Damian wasn’t created in a vacuum. Like all things - treasured memories, your relationship with your father, and those movies where they drop a freeze-frame then someone says, “Well, I bet you’re wondering how I got here,” understanding this upscale Mexican restaurant requires context.
It’s Enrique Olvera’s fourth restaurant, following Pujol in Mexico City and New York’s Cosme and Atla. Even if you haven’t eaten at those spots before, all it takes is a quick Google search to know these are big shoes, so large, they almost seem absurd to try to fill.
The space is a massive block of carefully carved cement in the Arts District between Santa Fe Ave. and the LA River, a location that all but begs you to compare it to what we once called “The Supreme Being of Los Angeles Restaurants” - Bestia, right across the street.
And yet, where Damian shines isn’t in comparison to its siblings or famous neighbors. It’s a star in its own right, a special occasion restaurant nice enough to make you feel like a V.I.P. but with a laidback casualness that’s wholly LA.
With a sweeping combined indoor and outdoor space, the design looks like two Pinterest boards had a baby together (one jungle-themed, the other industrial), then gave birth to a dining room filled with exposed brick, wooden accents, concrete slabs that double as benches, and so much fauna you might wonder if you’ve wandered into a botanical garden. Damian moves to a distinct rhythm, with everyone so perfectly in sync their brains practically touch. Food is dropped at exactly the right time, servers leave one table then immediately charm the next, and when you get up to use the bathroom someone will be there to guide you, as if they were waiting for this exact moment all night.
At a place like this, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed, imposter-like, when singular dishes cost up to $80 and the drink menu is full of ingredients you’ve likely never heard of before. However, the staff is here to guide you through it all - mostly figuratively, but in the case of the bathroom, extremely literally.
When it comes to the food, you can expect lots of zingy seafood (so fresh, there are practically still droplets of the Pacific Ocean on it) as well as shredded carne asada and duck al pastor. Uni tostadas piled skyscraper high come showered in the most LA thing imaginable: caesar salad and finely grated parmesan. Rockfish ceviche arrives swimming in a pool of olive oil, citrusy yuzu, and halved sungold tomatoes, ensuring each bite is tart, salty, and bright. Main courses hit the table in slow-motion, like the opening credits of a prestige HBO show, with servers gently placing earth-toned bowls packed with mole, salsa cruda, and pale green chayote around a platter of charcoal grilled-fish, then finally lift the lids off baskets of steaming tortillas. From gruyère-stuffed quesadillas to the creamiest guacamole you’ve ever eaten, Damian works its magic by dishes you’ve eaten thousands of times and transforming them into something new.
However, not every dish is a hit. Of the two tostadas on the menu, you’ll want the one with uni (the other is topped with fish tartare and a creamy avocado sauce that’s a bit too heavy for the toasted tortilla). Similarly, you can skip the nixtamalized papaya dessert - although the yogurt underneath is nearly perfect, cold and tart like a parfait, the fruit, which has been soaked then hulled, was bland.
Use this restaurant for celebrations with your dearest friends, tender dates with loved ones, and whenever your most restaurant-obsessed family member is in town, the one who you’re desperate to impress even though, as your therapist always reminds you, you technically “don’t need their approval.” And while you could always compare Damian to Pujol, Cosme, Alta, Bestia, or some mix of the four, why would you? Damian can hold its own.
We don’t always recommend ordering guacamole at the restaurant (especially when it costs $18 and we’re perfectly fine smashing our own avocados at home, thank you very much), but this is no ordinary guacamole. It’s large enough to count as an entrée, a softball-sized mound of creamy avocados, sliced jalapeños, a heap of cilantro, and enough lime to make your hands smell like a mojito, plus a seemingly unlimited tostada basket. Warning: Do. Not. Fill. Up. On. Tostadas.
The fish changes depending on the season (we most recently had rockfish, or striped bass) and floats in bright, bouncy sauce made from yuzu and olive oil. The tart Japanese citrus slices straight through the richness of the fish and mingles with the tiny sungold tomatoes in a way that makes us do a little jig in our chair.
On paper, the uni tostada’s ingredients might not register - “Caesar salad? Sea urchin? And parmesan cheese? What is this, a Sweetgreen order gone haywire?” - but somehow, it works really, really well. The salad functions more as a garnish, a medley of shredded lettuce that comes in three distinct colors that melds with the parmesan and uni’s nuttiness quite nicely.
It’s a quesadilla, but make it Swiss. Molten gruyère is pressed down flat between two crispy tortillas then drowned in a pile of morel mushrooms and truffle shavings that, when inspected at the right angle, kind of looks like the wig Sarah Paulson wore on The People v. O.J. Simpson. Order this quesadilla.
When this dish was dropped at the table, we half-wished we had a drone overhead to film the interaction. Is this what it feels like to be kissed by an angel? Two or three people will descend, quietly depositing earth-toned bowls filled with mole, salsa cruda, and pale green chayote. Then, the heavens part - alas! It’s the barbecued fish, roasted over the embers of the grill, unbelievably meaty and… wait, are you crying? Luckily, there are plenty of pillowy tortillas to dry those tears on.
The items on Damian’s drinks menu are just as creative and delicious as the ones consumed with a fork. Tequila is infused with dill and absinthe in “The DTLA.” In the kimchi martini, fermented cabbage is mixed and strained alongside gin, distilled habanero peppers, and a bit of sherry to create flavors that are spicy and mouth-tingling, yet strangely familiar. For those not in the mood for liquor, Damian also offers a wonderful - and equally complex - list of non-alcoholic cocktails, like the carrot-tinged pine nut and the upgraded horchata, made with toasted amaranth.