The most highly anticipated restaurant opening in Los Angeles is here: Damian, the most recent effort by widely acclaimed Mexican chef Enrique Olvera and partner Daniela Soto-Innes.
They began serving clients from its overbooked reservation list as of October 21.
Located in a radically revamped warehouse space designed by architect Alonso de Garay and just across from Bestia on the bustling ministrip of East Seventh Place in the Arts District, Damian presents a series of fresh menu takes delivered by chef de cuisine Jesus “Chuy” Cervantes.
For those not in the know, Olvera presents haute-cuisine renditions based on various regional Mexican influences. After receiving critical recognition for his restaurant Pujol in Mexico City, he opened Cosme in New York City in 2014, followed by Atla in 2017. For reference, Cosme was ranked No. 23 on the 2019 World’s 50 Best Restaurants List, the highest ranking of any U.S. restaurant.
First know that the regional focus here is Baja and its fresh Pacific seafood. The masa for the tortillas is nixtamalized on-site from scratch with Mexican heirloom corn sourced from artisanal supplier Masienda, which also supplies Cosme.
There is an obligatory fried fish taco served with cabbage and avocado salsa ($14). Two tostadas are featured in the upper section of the menu: fish tartare with avocado and furikake ($18) and uni with fresh slabs of sea urchin draped over a minced Caesar salad and thin slices of avocado ($21). The Tlayuda has shrimp, queso fresco and zucchini ($26).
The star of the middle section of the brief menu—which seems to indicate side dishes—is the tamal de elote ($16), a husk-wrapped tamale of masa, fresh corn and queso fresco served with a dark red savory sauce of which the primary ingredient is Chicatana ant.
There are four ostensible entrée options in the third section, notably the carne asada ($40), served with a chile relleno and tabbouleh, and the vaunted albacore carnitas ($52), served with a variety of salsas.
Perhaps most notable, however, is the accompanying list of wines and agave spirits curated by beverage director Yana Volfson. It’s far lengthier and more detailed than the menu itself. One side features a selection of 28 wines, including three bottles from the Mexican house label Vena Cava from Valle de Guadalupe.
Seven of the wine selections are available by the glass ($9 to $14), and bottles range from $42 to $130.
The other side of the beverage page is an impressive list of artisanal small-batch mezcals and tequilas. These are offered in 1-ounce and 2-ounce pours, which range from $9/$16 to $17/$32.
By the way, the food menu includes two canned beer selections from Mexico listed as chelas: Monopolio Lager Clara and an amber, Oscura ($5).
I managed to cadge a 9 p.m. reservation on a recent Thursday and waited while three couples were seated ahead of me on the buzzing interior patio. I was greeted and escorted to my table by the cheerful hostess, India Bushnell, and then introduced to the eminently helpful and informative server Xavier Flores. Incidentally, the entire staff is both masked and visored. Guests are temperature checked prior to seating, and the tables are disinfected after each visit.
I quickly allowed Flores’ innate charm to upsell me from the fish taco to the uni tostada and, because I’m a fan of Mexican insect preparations, the tamal de elote with the ant sauce. I also ordered a refreshing house margarita ($14) to recover from the stress of my misfired navigation coming off the 5 freeway. Flores also talked me through the mezcal and tequila lists with enthusiastic verve and genuine expertise.
The food is predictably perfect and the portions predictably paltry for the price points. I will say the ant sauce alone might warrant another visit if not its own label and jar to take home.
Of the many pandemic pivots and corrections, perhaps eventually a tighter calibration between artisanal deliciousness and price may emerge on what’s left of the fine dining landscape. That said, Olvera and company are intending to add a more accessible takeout window operation off the alley of Damian called Ditroit sometime soon. Stay tuned.
Frankly, while it takes cojones to open an operation like this in the pandemic, dropping this style of cuisine into the heady churn of food culture in Los Angeles after opening in New York is also, well, ballsy. We don’t necessarily welcome carpetbaggers from New York, even if you’re actually from Mexico City.
This is not lost on Damian’s thoughtful and articulate general manager, Ana Odermatt. In a brief chat prior to leaving, we talked about the generational depth of Mexican food culture in Los Angeles and the prospect of participating in it.
“(For us) it’s the feeling of LA being like Mexico City,” Odermatt said. “Now that we’re here, (we’ll) see how the pieces come together and how the communities interact with each other. We’re very humbled to be a part of this conversation.”