DOWNTOWN LOS ANGELES - Rivera opened in the Met Lofts in 2008, and almost immediately chef/owner John Rivera Sedlar began racking up acclaim for his sleek take on Latin cuisine. The menu was an exercise in anthropology, presenting exacting flavors from around the globe. The dining room was lushly evocative, unlike any in the city.
However, changing culinary conditions, along with Sedlar’s desire to open a restaurant in his hometown of Santa Fe, have had an effect, and Rivera will serve its last dinner on Dec. 31 (a more casual version will open in the Hollywood/Beverly Hills area). Los Angeles Downtown News spoke with Sedlar about his time in the Central City.
L.A. Downtown News: What inspired you to pursue the kind of cooking that Rivera served?
John River Sedlar: We wanted to isolate what our Latin food story was. We tried to identify where the influences that ended up in our L.A. kitchen came from. So the question is, where did Latin food as we know it begin? It was understanding how flavors came from the spice markets of North Africa and Morocco, and how the spices migrated into Moorish/Spanish and Portuguese kitchens. And we did produce dishes inspired by those regions, like our scallops Arabesque with Moroccan spices. We also reflected how these flavors moved through South America and all the way up to the Pacific Southwest.
Q: The restaurant had a unique vibe with differently themed rooms. Where did that come from?
A: We chose our designer, Eddie Sotto, to reproduce those places and ideas in our dining room, with different areas and different menu styles. We looked at the restaurant very experientially, and Eddie was once a vice president in the Imagineering department at Disney. Our vision was expressed in texture — the stone and the woodwork, in particular. The paper textures in the menu, and features like how you could look at a number next to a menu item and call a phone number to hear all about the dish.
Q: What did you enjoy about being in Downtown?
A: We just got in under the wire before Downtown exploded and other restaurants started renting every corner. Downtown was in its baby steps, and it was very fun to come in its nascent years and see people developing and exploring. To see from our kitchen an area with no dogs at all turn into a great dog-walking culture, you could understand something’s happening.
The dining landscape in Downtown changed at light speed. Downtown is indicative of the whole world and how people have embraced new trends.
Q: What are some of your proudest achievements?
A: The number of wonderful cooks to come out of the kitchen and be inspired by Latin food is great. We received applications not only from the region but nationally and internationally.
Another thing was, we brought in kids from the Dolores Mission and we talked to them about the nutrition of Latin cuisines. We served them a very refined three-course meal on big plates and we taught them to put their head in, smell from corner to corner, and ask, is this nutritious? What does this say about my Latino culture? Would my mother or grandmother have used these ingredients?
Q: How do you think the dining landscape in L.A. has shifted?
A: People are more casual in their approach, how they dress when they dine, everything. The formality of the tablecloth is gone, for instance. People have adopted a tapas style of social dining with shared plates.
The dining trend of mobile food and taco trucks is big. Using the mobility of carts, we wanted to bring the taco truck into the restaurant — that’s why we debuted our loncheras, where you could pick foods from carts like Latin dim-sum. It’s an extension of the taco truck in a sense.
Q: You’ve long wanted to open a restaurant in your hometown of Santa Fe, and now you are. What excites you about the opportunity?
A: Santa Fe is an extraordinary city and an artist’s colony. The last decade or two haven’t treated Santa Fe well. I want to go back to my beloved hometown and help spark it with things I know — and I know food. At Eloisa, the new restaurant, I’m exploring my familial roots and foods that my family grew at our ranch — blue corn, red corn, pinto beans, vegetables.
Rivera is at 1050 S. Flower St., (213) 749-1460 or riverarestaurant.com.
© Los Angeles Downtown News 2014