Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Test Kitchen (Los Angeles, CA) [5]

Test Kitchen
9575 W Pico Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90035
Tue 08/31/2010, 06:45p-09:40p

Neal Fraser Hot on the heels of Ricardo Zarate's "Cebiche Night" comes Grace's Neal Fraser, here to give us a taste of Grace at The Vibiana, the Chef's new Downtown "dream" restaurant set to debut early next year. Fraser and company shuttered the longstanding Beverly spot on June 19, and the location will be taken over by none other than Rivera's John Sedlar, who is set to open up another Pan-Latin eatery in the space (it will not be called R26, though, despite early reports).

Other gastronomes in attendance tonight included: Jo of My Last Bite; Mozza manager Kate Green; sommelier Melinda Mrachek; and Ryan of Epicuryan.

Test Kitchen (Neal Fraser) Menu Test Kitchen (Neal Fraser) Menu Test Kitchen (Neal Fraser) Menu
Following in the footsteps of Walter Manzke, Fraser chose to serve up a five course tasting menu (priced at $49), preceded by a quintet of shared "snacks." Cocktails by John-Pierre Rivera (Grace's resident bar man) and Joel Black, meanwhile, were $12 each, with the wine pairing by Joshua Klapper set at $40. Click for larger versions.

Roof Garden 1785
We began with a duo of cocktails, starting with the Roof Garden (vodka, fresh sweet and sour, soda water, thyme, mint and sugar). This was a very approachable, refreshing tipple, with pleasant sour and herbaceous notes offsetting the slight heat of the vodka. The 1785 (Bourbon, lillet blanc, orange slice), meanwhile, had an aromatic, orange-tinged bouquet, followed up by a great interaction between the citrus, the bitter-ish lillet, and the weightiness of the whiskey.

Naturally, we had to order one of each snack to share:

Grilled Octopus
Grilled Octopus [$12.00] | Pickled Watermelon
Grilled on an open fire, the octopus revealed a fantastic char that deftly complemented its brine, and I also appreciated how the cephalopod's inherent sweetness was heightened by the compressed watermelon. My only issue with this course was that the octopus was a bit too chewy in consistency.

Pied de Cochon
Pied de Cochon [$10.00] | Spicy Aioli
Pig's trotters were marinated for two days, shredded, balled up, then fried in a panko crust. The result was a delectable sphere of pork-y goodness, rich yet restrained in savor with a fantastic crunch. I rather liked how the Old Bay-based spicy aioli contributed a lingering finish to the course, expertly balancing the weight of the meat. This definitely reminded me of Walter Manzke's version at Hatchi.

Grilled Prosciutto Wrapped Figs
Grilled Prosciutto Wrapped Figs [$10.00]
Arguably my favorite of the snacks, the grilled figs conveyed a fantastic sweet-salty interplay, with the smokiness of the prosciutto gradually transitioning to the saccharine finish of fig. Think of these as high-class bacon-wrapped dates!

Jo Flashes Us Jo Flashes Us
Jo flashed us.

Chilled Peach Soup
Chilled Peach Soup [$5.00] | Sherry Gelée
Made with reduced peach and rice wine vinegar, the soup exhibited delectable peach notes on the nose and palate, with the sherry adding just a hint of astringency to the mix.

Chilean Seafood Ceviche
Chilean Seafood Ceviche [$12.00]
Perhaps taking a cue from Ricardo Zarate, Fraser served up a solid scallop, rock shrimp, and mussel ceviche. I quite enjoyed the texture of the various shellfish, as well as how the citric marinade so aptly complemented the seafood. Great lingering heat, too.

Cevichetini Jo Loves Her Cevichetini
Jo liked the ceviche so much that she decided to pour the remainder of the liquid (scallop and all!) into her double-vodka, creating a "Cevichetini" of sorts. It was a rather unpleasant experiment to say the least, and recalled the bonito-infused Big Tuna from Walter Manzke's stint here.

Wild Seabass
1: Wild Seabass | Slow Cooked, Spicy Lobster Ceviche
2008 A Côté Chardonnay, Santa Barbara County
Sea bass was exceedingly tender, barely requiring mastication. It had a rather delicate flavor, which was augmented by a certain herbaceous tang, as well as the bold, piquant acidity of the lobster ceviche. Very nice.

Jo Photo Jo Photo
Jo's photography technique involves the use of an iPod flashlight.

Culto Aromatherapy
Our next round of cocktails brought us the Culto (silver tequila, fresh sweet and sour, sour cherry Italian syrup), which had an almost tamarind-like tartness to offset the power of the tequila. It actually reminded me of a more approachable version of the D.F. cocktail from my last meal here with Michael Voltaggio. We also had the Aromatherapy (gin, St. Germain elderflower liqueur, tonic water); I rather liked its fantastic interplay between sweet and herbal elements, all over a sharp base of gin.

Day Boat Scallop
2: Day Boat Scallop | Sautéed, Chanterelle Mushrooms, Peas, Fava Beans
2008 La Fenêtre Chardonnay, Sierra Madre Vineyard, Santa Maria Valley
The scallops were arguably the strongest course of the meal. They showed off a heady, intoxicating briny aroma that was apparent even as they approached the table. Cooked to a slightly raw consistency, the bivalves still had plenty of their intrinsic sweetness intact, which was beautifully countered by the earthy weight of the chanterelles. I also adored the pea-fava-spinach purée, which lent a bright, vegetal character to the dish.

Brian & Jo
Brian and Jo engaging in horseplay.

3: Pork | Braised, Slow Cooked Egg, Frisée, Corn Velouté
2008 La Fenêtre Pinot Noir, Los Alamos Vineyard, Santa Barbara County
Pork belly was tastefully subdued, yet still possessed a pert porkiness that I appreciated. I enjoyed its tender consistency and crisp crust, and how the slow-cooked egg, in concert with the corn velouté, added a luscious creaminess to the whole dish. I cherished the countervailing interaction between the salty lardons and light frisée, as well.

Bread Lounge Sourdough
To sop up the remainder of the pork liquid, Brian brought out some sourdough from upstart private bakery Bread Lounge.

Rib Eye of Beef
4: Rib Eye of Beef | Grilled, Black Garlic Flan, Horseradish Gremolata, Braised Greens
2007 La Fenêtre Syrah, Alisos Vineyard, Santa Barbara County
Our final savory course of the evening brought us a beautiful cut of rib eye. Suitably tender and cooked to a perfect medium-rare temperature, the beef was expectedly savory, and yet beautifully moderated by the tangy horseradish-caper-parsley-lemon gremolata. I wasn't as crazy about the black garlic flan though, finding it a bit heavy, a bit sweet for the course. I did, however, enjoy eating it up with the aforementioned bread.

Jo Sexting
Throughout the night, Jo was texting none other than Michael Voltaggio, who had returned, apparently, from a "shrimp run."

For our dessert course, we paired the Sonnet (gin, dolin blanc vermouth, lemon wedge), a light, somewhat sake-like libation with a great lemon edge to cut the gin.

Ricardo & Jo
Ricardo Zarate, of course, was helping out this evening as well.

Panna Cotta
5: Panna Cotta | Vanilla, Market Berries, Salted Caramel
2008 A Côté Red Blend, Santa Barbara county
A straightforward, but effective dessert here. I really enjoyed the dense, creamy, sugary panna cotta, and how it was so deftly enhanced by the application of tangy-sweet strawberries. Meanwhile, the caramel provided a weighty, savory element to ground the dessert.

Kate & Jo
Jo with Kate Green, who helps manage both Mozza restaurants.

I rather liked my last meal at Grace, and Fraser's stint here at Test Kitchen has continued that trajectory, with robust, lusty food that managed to show off the Chef's sophisticated, yet accessible approach. You can bet that I'll be at Vibiana, opening night, natch!

So it turns out that Voltaggio was in the house, upstairs in fact, prepping for a cooking demonstration at Williams-Sonoma Beverly Hills the following day.

Jo & Michael
The requisite photo with Michael.

48-Hour Beef
Beef, to be cooked sous vide for two days in a Polyscience immersion circulator. Other tools furnished by W-S included the Vitamix, Caso Blue Two, and Smoking Gun.

In The Walkin-In
In the walk-in.

Michael Voltaggio Josh Goldman
Michael Voltaggio, Cole Dickinson, Klein Debow, Josh Goldman Michael Voltaggio, Cole Dickinson, Klein Debow, Josh Goldman
Michael Voltaggio, Cole Dickinson, Klein Debow, Josh Goldman Michael Voltaggio, Cole Dickinson, Klein Debow, Josh Goldman
Voltaggio's crew--who will be helping him open the new restaurant--includes his GM-cum-sommelier Josh Goldman, as well as chefs Cole Dickinson (hi Vicki!) and Klein Debow.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Test Kitchen (Los Angeles, CA) [4]

Test Kitchen
9575 W Pico Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90035
Sun 08/29/2010, 06:15p-09:15p

Of all the Test Kitchen chefs so far--Jordan Kahn, Ricardo Zarate, Walter Manzke--perhaps none has been more hotly anticipated than Michael Voltaggio. Part of the hoopla was perhaps due to the mystery around his participation--the fact that Voltaggio's presence at the pop-up wasn't even confirmed prior to the dinner (though there were certainly a fair share of rumors circulating). Certainly, that Voltaggio has been notoriously tight-lipped about his future restaurant plans added to the excitement. And after my last, epic meal with Voltaggio, I was certainly brimming with anticipation.

Other gastronomic types fortunate enough to snag a reservation for this one-night-only affair included: Umami Burger mogul Adam Fleischman; Eater LA correspondent, former Breadbar manager, and ex-pastry chef Daniela Galarza; Diana of Diana Takes a Bite; Chef Jon Butler, who worked with Walter Manzke at Church & State; Rivera's John Sedlar (who will be previewing his upcoming restaurant sometime in the coming weeks); Ken Hwang, also from Rivera (who I'd met at LudoBites a while back); Joy Limanon, who will be handling some of the PR for Voltaggio; LA Times Daily Dish contributor Krista Simmons; Linden of The Gastronomnom; Lindsay Williams-Ross from LAist; Grace's Neal Fraser (who will be cooking here come the 31st); Ryan of Epicuryan; and the ever-present Ryan Tanaka (rydka).

Test Kitchen (Michael Voltaggio) Menu Test Kitchen (Michael Voltaggio) Menu Test Kitchen (Michael Voltaggio) Menu
Voltaggio's deconstructivist degustation decet, dubbed 10 Tracks: Some of History’s Greatest Hits, was TK's costliest yet, priced at $69 per person. Cocktails from Josh Goldman (Voltaggio's future GM and sommelier) and beverage consultant Daniel Nelson (The Doheny, Spago, Providence, Hungry Cat), meanwhile, rang in at $15 each. Click for larger versions.

Josh Goldman, Daniel Nelson, Joel Black
Here, Goldman shows Daniel Nelson and Joel Black on how to whip up his cocktails.

Petit Befores
Amuse Bouche: Petit Befores | Tomato, Mushroom
Two bites made up our amuse bouche course. First was a tomato pâte de fruit, similar to what I had at my last Dining Room visit. This was notably more herbaceous than I remember, showing off a classic interplay between tomato and basil, with an overarching sugariness leading to an astringent finish. More impressive, though, was the mushroom canelé, which conveyed the smoky essence of porcini beautifully, before transitioning off to the creamy, subtly sweet goat's milk cream.

Diana Takes a Photo
Diana Takes a Photo.

Basque Sangria
There were cocktail pairings for each savory course, so naturally we ordered one of everything, beginning with the Basque Sangria (Floc de Gascogne, Flavors of Sangria, Freeze-Dried Fruit). This was quite possibly the best sangria that I'd ever had, demonstrating light, fun, fruity flavors backed by the bright essence of Floc de Gascogne. I absolutely adored the use of freeze-dried fruit as well.

1: Mole | Queso Fresco, Chile y Lemon
The pairing of a dark mole with queso fresco is a classic one in Mexican cuisine, and here, Voltaggio completely turns that idea upside down, pairing Padron peppers with mole "soil" and a feta-queso fresco ice cream. The mole lent smoky-sweet flavors to the otherwise spicy peppers, while the ice cream deftly tempered the whole interaction, contributing cool, creamy notes of dairy, imbued with a subtle sweetness.

Mr. Ice Tea
I pity the fool...who didn't get to try our next libation, the Mr. Ice Tea (Scotch, Green Tea, Yuzu Air). This one had a lovely interaction between the potency of the Scotch and the tang of the yuzu, moderated by a bit of honey sweetness, all finishing with a slight hint of astringency from the green tea.

Fish and Chips
2: Fish and Chips | Hamachi, Fried Tartar Sauce
Fish and chips is perhaps the epitome of UK casual cuisine, usually consisting of battered and fried haddock or cod, served with "steak fries" and malt vinegar. Voltaggio used yellowtail sashimi instead here, and paired it with fried tartar sauce balls, vinegar spherifications, and fried potato skin. The fish--clean, mild, and even slightly sugary--went superbly with the vinegar spheres, and even better with the tartar. I also quite enjoyed the use of potato, but I wanted to taste even more of it.

Michael Voltaggio A.J. Ramirez
Of course, A.J. Ramirez was helping out in the kitchen.

Zorba The Martini
Zorba The Martini combined Gin, Ouzo, and Olive Powder to form a very strong martini indeed. I really liked its base of classic flavors, imbued with a ginger-y, herbaceous element.

3: Caprese | Traditional Look, Smoke, Ocean
The insalata Caprese traditionally comprises tomato, mozzarella, basil, and olive oil. I'd had a reimagined, "molecular" version before at Saam when Voltaggio was the head chef, so I was curious as to how he'd deconstruct the dish this time around. He turned out something completely different, using smoked mozzarella, dashi-marinated cherry tomatoes, sea beans, freeze-dried calamari, and squid ink. Think classic Caprese flavors, but tinged with an ocean-y, briny element that really perks your palate. Quite good.

Brass Monkey Brass Monkey Brass Monkey Brass Monkey Brass Monkey
Goldman had always wanted to do this Beastie Boys-inspired drink, but couldn't do so at The Langham for obvious reasons. The so-called Brass Monkey was comprised simply of a paper bag-enveloped 40 oz. of Olde English, mixed with Orange Juice. The first thing that Goldman did was pour out a little liquor "for our homies," before proceeding to fill the remainder of the bottle with OJ. The concoction was actually surprisingly effective, with the juice doing a great job at moderating the bite of the O.E. Think of this as a ghetto mimosa!

Mc Nuggets
4: Mc Nuggets | Lamb Sweetbread, Rhubard Ketchup, Curry
What better dish to pair with Olde E than Chicken McNuggets? Well, White Castle for one. But I was raised on McD's, so naturally, I was excited to taste Voltaggio's version of this childhood staple. The nuggets, quite simply, were delectable, with a tender, creamy consistency, crisp battered skin, and a heady, deeply saporous flavor. I actually preferred them sans the sauce, which I found a bit too saccharine. The irony here, of course, is that the sweetbreads utilized are probably less scary than what goes into actual McNuggets! I'll take a 6-piece.

Ken Hwang
Ken Hwang from Rivera divulged a few previous details from Sedlar's upcoming restaurant.

Porcini Sidecar
A sidecar typically comprises brandy mixed with Cointreau and lemon juice. Nelson's Porcini Sidecar (1991 Joy Armagnac, Lemon, Porcini Orange Liqueur), on the other hand, was much more intriguing, with an almost chocolate-y sweetness on the attack, bound by a bit of earthy savoriness, all under the encompassing tang of lemon.

Greek Mezze
5: Greek Mezze | Octopus, Falafel, Yogurt
Mezze refers to small, appetizer-like dishes, popular in the Eastern Mediterranean region, with grilled octopus being a particularly popular example in Greece (see my Zaytinya post for a version by Voltaggio's Top Chef competitor Mike Isabella). The octopus here was particularly tender in texture, with a delicate brine balanced beautifully by the cool, refreshing yogurt. The falafel, meanwhile, added a nice bit of heftiness to the dish. Nice!

Smoked Gibson
A Gibson is a variation on the gin martini in which an onion garnish is substituted for olive. Nelson took the Smoked Gibson (Broker's Gin, Smoked Vermouth, Squid Ink Onion, Russian Tea Smoke) that we had a step further, coloring the onion with squid ink and imparting the drink with a rather fitting smokiness.

Melon & Prosciutto
6: Melon & Prosciutto | Wagyu Beef Tongue, Arugula, Smoked Mayo
The pairing of Prosciutto with melon is a legendary one, with the salty essence of the ham deftly playing off the sugary succulence of melon. Voltaggio, however, decided to use beef tongue instead, which was actually a great imitation of ham, with a smoky, savory character that I quite enjoyed. The tongue played gorgeously with the juicy sugariness of the melon, while the arugula provided a light, bitter counterpoint. To quite Diana (who'd never had tongue before): "Michael Voltaggio gave me tongue, and I loved it!"

Jon Butler
Chef Jon Butler, who assisted Walter Manzke during his stint at Test Kitchen, enjoys his well-deserved O.E.

Flor De Coco
Next up was the Flor De Coco (Lablon Cachaça, Coconut), an unabashedly sweet, light libation teeming with the flavor of coconut.

Maryland Crab Feast
7: Maryland Crab Feast | Soft Shell, Corn Scramble, Old Bay
Voltaggio hails from Frederick, Maryland, so I wasn't too surprised to see him pay homage to one of his state's most celebrated culinary traditions, the Crab Feast, in which Chesapeake Bay blue crabs are sprinkled with Old Bay, steamed with vinegar, and laboriously picked apart. I actually had this same dish during my blow-out meal at The Dining Room, and what I stated earlier still stands: "The crab itself was cooked to a faultless, crisp, onion ring-like consistency and was appropriately restrained, showing off a bit of sweetness that linked up nicely with the paired corn. The key here, though, was the Old Bay seasoning, which countered the crustacean's weight perfectly."

The D.F. (Riazul Tequila, Verjus, Carpano Antica, Mole Bitters) was named after Mexico's Distrito Federal, and thus not surprisingly, showed off a bit of south-of-the-border influence. The cocktail was one of the more fascinating ones of the evening, with a lovely, almost suan mei-like tartness that deftly balanced the power of the tequila.

Veal Piccata
8: Veal Piccata | Cheek, Chard, Cauliflower, Chanterelles
Veal piccata is a classic Italian dish of sautéed thinly-sliced veal, garnished with a caper-lemon-butter sauce. The veal was clearly the star of Voltaggio's version, and was some of the tastiest that I'd ever had, with rich, dark flavors that left me wanting more. The meat was tempered by the use of chanterelles, chard, and cauliflower (didn't get much from the caper dust, though), but really, it easily stood alone. Even Diana, a self-proclaimed veal virgin, enjoyed it!

Ricardo Zarate
Once again, Mo-Chica's Ricardo Zarate assisted at the pass.

Carrot Cake
9: Carrot Cake | Yuzu, Rum Raisin
Our first dessert was a reworked version of a similar dessert that I'd had previously at The Dining Room. I liked how the remarkably delicate nature of the carrot cake was intensified so cleanly by the markedly "carrot-y" sorbet, while the yuzu contributed a trace of zestiness to things. The best part, though, was the rum raisin, which added a fantastic, countervailing gravity to the dessert.

Michael Voltaggio & Crew Michael Voltaggio & Crew
Back of the house.

10: Tiramisu | Soy, Coffee, Mascarpone
For our final course of the evening, Voltaggio chose to reinvent the tiramisu. It had a very apparent, yet elegant coffee flavor, which was expertly balanced by the mascarpone and chocolate-y constituents. I quite liked the textural elements in this one as well. Interestingly, Ryan likened the dessert to chocolate malted crunch!

Diana Takes a Bite, Michael Voltaggio
Diana finally gets to meet her idol!

Our dining experience was marred by a few service flaws, specifically with regard to the pacing of some of the courses, as well as the pairing of the cocktails to the food. Nevertheless, the creativity, ingenuity, and whimsy of Voltaggio's cuisine were still clearly on display. The food this evening was more casual than the Chef's creations at The Langham, and my guess is that his new restaurant will veer more toward what we had here. Either way, I can't wait!

Michael Voltaggio