Thursday, September 30, 2010

Test Kitchen (Los Angeles, CA) [15]

Test Kitchen
9575 W Pico Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90035
Thu 09/30/2010, 06:45p-09:25p

The first time that I'd met Rachael Narins was during Walter Manzke's night at Hatchi. Rachael and her partner Suzanne Griswold--collectively known as the supper club Chicks with Knives--were slated to cook at Hatchi in August, and during the Manzke meal, I'd promised her that I'd make it out. Unfortunately, work got in the way (as it tends to do), and I was called away on a business trip during that time period. Thus, not having ever tasted CWK's food, I made it a point to attend their guest stint here at Test Kitchen.

Their menu tonight was whimsically titled Root Down – So How You Gonna Kick It, Gonna Kick It Root Down. No, this had nothing to do with the Beastie Boys, but everything to do with rootdownLA. A portion of the proceeds from this dinner went to the organization, which promotes nutritional education among youth in South LA.

Test Kitchen (Chicks with Knives) Menu Test Kitchen (Chicks with Knives) Cocktail and Wine List
Though the Chicks usually make do with four courses, their menu tonight featured seven, priced at $60. The cocktails, meanwhile, were the charge of Zane Harris (co-owner of Seattle's Rob Roy), aided by Julian Cox. Click for larger versions.

Notorious F.I.G. Primio Strega Swizzle
Notorious F.I.G. [$12.00] | bruleed fig, rum, calvados, averna
Primio Strega Swizzle [$12.00] | strega, pineapple, lime, roasted black pepper syrup
We began with the Notorious F.I.G., which, interestingly, was the second cocktail that I've had at TK to feature that name. In any case, the drink showed off plenty of dark, thick, saccharine flavors initially, laced with traces of apple from the calvados. This then transitioned to the hot, heavy notes of rum. I preferred the Primio Strega Swizzle, with its marked mintiness and fruity notes of pineapple, all balanced by a touch of pepperiness--very nice.

Green Beans
1: Green Beans | Blue Lake Green Beans. Orange-Cardamom Aioli. Nasturtium.
Green beans were lovely, with a crisp, almost ethereal tempura layer that conveyed just the right amount of crunchiness. I also appreciated how well the vivid, green essence of the beans was so deftly preserved and highlighted.

Chicken Liver Pate
Chicken Liver Pate [$8.00] | With port wine gelée
From the bar menu came these shot glasses of chicken liver. The liver was a bit dense in consistency, with an almost cookie dough-esque texture, while its flavor was first sweet, then bitter, all over the heady, underlying relish of liver.

Potato Potato
2: Potato Potato | Potato Buttermilk Soup. Potato Chips.
We can almost think of this dish as a reimagined baked potato, replete with chives, white pepper, and buttermilk taking the place of sour cream. Unfortunately, I found the soup overly sour, and wanted to taste more of the potato itself. The potato chips, though, did do a great job in supplying a balancing bit of saltiness to the course, and I also enjoyed the tanginess imparted by the chives.

Rosemary's Baby Cynar Sour
Rosemary's Baby [$12.00] | gin, maraschino, green chartreuse, flamed rosemary
Cynar Sour [$12.00] | cynar, orgeat, lemon, angostura bitters
Rosemary's Baby was quite devilish indeed, demonstrating a brazenly herbaceous character tinged with a marked savoriness. We also had the Cynar Sour, my favorite cocktail of the night. It had a fantastic amalgam of sweet, sour, and bitter flavors, all under overarching, almost medicinal hints of artichoke from the Cynar--superb.

A Nice Salad
3: A Nice Salad | Fennel, Persimmon, Celery, Chorizo.
Hands down, this was the standout course of the evening, and interestingly enough, it was plated by none other than LAist's Lindsay William-Ross. I loved its light, bright flavors, subtly sweet with a great celery tang, all under the encompassing potency of chorizo. Everything then was tied together beautifully by the application of a smoked paprika-cherry vinaigrette. A nice salad indeed, very, very nice!

4: Ravioli | Rabbit Ravioli. Parsnip Soufflé.
Rabbit was nicely flavored with an almost herbaceous bit of zestiness to it. Combined with the pasta, it went very well with the paired parsnip soufflé, which lent a certain gravity to the amalgam. I did, however, find the carrot-orange broth a touch sweet. Perhaps a spicy element would help balance things out a bit?

Wood Fired Herring
5: Wood Fired Herring | Herring. Onion, Mustard, Pear.
One of my dining companion complained vehemently about the overt fishiness of the herring. I don't normally mind fishy fish, but I could definitely see where he was coming from. I think that serving the herring at a higher temperature would've been better here, to mellow out some of the flavors. What I found more disruptive was that one of my filets contained an inordinate amount of bones, which made eating rather difficult. The saving grace here was the mustard, which had a fantastic bit of piquancy that really lifted the dish up.

Rib Eye
6: Rib Eye | Poached Rib Eye, Juniper. Parsley Root.
Rib eye of steak was surprisingly tough, given that the meat was cooked sous vide. The juniper was a nice accent here, but the flavors in general seemed a bit discordant, with the parsley root especially being overly saccharine, domineering even.

Trio of Autumn Flavors
7: Trio of Autumn Flavors | Pumpkin Pot de Crème. Chocolate, Beet. Apple Tart Tatin.
Dessert rebounded. We all adored the pumpkin pot de crème for its satisfying sweetness paired with that punchy bit of cranberry gelato. I also enjoyed the heavy, unabashedly sugary flavors of the tart tatin, as well as the tinge of beet imparted on the chocolate cake.

Suzanne Griswold & Rachael Narins
Chefs Suzanne Griswold and Rachael Narins--the Chicks with Knives.

Nearly every meal at Test Kitchen has had its share of hits and misses. Unfortunately, the number of misses tonight was higher than I'd hoped for. CWK had a successful stint at Hatchi, so hopefully, we can just chalk these missteps up to an off night.

Brian Saltsburg, Rebecca
Test Kitchen co-founder Brian Saltsburg with new hostess Rebecca (who happens to be a fried of Helen from the blog I'm Hungry and Proud of It).

Previous Test Kitchen posts: Adam Horton (9/27), Steve Samson - Zach Pollack (9/23), Joshua Smith (9/21), Amy Pressman (9/20), Shelley Cooper (9/17), John Sedlar (9/15), Amanda Baumgarten - Dylan Hallas - Dan Moody (9/14), TiGeorges Laguerre (9/6), Vartan Abgaryan (9/4), Neal Fraser (8/31), Michael Voltaggio (8/29), Walter Manzke (8/25), Ricardo Zarate (8/24), Jordan Kahn (8/18).

Wednesday, September 29, 2010 LA's Best Bartender Contest Giveaway LA's Best Bartender Contest Giveaway

[UPDATE 10/04/2010: Thank you to all the participants! Unfortunately, I've been called away on business, so will be unable to attend the event. That's good news for the contestants though, as it means that an extra pair of tickets can be given away. The winners, thus, are: CITYNITZ, Ann, Jesen Ha, His Dudeness, Anonymous (jrmendoza2121), and socalgirl24.]

Who's LA's best bartender? That's the question Table20, an in-development web site dedicated to facilitating the hiring process in the restaurant/bar industry, set out to answer. Dozens of bartenders from all around the City were nominated by cocktail-minded individuals, and from that field, the group was whittled down to a final six: Matt Biancaniello, Joseph Brooke, Max Diaz, Devon Espinosa, Dee Ann Quinones, and Alex Straus. It was then up to us, the judges--Caroline, Chris, Liz, Victoria, and myself--to visit each bartender and come to a consensus on who should take the title of top tapster. The results of my visits are shown below. Note that, due to schedule conflicts, I was not able to visit Dee Ann, and thus my ranking of her will not be counted in the final result.

Each judge was given the freedom to choose his or her own method of grading. For me, I requested that each bartender prepare three cocktails: one savory, one bitter, and one "dealer's choice." In addition, some of the contestants chose to make additional cocktails; however, these were not included in the final ranking. The contestants are listed below in alphabetical order, which coincidentally was the exact ordered that I visited them.

Matt Biancaniello | Library Bar at Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, Hollywood
Matt Biancaniello    Matt Biancaniello
Breeders' Cup
Breeders' Cup (Gordon's gin, agave, beet, horseradish, cucumber, lime, kosher salt) - Our first cocktail from Matt showed off strong hints of cucumber on the nose, which was joined by heady flavors of horseradish on the initial attack. The agave added a palpable weight to the concoction, and the drink was almost Bloody Mary-like in character, with a lovely, subtle bit of saltiness on the finish. Great color, too.
Three Faces of Van Gogh
Three Faces of Van Gogh (Cynar, crème de cassis, passion fruit) - Complex, sugary, fruity bouquet on this one, which continued in great fashion on to the palate. The drink's flavor, however, quickly changed from saccharine sweet to the bitter vegetal relish of artichoke, a transition that I quite enjoyed.
Last Tango in Modena
Last Tango in Modena (Hendricks gin, muddled organic strawberries, aged balsamic vinegar, St-Germain foam) - This was probably my favorite of the troika. It was almost dessert-like in nature, being slightly reminiscent of strawberry ice cream. The amalgam of berry, St-Germain foam (egg white, lime), and balsamic formed a sweet, yet harmonious commixture that melded flawlessly with the gin.
Prior to the three cocktails above, Matt began with an "amuse bouche" of sorts: a hemisphere of passion fruit, bathed in agave nectar and Hangar One vodka. It had a keenly fruity relish to it, which was subsequently augmented by the smoky agave, while the vodka actually provided some levity with its hot finish. Following the trio, he served up a palate cleanser, a black mission fig-infused Bourbon with delightfully dark, heavy, sweet and savory flavors--really helped take the edge off. We closed with a dessert cocktail. Entitled Un Cafe Va Bene, it was composed of Cynar, cassis, and espresso, with a superb coffee bitterness kissed by the sweetness of cassis.

Joseph Brooke | The Edison, Downtown LA
Joseph Brooke    Joseph Brooke
Smoky Mole
Smoky Mole (mezcal, crème de cacao, Chartreuse, sweet vermouth) - This drink did a great job in showing off the brazen smokiness of mezcal. However, it was also nicely moderated by a citrus component, while the rest of the ingredients contributed alternating hints of saccharine and pungent flavors to the cocktail.
Apple One
Apple One (Bourbon, Angostura bitters, egg white, apple juice, elderflower, lemon) - Our next cocktail had an almost numbing, "tannic" character that I quite enjoyed! The egg white formed a lovely base to the libation, and I appreciated how the sweet-tangy notes of apple and elderflower tempered the power of the whiskey.
Invierno (Rhum Agricole, apricot liqueur, apple juice, lime, cinnamon) - This was a wonderful winter-y cocktail with a present, but not cloying sweetness. The spicy, lime-tinged nose was superb, and I loved the interaction between the apple juice and rhum. Quite refreshing to boot.

Max Diaz | Cole's, Downtown LA / Cicada Club, Downtown LA
Max Diaz    Max Diaz
Black Manhattan
Black Manhattan (101 proof rye whiskey, Amaro Averna, Angostura bitters) - We began with Alex's take on a classic cocktail. It was a great twist on your traditional Manhattan, with darker, sweeter flavors tinged by a bitter herbaceousness. A very good use of Amaro Averna here.
Hanky Panky
Hanky Panky (Beefeater gin, Carpano Antica, Fernet-Branca) - Our next cocktail showed off a lovely citrus nose, leading to an apparent body of gin. The base liquor, however, was deftly complemented by the subtle sweet-spice of the vermouth, and I really applauded the bitter-herby application of the Fernet.
Elton McGregor
Elton McGregor (blended Scotch, absinthe, orgeat, mint, [Laphroaig]) - This was almost like a two part drink. It originally was served sans Laphroaig, and had a great bouquet reminiscent of licorice, while the sugariness of the orgeat went beautifully with the liquor. What took this drink to another level, though, was the addition of the Islay single-malt. It added a stupendous smokiness to the cocktail that went perfectly with the mint, resulting in a "green," almost grassy flavor.
Alex's fourth cocktail was deemed the Bobby Burns, and was comprised of blended Scotch, Bénédictine, Carpano Antica, Chianti, Licor 43, and Maraschino Luxardo. I quite liked the interaction between the Scotch and the herby sweetness of the Bénédictine and Licor 43. Great aromatics!

Devon Espinosa | The Tasting Kitchen, Venice
Devon Espinosa    Devon Espinosa
Falernum (Ron Matusalem, falernum, lime) - Very nice, with an herby, almost medicinal nose. The taste was more of the same, with fantastic overtones of lime and a marked bit of fruity sweetness to counteract the power of the rhum. Loved the viscosity on this one!
Cure-All (Buffalo Trace bourbon, mirto myrtle berry liqueur, kola tonic, Luxardo Fernet amaro) - The bitter-tart flavors were very apparent on the palate, and yet expertly complemented by the heft of the whiskey. Meanwhile, a hint of overarching citrus helped balance the drink, and I really appreciated the slight bit of sweet heat on the finish.
Morning Bracer
Morning Bracer (Oxley gin, "Luli" wine, Maraschino Luxardo, lemon) - Superb aromatics on this cocktail, showing off a great complexity and depth. The taste was similarly cerebral, conveying a great interplay between the lemon and Luli, with a delightful gin tinge on the finish.
For extra credit, Devon made a Task Collector, with gin, dry vermouth, green Chartreuse, and orange peel. This was an unabashedly herbaceous concoction, with a light citrus nose leading to an almost celery-like taste on the palate!

Alex Straus | Suite 700 at Hotel Shangri-La, Santa Monica / Hemingway's Lounge, Hollywood
Note that the photos below are clearly not of Alex Straus, but rather of his compatriot Steven Shumate. Alex was terribly ill on this night, and thus was on the phone with Steven, instructing him realtime on which cocktails to prepare for me. Steven did a great job in executing Alex's vision.
Alex Straus    Alex Straus
'Untitled' Savory
"Untitled" Savory (Chivas Regal, egg yolk, simple syrup, lemon, chocolate bitters) - The savory had a fantastic aroma that instantly piqued by interest. It was awash in frothy, eggy goodness, with a great touch of fruity sweetness as well, all over a subtle undertone of Chivas. The finish was amazing, with a wonderful bit of lingering savoriness. Great mouthfeel, too.
'Untitled' Bitter
"Untitled" Bitter (gin, Amaro Nonino, whiskey bitters, Peychaud's bitters, flavored lemon peel) - This one showed off an intoxicating nose redolent of caramel and citrus. On the palate, the drink was peppery and herbaceous initially, but sweet on the transition, with a great depth of flavor. Very cool.
Tequila Spa
Tequila Spa (Calle 23 tequila, simple syrup, muddled red grapes, cucumber, orange, lemon) - Marked cucumber-y bouquet on this one, intermingled with the woodiness of tequila. This was a great, refreshing summer libation, a nice alternative to a margarita. I liked the overarching citrus notes here, and how the sourness just creeps up on you.
Alex and Steven also served up a rum punch, composed of Smith & Cross rum, DonQ blanco and anejo rums, cachaça, orgeat, simple syrup, lime, pineapple, and orange. As expected, this was a fun, festive, fruity drink, with the orgeat balancing the rums beautifully.

And the winner is...

Well, we don't know that quite yet unfortunately. The winner will be announced at an exclusive wrap party to be held at Takami restaurant and lounge, located 21 floors high above Downtown LA (the view is quite breathtaking). The event will take place on October 4 from 7:00-10:00. Yes, it's a Monday, but that's one of the few days that all our bartenders have off! In addition to being able to mix and mingle with our top barkeeps, judges, and fellow cocktail connoisseurs, and perhaps trying out some of the creations described above, each contestant will be creating a signature rum punch cocktail for guests to enjoy. Yes, we're talking free booze.

No tickets will be sold to the celebration (and the event is limited to around 100 guests), so how does one go? Simple, I'm giving away five pairs of tickets! All you have to do is leave a comment telling us your pick for LA's best bartender (it doesn't have to be one of the finalists) and why. Be sure to include your name and email, and please post by 11:00p on Saturday, October 2. Good luck!

Monday, September 27, 2010

Test Kitchen (Los Angeles, CA) [14]

Test Kitchen
9575 W Pico Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90035
Mon 09/27/2010, 07:30p-09:55p

Nestled up high in the hills surrounding Malibu, Saddle Peak Lodge is perhaps best known for its game-centric menu and rustic, romantic decor. Over the years, the restaurant has earned a reputation as a stodgy sort of place, but here to shake things up is Adam Horton, Saddle Peak's young, brash Executive Chef, who's been helming the kitchen for about a year and a half now. I'd had a great meal at the Lodge a while back, and really enjoyed seeing how the Chef was making his own mark on the menu. Tonight, however, Horton aimed to do even more, to stretch his repertoire even further, to, in his own words, put a modern face on Saddle Peak traditions.

Test Kitchen (Adam Horton) Menu Test Kitchen (Adam Horton) Wine List Test Kitchen (Adam Horton) Cocktail List
Horton's seven-course degustation was priced at a reasonable $58, plus $30 for the optional wine pairing. Cocktails, on the other hand, were the task of Chris Barragan (who oversees all aspects of beverage service at SPL), aided by resident mixologist Joel Black. Click for larger versions.

Wild boar 'spread' Wild boar 'spread'
1: Wild boar "spread" | with grilled toast
Conde de Valdemar, Reserva 2004, Rioja
We began with a cup of braised wild boar, shredded and presented in an almost rillettes-like fashion. As expected, it demonstrated plenty of dark, salty, hearty flavors, but wasn't overpowering. The slices of crusty brioche, meanwhile, served as an effective temper. Yummo.

Tang'ent My Darling Clementine Q~Cumber
Tang'ent | Bourbon, tangelo, pomegranate, POM, acucar
My Darling Clementine | Vodka, minneola tangerines, limes, cilantro, ginger elixir, pineapple juice
Q~Cumber | Gin, cucumber, lemon, agave nectar
As usual, we began with a trio of cocktails. First up was the Tang'ent, which our server described as Barragan's take on the Old-Fashioned. I rather liked it, with its sugary-citrusy notes beautifully balancing the heft of the whiskey. My Darling Clementine was my favorite cocktail of the night, with its fantastic interaction of herbaceous and saccharine, almost candy-like flavors, all over a neutral base of vodka. Rounding things out was the Q~Cumber, a classic combination of gin and cucumber kicked up a notch by the power of agave, with a bit of heat courtesy of espelette pepper.

Heirloom tomato
2: Heirloom tomato | buffalo and it's cheese
Batic Rose, Slovenia
Heirloom tomato salads have been done to death, but Horton managed to pique my interest here. I loved the delectable, delicate buffalo carpaccio, and how it was so deftly augmented by the heft of the buffalo's milk cheese. The tomatoes (in regular as well as gelée form), meanwhile, provided a sweet, succulent counterpoint that aptly integrated the dish. I also appreciated the overarching, zesty tang of the basil and the deconstructed plating of the dish. Lovely.

3: Escolar | with sumac, edamame, horseradish, uni, flavors of pho and puffed rice
De Loach, Chardonnay, Sonoma, 2008
Escolar, also known as butterfish, was, as the name implies, quite buttery in consistency, with a subtle, yet still somewhat fatty flavor. However, I found the accompanying foam of mirin, apple juice, and soy a bit overwhelming; its sweet, umami-soaked sapor took the attention off the fish, which I wanted to be front-and-center. Fortunately, the sprouts and soy beans did a fantastic job in balancing things out, and I quite liked the slight heat of horseradish as well.

Pork belly
4: Pork belly | with vadouvan, apple, yogurt and cucumber
Cantina di Santadi, Carignano, Rocca Rubbia, Sardinia, 2008
Pork belly was braised for six hours, then pressed in quasi-terrine form for nearly a day following. It showed off a faultless texture, a perfect combination of lean and fat, with a delightfully crispy skin to boot. The vadouvan--Horton's own blend--was present, but fortunately not domineering, nor was the apple. I would've liked a touch more from the yogurt, however.

5: Elk | with almond, bacon, brandied cherries and squash
Atteca Garnacha, Catalayud
The elk, taken by itself, was superb--suitably tender, with a immensely saporous character and just a great tinge of smokiness (it was done sous vide). Unfortunately, the commixture of cherries and squash was too saccharine for my tastes, distracting me from how delectable the meat was. All was not lost, though, as the almond did help restrain the dish, and I really liked the topping of crispy salsify.

Pearl Jasmine En Fleur
Pearl Jasmine | Vodka, Vintage Tea Leaf jasmine tea, agave nectar
En Fleur | Gin, St. Germain, sauvignon blanc, fresh thyme and lime
Booze, round two. I don't often see tea in my cocktails, but it worked wonders in the Pearl Jasmine, forming a gorgeous counterpoint to the potency of the vodka--absolutely lovely. The En Fleur was even better, with wonderful aromatics and an immaculate interplay between the thyme and the sweetness of the St-Germain. And let's not forget the finish, which was strangely reminiscent of lychee!

Parmigiano Nero
6: Parmigiano Nero | with apple, hibiscus, white chocolate and olives
Crios De Susana Balbo, Torrontes Salta, Argentina, 2009
Next up was one of the strongest cheese courses that I've had in a while. Parmigiano Nero is a varietal of Parmesan that features a black covering of charcoal and wax, hence the "nero." The resulting cheese seemed to be more intensely flavored than your typical Parm, and had a delightful semi-hard texture as well. It was beautifully complemented by the sugary, fragrant, hibiscus-marinated apples, while the topping of dehydrated caramelized olive powder added a trace of piquancy to the dish.

South Beach Shine Burning Apples Smash
South Beach Shine | Moonshine, lime, melon, pineapple, cilantro salsa
Burning Apples Smash | Apple jack, jalapeno, lemon, honey, apple
Due to a bit of miscommunication at the bar, we were given two extra cocktails (not listed on our menus), not that we were complaining. The South Beach Shine was likened to a moonshine mojito, with the earthy flavor of the moonshine neutralized somewhat by the tangy bits of fruit. We also had the Burning Apples Smash, which showed off a creeping, lingering bit of heat from the jalapeno, combined with a nice citric tinge, all over an enveloping base of apple.

'Thai green curry'
7: "Thai green curry" | with chicken, lemongrass, cilantro and lime
Gruner, Weinderer
Saddle Peak Lodge's Pastry Chef Kasra Ajdari really went to town here, giving me my first taste of chicken in a dessert. The dish's aroma was definitely teeming with avian influences, which was a tad disconcerting at first. However, eating the dessert, the sweet-savory interplay actually worked out surprisingly well, while the finish was almost reminiscent of Fruit Loops! The lemongrass custard, lime-coconut foam, micro cilantro, dried carrot, and Indonesian soy sauce, meanwhile, provided the requisite Asian-inspired flavors, completing the dish. Is dehydrated caramelized chicken skin the next bacon bits?

Chef Adam Horton and Crew
Chef Horton's crew, including Chef de Cuisine Christopher Kufek and Sous Chef Heather Bogue.

Despite a few missteps, I liked the direction that Horton was going tonight, how he was able to infuse Saddle Peak standbys with a touch of the "molecular." The food was just inventive, just innovative enough, but still managed to showcase the quintessence of what the Lodge is all about--it's about embracing the modern, while respecting the past. Hopefully, the Chef will have the opportunity to incorporate some of what he's done here in the restaurant's standard bill of fare.

Previous Test Kitchen posts: Steve Samson - Zach Pollack (9/23), Joshua Smith (9/21), Amy Pressman (9/20), Shelley Cooper (9/17), John Sedlar (9/15), Amanda Baumgarten - Dylan Hallas - Dan Moody (9/14), TiGeorges Laguerre (9/6), Vartan Abgaryan (9/4), Neal Fraser (8/31), Michael Voltaggio (8/29), Walter Manzke (8/25), Ricardo Zarate (8/24), Jordan Kahn (8/18).