Damian: everything a modern LA Mexican restaurant should be

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A part of me still blinks in surprise when I enter the Damian and see the elegant dining room full of people.

It’s not like I ever expected to find the restaurant, housed in a former Arts District warehouse, empty. It should not be; The kitchen has reached its peak form after two years. But my first impression of the room will always be intertwined with the somber moment it opened.

A marquee project by Mexico City-based chef Enrique Olvera, Damian spent several years in development before finally seeing the light in October 2020, the darkest of months. Indoor dining in Los Angeles was taboo at the time; Within weeks of its opening, California would pass 1 million reported cases of COVID-19. During my first dinner, I ran to memorize details of the interior—a brick wall given new life, modern round tables surrounded by peach-colored chairs, the bar with a concrete overhang that resembled a bunker to my grim imagination , which was pretty crowded with artisan mezcal — while the staff politely ushered my twosome toward the back patio.

Damian’s busy outdoor patio.

(Shelby Moore / For the Times)

Entering the terrace brought more than relief to be outside. Architect Alonso de Garay and designer Micaela de Bernardí had transformed the area into something exciting: part art installation, part urban retreat.

The first thing that caught my eye was a wall of rust-striped corrugated iron framing one side of the outdoor area. Perpendicular to it stood another building with a vaulted roof; it had the atmosphere of an abandoned greenhouse. I couldn’t see through the ribbed glass windows. Young trees sprouted from the patio’s concrete; Planters erected over meandering banquettes immediately created a lush atmosphere. Hilda Palafox, who goes by the name of Poni for her Mexican street art, painted a mural in which human figures soar between birds and leaves. A retractable roof was built for the increasingly rare rainy nights in LA.

It was – is – a place that both revels in the dark heart of the city and affirms nature as the antidote. The environment exalted that first meal, in which smoked mussels and sliced ​​cucumbers tumbled like toppled stacks of coins; Dungeness crabs flowed from a gordita’s gaping masa mouth; and an eerie take on a tlayuda that’s appealingly crispy with fried shrimp shells.

Paired images of a corn masa triangle and a pumpkin blossom covered tortilla.

The tetela to the left and the tlayuda to the right of Damian.

(Shelby Moore / For the Times)

Almost two years later, as the world falls back into place in a big and horrible way, Damian has gone through his own changes. What began as a big-name chef’s heralded entry into the LA market has evolved into a restaurant that feels consciously connected to the city, with increasingly delicious results. In a region already rich in expressions of Mexican food culture, Damian’s leadership team, mostly transplants, seems to be asking through his kitchen: What can we add to the conversation?

Chef Jesús “Chuy” Cervantes grew up in El Paso, Texas. He moved east to Austin to begin his cooking career and, poised for new opportunities, heard that Grupo Enrique Olvera — known worldwide for their flagship Pujol in Mexico City — was opening a restaurant in New York. Cervantes was part of the original crew when Cosme opened in Manhattan’s Flatiron District in 2014. He left after a few years, but a chance reunion with Olvera a few years later led to an offer to run Damian’s kitchen.

Damian was originally referred to as the “twin” of Cosme on the West Coast, the relationship being partly a play on their names, which refer to Syrian brothers, both 3rd-century-born doctors who are canonized in the Catholic canon. The LA Menu shares some specific genetic traits with its siblings.

A man in an apron leans against a wall.

Jesus “Chuy” Cervantes, head chef at Damian’s.

(Shelby Moore / For the Times)

Tuna tataki al pastor and duck carnitas, two of Cosme’s fiery trademarks, synthesized into Damian’s duck al pastor, the bird that is gently seasoned, fried to a bright purple and cut into elegant rectangles. A quenelle of whipped, caramelized pineapple butter alongside winks to inspire the dish — the moment a taquero, after shaving pork off a spinning trompo to weigh it in an Al Pastor taco, garnishes with a slice of piña bends, which is impaled on the skewer. Clever without falling into hypocrisy, the show of sophisticated engineering pulls it all together.

Among Damian’s desserts there is the hibiscus meringue. It’s a first cousin of the crackling corn husk meringue spilling custard corn mousse created by Daniela Soto-Innes, Cosme’s inaugural chef. It’s one of the greatest sweet creations of the new millennium. Pastry chef Josh Ulmer’s version, also a Cosme graduate, strays from the startling earthiness of the original but is still almost as wonderful; a filling of fruit quark, usually strawberry or pomegranate, rolls with the Californian seasons and plays with the sour-sweet note of hibiscus.

A bowl contains shrimp cocktail.

Damian’s Coctel Veracruzano.

(Shelby Moore / For the Times)

Aside from these clear connections to line and his dedication to the Olvera aesthetic of plating, which is at once artful and minimalist, Damian has matured in his individuality. The succinct menu doesn’t stick to one Mexican region for influence, though it’s easy to localize the homages to Oaxaca and Baja California, which in turn are an acknowledgment of their cultural influence on Los Angeles.

Sure, openers like the tostada topped with Caesar salad and a giant lobe of uni, or a sherry-laced martini served with kimchi as a follower can come perilously close to an LA parody. Among Jun Kwon’s many standout cocktails, I’m more inclined to wake n’ bake with sangrita than gin. And I’ve loved every one of Cervantes’ iterations of Oaxacan tetelas, their three edges so sharp they appear etched against a drawn triangle. First, they wrapped creamed spinach in strips of poblano for a textural snap. Lately it’s a more traditional black bean filling, with a nest of lobster salad for the luxe. The gilding is nice but unnecessary; The tetela doesn’t really need more than a drizzle of the silky avocado tomatillo salsa served alongside.

His Excellency speaks to the restaurant’s investment in its masa program. Damian works with heirloom corn supplier Masienda, an early partner of Carlos Salgado at his formative Taco María in Costa Mesa. Damian’s hot tortillas are the kind that make you pause and breathe in the warmth of the sun on corn before stacking expertly grilled branzino or bone marrow carne asada on top.

Chochoyotas, round dumplings typical of Oaxaca, have been looking rubbery and bland lately, despite burrata blobs and salsa roja swirls. Missteps with over or under seasoning were more common in the first few months and are much less common now in my experience.

An unlikely centerpiece that never disappoints: a celery root, nixtamalized, baked, then braised in garlic, lemon, and butter to achieve a meaty density. A chunky dollop of salsa macha with morita chilies adds campfire scent, and the plate is rounded off with shaved ruffles of lightly pickled celery root over a pool of mole blanco rich in pine nuts. There is perhaps no finer example of modern Californian-Mexican cuisine within the borders of Los Angeles County. This is admittedly a niche genre, but it’s an excellent contribution.

A mound of celery root piled with Mole.

Damian’s unlikely centerpiece, the celery root entree.

(Shelby Moore / For the Times)

Several people are sitting at a bar talking.

The bar at Damian on a full evening.

(Shelby Moore / For the Times)

If you rushed to Damian shortly after it opened and haven’t returned recently, consider making a reservation for the brunch, which started in June. It really is an anti-brunch weekend lunch. The only eggs offered are fried and optional over chilaquiles. Ulmer makes crunchy, soft blue corn shells; I prefer the brunch tostada with curled crab, avocado and pico de gallo to their dinner counterparts; and the Korean-inspired fried chicken coated in a rice and white cornmeal batter is incredible. The bird fire ignites on intense, fruity-smoky pasilla blend, dried chilies from the northeastern highlands of Oaxaca.

Since opening the restaurant, I appreciate more than ever how carefully the Damian team selects flavors and techniques from Mexico and beyond. Her presence adds another satisfying click of a puzzle piece to the great puzzle of Los Angeles.

It would be remiss not to mention Damian’s neighboring Taqueria Ditroit, tucked behind the building. When food was restricted in 2020 and 2021, the pork belly and chicharron tacos (among other options) helped sustain the business and downtown community.

Last week I returned to Ditroit’s grounds, down an alley and through a black iron gate with the taqueria’s name spray-painted in school bus yellow. I was reminded of the primacy of the extra-long fish flauta, whose mulchy, savory filling is reminiscent of Baja’s smoked marlin tacos. I ate it like a cartoon character gnawing a carrot and was full before I remembered the Suadero taco sprinkled with electric salsa verde that I also ordered. I took that down too.

Every table was occupied that afternoon; a line of excited faces waited at the order counter. I slurped cucumber agua fresca and thought about the past two years—and whether I might queue for a churro again. Nothing about the busy scene surprised me.

People walk past tables surrounded by shell chairs.

A busy evening at Damian’s.

(Shelby Moore / For the Times)

damian

2132 E. 7th Place, Los Angeles, (213) 270-0178, damiantla.com

Prices: Appetizers and small plates $19-50, family meals $32-78, desserts $16

Details: Dinner Wednesday to Friday 5.30pm to 10pm, Saturday 5pm to 10pm, Sunday 5pm to 9pm Brunch Saturday to Sunday 11am to 2pm

Recommended dishes: Ceviche, tetela, tlayuda, celery root, duck al pastor, hibiscus meringue

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