Test Kitchen LA- Walter Manzke

Test Kitchen LA, the newest sensation to hit the restaurant scene in Los Angeles, has been causing quite a stir among the local food community.  In this golden era of the ‘pop-up’ dining phenomenon, Test Kitchen LA comes as an exciting new venture where every night is a pop up night, and every week is a new rotation of chefs taking center stage.  The kitchen line up has been an impressive list of local star chefs, from Jordan Kahn and Ricardo Zarate, to Michael Voltaggio and Neal Fraser, and it’s only by checking the restaurant’s website or Twitter feeds daily, at times hourly, that one can keep up with the constantly evolving roster.  Bill Chait and Brian Saltsburg have successfully created a safe haven where everybody is a part of a big culinary experiment- for chefs, it’s an ideal venue to explore their creativity and try out future restaurant and menu concepts, while for diners it’s a rare opportunity to preview and taste a distinguished chef’s food.  As an added bonus, star mixologists like Julian Cox and Joel Black are always in-house, mixing sensational cocktails to pair with each unique dinner.  After a wonderful experience at Church & State and a sold-out Hatchi dinner at the Breadbar, I was excited for Walter Manzke’s dinner at Test Kitchen LA.

Walter Manzke is one of our resident superstar chefs, having worked all over the world at reputable institutions like El Bulli, Monte Carlo under Alain Ducasse, and Patina in Los Angeles where he earned 3 stars from the LA Times.  Several other successful ventures like Bastide and most recently Church & State really solidifed his authority in the culinary world.  I had high hopes for this dignitary’s dinner, but I have to admit that I was regretfully disappointed.  This is the place to be pushing the creative envelope and testing out new ideas, but he played it safe, even serving a few repeat dishes from his Hatchi dinner like the foie gras butter with honey gelee.  This butter is quite amazing, but I’ve already had it before and the epi bread at the Breadbar was far tastier than the baguette served at this dinner.

Another repeat from the Hatchi dinner was the Santa Barbara spot prawns, butterflied with chopped cherry tomatoes, cucumbers and kalamata olives on top.  Only this time it was dressed with a Mediterranean vinaigrette, a version that didn’t quite drive me to lick the plate clean like the garlic sherry sauce at Hatchi where he celebrated the Spanish style of gambetas in his ‘Around the World’ tasting dinner.

One dish that I really did enjoy was the calamari, alternating pieces of grilled and deep fried squid served on dollops of black squid ink aioli with wisps of wild arugula on top.  The luscious and tasty aioli moved me to put all of my table manners aside and go for the finger sweep.   The foie gras butter, prawns and calamari were part of a tapas menu, along with items like lobster custard, white corn fritters and clear gazpacho, which could be ordered separately from the $52 tasting menu.

The first course to kick off the tasting menu was another familiar dish from the Hatchi dinner, hamachi ceviche.  A spicy and tart yuzu jalapeño marinade was the perfect complement to the tender buttery yellowtail sashimi, and the crunchy green apple cubes and avocado purée added a nice sweetness to temper to heat, although the dish could have used a little more salt.

My favorite dish of  the evening was the Thai curry-carrot soup, a bowl of Maine lobster, coconut tapioca pearls, mango, peanuts, Thai basil and basil seeds that amazed me with its variety of playful textures and flavors.  The hot creamy soup was poured at the table, releasing a powerful enticing aroma of sweet carrots and coconut milk into the air as it filled the bowl.  Manzke balanced the flavors of sweet, spicy and salty to perfection in this amazing soup that I gulped down to the last drop with a smile.

Loup de Mer with crispy grilled skin was served with Sungold cherry tomatoes, pumpkin seeds, crème fraiche and what the menu described as ‘mole verde’, to which my dining companions smiled and shook their heads.  Unfortunately, Manzke’s ‘mole verde’ did not fly with my 5 dining companions, who were Bill Esparza of Street Gourmet LA, Chef Javier Plascencia of the Plascencia restaurant empire in Tijuana, and Chef Javier’s 2 business partners and restaurant architect from Tijuana.  Team Mexico was not crazy about the tomatillo sauce.

Beef tenderloin was good with the chanterelle mushrooms, poached egg and sesame seeds in the katsuobushi bonito broth.  Yuzu-kosho, one of my favorite Japanese condiments made with green yuzu and peppers, was the key element that brought excitement and brightness to the soft flavors of the dish.

The tasting course ended with a strawberry sorbet crème brûlée, more like a strawberry parfait with strawberries, strawberry sorbet, crumbles, cream and a caramelized top layer that was enjoyable, but I expected a little more from this tasting menu that cost more than his Hatchi dinner.

Walter Manzke’s food is always good, and he is an excellent reputable chef, but something was missing that night.  One of my dining companions summed it up very well when I explained the concept of Test Kitchen LA to him, and he inquired as to why, then, didn’t this chef take more risks with his dishes.  I wish Manzke took the opportunity at Test Kitchen LA to be more adventurous and playful with his culinary concepts, rather than recycle old menu items and play it safe.  Even if a dish fails, it’s a Test Kitchen after all, and nobody is there to give a career damaging bad review.  In fact, this is exactly the time and the place to push the envelope, test one’s limits, think outside the box, and execute inventive and daring if but a bit crazy creations.  The staff at Test Kitchen have done an excellent job hand-picking an elite crop of chefs for their dinners.  We already love and adore all of these chefs- if they can reciprocate the love by trusting us and showing us what they’ve really got, it will make for an exciting and memorable evening.

Test Kitchen LA

9575 W Pico Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90035

Phone: (310) 277-0133

Random trivia:  Did you know that tapioca root can be used to manufacture environmentally friendly biodegradable plastic bags?  A polymer resin produced from the plant is a viable plastic substitute that is not only biodegradable (biodegrades in less than 1 year), but is also compostable, renewable, and recyclable.

Caché Restaurant

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Bar area

Caché, which means ‘hidden’ in French, is a lovely gem that recently opened on Main street in Santa Monica.  After the former restaurant Hidden’s schizophrenic menu failed to keep the crowds coming, Josiah Citrin took over to transform this large space into a rocking joint.  We all know and love Josiah Citrin from his other successful LA projects- Jiraffe, Mélisse and Lemon Moon.  Caché is a different concept, serving straightforward but well executed food in a loungey setting.  Diners can enjoy their meals indoors or outdoors, and late night partiers can congregate for cocktails in the outdoor patio by the enticing oblong fireplace.

Chef Arrington checking the white truffles for dinner service

Chef Arrington checking the white truffles for dinner service

Citrin has chosen a bright young star to lead the Caché kitchen.  Nyesha Arrington, the Chef de Cuisine,  is a SoCal native who was entrusted to take this position after proving her capabilities at Lemon Moon and Mélisse.   Her impressive resume also includes stints at Joël Robuchon’s L’Atelier and The Mansion in Las Vegas.  Her appreciation of cultural diversity, stemming from her multi-cultural background, is reflected in the superb balance and integration of different flavors.

We were greeted with a wonderful warm mason jar of assorted olives.  IMG_1269Warm olives are so much more pleasurable than cold or room temperature ones, it makes me wonder why more restaurants don’t serve it this way.  I love the warm olives at Pizzeria Mozza, and what a joy it is to dip my pizza crust into that aromatic warm olive oil.

Caché offers 4 types of mason jar starters, but the ones to get are the duck confit and foie gras parfait.  The rich and creamy foie gras parfait was topped with a luxurious port wine gelée.  The duck confit jar had tender shredded duck meat mixed with herbs and vegetables.  Both were equally satisfying and addictive, and we kept asking for more bread.  The bottle of 2005 St. Émilion Bordeaux from Chateau de Bellevue we ordered was a bit tart before it hit the decanter, but it got better and better through the course of our meal.  The lustrious tannins in this full bodied wine were a wonderful complement to the mason jar delicacies.

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There was no conversation or interaction at the table during the first 10 minutes of our ravenous mason jar frenzy.  IMG_1271These delectable delights had tapped into a part of our brain that had been scientifically thought to be dormant since the caveman era.  Dilated pupils, flushed face, rapid heart rate and incomprehensible gutteral grunting… these incredible edibles almost caused a sympathetic nervous system overload.  Once we calmed down, we started talking about what our ideal ‘last meal’ would be.  The heated debate included stellar candidates like sushi, steak, lamb chops, caviar and truffles.  The one thing we all agreed on was that we would love to have this foie gras parfait mason jar there before we draw our last breath.

The lovely calamari dish with chorizo, confit meyer lemon, cherry tomatoes and parsley came straight from the wood fired oven.  The chorizo slivers imparted a wonderful smokey flavor to the tender calamari, and the citrus kick from the meyer lemons kept the dish fresh and sharp.

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Caché’s version of moules frites was spectacular.  The black mussels were cooked in a delectable white wine, shallots and tomato sauce that we lapped up with the fries.  After the fries were gone we used our spoons to drink it like soup.  I’m normally not a fan of thicker cut fries as they tend to be soggy and overcooked, but these were fried to a perfect outer crisp and moist tender interior.  I could really taste the innate rustic potato flavors in each dazzling morsel.  The farmer who made these potatoes would be proud.

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I was ecstatic to see bone marrow on the menu.  It’s one of my favorite things to eat, so we placed 2 orders.  The fire-roasted bone marrow was silky and rich, oozing with blissful beef essence.   The green parsley foam on top added a perfect amount of saltiness to complement the marrow gelatin.  The wild mushroom tapenade on the toasted baguettes was earthy and aromatic, but it overpowered and competed with the bone marrow.  I had to scrape off the paste in order to indulge in a full-scale unadulterated marrow orgy.

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The crisp and fresh market wedge salad with cherry tomatoes, egg, blue cheese and bacon vinaigrette was the perfect palate cleanser to reset my heavy marrow-saturated taste buds.

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Caché has many delicious flat breads on their menu that are all baked in their special wood fired oven.  Toppings range from spicy sopressata to duck sausage, zucchini to caramelized shallots.  They all sounded amazing, but we decided to go with the evening special:  lardon, caramelized onion, cantal cheese, bechamel sauce and thyme.  A splendid array of caramelized sweetness, fresh herb aromas, lardon saltiness and cantal sharpness on a doughy flatbread canvas baked to perfection.

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The crispy pan-fried loup de mer was served on a bed of marinated eggplant, lemon and rosemary caponata.  The best part of this dish was the loup de mer skin with crispy scales, fried to a light flakiness that crunched and danced on my tongue.  The fragile texture was addictive, and I found myself enjoying the skin more than the flesh.  The hearty caponata was a bit too intense for the fish, and I left it untouched.

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One of my dining companions had already been to Caché and raved about the Kurobuta pork chop.  Even though we offered to order another dish so that he could have the opportunity to try something new, he insisted that we get it.  He wanted to relive the experience- it was that good.  The thick cut of meat was cooked to a perfectly even color, temperature and consistency.  The freshness of the mint ribbons and the subdued sweetness of the pineapple and five spice chutney embellished this juicy pork.  There was nothing really fancy about this dish, and it was a new flavor combination for me, but somehow it hit the spot.  It was comforting, warming and soulful.  Yes, this was a fantastic and solid dish, and I would order it again on my next visit.

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Chef Arrington complemented our entrées with 3 sides of: carrot with passion fruit, thyme and black pepper, asparagus with curry and pistachios, and a yukon potato purée that was whipped up in classic buttery Robuchon style.

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I bumped into Nyesha a couple of weeks ago at the Santa Monica farmers market as we both rummaged through a box of fairytale eggplants.  She had a twinkle in her eye as she enthusiastically told me how she was going to prepare it for the dinner menu that evening.  I could see the wheels of creativity and inspiration cranking at full speed in her brain as she proceeded to sniff, pick, taste and caress all of the fresh produce throughout the market.  It looked like she was having an intimate conversation with each vegetable.  I couldn’t help but feel a twang of jealousy toward the lucky people who would get to enjoy the farmers market inspired menu that evening at Caché.

IMG_1353The food at Caché boasts innovative flavor combinations with simple fresh ingredients.  It’s fine dining in a hip LA setting.  Yet it also has the comfort of soul food and the familiarity of happy childhood memories at the kitchen table.  How is it that in a jar of refined foie gras, on a superbly baked flatbread, on a side of Robuchon-style whipped potatoes, and in a crispy loup de mer skin that is difficult to perfect, I can taste the love and passion of this talented chef?  How is it possible for these plates to satisfy my soul as much as it pleases my belly and my eyes?  It’s something about the essence of the food and the aura of the chef.

Any chef can cook to impress, please, execute, and entertain.  But only a great chef can take that to a higher level and also cook to nourish and nurture.  That’s why the greatest chefs in the world are our mothers and grandmothers.  Young and beautiful Nyesha sure ain’t your grandmother, but she cooks with the same intention and soul.

http://www.cacherestaurant.com/

Random trivia:  Did you know that mussels are gonochoristic?  That means that each individual mussel is born either male or female.