One of the strangest experiences a person can have is tasting something unexpected. Putting a dollop of something in your mouth that, judging by color and smell, is berry ice cream, is not usually ominous. But try having strawberry ice cream with anise spice and you will find yourself experiencing utter confusion.
Surprises of this nature abound at Playa, and that’s a good thing. The restaurant, which opened Feb. 11 on Beverly Blvd., is the creation of chef John Rivera Sedlar, famous in Los Angeles for the much-touted Rivera restaurant.
Whereas Rivera’s menu takes diners through a tour of Latin America, with each of its dinner menus representing a different country, Playa takes a more straightforward approach by offering hot and cold appetizers plus entrees and desserts.
The tapas-style portions are minute. Even if you’re not starving, sharing any of the entrees with one or two other people leaves about four bites per person. And at $6 to $12 a pop, Playa isn’t the cheapest dinner around.
Sedlar knew, however, his guests would be paying for an adventure and not just food.
Once you get to Playa (good luck finding parking nearby), decoding the notebook-like menu takes effort, even for a self-proclaimed foodie. Thankfully, the staff is incredibly knowledgeable about both the food and the cocktails, and is willing to make suggestions.
Our waitress was even polite enough to be honest and steer our table away from some of the less noteworthy items on the menu.
Our first appetizer was a black bean soup garnished with compressed apple dots. The black bean puree is poured dramatically at your table into a stylish square bowl, which proves an awkward choice of dish for the viscous liquid.
The incredibly smooth soup tastes of smoky chipotle and bacon. Crisp, sweet apples, compressed into tiny circles, are a surprising but delicious complement to the soup that leaves you wishing for more little nuggets of sweetness in the bowl.
Other appetizers include a variety of maize cakes — fresh, thick corn tortillas, hand-pressed near the bar — finished off with toppings like pork belly, cauliflower and flower petals.
The wild mushroom maize cake with arugula and an odd black garlic and olive powder is completely overwhelmed by a strong, creamy cheese, undermining the perfect mushrooms on top.
Though one might hope Sedlar would simplify a few of his dishes like this maize cake or the utterly overwhelming Flora y Terra dessert, it is exactly this complexity that defines Playa, even if the various flavor combinations don’t always work.
The few entrée selections Playa offers are hardly larger than the appetizers, but still provide heartier, meat-centric offerings.
The beautiful plates, which Sedlar hand-selected and plans to interchange sporadically, feature photos and paintings.
Each presentation is interesting and personal to the chef, adding to the adventurous spirit of eating at Playa.
Like many items at Playa, the desserts are uniquely challenging.
The Flora y Terra is, in layman’s terms, strawberry chips like the ones in Special K cereal, pink-colored, black licorice flavored ice cream and a crumbled vanilla cupcake surrounded by fresh strawberries and pomegranate with blood orange syrup. If this sounds like too much, especially if you don’t read the menu correctly and have a distinct distaste for anise flavor (guilty), you’re right.
The Luna Mezcal dessert is far more successful. The unreal mescal tequila ice cream is dream-worthy, and the blackberry-basil ice cream is shockingly herby and earthy for a dessert.
Together, the ice creams, which top a very ordinary chocolate cake, elevate the dish in a savory and surprising way.
Filling up on specialty cocktails might not be the worst route to go, either.
Specialty drinks like The Grail, a cold, spiked cider, are expertly prepared. The ice cubes are actually perfectly dimensioned cubes, one of the many indications of the care and consideration put into every cocktail.
Although the bar is hardly big enough to hang out at, the drinks are noteworthy enough to warrant a return to Playa in and of themselves.
Sedlar might not have created another Rivera, but Playa is an interesting dining experience that will surely leave patrons talking.
Just don’t go if you’re a picky eater or particularly hungry.