Drinking and eating are two different but related worlds. You can eat while you drink or drink while you eat and sometimes you can even opt to just drink or just eat. Both areas have huge industries and communities surrounding them from bar culture to fine dining. The two disciplines are traveling toward each other and intertwining in very interesting ways. Downtown Los Angeles’ Rivera is known for its inventive takes on food and drinks, perhaps leaders in the collision of the two worlds. Their new Hallucination menu may be their cleverest pairing of food and drink as it combines the two together, blurring the experience of eating and drinking into a delicious haze. It is the most fluid eating and drinking experience you’ll have in Los Angeles.
The menu program is a new initiative from Chef John Sedlar, the creative culinary brain behind Rivera and Mid-City’s Playa. The Hallucination is a medication on tequila. The spirit floats from dish to dish appearing in different forms. In one instance it arrives as an extremely refined Julian Cox cocktail. In another, the tequila is bathing an oyster. There are several techniques and tricks in this dining experience, all of which celebrate tequila.
You sit down at your table with your menus, taking a look over what you’re getting yourself into. Our advice is to look over it once to get a sense of what will be arriving but, after that, let your server guide you through the meal. Like a hallucination, don’t anticipate anything: hovering your eyes over the menu the entire time will take you out of the dining experience. However, before you close the menu, note two things. On the bottom right is a note that if you reach “elevated consciousness” and decide to make a night of “hallucinating Downtown,” they have arranged for a “post-prandial rate” with The Ritz-Carlton. A chat with the hostess will unlock this.
The other side of the menu speaks of a clever enhancement to your experience that Chef Sedlar urges you to start your meal off with: an audio appetizer to set the stage for the meal. By calling a Rivera dial-in number and pushing 62#, you are told a story that loosely mirrors the history of tequila (which is given at the front of the menu, a description that calls the liquor “a comforting gift from the gods”). The voice on the phone is a woman who describes her husband’s infidelities and the anger that grew in her as a result. Taking the slightly mystical advice of a friend, she is told to drink tequila to quell the fire inside of her. Sure enough, the prescribed tequila calmed and made her happy, dissolving all bitterness. Unfortunately, her reliance on the drink led to her being a drunkard and her husband leaving her for the other woman. It’s a modern fairy tale that brings the myth to the present day, setting the table for dinner.
As we hung up our phones, the meal began in with an atypical start, all of which was brought from a spectacularly attentive waitstaff: a glass of tequila with four tiny bowls of food items. From left to right, a few sea leaves, sea grass, orange, lemon, and lime rinds, and smoked pepper, salt, and pink pepper corns awaited for us. Trying each of them with sips of tequila in between, the essences of these strange items extract various flavor notes from the clean “tequila blanco deconstruction.” The leaf and the grass made the tequila’s salty, oceanic quality stand out while the citrus rinds made it apparent that the spirit is uniquely sweet. The peppers and salt were obviously tied to the spirit in the most defining way. As you pick through these items with tweezers, you realize you’re acting like a (buzzed) food scientist trying to piece together tequila’s origin story.
The next course is a small fish presentation and is served with a bright green Sangrita Verde. The drink is a deconstruction made by Julian Cox that is a tiny bowl of mezcal with a little shot full of green liquid, a spicy sweet pineapple mixture. Drinking them together by alternating sips, you get a similar tasting experience to the drinking appetizer, the greens in the mix drawing out the mezcal’s earthiness. The accompanying fish are a duo of tequila splashed Malpeque oysters with “cucumber caviar” and sashimi style hamachi with chives and shallots. The oysters are salty and sea grassy with the tequila as a base for the mildly spicy and cilantro infused cucumber caviar. The hamachi is incredibly clean with the shallots serving as a unification tool. They’re both hide their liquor well.
Chef Sedlar tries his hand at mixology next with a Cielo Verde cocktail made with Patrón Silver. It’s a natural and sweet drink reminiscent of a fancy margarita handmade by a drinking scientist. The skull and crossbones glasses warn that the drink’s sweetness is hiding a little kick, much like the kick the woman on the phone got from tequila. Accompanying this is one of the most interesting hallucinations: a bitter salad with Prickly Pear and a crab topped “Maize Coronet.” The salad pairs bitter endive with buttery lettuces, all tossed in a spicy tequila vinaigrette. The Prickly Pear reminds you of a sweet beet with huge, hard seedlings that will hang out in your teeth for the rest of the night.
The Maize Coronet has to be saved for last as it is a quick celebration you need to honor. There are four elements: the maize cone, a chipotle creme fraiche, a fancy guacamole-like cream, and a crab salad. This is basically a savory, hot, Latin ice cream cone. The crab starts cool with complimentary papaya and allusive jalapeño. The guacamole-like sauce has a subtle kick that, by the time you reach the chipotle, you’ll know you are in fact supposed to feel a spiciness. The corn coronet wraps it all up tightly, containing these elements in three bites. If I could have an entire tray of these, I would eat them all like truck stop delicacy Bugles, casually popping them in with my eyes closed as my mom drives me to school.
At this half point in the meal, the hallucination sets in as a spicy drunkenness. The room feels a little louder, time goes by a little slower, and you’ve forgotten what is happening in your meal. This is the idea. The urge to grab your menu to place yourself is strong but do not do it: allow yourself to wander somewhat aimless until your waitress surprises you with your next cocktail and the entree. It is worth the wait.
With this realization, another drink pops up: Sir Hazard. Julian Wayser created this light and golden cocktail. The drink is a smokey tea with smokey mezcal like. I was sure to note on that I’ve had a bastardized version of this drink at home while working late one night without anything to drink but tequila and tea. When life hands you unusual mixers and liquors, you make unusual cocktails to get by. Wayser’s interpretation of this idea was satisfying and easy. It comes at a perfect time as you will be–for lack of better expressions–“tripping.”
The entree arrive and we remember what it is: a pairing of duck and lamb served on a circular leaf on a plate of tequila worms (a photo of them, rather). This dish was what your dinner has been building toward: juicy, light meats paired with corn and peppers. The lamb’s flavor is distilled down to the perfect idea of lamb that, combined with the corn and peppery, licoricey green at the bottom, reminds you of fancy pepperoni. You eat through the lamb to reach a fatty, bready meat around the smooth bone. It’s okay: you’re hallucinating. Pick up the bone and gnaw on it for a minute. Then place it back and begin with the duck. The duck proved that the lambe–while excellent–was a foil, a red herring in flavor to a dark mole duck. Like the lamb, you’ll eat right to the bone getting the same flavor notes in new ways.
You finish the entree content. Like your state of hallucinating, you’re on a perfect plane hunger wise. This leaves you in a good position for sweets. In a snap, a cinnamon, chocolatey mezcal cocktail in a small-but-tall drinking glass arrives. A long golden rind of grapefruit pops out of the top. This pairs with your dessert, both allusions to tequila flavors: a coconut cloud and a chocolate soup. The cloud is a light and fruity marshmallow textured cube on a bed of sliced kiwi and papaya, all in a small pool of tequila. You should break everything down and spoon it up. The chocolate soup is exactly what you think it is: chocolate soup. It is made complex by a diamond shaped scoop of what will remind you of a rough textured coffee ice cream.
Like the beginning of the meal, you end with another tequila deconstruction. This tequila is served in a tall glass with three gels: a piece of caramel, an espresso cube, and a log of passion fruit, garnished with a pineapple chip. The flavors alluded to in the meal (in the Maize Coronet, in the duck, in the cloud) are drawn from the tequila by placing distilled flavors before you to pair with the drink. You see that–like the pre-meal deconstruction–tequila is a versatile drink that is sweet given the right context.
Reflecting on our meal over coffee, we began to exit our daze. The experience of the Hallucination Menu is quite unexpected and absolutely unrivaled. It puts you in a position where you have to relinquish control over what you eat and what you drink to reach a better understanding of food and drink through tequila. We didn’t know it was possible but Chef Sedlar and Rivera make it quite clear that tequila is an incredibly inspiring and influential spirit. Their Hallucination Menu is a romantic celebration through food and drink that tears down any restraints between the two worlds. If you want to have a spectacularly indulgent food and drink celebration, this is for you. It’s an exciting, experimental, delicious, creative dining experience that only can come from Southern California and from John Sedlar. Who the hell else would think of a prix fixe dinner dedicated to tequila? No one else.
Please Note: You can take the Metro Red Line to get here. We did this and, we assure you, it made going home after a boozey meal care free.