Thursday, May 30, 2024

Selva’s candlelit ‘test kitchen’ dinners flex the muscles of Chef Carlos Jurado

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Selva, the Zaferia stand-out that has earned its place twice on Los Angeles Times food critic Bill Addison’s Best 101 Restaurants, has long harnessed its Colombian sensibility when it comes to food, but Chef Carlos Jurado wants to not just challenge himself but Long Beach. For beyond the recognition of Mr. Addison, we are now a town with Michelin stars and James Beard finalists—and with some hefty, contradictory doses of seriousness and an utter lack of gravity, Jurado flexes his culinary muscles beyond the confines of Colombian cuisine.

For Chef Carlos of Selva, a push to challenge himself after his space was on the chopping block

There was, for a moment, the fact that Selva was going to be, well, not Selva.

After moments where Jurado thought he would see Selva sold, there comes both a relief and sense of vindication that what he is doing is exactly how he should be doing it with his recognition at the 101 Best Restaurants. Co-owners Geoff and Karna Rau put the restaurant—along with their neighboring space, Roundin’ 3rd—on the market, like many spaces that currently been put on the selling block. They then backed away from selling Selva after they were able to convert his other space with Jurado, Bar Envie, into an extension of the Long Beach Beer Lab brand.

This, in a sense, jolted Jurado.

Jurado’s pedigree is rarely mentioned by the chef—for example, he worked under Chef Jordan Kahn, the genius-meets-frustrating creative whose work at Vespertine was hailed as the region’s best by much-loved food critic Jonathan Gold before his death but nonetheless criticized for reasons beyond the food—but it nonetheless should be noted: Jurado has been in the game at some of its highest heights and, while he never once blindly chased accolades, he does see the uptick in Long Beach’s culinary recognition as a way to flex his culinary muscles.

“I am really hoping I can get this to a two-seating each time we do this [Test Kitchen Tuesday dinner],” Jurado said. “For now, it’ll just have to depend on word-of-mouth.”

Selva’s tasting dinners are both intimate and unassuming, witty and genuinely fun

Amid the black flowers, matching candlesticks aglow, and emotionally matching soundtrack that spanned everything from Mareux to Joy Division, Jurado said he was aiming for “sexy but nothing constricting”—and he succeeded: The air felt light and the vibe was, if anything, that of a sadboy successfully impressing the girl in his eye.

“Sometimes, the kitchen can feel more restrictive than it can creative,” Jurado said. “And chefs are creatives—but if we don’t exercise that sense of freedom we have when we fall in love with cooking, we’re fucking deadweights.”

The frankness of Jurado’s words echo to larger truths: These types of dinners are essential for a city’s food scene not just for patrons but for the mental health and creative exercise of chefs—and in a much larger sense become boons for the city itself, showcasing spaces that are not $300 per person but are also not Taco Bell, the two ends of which seem to be the only choice diners are choosing as of lately. It leaves those mid-level spaces like Selva with drooping attendance numbers as patrons decide they want either entirely extravagant offerings or to pay as little possible.

Dinners like this alleviate that problem: There is a feel of exclusivity without being enormously gouging on the pocket and, even more, it showcases the talent of a chef through a new lens.

I am, personally, unsure of when crudo was to be found everywhere—at least in Long Beach. Perhaps it was Chef Jason Witzl over at Ellie’s-slash-Ginger’s, who has long had crudo on nearly each of his menus, be they prix fixe or otherwise. Or maybe it was Chef Manuel Bañuelos and his much-missed talent at the equally much-missed Fonda Tobalá. Or Chef Ulises Pineda-Alfaro at El Barrio. Or or or…

But there is one thing for sure: Jurado has consistently shown the breadth of the interpretation of crudo—and that is the fact that crudo can be as artful as it can be malleable.

And while others have perpetually drowned their crudo in citrus juices—to the point of acidic oblivion—Jurado went nearly the opposite this time: Surely, acid is present but crêpe-thin fried beets and squid ink tuile give way to a nice earthiness-meets-umami rather than a umami-meets-citric-pool. Add onto this a pool of red pomegranate vinaigrette drizzle and little dollops of tobiko caviar and you have yourself a nearly perfect crudo.

Then there’s the off-the-wall witty, where Jurado takes a plantain as a substitute for potato in gnocchi and it magically works: Light, with hints of sweet and tart, they sit underneath house-made cheese and layers of mushrooms. It is a dish that is as warming as it is strangely nostalgic considering how innovative the idea of using plantains for gnocchi is.

“That’s the kind of dish where, after you have a shitty day, you just wanna dive straight into a bowl of that warmth,” Jurado said.

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His lamb loin—which could literally be cut with a fork, something Jurado said he was tempted to do: serve the dish with a just a fork and no knife—is an ode to homey plates where things randomly mixed: A purposefully broken sauce acts as an oily dip of sorts for the protein on one part of the plate, a blended black garlic spread as another, ahi purée as another, whipped plantains hidden underneath as yet another, fried kale adding earthy bits to the sweets and salts and of the sauces…

It’s entirely un-serious while also being exploratory and encouraging diners to mix’n’match in a way that, well, at home but, well, not at home.

And it’s a wonderful display of an artist trying to break the boundaries he set on himself—something that should always deserve applause.

Selva is located 4137 E. Anaheim St.

Brian Addison
Brian Addison
Brian Addison has been a writer, editor, and photographer for more than a decade, covering everything from food and culture to transportation and housing. In 2015, he was named Journalist of the Year by the Los Angeles Press Club and has since garnered 25 nominations and three additional wins. In 2019, he was awarded the Food/Culture Critic of the Year across any platform at the National Arts & Entertainment Journalism Awards.

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