Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Test Kitchen (Los Angeles, CA) [19]

Test Kitchen
9575 W Pico Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90035
Wed 10/27/2010, 07:00p-10:45p

September 16th marked the 200th anniversary of Mexico's independence (i.e. the start of the war between Mexico and its Spanish colonizers). To celebrate this bicentennial, Test Kitchen tapped local Oaxacan restaurateur Bricia Lopez (Guelaguetza, Pal Cabron, Natura, Mitla) to curate a series of Mexican-inspired dinners at the pop-up.

The duo behind La Casita Mexicana was slated to cook here initially, but due to scheduling issues, the idea never panned out. They were replaced, thus, by an arguably even more intriguing proposition: a trio of young chefs brought in from Mexico (Baja specifically), here to cook a market-driven menu. Due to its unique geography and access to world-class product, Baja is actually one of the hot beds of contemporary Mexican cookery, and here to represent were three of its best and brightest: Diego Hernandez, Ismene Venegas, and Guillermo Barreto. Please visit the Test Kitchen site to learn more about the chefs.

Following the Baja threesome will be Joshua Gil, who will be previewing modern Oaxacan dishes from Bricia's upcoming eatery Mitla.

Test Kitchen (Baja Chefs) Menu Test Kitchen (Baja Chefs) Wine List Test Kitchen (Baja Chefs) Cocktail List
The trio's six-course menu was priced at $50, with an optional wine pairing adding another $30 to the tab. Bar bites were also on offer, naturally, and cocktails were the work of Dave Fernie and Timmy Heller. Click for larger versions.

HANCA PANCA SOUR [$12.00] | Pisco, panca paste, lime, raw turbine syrup, egg white, lime zest
I started with the Hanca Panca Sour, which had a fantastic, almost cinnamon-y nose leading to a sweet-spicy body with just a pinch of sourness from the lime. Loved the frothy, foamy head of egg white as well.

Salt-cured Spanish mackerel
Salt-cured Spanish mackerel [$5.00] | chive oil/ green cress
When my server offered to bring me an off-the-menu special, how could I refuse? Thus, the meal began with these slices of Spanish mackerel, dressed in greenery. What I tasted first was the unique zest of the chive oil, which then transitioned to the familiar, fishy flavors of aji. The brine of the fish was certainly present, and lingering, but was nicely moderated by the piquant tang of cress.

Steak tartar tostada
Steak tartar tostada [$5.00] | asian mignonette
The tostada demonstrated a great balance of flavors between the savory beef and the lush creaminess of the avocado purée, all while the mignonette gave the dish a bit of piquant levity. I definitely appreciated the assertive crunch of the tortilla as well, which really did a superb job mixing things up texturally.

Octopus [$5.00] | shiso
Octopus came topped with shiso and EVOO. The pulpo showed off a nice snappiness, and its subtly sweet brine was augmented by the weight of the olive oil. Meanwhile, the bright, minty flavors of shiso did offset the weight of the octopus, but was overwhelming at points.

Pizza-dilla quesillo
Pizza-dilla quesillo [$5.00] | chile agua/ grilled green onions/ heirloom cherry tomatoes
My favorite of the bar bites was this wood-fired, pizza-like contraption. The quesillo (a sort of shredded Cotija cheese) served as a heavy, salty base to the dish, and was perfectly augmented by the spicy-sweet interplay of jalapeño and habanero chilies and tomato, with the green onion providing a bit of vegetal tang. Fantastic crispness on the crust, too.

Shira-Ko [$5.00] | tempura battered cod roe/ daikon & dipping sauce
Shirako is a Japanese term translating loosely to "white children." It refers to the milt, or soft roe of fish, a rather intimidating proposition that I was surprised to see offered on the menu. Behind the crisp tempura batter, the shirako was soft and squishy in consistency, and rather mild in flavor. The accompanying dashi-soy-rice wine vinegar sauce, thus, was key in giving the dish some sweet and sour notes. I believe that this was only my second time having the delicacy, the first being at the famed Go's Mart over three years ago.

BAJA, HUNBUG [$12.00] | Vida mescal, canella honey, lemon, laphroaig mist
The whimsically-named Baja Hunbug was also quite tasty, showing off the brazenly smoky character of mezcal in concert with the tempering sweet-sour flavors of honey and lemon. Nice!

1: CRUDO OF SCALLOPS | green onion and almond pesto/ pickled red onions, radishes, and habanero
Pacific Rim, Riesling, Wallula Vineyard
A generous mound of scallop signaled the beginning of the meal proper. Served raw, the bivalves were suitably creamy in consistency, with their mild flavor brightened nicely by an apt mix of spicy, sour, and vegetal accompaniments. Great crunch from the cured cucumber, too.

2: HEIRLOOM TOMATO SALAD | wild arugula/ raw hamachi/ Valle de Guadalupe EVOO
Conde de Valdemar, Rioja, Spain, Rose
Pairing tomato with arugula and dressing the resulting commixture with olive oil is hardly a new concept these days, so the use of hamachi sashimi here was an enjoyable twist. The fish itself was clean-tasting, delicate, with just a hint of unctuousness. It was deftly complemented by the peppery tang of arugula, and I also liked the succulent sweetness imparted by the tomato.

3: MANILA CLAM SOUP | chicharrón/ agave worm salt/ lemon basil/ smoked bread
Loredona, Pinot Grigio, Monterey, California
The third course of the prix fixe was easily my favorite of the sextet. The briny, smoky essence of the soup was immensely satisfying, with the crisp chunks of chicharrón adding a fantastic, salty kick that elevated the dish even further. I wanted a piece of bread to sop up the remaining liquid!

THE DEVIL'S MORNING BREATH [$12.00] | Camarena tequila, creme de cassis, raw ginger-agave, lime, jalapeño-parsley air
What struck me about this cocktail was its immensely green, vegetal nose. On the palate, though, this was all about a base of sweetness from cassis balanced by countervailing forces of tequila and ginger.

4: RIB EYE | emulsion of corn/ black bean esquite/ queso cotija/ salsa macha
181, Merlot, Lodi
My nit with this course was that some portions of the beef were rendered overly dry, thus distractingly lacking in characteristic fat and succulence. That being said, it did demonstrate a pleasing beefiness that was expertly tempered by the earthiness of the beans, while the macha (chilies, sesame, peanuts) and avocado purée contributed further points of interest.

5: VALLE DE GUADALUPE CHEESE PLATTER | Valle de Guadalupe walnuts/ honey
Vena Cava, Cabernet Sauvignon, 2007, Baja, Mexico
Our cheese course consisted of a cave-aged three-month old cow's milk queso fresco. Semi-firm in consistency, it showed off a soft, slightly salty, almost mozzarella-esque character that went gorgeously with the honey. Surprisingly satisfying.

6: EGG CREPE | ginger lemon sorbet/ apples/ herbs
La Marca, Prosecco, Italy
The crepe, expectedly, gave us a base of eggy sweetness, which, augmented by the apples, played quite well with the dessert's herbal tinge. The sorbet, meanwhile, added further levity to things, completing the dish for me.

As was the case with Javier Plascensia's stint here, tonight was another opportunity to witness a side of cocina Mexicana that's not often highlighted in this country. This is unfortunate, because, as we can see, there's a lot of great cooking going on that's remained largely invisible Stateside. Hopefully, we'll get there some day.

Diego Hernandez, Ismene Venegas, Joshua Gil, Guillermo Barreto
Chefs Diego Hernandez (2nd from left), Ismene Venegas (4th from left), and Guillermo Barreto (far right), along with Joshua Gil (3rd from right).

Previous Test Kitchen posts: Ricardo Zarate (10/16), Javier Plascensia (10/13), Marcel Vigneron (10/1), Suzanne Griswold - Rachael Narins (9/30), 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).

Monday, October 25, 2010

Scarpetta (Beverly Hills, CA)

225 N Canon Dr, Beverly Hills, CA 90210
Mon 10/25/2010, 06:30p-11:20p

Beverly Canon Gardens

It's about time that the dining options at Montage Beverly Hills got some respect. The hotel opened with the modern American eatery Parq, as well as its bigger brother Muse, a "premium" dining room of sorts. Both spaces were helmed by Executive Chef John Cuevas. Unfortunately, Parq was a forgettable restaurant that never really established itself in the community, while Muse managed to be even more obscure, lacking its own Yelp entry, even. Montage management have learned a lesson from their past peccadilloes though, as evinced in the recruiting of Scott Conant to aid in the replacement of the ill-fated Parq. Conant is perhaps best known for his work at Manhattan mainstay Alto, but now spends his time tending to his mini-constellation of Scarpetta ("little shoe") restaurants scattered across the country. This latest iteration in Beverly Hills aims to bring Conant's signature style of seasonal, Southern-shaped Italian to the denizens of the LA basin.

A brief biography: Conant was born in Waterbury, Connecticut to an Italian-American family (from his mother's side) and showed an early aptitude in the kitchen. At the tender age of 11, he took cooking classes at a local community college, and four years later, enrolled in a trade school for the culinary arts. Conant eventually made his way to the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, and during his tenure here, staged at the famed Italian eatery San Domenico in New York. After graduation, he traveled to Munich, honing his pastry skills at Hotel Bayerischer Hof. The Chef then returned home to the Big Apple to take up a Sous Chef post at San Domenico. Then, in 1995, Cesare Casella chose Conant to head up his Tuscan restaurant Il Toscanaccio in NYC's Upper East Side. 1996 saw Conant move to an Executive Chef role at Barolo, and two years later, he transitioned to Chianti, also as an Exec Chef. From here, the Chef moved to City Eatery in 2000, where he achieved a two-star review from the Times.

Scarpetta Beverly Hills Exterior

The gig lasted until 2001, when Conant was tapped by restaurateur Chris Cannon to open up L'Impero in Tudor City. The Chef traveled extensively to Italy in preparation for the restaurant's grand opening in September 2002. L'Impero was a smashing success, garnering a glowing three-star review from the NYT and winning Best New Restaurant from James Beard in 2003. The following year, Conant was named one of Food & Wine's Best New Chefs, and also launched Bar Tonno, a 24-seat temple of crudo that quickly (2 months) failed and folded. Building upon the success enjoyed by L'Impero, Conant then debuted the Northern Italian eatery Alto in 2005, also in conjunction with Cannon. Everything was moving along swimmingly until 2007, when Conant underwent a bitter breakup with his partner, resulting in the Chef dissolving his interests in both Alto (now helmed by Marea chef Michael White) and L'Impero (shuttered, but reincarnated as Convivio, also under White).

After the split, he consulted at Tutto Il Giorno in Sag Harbor, and also got married to New York Dog co-owner Meltem Bozkurt in Turkey. Conant returned with a vengeance in 2008, launching his new concept Scarpetta in May that year to considerable praise, including three-star reviews from both the New York Times and New York Magazine and a nomination from James Beard for Best New Restaurant. In November 2008, he opened his second Scarpetta outpost in Miami at the Fontainebleau resort, and in June 2010, launched Scarpetta at the Thompson Toronto. Conant also introduced Faustina, a more casual Italian eatery, at NYC's Cooper Square Hotel the same year. Following his work here in Beverly Hills, the Chef will be opening Scarpetta at the new Cosmopolitan hotel in Las Vegas in December, along with an accompanying wine bar called D.O.C.G. Enoteca.

Scarpetta Beverly Hills Kitchen
Penned by Studio Gaia, the space seems like a tastefully reimagined version of Parq's. Inspired by "Old Hollywood," Scarpetta is comprised of three distinct areas--main dining room, bar, and courtyard--as well as a 12-seater Chef's Table, replete with views of the kitchen and the adjacent Beverly Canon Gardens. As we can see above, though, the best seats in the house are the five situated in the back of the kitchen. We're talking dinner and a show, and who knows, you might even spy Chef Conant personally preparing your spaghetti...

Scarpetta Beverly Hills Menu Scarpetta Beverly Hills Menu
Scarpetta Beverly Hills Menu Scarpetta Beverly Hills Dessert Menu
Above, we see the opening night menu, replete with plenty of seasonal flourishes. Though certainly influenced by the carte at Scarpetta NY, the selection of dishes here has been tweaked to better suit the restaurant's new environs. Of course, you'll find Conant's signature spaghetti and his creamy polenta, but no sign of the capretto (goat) though. We, however, opted to let the Chef do as he wished, the result of which was a 12-course, truffle-filled menu priced at $250, plus $110 for wine (so nearly $500pp all-in). Click for larger versions.

Scarpetta Beverly Hills Wines By The Glass Scarpetta Beverly Hills Cocktail List
The wines by the glass and cocktail lists. If you're feeling more adventurous with your vino, Sommelier Mark Hefter also has an international list of 700 or so bottles to peruse. Click for larger versions.

Torino Apollonia
Starting the evening with a cocktail just seems so de rigeur for me these days, so I quickly requested Scarpetta's cocktail list and ordered up a Torino [$16], made with Grey Goose citrus, strawberry, and rock candy syrup. It was a immensely quaffable, citrusy, sweet summery drink, reminiscent of orange soda! The Apollonia [$16], meanwhile, was a delicious mix of Fragoli strawberry liqueur and prosecco, a crisp, refreshing concoction with a great interplay of sweet and bitter flavors.

Olives all'Ascolana
Serving as sort of an amuse bouche was a bowl of olives all'Ascolana, which are basically fried olives stuffed with beef, pork, and veal. They were fantastic--showing off an almost Indian samosa-like taste initially--with a great interplay of savory and herbaceous flavors.

Scarpetta Bread Basket Scarpetta Stromboli
Scarpetta is known for its bread basket, and it was no disappointment tonight. An array of breads were provided, but the table favorite was clearly the amazing meat- and cheese-filled stromboli. Accompaniments included eggplant caponata, mascarpone butter, and citrus-infused olive oil.

1a: RAW YELLOWTAIL | olio de zenzero & pickled red onion
A bit of crudo to start. The hamachi's soft, clean flavors went beautifully with the tang of the olio de zenzero (ginger oil) and red onion, while a pinch of Hawaiian sea salt gave the bite a salty, lingering finish.

1b: TUNA "SUSCI" | marinated vegetables & black truffles
Tuna was even better. I loved the interplay between the delicate fish and the intense earthiness of the truffles, all over a base of light, bright veggies. Quite nice.

2: PUREE OF PUMPKIN SOUP | black truffles, farro, almonds, spiced croutons & pumpkin oil
I'm no fan of pumpkin, so I was pleasantly surprised when I found that I enjoyed this soup. The pumpkin wasn't overly saccharine, which was what I was afraid of. Instead, it lent a subtle, but present undertone to the dish, which was deftly countered by the strong flavors of the black truffle. A dish very apropos for fall, with great textures, too.

3: AUTUMN VEGETABLE SALAD | black trumpet mushrooms, hazelnuts & foie gras emulsion
Composed of parsnip, acorn squash, butternut squash, pumpkin, carrot, and black trumpet mushroom, this was perhaps Conant's interpretation of the famed gargouillou dish. I appreciated how each element was apparent, different, yet all tied together so perfectly by the weight of the foie gras emulsion. The liver just lent a great depth of flavor to the course that elevated the impact of each and every vegetable.

Cinque Terre
Our next cocktail was the Cinque Terre [$16], comprised of limoncello, apertivo, fresh sour, and clover honey. This one was keenly sour at first, but with a saccharine, viscous, honeyed body tinged by just a hint of astringency.

Keep on shaving
Keep on shaving.

ROASTED SEA SCALLOP Scarpetta Margarita
4: ROASTED SEA SCALLOP | black truffles, caramelized sunchokes & porcini mushrooms
Margarita (tequila, agave nectar, Pimm's No. 1 Cup, lime, egg white)
Scallop came expertly cooked, gently charred, but still somewhat creamy on the inside. The intense aroma of the truffle was a classic, but thoroughly effective pair with bivalve, but the added textural component of the porcinis and subtly sweet sunchokes took the dish to an even higher level.

CREAMY POLENTA Scarpetta Margarita
5: CREAMY POLENTA | white truffles, fricassee of truffled mushrooms
Margarita (tequila, agave nectar, Pimm's No. 1 Cup, lime, egg white)
The polenta was clearly among the best that I've ever had; certainly, it was the most luxurious. Lusciously smooth, creamy, and almost decadent, the polenta was perfectly matched by the earthiness of the mushrooms, while the white truffle lent an overarching pungency to the entire dish. Heavy, hearty, and delectable. The margarita did a nice job in cutting some of the dish's weight with its tangy, spicy, acerbic flavors.

SPAGHETTI Brunello di Montalcino, Solaria, tuscany 2000
6: SPAGHETTI | tomato & basil
Brunello di Montalcino, Solaria, tuscany 2000
The moment that we've all been waiting for--Conant's famed signature spaghetti, prepared right before our eyes by the Chef himself. I fully expected the pasta to the perfect, and it was. The interaction between the tomato and basil is reminiscent of pizza margherita, a simple, yet undeniably satisfying combination. Faultless texture on the noodles as well, and easily the best spaghetti that I've ever tasted. The wine was also quite enjoyable, with the slight tomato leaf character on the Brunello's finish linking up nicely with the pasta.

BRAISED SHORT RIB GNOCCHI Arvino, Statti, calabria 2007
Arvino, Statti, calabria 2007
An off-menu item, here we had short rib- and chestnut-stuffed gnocchi made with a chestnut-potato dough, topped with a beef glaze. The nuttiness really tempered the potency of the beef, giving the pasta a slight sweetness. I'm not particularly fond of chestnuts, but certainly didn't mind this dish.

Conant plating the duck
Conant plating the duck.

ROASTED DUCK BREAST Barolo, Fontanafredda, piedmont 2005
8: ROASTED DUCK BREAST | heirloom parsnips, raisin mostarda & lentils
Barolo, Fontanafredda, piedmont 2005
I loved the taste of the duck here--smoky, savory, and just full of succulent sapor. The interaction with the earthy, tempering lentils was absolutely key, and I also appreciated the inclusion of carrot, in both pickled and roasted form. My only quibble was that the duck could've been a touch more tender.

AGED SIRLOIN OF BEEF Bibi Graetz, Testamatta, tuscany 2003
9: AGED SIRLOIN OF BEEF | white truffles, roasted baby potatoes, porcini mushrooms & barolo reduction
Bibi Graetz, Testamatta, tuscany 2003
Our final savory was a lovely 21-day dry aged sirloin, served here with porcinis, fingerlings, chanterelles, Parmesan, and of course, loads of white truffle. Suitably tender and nicely moist, the meat showed off a great beefiness, which naturally played superbly with mushrooms and potato, not to mention the tartufo. The wine, meanwhile, was arguably my favorite of the night, with a hefty, heavy body and marked dark berry flavors.

FORMAGGI Madeira, Blandy Alvada 5 Years Old
Madeira, Blandy Alvada 5 Years Old
Our quartet of cheese included a 2-year Parmigiano-Reggiano with aged balsamic (showing off a funky essence of Parm that played beautifully with the balsamic), La Tur with pineapple chutney (from Piedmont, light/tangy and made with all three types of milk), Caveman Blue with stewed cherries (a prototypical bleu from Rogue Creamery in Oregon), and Pecorino Fresco with apple mostarda (a Tuscan cheese with a fantastic mouthfeel). In addition, the cheeses were served with savory, fennel and rosemary biscotti that really helped cut their weight. A very nice presentation of formaggi, especially when taken in concert with the Boal-Malmsey Madeira.

RUM SOAKED CAKE Elio Perrone Bigaro
11a: RUM SOAKED CAKE | rum roasted pineapple
Elio Perrone Bigaro
In our first dessert, I adored the interaction between the sweet, charred bits of fruit and the sheer booziness of the rum, all moderated by the layers of cake--nice. The wine, meanwhile, was an effervescent rosé, an unabashedly sweet, summertime wine that one of my dining companions described as an "adult Shirley Temple!"

VANILLA FLAN Elio Perrone Bigaro
11b: VANILLA FLAN | marsala soaked berries
Elio Perrone Bigaro
Here, the light flavors of vanilla were gorgeously complemented by the weight of the caramel, while the fruit provided some offsetting tartness.

AMARETTO FLAN Elio Perrone Bigaro
12: AMARETTO FLAN | spiced roasted pumpkin & marsala zabaglione gelato
Elio Perrone Bigaro
I loved how the initial sweetness of the flan gave way to the slight boozy, almond tinged flavor of the amaretto, while the marsala-imbued sabayon served as a stellar counterpoint. Just a great interplay of flavors.

To be sure, this was an expensive dinner, but I don't hesitate in deeming this my top Italian meal to date. The food was lusty yet refined, articulate yet earthy, a robust interpretation of modern Italian cuisine that I could find little fault with. Based off the strength of this opening night dinner, it's obvious that Scarpetta is a welcomed entrant to the City's burgeoning cuisine scene, and undeniably raises the bar for Italian dining here in the Southland.

Scott Conant