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.

Rincón San Román- Baja, Mexico

Tijuana, Mexico a.k.a. TJ- what images come to your mind?  Raging drunks, partying college kids, tequila funnels, street drugs, car theft and kidnappings?  That was partly my perception too, before I headed down to Baja California for a life-changing culinary tour with a lovely group of gourmets a few months ago, led by my good friend Bill Esparza of Street Gourmet LA.  With expectations of eating fish tacos and clams from street stalls all weekend, I was pleasantly surprised by the fine dining experience we had at Restaurant Rincón San Román, headed by one of Mexico’s highly acclaimed celebrity chefs Martín San Román.  He’s one of the faces of Mexican cuisine, having appeared on weekly TV cooking shows and competed in the 1995 Bocuse d’Or competition for Team Mexico.  Raised in Mexico City and of Basque ancestry, San Román’s classical French training and continued membership in the prestigious Academie Culinaire de France provides a solid foundation for his Mexican-French style of cuisine where he incorporates fresh ingredients unique to the Baja waters and land with elegant French concepts and flair.

Driving just a few kilometers south of the bustling streets of Tijuana, we found ourselves gliding along the beautiful coast of Real del Mar where the deep blue sea and the vast open skies melded on the distant horizon.  Going up the hill into the Real del Mar golf complex through a security gate, we parked near the terracotta courtyard flanked by magenta bouganvillea vines.  The sounds of chirping birds and soft winds greeted us into this remote haven that seemed far removed from the city.  It felt like we accidentally stepped into a warp zone that whisked us away to Tenerife, or perhaps somewhere on Santorini. On that particular cloudy afternoon, our cheerful and friendly host Chef San Román greeted us in his beautiful 2 story restaurant that he emptied out for a private lunch just for us.

After going through the casual cafe and bar area, we stopped at the foot of the stairway to examine Chef San Román’s many achievements proudly framed on the walls.  A team photo from the Bocuse d’Or competition, many plaques of recognition for his fine cuisine, numerous awards and accolades from all over the world- and of course, the infamous LA Times article from 2002 on Chef San Román and his unique Baja cuisine written by one of our culinary tour members, Barbara Hansen.  Our table was set with pristine silverware and wine glasses, and we had an unobstructed grand view of the Pacific Ocean from the second floor.   On clear days, one can see the Coronado Islands floating in the distance.  In this heavenly and serene environment, we were treated to a wonderful cuisine d’auteur tasting lunch created by this accomplished auteur, or artist.

He started us with a plate of tuna tartare with apples, onions, pine nuts and pumpkin seed oil topped with a layer of wine jelly and garnished with freshly ground black pepper and microgreens.  The honey-like sweetness of the wine jelly brought out the flavors of the fresh tender tuna while diced onions and pine nuts added fun textural crunch.  The earthy mellowness of the pumpkin seed oil rounded out each bite with a smooth finish only to be followed by an unexpected jolt of cactus needles tickling my tongue from ancho chile slivers on the crisp bread.  Our elegant tuna dish was paired with a 2008 Concha y Toro Sauvignon Blanc.

The vibrant colors of the New Zealand mussel dish popped out against the black slate dish.  Fresh corn mixed with its nemesis, huitlacoche, added an earthy and smokey layer of flavor while pico de gallo and fresh marjoram danced in fresh celebration on my tongue, all brought together through the creaminess and richness of lobster reduction and panela cheese.

A salad made with crisp hydroponic lettuce and cherry tomatoes from San Román’s garden in the Guadalupe Valley came dressed with a sweet syrupy hibiscus vinaigrette and bacon bits.  We actually had a vase of live hydroponic lettuce on our table on display.

Our seafood course was a rolled fillet of locally caught sole stuffed with graped leaves and smoked marlin, standing tall atop a bed of savory smoked scallop and fish jus sauce.  What looked like a cylinder of classic gratin dauphinois with potatoes and cream, given the chef’s classical French training background, was actually a Baja twist of chayote lasagna.  This delicious vegetable side, along with the amazing sauce and the smoked marlin, or ‘jamón of the sea’, brought a wonderful level of savoriness and richness to this creation.

An artistic plate of Mexicali beef tenderloin with salsa de pimenta verde was plated with abstract expressionism under the skillful hands of the restaurant’s auteur. A yellow circle of seared guava with crunchy round seeds lay still next to a twig of fresh rosemary from the garden that released pungent freshness into the air to entice our olfactory senses.  Crunchy flakes of chicharrones sparkled on a painted landscape of browned sauce, inviting us to savor its seductive crackles with every bite.  Perfectly paired with a bottle of 2007 Adobe Guadalupe Jardín Secreto, this dish demonstrated the sensitivity and sensuality of Chef San Román.

The most memorable and striking of all dishes that afternoon was the Tijuana crepe cake, copied by many throughout Baja but never equaled by its original creator, Chef Martín San Román himself, who created this delightful dessert back in 1989.  I fell in love with the crepe cake when I had it for the first time at Chef Yaguës’ La Querencia, but the one and only original here at Rincón San Román was beyond perfection.  Fine layers of crepe interspersed with feathery soft and light creme simply melted in my mouth along with thin shavings of white chocolate, as I licked the strawberry and raspberry sauce squeaky clean off the plate.

Tijuana was the last place that I ever imagined sitting down for an elegant meal with paired wines and white tablecloth fine dining, but here I was, enjoying an amazing meal prepared especially for us by a distinguished and notable chef.  My preconceived notions of Tijuana and Baja Mexico were slowly but surely changing through this eye opening culinary trip.  Baja is no longer a place that’s solely famous for fish tacos, spring break partying and sleepy fishing villages.  It’s emerging, much to my delight, as one of the most fascinating locations in the world with a contemporary and sophisticated style of cuisine that cannot be mimicked by others.  Many talented and motivated chefs are flocking to this peninsula to test their skills with the local seafood that is unique to the 2 bodies of water that sandwich this rich land.  Notable wines are being produced in the Valle de Guadalupe that are as good as the wines in Europe.  Organic farming and hydroponic cultivation are creating sensational produce that are rich in nutrients and flavor.  Beautiful Baja California is now a food lover’s paradise.

Restaurant Rincón San Román

Km. 19.5 Tijuana – Rosarito toll road
Blvd. Real del Mar 1074 – 21 Real del Mar Golf Resort
Zip Code 22565

Random trivia:  Did you know that mussels secrete a highly adhesive protein through their hairy ‘beard’ that makes them stick to rocks in turbulent waters, a substance so adhesive that it can even make a mussel stick to Teflon?  Due to the highly sticky nature of this unique mussel glue that remains adhesive even in wet environments, research is being done to see if this substance can be used for ophthalmologic and orthopedic surgeries.