When you are eating piroshki off of a photo of Lenin, chicken from a plate stenciled with a chile-powder hammer-and-sickle, or chocolate eggs off of a Soviet flag, you know you are probably in a John Sedlar restaurant, albeit one mysteriously serving proto-Russian food instead of one dedicated to the Spanish-speaking diaspora. And if you visit Rivera this month, you will notice that the video-montage wall is dedicated to Red Square instead of Madrid, that the servers seem to be of Russian descent, and that half the people in the dining room seem to be eating tiny blini with golden caviar instead of freshly pressed tortillas with "Indian butter.'' You will be handed an End of Communism menu along with the regular one.
In 1992, Sedlar was part of a brigade of American chefs, also including Simon L.A.'s Kerry Simon, invited to march in the first post-Soviet Russian May Day parade in Red Square, and also to prepare grand dinners for officials of the newly formed state. The food in Moscow then was pretty awful, Sedlar reports -- many of the chefs were basically starving, he says, and they regarded the Americans' pineapples and bananas, which none of them had ever tasted, as miracles.
When Sedlar came back to Los Angeles, he devised a menu of lightened Soviet-era dishes for his (long-deceased) Santa Monica restaurant Bikini, with prices denominated in dollars and rubles. To celebrate the 20th anniversary of that trip, he put the dishes on his Rivera menu, also listed in dollars and rubles. (If you happen to be visiting from Yaroslavl, it's a bargain -- Ukrainian-style venison borscht with boiled potatoes is a mere 755 rubles, a steep discount from the 965.6 you'd expect to pay if you looked at this morning's exchange rate.)
It probably goes without saying, but Rivera, even this month, is not the first place you'd come for authentic Russian cuisine -- it is a collection of riffs, such as stroganoff made with salmon instead of beef, served with a "tamale'' of lightly cooked cabbage; crisp-skinned chicken "KGB" on a bed of kasha sauteed with garlic and bacon as if it were spaetzle; blini topped with smoked cabbage as well as caviar and crème fraiche. And then there's that chocolate egg, filled with pistachio crème.
The End of Communism menu runs until the end of May. 1050 S. Flower St., downtown, (213) 749-1460.
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-- Jonathan Gold
Photo credit: Amy Scattergood