Diners enjoy their meals inside Playa, the new restaurant from chef John… (Gary Friedman / Los Angeles…)
I squeeze past the podium, following the hostess sashaying in front of me toward our table at the new Playa. Light fixtures like giant albino sea urchins dangle overhead. A waiter crosses my path bearing a plate with a single large clamshell the size of a purse. Our table is at the very back, past a handsome rusted steel wall and tables filled with startling plates, laughter and beguiling cocktails.
First Rivera, now Playa. John Sedlar, the chef who shocked Angelenos at Abiquiu some years back by serving a tamale on a plate bearing the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe, is on a roll. Just two years after opening his dynamic Latin-themed restaurant Rivera in downtown L.A., he's moved into the former Grace space on Beverly Boulevard in midtown Los Angeles. The crowd may be different, but the laser precision of the food is not.
No doubt about it, Playa is splashy and fun, with big windows onto the street, the better to see and be seen. At the bar, next to a ceiling-high glass wall of spirits, mixologist Julian Cox works his magic with cocktails like El Rodeo No. 2, which combines tobacco-smoked rye whiskey, Ceylon canella tincture, toasted guajillo chiles and fresh citrus. Or how about the Pear Blossom Highway with Pisco, pear eau de vie, yellow Chartreuse, citrus and Bartlett pears? Bring it on.
Meanwhile, our table orders up small plates in flights of three or four. Looking over the menu, it's easy to get carried away and want to order everything. Watch out, though: That bill can easily mount, and small means small. Out comes a stack of papas, Kennebec potato chips the size of your palm with salsa verde doing a Jackson Pollock number on top. Ensalada quemada features wood-grilled endive tossed with green beans, citrus filets (i.e., the slivered interior) and pine nuts in a cumin-spiked vinaigrette.
Maize cakes are more like tortillas. Of course you can get the tortillas florales pressed with flower petals that became such a hit at Rivera. But also maize cake with cauliflower prepared three ways and a veil of curry espuma (foam). Or with a 63-degree egg, black trumpet mushrooms and potato. It's pretty wild.
What's great is squash blossom tempura filled with bacalao and served with chorizo jus. The giant clamshell actually opens up to reveal masa dough and baby clams steamed in that shell, one of my favorite dishes here. Only four plates are labeled "individuales," Sedlar-speak for bigger plates. Go for the twice-seared duck with blood orange olive oil, pepitas and a garbanzo cream.
I could happily poke around this menu, picking out dishes blindly, just to see what Sedlar does with them. The way he plates them is always eye-catching. What else? Azucar, or sweets. I'll stick with the pineapple-coconut bread pudding, which fits the tropical beachy theme to a T.
Knowing Sedlar, he and chef de cuisine Kevin Luzande won't stop tinkering with the menu. To keep up, I'm thinking I may have to become a regular of sorts.