ELOISA’S Soul-Satisfying Fare

- April 19, 2016

Chef John Sedlar's innovative take on New Mexican cuisine

Big things are happening over at ELOISA, a downtown culinary star that opened last summer at the Drury Plaza Hotel.

Earlier this year, chef John Sedlar's five-star eatery was nominated for a coveted James Beard award for America's Best New Restaurant, no small potatoes in the culinary world. And recently Sedlar unveiled his  ELOISA Kitchen menu, devoted to the “soul-satisfying foods” made by his grandmother Eloisa Rivera—the restaurant's namesake— in her two-room adobe on Alto Street. The menu is exceptionally affordable for this fine dining establishment, with dishes ranging from $4 to $11 that are exceptionally good. The ELOISA Kitchen menu is available at the Chef's Counter, Community Table and bar.

Sedlar's grandmother loved to feed her family and friends, inviting them to dine on foods she produced on her little O'Keefe & Merritt four-burner gas stove, including pots of pinto beans simmered with smoked ham hocks, posole with chicken and chile, stacks of handmade corn tortillas and natillas, a traditional New Mexican dessert of egg-white meringue and vanilla custard. Anyone entering her home was enveloped by “heartwarming aromas wafting from her stove,” Sedlar says.

The ELOISA Kitchen menu reflects her love of northern New Mexico food, from start to finish. Divided into Botanas (Snacks), Platos Principales, Acompañamientos and Postres (Desserts), the menu features “the elemental New Mexican dishes Eloisa cooked and offered to her family and friends,” from the housemade Blue Corn Chips with Salsa Quemada, a robust roasted tomato salsa with fiery overtones, to the Natillas, which were so good I confess to eating more than my fair share. So good, in fact, that I can't stop thinking about this elegant, ethereal dessert and how it evokes childhood memories, even though I never ate these growing up. This is the ideal comfort food, and I bet that after just one bite, you'll agree. So save room for this, but don't skimp elsewhere, because every dish on this modest menu is spectacular.

Take, for example, the Pinto Beans with Pork Tenderloin, a Plato Principale that sounds pretty straightforward on the menu. But when it comes to your table in a bowl big enough for four, aromatic, rich and hearty, you know that these are no ordinary pinto beans. Bite into them, and just beyond the shell there's a creamy interior, redolent of earth, smoke and fire, that pairs perfectly with the generous chunk of tender pork placed in the bowl. The dish is sublime, a loving testament to a grandmother's recipe that must have been a crowd-pleaser.

Or try the Banana Leaf-Wrapped Tamal with Red Chile Pork, another superb combo of flavors that outshines most other tamales I've tasted. The banana leaf adds a sweetness that blends well with the red chile and pork and the masa is cooked to perfection, moist and flavorful. If you're a fan of chile rellenos, like me, you'll love Sedlar's Green Chile Relleno with Mushrooms and Goat Cheese. Order it with the Calabacitas con Huevo and you've got a memorable meal much like ones that Eloisa's guests must have savored.

One of the most unique meals I've ever had was ELOISA's Georgia O'Keeffe Tasting Menu, an homage to the foods this famous artist loved to cook, often with ingredients from her own Victory garden at her Abiquiu home. Sedlar's aunt worked as a cook for O'Keeffe for years, and he got to meet her when he visited her Abiquiu house. His ode to her is a fantastic five-course feast featuring foods that were conntected to her, including cheese from her native Wisconsin, local lamb, apricots and more.

Once you've tasted Sedlar's cuisine, you'll see right away why ELOISA was nominated for a Beard award, the equivalent of the Oscars to the food world. But this chef is well acquainted with the Beard world, having been inducted into the Who's Who of Food & Beverage in America in 1984, the very first year these honors were handed out by Cooks Magazine, before the Beard foundation began administering them in 1980. Sedlar, who then co-owned the revered Saint Estèphe in Manhattan Beach, recalls traveling from LA to Beard's famous house in New York to receive this honor and Beard himself greeted the guests, seated on a pillow and dressed in his pajamas for comfort, since he was such a big man.

At Saint Estèphe, Sedlar helped pioneer modern Southwest cuisine at Saint Estèphe, earning him the title of the Father of Modern Southwest Cuisine from Gourmet magazine. Sedlar went on to open a few more restaurants, including his pan-Latin fusion Rivera, long considered one of the top L.A. Restaurants. Esquire named him Chef of the Year in 2011, Cook's Magazine included him on its famed list of the Top 50 Who's Who of Cooking in America and Food & Wine placed him on its Honor Roll of American Chefs. You may have seen him competing on Bravo’s “Top Chef Masters” or representing Patrón tequila as its spokesman for a decade.

Tequila will be the star of ELOISA's upcoming Tequila Festival on April 30. The event includes guest speaker Ron Cooper of Del Maguey , the James Beard award-nominated producer of mezcal from Ranchos de Taos, as well as an agave-based spirits tasting and a four-course dinner.