New + Notable: Enrique Olvera’s ‘Damian’ Restaurant Brings Haute Mexican to Downtown LA
One of the things we have particularly missed these last sixteen months is the regular buzz of new restaurant openings, and the thrill of walking through the door for the first time and thinking that this place might just change your (culinary) life. The hospitality business has taken a brutal hit during that time, obviously. But the hopefulness of the success of the vaccination programs is allowing even serious hot zones like Southern California to have the confidence to open back up.
And so earlier this month Eater was back to enthusiastically spotlighting the upcoming Los Angeles debuts of the likes of Bicyclette Bistro on W. Pico, Jerry Greenberg’s Matū in Beverly Hills, and the long delayed Caldo Verde in the new Downtown LA Proper Hotel. But a particularly notable new Downtown spot that had attempted its coming out in the middle of the pandemic last autumn and was subsequently thwarted is Enrique Olvera’s Damian, now finally fully operational in the buzzy neighborhood’s also buzzy Arts District.
Olvera is the exalted Mexican chef whose Pujol in Mexico City has been an utter sensation since its debut all the way back in 2000, consistently taking the prize as the country’s top restaurant, and making top twenty lists all over the globe. In 2014 he opened Cosme in New York’s Flatiron to raves and rapturous reviews (it was the New York Times Best New Restaurant for that year), followed by the more casual ATLA in NoLIta.
Now at Damian, he is undertaking a marriage of his unparalleled, tradition-rooted Mexican cuisine, and the bounty of seasonal California produce. Under the stewardship of Head Chef Jesus Chuy Cervantes, the menu includes such delectably cliche-defying creations as Striped Bass Ceviche w/ Olive Kosho & Sundried Tomato, Celery Root w/ Chicatana Salsa Macha & Xnipec, Tlayuda w/ Zucchini, Queso Fresco & Shrimp Shell…even carne asada and that old workhorse the quesadilla get a clever reinvention here. And if there could be more “now” desert options than Hibiscus Merengue and Orange Blossom Panna Cotta, we’d certainly like to know what they are. (There’s also a backdoor taqueria serving up elevated Mexican street food.)
The beverage program by Cosme’s Yana Volfson focuses on small batch, artisan agave.
But considering we’ve all spent the last year-plus decisively dressing down, it’s not insignificant that Damian is also good-looking enough to want to get dressed up for. Artfully fitted into a repurposed warehouse space (ah, Downtown), there’s a starkly elegant, Corbusian concreteness about the space, which is by interior designer Micaela De Bernardi. Yet with its pale color schemes, exposed brick walls and generous plant life, it also feels bright and welcoming, especially the sleekly styled bar area. It’s all meant to evoke the breezy cool of a traditional Mexican patio cafe.
But Damian also has a genuine soul at its essence, due in no small part to the ideological intentions of the people behind it – and the fact that Olvera has always employed a holistic approach to running restaurants, with each team member regarded as equally crucial to making it an unforgettable experience for every guest.
“The kitchen is not just a working space,” Chef Cervantes explains, “it is a space where we foster a sense of community with our guests through our cuisine. Also at the restaurant’s core is the relation with our purveyors, we celebrate them by respecting their produce. We believe that taking care of our community translates into a communal yet sophisticated experience for our guests.”
And after more than a year of relative isolation, a sense of community is pretty much exactly what we need in a restaurant.