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How Damian grew to be one of L.A.’s finest modern California-Mexican restaurants

An overhead view of an array of dishes from Damian on a concrete surface.
An array of dishes from Damian.
(Shelby Moore / For The Times)
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Part of me still blinks in surprise whenever I walk into Damian and see its sleek dining room brimming with people.

It’s not that I ever expect to find the restaurant, housed in a former Arts District warehouse, empty. It shouldn’t be; the cooking has reached peak form at its two-year mark. But my initial impression of the space will always be tangled with the bleak moment during which it opened.

A marquee project of Mexico City-based chef Enrique Olvera, Damian spent several years in development before finally seeing light in October 2020, the darkest of months. Indoor dining in Los Angeles remained off-limits then; within weeks of its opening, California would pass 1 million reported cases of COVID-19. I raced during my first dinner to memorize details of the interior — a brick wall scrubbed to new life, mod round tables surrounded by peach-toned chairs, the bar with a concrete overhang that appeared to my grim mind like a bunker overstocked handsomely with artisan mezcal — while the staff politely sped my party of two toward the back patio.

An atrium patio lined with trees.
Damian’s bustling outdoor patio.
(Shelby Moore / For The Times)
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Stepping onto the terrace brought more than relief to be outside. Architect Alonso de Garay and designer Micaela de Bernardí had turned the area into something exhilarating: part art installation, part urban haven.

My eyes fell first on a wall of rust-streaked, corrugated metal that framed one side of the outdoor space. Perpendicular to it was another building with an arched roof; it had the air of an abandoned greenhouse. I couldn’t see through its windows of ribbed glass. Young trees sprang out of the patio’s concrete; planters built above winding banquettes created an instantly lush atmosphere. Hilda Palafox, who goes by the name Poni for her Mexican street art, painted a mural in which human figures float among birds and leaves. A retractable roof had been built for L.A.’s increasingly rare rainy nights.

It was — is — a space that both revels in the city’s gritty heart and reaffirms nature as an antidote. The setting uplifted that first meal, in which smoked clams and sliced cucumbers fell over one another like toppled stacks of coins; Dungeness crab spilled from a gordita’s gaping masa mouth; and an uncanny take on a tlayuda crunched appealingly with fried shrimp shells.

Paired images of a corn masa triangle and a squash-blossom-covered tortilla.
The tetela, left, and the tlayuda, right, from Damian.
(Shelby Moore / For The Times)

Nearly two years later, as the world falls back into place in great and terrible ways, Damian has gone through its own shifts. What began as a famous chef’s grandly announced entrance to the L.A. market has settled into a restaurant that feels intentionally engaged with the city, with progressively delicious results. In a region already rich in expressions of Mexican food culture, Damian’s leadership team, mostly transplants, seems to ask through its cooking: What can we bring to the conversation?

Chef de cuisine Jesús “Chuy” Cervantes grew up in El Paso, Texas. He moved east to Austin to begin his cooking career and, ready for new opportunities, heard that Grupo Enrique Olvera — globally known for its Mexico City flagship, Pujol — 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 couple of years, but a chance reunion with Olvera a few years later led to an offer to lead Damian’s kitchen.

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Damian was originally billed as Cosme’s West Coast “twin,” the relation in part a play on their names, which refer to Syrian brothers, both physicians born in the 3rd century, who are sainted in the Catholic canon. The L.A. menu shares some specific genetic traits with its sibling.

A man in an apron leans against a wall.
Jesus “Chuy” Cervantes, chef de cuisine at Damian.
(Shelby Moore / For The Times)

Tuna tataki al pastor and duck carnitas, two of Cosme’s cheffy signatures, synthesized into Damian’s duck “al pastor,” the bird gently spiced, seared to pale crimson and sliced into elegant rectangles. A quenelle of whipped, caramelized pineapple butter alongside winks to the dish’s inspiration — the moment when a taquero, after shaving pork from a spinning trompo to cradle in an al pastor taco, nicks off as garnish a bit of pi?a impaled atop the spit. Clever without descending into pretense, the show of exacting technique pulls the whole thing off.

Among Damian’s desserts, there is the hibiscus meringue. It’s a first cousin to the crackling cornhusk meringue spilling custardy corn mousse developed by Daniela Soto-Innes, Cosme’s opening chef. It is one of the greatest sweet creations in the new millennium. The version by pastry chef Josh Ulmer, also a Cosme alum, moves away from the original’s startling earthiness but is still nearly as wonderful; a filling of fruit curd, usually strawberry or pomegranate, rolls with the California seasons and plays to the acidic-sweet tang of the hibiscus.

A bowl holds shrimp cocktail.
Damian’s Coctel Veracruzano.
(Shelby Moore / For The Times)

Beyond these clear links to the lineage, and its devotion to the Olvera aesthetic of plating that is at once ornate and minimalist, Damian has matured in its individuality. The concise menu doesn’t adhere to any one Mexican region for influence, though it’s easy to pinpoint the homages to Oaxaca and Baja California, which are in turn an acknowledgment of their cultural impact on Los Angeles.

Sure, openers like the tostada crowned with Caesar salad and an enormous lobe of uni, or a sherry-laced martini served with kimchi as a chaser, can tip perilously close to L.A. parody. Among Jun Kwon’s many stellar cocktails, I lean more gin-wise to the Wake n’ Bake, taut with sangrita. And I’ve loved each of Cervantes’ iterations of Oaxacan tetelas, their three edges so sharp they appear etched against a drafting triangle. At first they encased creamed spinach with strips of poblano for textural snap. Lately it’s been a more traditional filling of black beans, with a nest of lobster salad for luxury’s sake. The gilding is nice but unnecessary; the tetela doesn’t really need more than a spattering of the silky avocado-tomatillo salsa served alongside.

Its excellence speaks to the restaurant’s investment in its masa program. Damian works with heirloom corn purveyor Masienda, an early partner with Carlos Salgado at his defining Taco María in Costa Mesa. Damian’s hot tortillas are the kind you pause over, breathing in their sunshine-on-corn warmth, before piling on hunks of masterfully grilled branzino or carne asada glossed with bone marrow.

Chochoyotas, round dumplings typical to Oaxaca, came off as gummy recently, and bland despite blobs of burrata and swirls of salsa roja. Missteps with over- or under-seasoning were more common in the early months and are, in my experience, far rarer now.

An improbable centerpiece that has never disappointed: a bulb of celery root, nixtamalized, baked and then braised in garlic, lemon and butter, all to achieve meaty density. A chunky dollop of salsa macha made with morita chiles adds campfire fragrance, and the plate is finished with shaved ruffles of lightly pickled celery root set over a pool of mole blanco rich in pine nuts. There may be no finer example of California-Mexican modernist cooking within the boundaries of Los Angeles County. That’s a niche genre, granted, but it’s a sterling contribution.

A mound of celery root piled with mole.
Damian’s improbable centerpiece, the celery root entree.
(Shelby Moore / For The Times)
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Several people seated at a bar, socializing.
The bar at Damian on a full evening.
(Shelby Moore / For The Times)

If you rushed to Damian not long after it opened and haven’t returned lately, consider making a reservation for brunch, which began in June. It’s really an anti-brunch weekend lunch. The only eggs on offer are fried and optional over chilaquiles. Ulmer is making crunchy-soft blue corn conchas; I favor the brunch tostada with frilly crab, avocado and pico de gallo over any of its dinner counterparts; and the Korean-inspired fried chicken, sheathed in a batter of rice and white corn flours, is incredible. The bird’s fire flares from intense, fruity-smoky pasilla mixe, dried chiles from the northeast highlands of Oaxaca.

I have come to value, more than ever since the restaurant’s arrival, how intricately the Damian team culls flavors and techniques from Mexico and beyond. Their presence adds another satisfying click of a puzzle piece to the grand jigsaw of Los Angeles.

It would be careless not to mention Damian’s adjacent taqueria, Ditroit, hidden around the back of the building. When dining was restricted throughout 2020 and 2021, the pork belly and chicharron tacos (among other options) helped sustain the business and the downtown community.

Last week I returned to Ditroit’s outdoor space, down an alley and through a black iron gate on which the taqueria’s name is spray-painted in school-bus yellow. I was reminded of the primacy of the extra-long fish flauta, its mulchy, piquant filling evoking Baja’s smoked marlin tacos. I ate it like a cartoon character gnawing down a carrot, already full before remembering the suadero taco, speckled with an electric salsa verde, I’d also ordered. I downed that too.

Every table was full that afternoon; a line of eager faces waited at the ordering window. I slurped cucumber agua fresca and thought about the last two years — and about maybe joining the line again for a churro. Nothing about the busy scene surprised me.

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People walk past tables ringed with bucket chairs.
A busy evening at Damian.
(Shelby Moore / For The Times)

Damian

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

Prices: Starters and small plates $19-$50, family-style mains $32-$78, desserts $16

Details: Dinner Wednesday to Friday 5:30 to 10 p.m., Saturday 5 to 10 p.m., Sunday 5 to 9 p.m. Brunch Saturday to Sunday 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.

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

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