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SOUTHWEST SIMPLIFIED : His Bikini a Bust, John Sedlar Is Taking a More Down-to-Earth View at Abiquiu

October 16, 1994|S. Irene Virbila

John Sedlar is making a new beginning. At Abiquiu in Santa Monica, it's Take Two on the sophisticated modern Southwest cuisine he developed first at Saint Estephe in Manhattan Beach and then at Bikini in Santa Monica. After Bikini fizzled to a close early this year, he's back at the same polished two-story space, this time with a new name, a new menu and much more reasonable prices.

Wherever this chef is cooking, I'm interested. Sedlar's work has always been heady stuff, visually gorgeous, demanding in its references and technically well-executed. But it had limited appeal. Even if you loved it--and I do--Bikini was an intense experience that didn't bear repeating often.

With Abiquiu he has redefined his concept, making it more user-friendly. The result is less precious, more accessible than Bikini's rarefied fare. It's as if someone who's always thought of himself as a fine artist realizes that the times demand he turn instead to more practical crafts. Sedlar's experience reflects that of other owners of high-end restaurants, such as Michel Richard of Citrus and Mauro Vicenti of Rex il Ristorante, who have opened establishments with more reasonable fare, Richard with his Citrus Bistro and Vicenti with Alto Palato.

Abiquiu is certainly a more relaxed, casual place than Bikini, which was one of those "special occasion" restaurants. At Abiquiu you can come in for a bowl of posole soup and a Taos Caesar salad with blue-corn croutons, or make your entire dinner from just one entree, say the Pecos River campfire trout fried up with bacon, quail eggs and crusty hash browns.

The restaurant is also an affectionate tribute to Sedlar's mother and grandmother, whom he credits with teaching him the basic vocabulary of Southwest cooking. He's hung grainy black-and-white family photos on the wall and named the restaurant for the town where his great-grandparents had a ranch. In this chef's hands, that inherited tradition of home cooking is transformed with a formidable arsenal of techniques, the underlying pattern of flavors overlaid with traces of far-off cuisines he's picked up in his travels.

Sedlar does like to play. He'll take one ingredient and compose variation after variation on a theme. Corn shows up in a number of dishes but in a different guise each time. Short-waisted blue corn muffins are tied with cornhusk ribbons. A comforting bowl of red-corn posole soup is stained with crimson chile. A hand-patted round of masa sope is topped with artichoke and juicy charred quail and set in a gorgeous cumin-studded sauce. Ragout of nopal cactus and fresh corn garnishes one of my favorite appetizers, scallops with a "tumbleweed" of deep-fried shredded filo dough, while roast Chinese duck, succulent in an anise-scented glaze, gets a fluffy corn brioche dressing. And for dessert, there's a fabulous Zuni corn souffle, tall and tender, with a pale passion fruit cream to spoon on top. It's like eating clouds.

Sedlar is just as mischievous with chile. His chile relleno has been to Bangkok and back; the filling is translucent shrimp, the sauce a peanut-laden ocher smear. A bowl of slippery vichyssoise seems innocuous enough until you discover the dab of green chile paste in the middle. The fist-sized grilled cowboy steak is topped with a blistering green chile pesto. Ahi tuna rubbed with chile spices rests on a cushion of startling green jalapeno mashed potatoes. As a small surprise, he's slipped a little chile flavor into the chocolate ice cream that comes with his show-stopping banana split. If chile and chocolate sounds entirely too weird (it's actually quite wonderful), you can order a molded dark-chocolate chile relleno or a gilded chocolate tamale filled with a hazelnut ganache.

But give the man a tamale and he really goes to town. Just after Abiquiu opened, it featured a "tamale bar" at lunch on the upstairs outdoor patio. Lunch has since been moved downstairs and the tamale bar closed, although it will reappear in November. That's when patrons can get the full experience of the Sedlar tamale. Sedlar, the menu proclaims, uses the traditional steamed masa tamale as the base and adds "outrageous toppings"--bouillabaisse, corn chowder, "free-range" vegetables, whitefish mousse and caviar. Masa is an eminently neutral medium, so it's not surprising that he gets away with some of the more exotic renditions. Still, Sedlar's Grandma Eloisa perhaps knew best. The traditional chicken or pork tamales are closer to the soothing and substantial food they're meant to be.

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