Planning a quick visit to Los Angeles, and knowing that I would be staying downtown, I polled several of my friends who are especially enthusiastic about food and wine, asking them which restaurants to try. One was on everyone’s list: Rivera. I headed there on my first evening, even though it was getting late.
I can’t wait to return. This is a special restaurant, even on a quiet Monday evening. Not only are the dishes varied and thoughtful, they vibrate with flavor. And an impressive list of wines from Spanish-speaking countries completes the experience.
My favorite item was a small plate called Peruvian Quechua. Based on a Peruvian peasant dish usually made with chicken, this version uses veal sweetbreads, crisp on the outside and creamy at the center, sliced and arranged in a row next to several cylinders of purple potato and strips of a zippy sauce seasoned with huacatay. At $12 it’s a steal for its finesse and complexity. My wine, Viña Reborada Mencía Ribera del Duero 2008, was as delicate and refined as the dish was.
Or maybe it was the soup, a broth version of posole with slivers of foie gras, fresh oregano leaf and black truffle. Or perhaps the most memorable was the “melon del mar,” compressed melon served with olive oil-poached lobster and little blobs of chile verde gelée.
Naw, it was the main dish of duck enfrijolada—shreds of braised duck heady with flavor, layered with blue corn tortillas, black bean puree, chèvre and a red wine chile sauce that had a bite to it but did not faze a rich red wine, Pascual Toso Malbec Mendoza Reserve 2008.
Rivera has been open for two years, but this was my first chance to get there. It was on my radar because it is the brainchild of John Rivera Sedlar, one of the true pioneers who opened the door in the 1980s to the modern American cooking we take for granted today. His first important restaurant, St. Estèphe, showed what could be done when a French-trained chef folded in elements of the southwestern cuisine of his youth in New Mexico. He later moved on to a pan-Latino restaurant called Bikini and Abiquiú, then disappeared from public view in the mid-1990s.
On South Flower Street a block away from the Staples Center, where the Lakers play, the Nokia Theater and the big L.A. Live complex, the restaurant occupies a corner of a new apartment building. Its sleek and modern design, accented by a high-tech wall of changing images reflecting the places that inspired the menu, is anchored at one end by a fresh fish and seafood bar typical of what you might see in Peru, and at the other by a quieter dining room. A bar with comfortable easy chairs occupies half the room.
Depending on which part of the restaurant they seat you, you might get a menu of dishes from Latin America (Samba Room), beach cuisine (La Playa, the seafood bar), or Spain and Portugal (Sangre Room). Everyone gets the Conexiones menu, which has some of all of the above.
The wine list of 300 options includes deep verticals of such great Spanish wines as Vega Sicilia and López de Heredia, and a wide selection of wines from Argentina and Chile, cavas, Sherries, Ports and Madeiras. A few North American wines made from Spanish grape varieties sneak in as well.
Despite its casual style, Rivera clearly goes after depth and distinction on the table and in the wineglass, while remaining casual and approachable. It’s a neat trick and it won me over. Next time, I’m camping out on La Playa. Bring on the Albariño!
1050 South Flower St., Los Angeles, 90015
Telephone: (213) 749-1460
Cost: Small plates, $9 to $14; main dishes, $21 to $29
Christopher Hills — Seattle, WA — January 7, 2011 2:37pm ET
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