueros, a medium-hot yellow pepper stuffed with crab meat and corn and fried tempura-style. I think this dish, more than any other, truly represents the spirit of Playa. It’s glamorous yet playful. It’s elegant and well mannered yet satisfyingly mischievous. Meanwhile, the other relleno is pure mischief. It’s bold and contemptuous—a pasilla pepper (a long, skinny, dried red chile) stuffed with white cheese and served in pickling juice with serranos and blistered tomatillos.
   

Things to love, No. 4
The overall vibe of the restaurant. Creating a great atmosphere is the holy grail for a great chef, and it’s the thing that remains elusive to most. Maybe that’s where Bill Chait comes in. He’s the managing partner here and at Rivera. He’s also the guy responsible for the Test Kitchen, the experimental pop-up concept with an ever-changing chef, which is supposed to reappear later this year. There’s an energy to the circus here that’s truly exhilarating. I can feel it the moment I step across the threshold, and it doesn’t relent until the door has closed behind me on the way out. A lot of this has to do with the cl
ientele. Everyone is here to eat. And to drink. And they’re doing it with abandon. Every table is a flurry of plates and glasses. There goes another cork. And if there’s ever a celebrity in the crowd, they tend to go unnoticed, completely irrelevant to the scene. The design is key, too, of course. This is the old Grace space, and the new team was smart enough to not completely gut the place. The gorgeous old wine room is still there. Throughout dinner, you’ll notice the sommelier climbing up and down the ladder, as if choreographed. The bar has been expanded and the kitchen opened up. The bar now has a ladder of its own. Every couple of minutes, a bartender scales the steps to retrieve a bottle of vodka or mescal from one of the top shelves.
   

Things to love, No. 5
The drinks. Bartender Julian Cox (formerly of Comme Ça and Sona) is quite simply one of the best bartenders in America. Cox is the whiz responsible for the bar at Rivera, too. He thinks like a chef. He mixes mescal with agave nectar and tops it with roasted tomatoes and fried sage. He fuses 12-year-old brandy with Malbec wine and Mexican Coke, and tops it with apple foam. The drinks come slowly, but nobody’s complaining. One night I notice a young woman squeezing into the seat next to me on the banquette, clutching two of the same cocktail, one in each hand. “Really?” I ask. To which she smiles and replies, “Have you tasted this one?”  

Things I wish I could love, No. 1
The noise. It’s too bad there wasn’t a way to create a great vibe without getting rid of the carpet. The decibels are off the charts. It shouldn’t have to be this way. 

Things I wish I could love, No. 2
The waitresses’ dresses. Male servers get to wear nice gray shirts and ties—very simple, hard to screw it up. But the women are forced to wear ill-fitting bridesmaid dresses that, when paired with hospital shoes, make quite the unfortunate fashion statement. OK, so uniforms are hard. I get that. But, bridesmaid dresses? Really?  

Things I wish I could love, No. 3
Dessert. Sadly, I just don’t like the desserts. They’re all overly complicated and cerebral. The juxtaposed flavors aren’t merely jarring, they’re offensive. Sure, I can find elements of each dessert to genuinely love, such as the chocolate cake with caramel popcorn, but add to that the combination of sour berry ice cream and mescal gelato, and you’ve lost me. My mouth shuts down—like trying to feed baby food to an infant who won’t open his mouth. Whenever I’ve seen photographs of these desserts, they always look stunning. But during the maddening rush of dinner service, when the kitchen doesn’t have time to properly tweeze every pomegranate seed, every flower, every tiny cube of tamarind gelée into its proper, seemingly random place, the presentation ends up looking like someone threw up on my plate.
  

Playa
7360 Beverly Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA
323.933.5300

Rating
Three stars

Hours
Sun.-Wed., 5:30pm-midnight; Thu.-Sat., 5:30pm-1am
 

Who’s there 
Empty nesters, off-duty chefs and creative industry execs
 

About the noise
Truly deafening. Repeated, prolonged exposure to noise of this magnitude is probably dangerous.
   

About the communal tables
Avoid them. They’re narrow and cramped and feel like an afterthought. You’ll have to suffer people bumping into your stool all night long.
   

What it costs
Small plates, $7–$16; large plates, $19-$27; sides, $6; desserts, $7-$9; corkage, $15 per bottle (limit 2); valet parking, $5.50
 

 

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