Monday, March 14, 2011

Playa Rivera: Distinctly satisfying

No one would ever describe me as a "light eater."

I've been called a "healthy eater."

A "quinoa queen."

Some have even referred to me as "a hangry."

But no one, not even my mother who is supposed to tell me exactly what I want to hear, has ever said, "That Diana Takes a Bite – what a light eater! Never ever clears her plate."

Because if they did, it would be a bit fat lie.

While almost everything I prepare for myself is healthy, I tend to eat larger than average portions of whatever it is I'm making. I roast up half a head of cauliflower and whip up some quinoa to go with my chana masala, I braise an entire bunch of kale when making braised greens with chickpeas, and it's not uncommon for me to eat half a bag of baby carrots for a "side" at lunch.

I get embarrassed about the size and girth of my home-cooked meals, fretting about the day when I'll actually have someone else to eat with and then I'll go and scare him off when I come to the table carrying a trough of food. I don't even need to close my eyes to imagine his horrified, eye-bulging reaction as I sit there next to him hungrily diving into a mountain of veggies, quinoa and tofu that could rival Mt. Kilimanjaro.

Not exactly a precursor to a romantic evening.

So I was a little anxious going to Chef John Rivera Sedlar's new modern Latin, tapas-style restaurant, Playa Rivera, this past Tuesday night. I'd heard a few rumors that the portions at Sedlar's second restaurant, located in the old Grace space on Beverly Blvd., were more mole hills than the mountains I'm used to eating. Considering the price point (small plates range between $7-16, large plates between $19-27), I wasn't too keen on the idea of leaving with an empty stomach.

But I was anxious to try the restaurant and anxious to catch up with my friend Kate, so was not inclined to dismiss mid-city's latest dining hot spot because I was worried I might actually be able to zip up my jeans after.

Upon arriving in the chicly styled space that is artfully groomed with exposed white-painted brick, orange leather chairs and chandeliers that almost seem to be composed of Hawaiian grass skirts, I felt a glimmer of excitement about the evening before me. Regardless of whether I left fully satiated, I knew that I was going to have a fun evening. I bellied up to the impressively stocked bar manned by beloved cocktailian Julian Cox and ordered a glass of sparkling Rosé to enjoy before sitting down for dinner.

Because my friend had already been to the restaurant for the soft opening a few weeks prior, it was easy to narrow down the menu of maize cakes, "warm" and "cool" small plates, sides, and "individuales" (larger plates). To start, we opted for the Papas Salsa Verde, kennebec potato chips artistically layered with a bright salsa of avocado, chiles, serranos and micro cilantro ($7); and the Tortillas Florales with organic flower petals and Indian butter ($8) that were made famous at Sedlar's first restaurant, Rivera.

While the chips and tortillas are categorized as "cool" plates, both emerged from the kitchen freshly fried and warm. The former is the sophisticate’s version of tortilla chips and guacamole – a refined interpretation that lives up to the restaurant's mission to create "spirited combinations composed with modern artistry" and "tapas-sized plates of beautiful, delicious food." With their delicate pressed edible flowers, the tortillas are similarly inspired – we quickly devoured the four maize cakes with accompanying avocado butter.

We are presented with the Flor de Calabaza Tempura, squash blossom stuffed with Spanish bacalao and luxuriously strewn with chorizo jus, capers and castelveltrano olives ($11) next. The salty cod is an unexpectedly delightful stuffing for the lightly battered blossoms, and the capers and olives add an additional punch of briny flavor that feels apropos rather than overkill.

The two corn arepas stuffed with grilled shrimp, feta, cilantro, and mango are less exciting in comparison, but still present nice flavors – they are just displayed in a more traditional package than many of the other items on the menu.

For our last two bites, we opted for two more small plates – the Arroz con Pato, duck confit with baby vegetable pickles, arroz blanco jus, fresno chiles, chives, micro cilantro ($16); and the Tamalli Chipotle, a wild-mushroom duxelles dumpling with filet mignon and chipotle béarnaise ($13). While the duck confit is a knock-out with its taut, crisp skin and luxuriously meaty interior, we both craved more of the fragrant arroz that's layered underneath it. As it is, the rice is more of a garnish than an accompaniment. The flavors are apparent, but it's impossible to get a true forkful.

The Tamalli is slightly more substantial – the slightly sweet mushroom and corn tamale is the perfect foil for the spicy chipotle béarnaise that packs a slow and steady heat that is never overbearing. The smoky quality picks up on the intrinsic smoky flavor from the grilled meat creating an incredibly complex plate of complementary tones

By the time we'd reached the last forkfuls of tamale, both of us were comfortably full and more than satisfied by the variety of tastes and flavors we’d experienced. While there was no need to unbutton my jeans, I didn’t feel wanting in any way because every bite I took felt purposeful.

I imagine that a few of my fellow hearty eaters might still find issue with portion size, but for a tapas-style restaurant that is striving to do more than just entertain guests with a trough of food, they feel just right. I loved being able to try so many different dishes, and loved how the constant influx of plates kept with the pace of the lively space. I won’t feel any hesitation when returning for more of Sedlar’s eclectic and artful dishes. When the flavors are this accomplished, there’s no need to bury them in a mountain.

Playa Rivera
7360 Beverly Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90036
(323) 933-5300


Esi said...

I will go, but apparently not when starving...just when I'm mildly hungry :)

weezermonkey said...

If you are a hearty eater, than I am Jabba the Hutt.

bill said...

Ok You guys are really over emphasizing this....the food is very rich and satifying and I think you will realize that when you eat here and order a few dishes. Even Jabba will be ok.
I appreciate the comments from Diana. By the way we did increase the portion sizes after the soft opening:).

Bill Chait
Managing Partner
Restaurant Playa and Rivera

Anna A. said...

I'm coming here when I'm back down south! High five to entire kale bunches, glad I'm not the only one. We 6 footers get hungry!!

weezermonkey said...

OMG, I'm crying! "Even Jabba will be ok." LOLOLOLOLOL.

Diana said...

Esi - I think the portions are actually just right - I think you would definitely be full after dinner here!

Weez - Haha, I feel as though I've been challenged! I could go bite for bite with you!

Bill - Thanks for the note. I was hoping that my review would help set the record straight in regards to some of the criticisms I've seen about portion size. They really seemed quite appropriate given the richness of the food and intensity of flavors. I was very pleased with my meal here - wouldn't hesitate to come back! Was a pleasure to meet you the other night.

Anna - Hah, apparently it comes with the (tall) territory!

Gastronomer said...

Those stuffed squash blossoms sound exquisite! No dessert tonight? That's a shame...

Kung Food Panda said...

Quinoa Queen you definitely are. I need to try your quinoa one of these days!

I've enjoyed Rivera in the past, especially their drink selection. Did you bypass a cocktail for a rose?? Even with Julian manning the bar?