Test Kitchen LA- Michael Voltaggio

Our world is filled with interesting oxymorons, from controlled chaos and organized mess, to virtual reality and positive let downs.  Such incongruities and contradictions make life awfully nice, don’t they?  Or does it make you feel almost exactly, absolutely unsure?  Hmm, this is clearly confusing…  We can agree to disagree, but we can surely all concede that there’s one oxymoron, a ‘permanent pop-up’, that’s been revolutionizing the Los Angeles restaurant scene.  Test Kitchen LA brings the best of all worlds under one roof by inviting renowned LA chefs to showcase new restaurant concepts for limited engagements while star mixologists pair the revolving menus with specialty cocktails.  Masterminded by Bill Chait and Brian Saltsburg and orchestrated by Chef Ricardo Zarate and GM Stephane Bombet, Test Kitchen LA has been the talk of the town by headlining chefs like Jordan Kahn, Ricardo Zarate, Walter Manzke and Neal Fraser in the kitchen.  When it came to Michael Voltaggio, who only cooked for 1 night, the Test Kitchen crew successfully teased Angelenos by keeping his appearance a secret until the day of the event.  Where every day is a pop-up, you can almost never be certain of who’s dropping in at Test Kitchen LA.

Michael Voltaggio needs little introduction-his face, style of cuisine and arm tattoos are easily recognizable, especially after he snagged the sixth season Top Chef title from his own brother.  He was working as Chef de Cuisine at The Bazaar when the series aired, and his adoring fans followed him and his food to The Dining Room at the Langham Hotel in Pasadena when he subsequently took the Chef de Cuisine position there.  Ever since he left the Langham a few months ago, we’ve been on our toes wondering where his next project will be.  Any talk of future restaurant projects have been kept under strict lock and key, which only makes us want to know more.

Voltaggio and his trusted crew of chefs spent 4 days prepping in the upstairs kitchen at Test Kitchen LA for this 1 night-only event.  It seems like a lot of work for just a few hours of service and 140 covers, but that is the beauty of this chef, whose level of thought and attention to detail really shows in his food.  When I heard that he was in the upstairs kitchen sous viding beef tongue on the night that I dined for the Walter Manzke dinner, I knew that I was in for quite a meal.   The 10 course tasting menu for $69, called ‘A Meal in 10 Tracks’, started with a ‘petit befores’ of porcini mushroom canelé topped with goat cheese cream and a very chewy tomato pâtes de fruits, a gumdrop on a stick made with tomatoes, basil, Arbequina olive oil and Maldon salt.  As always, resident mixologist Julian Cox was in-house that evening, along with mixologists Josh Goldman and Daniel Nelson, who prepared cocktails like the Basque Sangria, a white sangria made with Floc de Gascogne and freeze dried fruits.

Voltaggio, being the clever trickster that he is, took traditional straightforward dishes and gave them a whole new twist, playing off of classic flavors and concepts and reinventing them in a unique style.  Mole, for example, wasn’t a thick sauce drizzled over chicken, but a terracotta flower pot filled with crusted fried Padrón peppers.  Most of these are sweet and mild, but you may get the occasional one that packs a lot of heat, our server warned us with a wink, as we dug into these beautiful green peppers coated with powdered coffee, chocolate, cumin and coriander.  Thankfully I survived the pot without combusting and didn’t have to rely on the feta queso fresco ice cream as an extinguisher, as it was a little too musty for me.

Fish and chips wasn’t a basket full of deep fried artery cloggers, but an elegant dish of hamachi sashimi garnished with the classic flavors and components of the quintessential pub food.  Translucent crispy potato chips, round croquettes that burst with flavorful tartar sauce and most surprisingly little malt vinegar caviar balls made with calcium chloride and sodium alginate that looked like ikura, were a joy to dissect and eat.

Classic caprese salad seems boring now, after having Voltaggio’s take on it.  Skinned cherry tomatoes, smoked mozzarella and lemon basil kept the dish grounded in its traditional style, but the crispy fried calamari chips, bonito flakes, crunchy sea beans and delicious squid ink vinegar brought a whole new level of oceanic flair to this alluring dish.

Reinterpreting classic kitchen dishes is one thing, but Voltaggio dared to challenge an all-American delicacy that has served and pleased over 99 billion people worldwide.  Instead of the somewhat mashed up chicken meat that we all admittedly grew up on and loved, his McNuggets, served in a basket with rhubarb ketchup, were made with deep fried lamb sweetbreads that melted into savory liquid in my mouth.

The variety of ingredients and flavors seen in a hearty serving of Greek Mezze were given a classy and polished twist where octopus legs were served on Greek yogurt with olive oil, black olive dots, thyme leaves and the most pleasant fried liquid falafel balls that erupted into a river of bright green delight.  A dollop of what tasted like sweet apricot jam took away from the savory flavors of the dish, where I wished that he would have used something like a taramosalata instead.

I was excited to see the final product of the famous sous vide beef tongue that was being prepared all week, and it presented itself as succulent, slightly smokey and wondrously tender slices gently nestled under a blanket of shaved iced arugula, fresh arugula leaves and flowers, and smoked mayo.  Prosciutto and melon never tasted so good and so robust in Voltaggio’s daring interpretation that won my heart over as best savory dish of the evening.

The plump meaty soft shell crab deep fried to a satisfying crunch was amazing in the Maryland Crab Feast, augmented by the fiery hotness of Old Bay seasoning dots, but I wasn’t a fan of the corn scramble underneath, extremely sweet in flavor but puréed into a soft mush that reminded me of texturally absent baby food.

Another sensational savory dish was the Veal Picatta, buttery morsels of veal cheek prepared so perfectly that it melted right into my inner cheeks.  Dehydrated cauliflowers, a strip of slightly torched cauliflower purée, yuzu dots, chanterelles and caper dust rounded out the wonderful play of flavors and textures on this winning dish.

For those who know me, I am all about meat and offals, and rarely ever impressed with desserts, but dare I say that the most memorable, and the most delicious dish of the entire tasting menu, was the Carrot Cake dessert?  The dish looked like a bit of a mess at first, but combining the yogurt powder, bright orange carrot sorbet, the sponge cake that I heard was microwaved to get that airy consistency, rum raisin and yuzu drizzle all together inside my mouth revealed an explosion of flavors that were on point.  Sweet, light, cold, airy, delicate and soft with a hint of dazzling rum are the only way that I can begin to convey the sublimity of this dessert.

Finally, the Tiramisu, a heavenly cup of light chocolate crumbles, coffee crumbles and mascarpone pearls on thick and creamy soy pudding.

Michael Voltaggio’s cuisine hit it out of the park, scoring a home run with every dish that was bursting with flavor, touched with elegance, exploding with creativity and presented with so much thought and intention that one can only bow down to this talented chef with appreciation and respect.  This dinner has proved to be one of Test Kitchen’s best events so far, and one can only hope that he’ll make another surprise appearance before moving on to his next restaurant project.  Just like Test Kitchen LA, Voltaggio’s food proved that oxymorons can be a positive thing- sinfully good.

Test Kitchen LA

9575 W Pico Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90035

(310) 277-0133

Random trivia:  Did you know that the tongue is not 1 big muscle, but consists of 16 different muscles?  No wonder we can do so many interesting things with it…how terribly nice!

Gastropubs in Los Angeles

“Who cares how time advances?  I’m drinking ale today” – Edgar Allen Poe

Pub grub has come a long way from pork scratchings and pickled eggs when pubs, or public houses, functioned as drinking establishments and inns for the working class in Great Britain.  It wasn’t until the 1950′s that pub owners started offering hearty food with their ales, with what’s now considered to be quintessential pub food items like fish and chips, shepherd’s pie and pasties.  Pubs are still casual establishments for friends who want to socialize over a few pints and bites, but more interest is being placed on quality meals to chow down on.  Now we have a quickly flourishing movement of gastropubs, a term coined in 1991 by the owners of The Eagle Pub in London that combines the essence of pubs and gastronomy to emphasize gourmet delicacies.  While pub purists argue that gastropubs kill the distinct rustic character of traditional pubs, the majority of Angelenos are welcoming this movement with open arms and empty bellies- and how ironic, given that this is a city where drinking usually means drinking and driving.

Gastropubs have a characteristic cozy and comfortable vibe with simple furnishings of banquettes, tables and stools so that the food and brews can take center stage.  For those who love beer, it’s a dream come true as gastropubs offer obscure selections with unique names that will even pique the interest of non-drinking patrons.  Siamese Twin, Damnation, Arrogant Bastard, Snake Bite, Hair of the Dog, Dead Guy and Raging Bitch?  They sound like the latest up and coming bands to debut at the Viper Room, but they’re all local and foreign beers that can only be found at these specialty establishments.  I for one tend to gravitate toward these outrageously named brews for the fun factor, as I’m not well versed in the genre of ales and stouts.

There are many gastropubs in Los Angeles now, from Santa Monica to Downtown, and up north in Hollywood down to the South Bay.  The Village Idiot has remained strong since it opened in early 2007, still drawing in a full crowd at its beautiful open space on a desirable stretch of Melrose Avenue.  Like most gastropubs, they offer wine and non-alcoholic beverages, but there’s nothing better than a cold brewsky to wash down classic British fare like fish and chips and steak and potato pie.  The menu breaks down their food in comical genres like ‘no face’ for vegetables, ’2 legs’ for poultry, ’4 legs’ for red meats and ‘no legs’ for fish, perhaps so that even a true village idiot can understand the menu.   Healthy salads, tarts and tartare are on the menu, but it’s predominantly hearty fare like roasted chicken, cornmeal crusted catfish, grilled hanger steak, and crispy pork belly.  The classic fish and chips with malt vinegar dipping sauce is excellent here, with crispy fries and tender white fish with thick batter.

The Village Idiot is open at 9am for breakfast on the weekends, so hungry village blokes can indulge in a full English breakfast of bangers and ham with beans on toast, roasted tomato, mushrooms, and fried egg.

Even though it’s a gastropub, it’s a gastropub in America after all, so American classics with a twist like the juicy pub burger with a marvelous balsamic onion relish can be paired with your pint of hefeweizen.

On my last visit to this gastropub, I had one of the daily specials, a house cured pastrami sandwich on toasted white bread with whole grain mustard that was to die for.  The succulent pastrami sliced paper thin was bursting with fatty juices and peppery spices, and it ranked right up there with my favorites from Clementine‘s and Langer’s.

The most uncharacteristically gastropub feature of this establishment is their fairly impressive dessert menu.  Pumpkin pie crème brûlée, chocolate cinnamon bread pudding, and banana treacle tart at a pub?  It’s a wonderful deviation from tradition, and if purists want to scorn at me for patronizing and calling this place a gastropub, then I’ll just shrug my shoulders and enjoy my peach rhubarb tart with cinnamon ice cream.

A notable contender on the gastropub scene is Wurstküche, housed in a large warehouse in a dark and quiet area of Downtown LA near Little Tokyo.  For those who aren’t familiar with the area, it may be difficult to find this spot, but once you open the small entrance door, you’ll be hit with a sonic boom from the lively crowds that squeeze into the long communal tables and benches.  In a smart and delicious move, Wurstküche has carved out a niche for itself by specializing in sausages and wursts to accompany their predominantly Belgian and German beer selections.  With intriguing drinks like sarsaparilla soda, elderflower soda, and botanical brew of dandelion and burdock, even the curious non-drinker gourmands will want to flock here.

If you can first nab a seat at this perpetually packed place, then the next step is to go around to the back to order any one of their sausages, divided into Classics, Gourmet, and Exotic.  Classics include bratwurst, bockwurst and hot Italian, with 3 vegetarian options of Italian, smoked apple sage and Mexican chipotle.  The classic bratwurst, a pork based sausage with hints of nutmeg and coriander, is a must try before you venture into the gourmets and exotics.  The chicken and turkey based Mango Jalapeño with a generous heap of caramelized onions offers an adventure into the sweet and spicy.

Other gourmet selections include Chicken Apple & Spices, Sun Dried Tomato & Mozzarella, Green Chillies & Cilantro, Filipino Marharlika and Kielbasa.  All are served on their freshly baked buns and can be garnished with sauerkraut, onions, sweet peppers or spicy peppers.  The exotics delve into rare meats like buffalo, duck and rabbit, but my absolute favorite at Wurstküche is the rattlesnake and rabbit with jalapeño peppers.  This peppery sausage is surprisingly juicy and tender, pairing well with a glass of Echt Kriekenbier.  The smoked alligator and pork andouille sausage is smokey like a kielbasa but a little too lean and crumbly for my taste.  Double dipped Belgian fries with white truffle oil is a mandatory side order here, though you can choose other dipping sauces like chipotle ketchup, blue cheese walnut and bacon, pesto mayo or thai peanut.

Venturing down south beyond the 105 Freeway is unheard of these days for Angelenos who live on the west side, but venturing even further south below the 91 Freeway and Artesia Boulevard?  Not possible, you’d think, but I heard of a certain gastropub in Redondo Beach that was opened last year by Beechwood owners Nick Roberts and his wife Brooke Williamson, and I made the trek down to check it out.  The glowing pink sign stands out on the otherwise dead and shady neighborhood, and this joint is clearly a local favorite.  Hudson House offers a fairly interesting selection of beers, including the oddities with eccentric names, and the menu is anything but traditional pub food- it centers around the concept of comfort food but with a gourmet twist:  lamb skewers with honey yogurt harissa sauce, chicken meatball sandwich, beer battered cauliflower fritters, brown sugar pork ribs, a pretzel burger and tilapia tacos.

Wheat beer steamed clams with lemon, Thai basil and garlic are actually great, and dipping their toasted bread into the garlic perfumed sauce is highly encouraged.

Dungeness crab deviled eggs flop, much to my disappointment, with absolutely nothing special or tasty about them.

Romaine salad with grilled shrimp is tossed with a light ginger Caesar dressing which almost borders on a Chinese salad flavoring.

Fortunately the juicy and perfectly grilled marinated skirt steak with garlic and truffle cheese fries bring the gastronomy level up a notch to back up Chef Williamson’s impressive bio.  These shoestring fries with the perfect hint of black truffles is quite delectable, and almost worth the whole trip down to the South Bay.

Hudson House represents one end of the extreme on the gastropub spectrum with their non-traditional pub food, and the crispy beer battered Twinkies really says it all.  It’s wonderful that the gastropub movement is permeating into different parts of the city, and that residents of the South Bay have their own new local joints to enjoy, but for now, I’ll stick to my side of the town for pub grub.

Which brings me back to my neighborhood on the west side where I frequent the lovely outdoor patio of Father’s Office, one of the first and perhaps most famous of all gastropubs in Los Angeles, where you can enjoy 36 brews on tap and nosh down on the prizewinning Office Burger.  The dry aged beef patty cooked medium rare and served on a fluffy French roll with caramelized onions, maytag blue and gruyere cheese, applewood smoked bacon tomato compote and arugula is really all that, and it’s honestly one of my favorite burgers in LA.  With the slightest pressure of my finger pads on the bread as I take a gratifying bite, warm meat juices come pouring out of the tender meat and run down my forearms, but I can’t even be bothered to drop the burger to clean myself up, as the next moment comes too quickly, the moment when the saltiness of the cheese comes rushing in, followed by the sweetness of the caramelized onions and a rapid finish of arugula bitterness.  Even though I’ve eaten about 50 Office Burgers in my lifetime, I don’t have a single photo of it.  From the moment it arrives on the table, it completely bewitches and consumes me.

Father’s Office is famous for their gastronomy, at times offering daily specials of oysters, grilled rabbit or diver scallops.  Beet salad with walnuts, shaved curly beets and garden greens with vinaigrette is a staple on their menu.

Roasted beef bone marrow with a tangy and salty parsley caper garnish is one of the best in the city, alongside Church and State, Mozza and Caché.  Most everything on the food menu at this lively and energetic joint is pretty good, and most of all you just can’t beat al fresco drinking and grubbing on a warm LA evening.

From classical British style to contemporary American twists, gastropubs are popping up everywhere in Los Angeles, consistently brimming with customers as if there still weren’t enough gastropubs around town.  In this past year new places like District, The Lab, Waterloo and City, Laurel Tavern and Boho have opened up in addition to the Gastrobus food truck to join the ranks of Ford’s Filling Station and Westside Tavern.  The secret to their popularity is perhaps the accessibility and informality in this city that’s equally inundated with fine dining establishments where reservations may be difficult to land and a dinner outing means a 3 hour commitment with jacket and tie.  Sometimes you just want to pop in for a quick drink with friends sans reservations, but you don’t want to compromise on savory food.  These are the times when the familiarity of beer and sausages at a gastropub present the perfect combination of gourmet and comfort.

Random trivia:  Did you know that a beer bottle collector is called a labeorphilist?  A beer mat collector is a tegestologist.

Todd English P.U.B. – Las Vegas

Boy meets girl.  Boy and girl fall in love.  Boy proposes with a 6-carat diamond ring.  Boy whisks girl away to Croatia, where he surprises her with a private (but not legal) wedding ceremony on a yacht. Boy presents girl with a prenup saying that girl will get nothing upon divorce.  Girl allegedly attacks boy with his Chopard watch and tears up the prenup agreement.  Boy goes to the hospital to get 7 stitches next to his eye.

Boy disappears a week before the $150,000 wedding.  Girl goes crazy.  Boy phones girl a few hours before the wedding to call it off.  Girl later learns that boy had called his friends and family days before the wedding to tell them that it wasn’t happening.  Girl gets slapped with the outstanding bill for the lavish wedding.  Girl goes public and does a tell-all interview, calling boy an animal.  Girl gets charged for assault in the Chopard incident.  Girl is ordered by the court to do community service and attend anger management classes.

This is not a script for Eva Longoria’s character in Desperate Housewives- it’s the true life story of her Beso business partner, Chef Todd English, and the romance-gone-wrong fiasco that unfolded last year.  If you thought that soap opera plots only happened to Hollywood celebrities, then you’re in for a surprise.  The culinary world is packed with jaw dropping drama, from the recent murder charges against Food Network TV Chef Juan-Carlos Cruz for soliciting homeless men in a plot to murder his wife, to Paula Deen being sued for trademark infringements.  We still don’t know who fathered Padma Lakshmi’s baby, and let us not forget the ordeal with America’s criminal sweetheart, Martha Stewart.

Despite headline news of chefs gone bad, it’s hard to resist patronizing their restaurants when their food is good.  I felt intense moral guilt about dining at Todd English’s recent venture in Las Vegas, knowing that I was financially supporting his bad boy behavior, but on that particular late afternoon in Vegas, it sounded like the best option to satiate my appetite.  For a city that never sleeps, there are surprisingly very few options for all-day celebrity chef dining.  Las Vegas has become the new culinary mecca for internationally acclaimed chefs like Joël Robuchon, Guy Savoy and Alain Ducasse, but these places are usually only open for dinner.  Some places are open for lunch between 12-2:30pm, but honestly, if you’re up in time for lunch at noon, then you ain’t doing it right in Sin City.

When I stumbled out of bed at 3pm with ringing ears and a voracious appetite, still trying to make sense of the wine stains on my shirt (where did I go and what did I do last night?!), I reviewed my dining options.  Where can we find a decent brewski to numb that pounding headache?  Throwing back oysters at the raw bar at Bouchon in the Venetian seemed like an enticing option, but with a Bouchon back home in Los Angeles now, it wasn’t exciting.  Hubert Keller’s Burger Bar at Mandalay Bay seemed painfully far from the center of the strip.  I wanted much more than dainty charcuterie at Batali’s Enoteca San Marco in the Venetian.  Gastropub fare at Crystals in the new CityCenter complex was the perfect solution.

James Beard Award-winning chef Todd English already had an Olives outpost in the Bellagio, but it was the back to back opening of Beso and adjacent PUB that marked his dynamic success in Vegas.  PUB, which stands for Public Urban Bar, opened 3 months ago with a wild opening party filled with juggling dwarf leprechauns and Vegas celebrities.

I remember seeing his original restaurant Olives, packed every night with enthusiastic patrons, back in the days when I spent my college years in Boston.  Little did I know that he would eventually become a national celebrity, opening numerous restaurants from Seattle to Orlando and even Los Angeles in his joint venture Beso with actress Eva Longoria.  With nearly 20 food establishments in the nation now, it’s an understatement to say that he’s spreading himself a little too thin, making me doubt whether dining at any one of his restaurants actually qualifies for eating Todd English’s cuisine.

Still, this new gastropub offering scrumptious comfort food and beers on tap at an affordable price is a welcome addition to the Vegas strip where the previous dining options meant a cheap bad meal or double down and bust.  The tiny door at the entrance is deceiving- I expected a small dark room crammed with patrons noshing on burgers, but instead I stepped into a surprisingly large and brightly lit industrial space that was split into several sections.  Dart boards decorated the walls of the banquette section on the right, leading to the back section filled with more tables that looked onto the semi-open kitchen.  A communal table accommodated a party of 10 by the raw bar at the edge of the circumferential bar, while smoking patrons basked in the afternoon Vegas sun outside on the patio.  I loved the tall ceilings in this English-pub-meets-Balthazar restaurant where we chose a barside table that looked out onto Julian Serrano’s restaurant next door at Aria.

In classic pub style, Executive Chef Isaac Carter enhances every dish with a generous serving of oil and butter to please all lagerphiles.  He started off  in the original Olives kitchen with Chef English, and continued on in numerous other English adventures like Kingfish Hall, Olives at the Bellagio and Beso at CityCenter.  The menu is upscale pub food, offering classics like fish and chips and sheperd’s pie, and satisfying simple cravings for good meat with tableside sandwich carvings of prime beef and roasted lamb while appealing to finicky gourmands with finger licking selections of duck buns and moules frites.  In addition to the bivalves and crustaceans from the raw bar, the items to get are the sliders, which range from traditional beef burger sliders to chicken parmesan to pastrami with kraut and swiss cheese.  Of course, PUB’s the name, and the entire flip side of the one sheet food menu lists a wealthy selection of malts and hops.

We started, naturally, with a plate of fish and chips to accompany our Stella Artois Pilsner and Pyramid Audacious Apricot Ale.  A half-inch thick layer of crunchy batter encased moist cuts of cod which we happily chased down with the refreshing bell pepper and cabbage cole slaw.  The thick cut fries were divine, and I couldn’t stop eating them, especially when dipped in the tart and wonderful malt vinegar aioli.

Freshly shucked Hama Hama oysters were the perfect hangover cure with a squeeze of lemon and a drop of shallot vinaigrette.

Chicken liver pâté with balsamic, garlic and onions served hot in a small cast iron pot was a gooey mound of intense gameyness.  The chopped egg and sliced scallion garnish did nothing to temper the overwhelming heartiness of the pâté, but the toasted challah bread triangles that it came with were a crunchy and heavenly delight.

The sensational winner at PUB was the brown butter lobster roll dish, made with freshly shucked Maine lobster tossed in a warm brown butter aioli and served with a side of kettle chips and creamy cole slaw.  The buttery and tasty lobster meat was tucked into an even more buttery soft bread, which was then lightly grilled with even more butter.  It was a lobster and butter marriage made in heaven, a sinful crustacean pleasure, and I still dream of going back to Vegas just to have another one of these rolls.

PUB at CityCenter is the perfect answer to those odd hour cravings.  Whether you’re looking for quick eats after emerging from an after hours club, rolling out of bed in your sweats in the late afternoon, or seeking a casual joint for late night cravings, this is a wonderful gastropub that will satisfy your belly without breaking your wallet.  If you’re a star struck fan of Chef Todd English, previously named one of People magazine’s 50 Most Beautiful People, then don’t get your hopes up.  You’ll probably never see him at PUB, or any of his other restaurants for that matter.  If you’re hesitant about feeding his business because you’re morally conflicted about chefs gone wild (was it a case of psycho bride-to-be or boy behaving badly?), then take a cab over to Hubert Keller‘s Burger Bar and support the ‘nice chefs’.

Todd English PUB

Crystals, City Center

3720 Las Vegas Boulevard South
Las Vegas, NV 89109
(702) 489-8080

Random trivia:  Did you know that the quintessential British dish of ‘fish and chips‘ originated in the 1860′s?  Deep fried fish and crispy potato wedges developed separately- fried potatoes spread south from Scotland while the popularity of fried fish moved north from Southern England, eventually merging in the first official fish and chip shop opened by a Jewish proprietor in London in 1860.