And on the 20th night, Lane created…..tajarin.
When AK Restaurant + Bar on Abbot Kinney Blvd in Venice abruptly closed its doors in June, they decided to make the most of this change and create a temporary transitional restaurant concept. Chef Casey Lane of ClarkLewis restaurant drove down with devoted staff all the way from Portland Oregon to open what they call ‘a transparent culinary case study’. For 8 weeks only, they will offer a constantly changing menu featuring bold flavors of Spanish, Moroccan and Italian influence using fresh seasonal ingredients. The menu is comprised of a list of basic food items that are to be presented- oysters, farm egg, sausage, heirloom lettuce, cod, lamb, steak, pork, burger, etc. The blank line following each item is then carefully handwritten each day by the staff, filled in with the evolving concept and preparation du jour. The Italian wine and spirits list is also unique and unconventional, itself also changing to fit the menu concept.
Fortunately, I was lucky enough to score a table attended to by Maxwell, one of Lane’s trusted team members that he brought from Portland. I have never met a server who was more knowledgable and passionate about the restaurant’s vision, food preparation and wines, than Maxwell. The way he described each dish- the marinade, the length of time of preparation, the oils used, the spices and herbs, how coarsely something was ground, how firmly the potatoes were pressed onto the cast iron grill- and his incredible knowledge of each wine- which region of Italy it is from, how long the grapes were sweetened on the vine, how the subtle sweetness would complement the dishes we ordered- made me just as excited and passionate about the experience. Halfway through my dinner I started to wonder if he was actually the mastermind behind this project. It was a pleasant reminder that it’s not just the food or restaurant decor that make a dining experience special- it’s the staff and their temperament. If you can sense that they share the same passion, enthusiasm and philosophy as the chef, it elevates the meal to a whole new level.
We started off with the ‘Farm Egg’. A whole fresh farm egg perfectly cooked in a small cast iron pan served with hand cut tajarin pasta in an italian sage brown butter sauce. Tajarin pasta are egg yolk rich noodles from the Piedmont region of Italy which are cut into fine thin strands. This pasta was some of the best that I’ve had in a very long time. Such incredible texture with the just the right firmness and density (what we call ‘koshi’ in Japanese), a robust and slightly chewy consistency reflective of fresh made pasta yet with a delicate finish. These noodles were perfectly cut and seasoned, and it went exquisitely with the aptly paired Piedmont Cortese white, which had a nice rich muscat sweetness yet with a light finish.
The ‘Beans’ dish had yellow and green wax beans, quickly blanched and tossed with ground walnuts, hazelnuts and argan oil, served with burratta and jamon iberico pata negra. Another dish that just blew me away and made me go on “Wow” repeat mode. I never imagined that a simple bean salad dish would ever make me surrender like this. The incredible textures of the crisp wax beans with the finely ground nuts and soft burratta cheese were incredibly pleasing. The deep nuttiness of the argan oil coupled with the saltiness of the tender jamon iberico was amazing. Every component of this dish played strongly in my mouth. I could eat this every day.
Next we had the ‘Wings’, fried chicken wings in a flax seed and apple cider marinade with chopped spring onions. The wings were perfectly cooked with crispy flavorful skin on the outside and moist tender fall-off-the-bones meat on the inside. The apple cider marinade was nicely sweet and tart. These wings should come by the bucket. They paired nicely with the Puglia primitivo red.
The ‘Mackerel’- marinated and grilled fresh mackerel served with cast iron grilled potatoes, sausage and piquillo peppers, with a maitake prosecco butter lemon sauce. The mackerel was perfectly seasoned and blackened, and it was splendid with the intense smokey flavors of the sausage and peppers. The sauce was not as memorable, but the overall dish was certainly packed with some powerful flavors. It was beautiful with a glass of white Slovenian ribolla gialla that Maxwell again successfully paired for us.
The ‘Escarole’ salad had olive oil poached albacore tuna, dressed with fried capers and a viniagrette made from the tuna stock and lemon. The soft flavors of the poached albacore went well with the distinct sharp bitterness of the escarole, and I loved the crunchy texture and saltiness that the fried capers brought to the dish.
For dessert we had ‘Fruit’, the lemon semifreddo with pistachios and honey. The lemon gelato was nicely tart and smooth, though I was more intrigued by the complimentary glass of dessert wine that Maxwell generously served us (can you tell that I’m in love with this guy Maxwell?!). The La Roncaia Picolit white, made from grapes sun dried on straw mats, was sweet like honey and smooth like silk. Divine.
I wish I had more space in my stomach to try everything on the menu. I’ll have to return soon before this temporary culinary experiment, more like a transitory art exhibit, closes and the new full fledged restaurant opens in that space. Hurry and make your reservation soon before this magical experience disappears just as quickly as the wind. They’re open for lunch and they have a walk-in communal table by the bar if you can’t score dinner reservations.
Update: The Tasting Kitchen, during its temporary run, has been so popular that it has continued on to remain as a permanent restaurant. They’re now open for lunch too, and they still serve fantastic food and cocktails.
1633 Abbot Kinney Boulevard
Venice, CA 90291-3744
Random trivia: Cooking in a cast iron pan can really increase your daily iron intake, which is especially good for women who are at risk for iron deficiency anemia. Researchers found that the iron in one serving of tomato sauce increased from under one milligram to almost 6 mg when cooked in an iron pan. The iron in scrambled eggs increased from 1.5 mg to 5 mg. Most surprising is applesauce. A 100-gram serving went from .35 mg of iron to over 7 mg when cooked in cast iron. Wow.