John Sedlar’s “Ultra-untraditional” Chicken KGB at Rivera
In 1992, a mere five months after the fall of the Soviet Union, John Rivera Sedlar was invited to Russia as part of a U.S. Delegation made up of doctors and chefs to march in Moscow’s May Victory Day Parade. Sedlar and his peers (including L.A.’s own Kerry Simon), rare U.S. visitors in that time, spent their adventure cooking for military dignitaries, meeting everyday Russians, and visiting restaurants in St. Petersburg and Moscow, which had only recently been privatized and mostly lacked food. The trip made a lasting impression on Sedlar, who returned to L.A. and melded Russian influences into a special commemorative menu at his Santa Monica restaurant Bikini.
The chef still glows when telling stories about bringing Russian chefs their very first tastes of pineapple and banana and the kindness he encountered in the Russian people as they entered a brand new world. This May, 20 years after his trip, Sedlar rekindled his “End of Communism” menu at his Downtown stunner Rivera, and is offering his artistic interpretation of Russian classics through next Wednesday, June 20.
Knowing that we have a former Soviet operative on our team (Grub Street L.A. photographer, Tatiana Arbogast, a Russian military brat born and raised in Azerbaijan, who counts St. Petersburg, Ukraine, Georgia, North Caucasus, and Turkmenistan among her many homes), Sedlar invited us in to sample some of the Russian dishes he had revived; an artistic arrangement of Russian flavors and references merged with the dynamic chefs’ Southwestern prism and nouvelle influences past. Seeing as yesterday was Russian Independence Day, how could we resist?
The clever results don’t necessarily resemble what you’ll find at Traktir, but the evoked essences of a real Russian meal (beets, mushrooms, pickle, buckwheat, vodka, and smoked fish) all emerge letter-perfect. Take a look at some of the dishes served on Rivera’s “End of Communism” menu in our slideshow.
Rivera’s “End of Communism” menu features Lenin on the front cover, Czar Nicolas II on the back.
Rivera’s scrolling electronic display shows shots of Sedlar’s trip, along with photos of Soviet artifacts, history, and scenes of Red Square. Here the chef is seen with Simon L.A. and L.A. Market chef Kerry Simon, who has his own KGB Burger in Vegas and recently appeared at Vegas Uncork’d with leggy models clad in Russian miltary uniform.
Setting the stage for what’s to come, Rivera presents an amuse of crispy potato topped with smoked sturgeon, microgreen, and pickled cabbage.
Here Lenin appears to be confronting Czar-level indulgence in a vodka-cured salmon loaded down with black caviar. The chef’s beef pirozkhi was filled with spicy beef, reminding us a little of an empanda with picadillo, while a small shot of borscht came topped with horseradish foam and the distinctive taste of dill. “Zakuski” means appetizers.
An early indication of Sedlar’s dedication to the details appears in a bottle of Borjomi mineral water, a salty, healing spring water discovered by Russian troops in Georgia in the nineteenth century that also makes a great palate cleanser.
Rivera’s Russian images were put together by designer Eddie Sotto, including an exploding row of molotov cocktails.
Sedlar and team riff on pelmeni here with thin ravioli skins, a sauce that tasted like a blend of Georgian cheeses, and a spread of tiny mushrooms. Foraging for mushrooms is a favorite Russian hobby.
This decorative plate, shown in Rivera’s display, bears the Soviet-era phrase, “Who doesn’t work, doesn’t eat.”
A red tamale husk holds Rivera’s Southwestern take on golubsi, with a cabbage roll stuffed with corn meal called a cabbage tamal. Meanwhile, Sedlar’s stroganoff of wild shrooms makes an ideal match for a cut of salmon, instead of beef, its interior still a luscious soft pink.
Rivera’s bar program offers two Russian-inspired cocktails, with The Red Square a mix of vodka, ginger, frambois, and blood orange finsihed with stout.
Funnily enough, this is basically what the Grub Street L.A. team made for dinner the night prior (and had for breakfast the next morning), with a scattering of buckwheat bearing bacon and garlic.
After a palate-cleansing granita of beets, blood orange, and cucumber, Rivera presents a dessert named “Druzbha,” the Russian word for “friendship” that Sedlar learned when a woman saved him from the scowls of Russian men while he and his cohorts wore U.S flag pins in the Victory Day Parade. She gave him her own Russian pin and said “druzbha,” to which he reciprocated. Sedlar’s use of tropical fruit is a sly nod to watching his Russian chef peers eat their first tastes of fruit and the chocolate cake comes from a hearbreaking memory of a practically starving Russian chef who’d saved chocolate in a safe for the visiting U.S. chefs. When he opened the safe at last, the bar had turned to dust.
Rivera’s chocolate egg has two sides, one of white and milk chocolate filled with passionfruit cream, the other a dark chocolate filled with pistachio cream, in a nest of spun sugar. The dish was originally created by Entiche du Chocolat chocolatier Mary Yoon, who was with Sedlar on the 1992 adventure.
Posing on his trip with a young man from miltary officer school.