Test Kitchen- Marcel Vigneron

For those of you who have been tuning in to this season’s Top Chef All-Stars, it’s been an exciting season full of drama and high energy competition.  The star-studded cast from all of the past seasons have been neck and neck through the quickfire challenges and gruesome elimination rounds, proving each step of the way that even a small oversight or a momentary careless falter can cost the big one.  Last week saw the unfortunate fall of my competition favorite and top contender, the notorious Marcel Vigneron, who got a strong kick start on the opening episode and seemed to be gliding through to the top.  But alas, ‘Restaurant Wars’, as usual, was the killer.  As I tearfully watched him pack his knives on TV, I thought back to the amazing dinner that he had a few months ago at the recently closed Test Kitchen in Los Angeles where he demonstrated his unique sense of creativity, artistry and chefsmanship.

I went on the final night of a 3 night stint at the Test Kitchen, completely packed, as expected, with enthusiastic fans who came to see what this now freelance chef was showcasing.  While it seemed that Marcel suppressed his wacky eclectic tendencies to favor a more simple approach to this dinner, there was still an abundance of creativity and originality in many of the beautiful dishes, all autographed with little sprinklings of Marcel’s signature style.  Sautéed shishito peppers dressed with kabayaki sauce and bonito flakes were especially spicy this time of the year, and almost every pepper was a strong hit.

A welcome encore from the chef’s days as sous chef at The Bazaar, the wonderfully salty and velvety papas canarias with chlorophyll mayo was familiar and comforting.

For a chef who is famous for incorporating the discipline of molecular gastronomy in his cuisine, the kombu cured hamachi dish was as molecular as he got in this dinner.  Like a relaxing summer picnic on a blanket, deliciously fatty slices of hamachi laid out on a bright yellow pineapple sheet, cooling off from the heat of serrano chiles with a light foam of dashi and dots of avocado purée.  Crispy kernels of puffed wild rice added a delightful texture to the dish that incorporated hints of Asian flavors through garnishes of seaweed, shiso leaves and ponzu gel.

An off-the-menu hamachi collar with kabayaki sauce and bonito flakes that Marcel kindly sent out to us, was one of my favorite dishes of the evening.  Perfectly cooked, full of flavor, juicy, fatty and simply delicious.

Somewhere between the melting clocks of Salvador Dalí’s ‘The Persistence of Memory‘ and the mythological figures of ‘The Endless Enigma‘ was Marcel’s scallop dish, its combination of tall erect shapes and soft liquescent outlines representing a bizarre dream vaporizing into a haunting memory.  Dayboat scallops sousvided in smoked paprika oil were mounted alongside an artichoke marinated in balsamic vinegar and olive oil, and served with a caramelized cipollini onion, crispy capers, marinated anchovy, crostini, dots of parsley purée and cherry tomato confit on a bed of garlic purée.  The medley of Mediterranean flavors illustrated his ode to the Italian puttanesca, with splashes of kalamata olive dust that screamed Marcel.

A 65 degree poached egg, coated with panko and fried, was perched on a pillow of bean purée to complement the tender slices of sous vide Wagyu beef tongue, which were delicately strewn in a colorful garden of pickled radish, arugula, red beets and yellow beet fluid gel.

One of many highlights of the evening came in a superbly grilled piece of Vadouvan rubbed lamb chop, the cauliflower couscous with golden raisins, almonds and pomegranate seeds another flashback to his days at The Bazaar.  The foam loving chef won’t let a main entrée go without a touch of foam, and indeed a lovely feta cheese foam with just the right amount of saltiness elevated the savoriness of the dish.  In addition to foams and Mediterranean flavors, puffed grains are his thing, and little pearly beads of puffed amaranth were sprinkled for texture, but the real moment came courtesy of a drizzle of sweet honey that really made this dish superb.

A dainty half-slice of green momochan decorated a preserved lemon and vanilla bean panna cotta, served with a ricotta fritter and some agave syrup.

The final delicious surprise of the Test Kitchen experience was a tall cylinder of macadamia sponge cake, soft, airy, spongy and amazing, thanks to the powerful electromagnetic properties of a conventional microwave.  The strawberry foam and carbonated berry spherification didn’t quite do it for me, but the pairing of black pepper and celery leaves in this dessert dish was quite an ingenious revelation.

As always, the surrealist artistry, vibrant color displays and savory flavors of Marcel Vigneron’s cuisine were an absolute joy to experience.  After a long stint at The Bazaar, followed by a shorter one as Executive Chef at Bar 210, he is now on his own to explore his direction in the culinary industry.  Although he was booted off of Top Chef last week, no other chef in the competition can boast what he’s got going for him- his own TV show, called Marcel’s Quantum Kitchen, coming this spring on the SyFy Network.  It’s guaranteed to be fun, entertaining, whimsical and magical, just like the chef himself.

Random trivia:  Did you know that the pineapple is not a single fruit, but a cluster of 100-200 tiny fruitlets?

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!