With this week’s announcement that distinguished Mexican chef Enrique Olvera would be opening a third restaurant in Los Angeles, it’s clear that the city is embracing the vision of restaurateur seen on “Chef’s Table” in a big way. Later this year, an outpost of his New York restaurant Atla will open on Abbot Kinney in Venice, joining upscale Damian and casual taco spot Ditroit in the arts district of Downtown L.A.
While Atla will be in the style of a fonda, or homey neighborhood eatery, Damian is where L.A. diners can find exquisitely-plated, adventurous interpretations of the building blocks of Mexican cuisine. From the impeccably warm service to the creative desserts, Damian is a singular dining experience and a hidden jewel of the buzzy arts district.
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Even if you’ve been to Italian hotspot Bestia, just across the alley-like street, eating at Damian still feels like entering a secret realm. The austere signage in front only hints at the sleek space beyond the front door. A long and lively bar in front, sexy lighting and organic textures on the wood tables and leather seats combine with the space’s industrial underpinnings for a sophisticated embrace in the main room.
Continue to the back of the restaurant to reveal the covered garden, where tropical plants line the patio and a leafy mural transports diners to a spot that feels more Mexico City than L.A.
Olvera’s restaurants such as Pujol in Mexico City and Cosme in New York helped introduce the idea that Mexican food could reach far beyond the familiar dishes, with tasting menus featuring course after course of hand-crafted dinnerware and Mexican dishes with unexpected flavors. At Damian, the menu is a la carte, but the restaurant continues the theme of sourcing the best components for each dish, while also looking across the Pacific to Japan for inspiration.
Head chef Jesus Cervantes, pastry chef Josh Ulmer and beverage director Yana Volfson explained some of their concepts to Variety.
Damian has a broad sake program, and Japanese influences can also be found in the tea selection and elsewhere on the menu. Why sake? It “highlights the complex layers of flavor in Mexican cuisine,” Volfson says.
The cocktail menu also reflects those influences, Volfson explains, with drinks like the Smoked Highball with lapsang souchong-infused pine liqueur and the Yuzu Raspado, a refreshing frozen citrus cocktail with yuzu sake and mezcal, garnished with shiso leaf.
Damian’s menu is inspired by the coastal regions of Mexico, Cervantes explains. “You can especially see that influence on our brunch menu,” which includes dishes like lobster tostada and fish machaca chilequiles. The menu explores classic Mexican flavors like ceviches, aguachiles, and machacas, taking advantage of California’s wealth of produce and fresh seafood “that serve as a wonderful vehicle for the spicy and acidic flavors we’re inspired by,” Cervantes says.
Dishes like carne asada may sound familiar, but savoring slices of the premium hangar steak with grilled onion and greens, an avocado-based salsa and the house tortillas becomes a luxurious experience. Duck carnitas and lobster al pastor fill out the proteins, while vegetarian mains include mole verde with mushrooms and celery root with chicatana salsa — and yes, that would be a smoky Oaxacan salsa made from a seasonal flying ant.
Masa, the ancient result of processing dried corn into the dough that makes tortillas and so much more, is one of the central pillars of Damian’s approach, and indeed of all of Olvera’s restaurants. The corn is prepared with the ancient process of nixtamalization, Cervantes explains, by cooking it in a solution of water and ground limestone.
In addition to the housemade tortillas that accompany many of the dishes, the tetela turnover with Swiss chard and pizza-like tlayuda topped with huitlacoche (corn fungus) also showcase the heritage masa that becomes a centerpiece of the dining experience.
“Everyday our corn is cooked and allowed to rest overnight before it is ground in the morning. The laborious process continues throughout the day when the masa is prepped into the various shapes, sizes and textures that make up our menu,” Cervantes explains.
Since tortillas and other products made from masa are so often mass-produced these days, “For us it’s important to preserve and educate our staff on these techniques and processes that are the foundation of not only our kitchen, but of Mexican cuisine,” says Cervantes. Damian’s corn is sourced from Mexico with the help of their longtime supplier, Masienda, which imports heirloom corn products to the U.S.
Among the restaurant’s favorite purveyors are The Joint, the Sherman Oaks seafood market that has gained attention for its dry-aged fish that’s used in Damian’s Pescado a la Brasa. Cervantes also calls out Alex Weiser of Weiser Family Farms for providing Damian’s wide range of produce. Even fruits like pineapple guava, normally only seen in L.A. backyards, make an appearance on the menu.
The desert menu marries herbs, flowers, fruits and cacao with visual punch in choices like soft-serve ice cream, apple tamal and banana leaf flan with an almost savory sesame miso caramel sauce.
Pastry chef Ulmer says he tries to show an appreciation for seasonality. “Each dish starts with a single ingredient — hibiscus, banana leaf, cacao, apples or pineapple — and the rest of the dish is built around complementing the primary ingredient,” he explains, “while also manipulating each ingredient as little as possible.” He also wants each dish to have a personality: for example, with the soft serve ice cream, he’s aiming for familiar and easy, but also interesting. Starting with a piña colada theme, he adds lime leaf and fermented tepache layers onto the recognizable flavor “that still speaks to the core of being a great ice cream to end your meal.”
Damian, 2132 E. 7th Place, Los Angeles
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