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!

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The Bazaar

The Bazaar in the SLS Hotel is a magical carnival of sensory stimulation, a multi-circus act of vibrant colors, outrageous artistic concepts and powerful flavors that saturate every cell in your body.  It’s an exciting world that takes you away to a wonderland mesh of design and taste.  From the moment I entered the swank Bar Centro until my last sip of herbal tea in the rococo Patisserie, I felt like I was sleepwalking through a multitude of wild and fantastic dreams.  Every section of the Bazaar has a different design concept, but all are theatrical masterpieces of Phillip Starck.

Bar Centro

Bar Centro

Bar Centro, with its flourescent yellow background, is dark and mysterious.  It’s furnished with leather couches lined with expensive suede throws, velvet pillows, tall banquettes that hide whispering lovers from the crowd, and a large communal table with spinning movie projection discs glowing softly in the darkness.

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The bar gets creative with their cocktails, using liquid nitrogen and organic emulsifiers to create an original spin on traditional drinks.  We toasted the commencement of our bizarre Bazaar journey at the Bar Centro with a bottle of Charles Heidsieck Brut Réserve champagne.  A bold fruity richness with a zesty citrus finish.  C’est magnifique!

Moss vitrines

Moss vitrines

To the right of the bar are tall glass vitrines showcasing select objects for sale by Manhattan design shop Moss.  Each case houses a unique array of fun toys and household items, from squished up teddy bears to enamel combs to porcelain birds to decorative silver plates.  Also for sale are enlarged candid paparazzi photos of famous celebrities at their best and worst (Brad Pitt with Zahara in the park to Gwyneth Paltrow dodging the lens with an outstretched hand).  Each item makes you wonder…why, what, when, where, who, and how???

Famed Spanish chef José Andrés, who trained with Ferran Adrià of El Bulli, has 2 sections in his restaurant.  The contemporary Blanca side, where we sat, has pristine white and pink armchairs and glowing lampshades.

Entrance to the Blanca

Entrance to the Blanca

There are large wonderful photos of bodies in motion, playfully displayed throughout the restaurant.

Blanca counter

Blanca counter

The traditional Rojo side, set behind large grey draping curtains, plays on black and red, with bold chalk drawings of animals and vintage photos of Spanish matadors.  This is the side where you can see the busy open kitchen busting out the wild creations on the extensive menu.

Rojo

Rojo

We ordered the chef’s tasting menu along with a beautiful bottle of 2004 Chateauneuf du Pape, Tardieu-Laurent from Rhone, France.  I embarked on this mesmerizing molecular gastronomy tour with 2 professional chefs and a refined foodie friend.  It was the perfect set up for a perfect evening.

For starters, my favorite creation of the evening, the Philly Cheesesteak.

Seared tender slices of Wagyu beef on oval shaped air bread with melted cheddar cheese.  The air bread is a hollow light thin crust of bread that contains dripping melted cheese.  This was one of the most sensational dishes that I have ever tasted in my life.  The delicate lightness of the air bread coupled with the wagyu beef that melted just as fast as the warm cheese penetrated deep into my taste buds, making me purr with delight.

Next we had one of my absolute favorite foods in the whole world.  I have dreamt of this day when I would finally be reunited with Jamon Ibérico de Bellota.  This is the most prized cured Spanish ham in the world, made from free range black Iberico pigs raised on acorns.  Due to import regulations, The Bazaar is one of the few places in the United States where you can eat this.  The woodsy aroma and deep sweet flavor of the glistening marble fat that melts on your tongue is indescribable.

Pa’amb tomaquet, a traditional Catalan tapas of ripe tomato, Manchego cheese and garlic rub on toasted bread, was the perfect complement to the jamon.

Next we had a signature Ferran Adrià dish, the traditional and modern olives.  First we sampled traditional olives stuffed with roasted piquillo pepper and anchovies.  It was nicely briny and salty, and the green olive flesh was meaty and succulent.

The modern olives, made by spherification, were served tableside by our server.  He came over with a glass jar containing perfectly round green blobs floating in olive oil.  He scooped them out with a small ladle and very carefully placed them on white porcelain serving spoons.  It’s pure olive essence packed inside a thin delicate membrane that bursts inside your mouth with only a slight amount of pressure.

Papas Canarias, salty wrinkled potatoes prepared Canary Island style with mojo verde sauce.  I loved the soft velvety texture of the potato skins.  The potatoes were perfectly cooked inside, and the green parsley, cilantro, garlic and olive oil sauce was light and fresh.

Next was a playful presentation of soy marinated salmon roe cones with crème fraîche and dill.  The crepe cones were thin and delicate, and the roe was both sweet and salty.  A delightful bite of bursting roe bubbles and sour creaminess!

The following dish was a very bizarre take on the shrimp cocktail.  Plastic pipettes containing cocktail sauce pierced through the shrimp flesh garnished with chive flowers, dill and sesame seeds.  Our server instructed us to take small bites of the shrimp while squeezing some of the cocktail sauce into our mouth at the same time through the pipette.  I wasn’t a big fan of this dish.  It was too much work for too little taste.

I really enjoyed this next modern Caprese dish.  Liquified mozzarella balls (same concept as the modern olive spheres) with roasted peeled cherry tomatoes in a basil sauce.  We were instructed to eat the mozzarella balls, cherry tomato, basil sauce and crackers all in one bite, and boy was it a superb and delightful bite.  The cherry tomatoes had a slight vinegary acidic tone, going well with the dark earthy genovese, crunchy crackers and soft liquid texture of the intense mozzarella balls.

Tuna ceviche and avocado roll with cornflower chips and micro cilantro.  A classic combination of avocado and tuna that can never go wrong.  It’s rich, creamy, and flavorful.  The cornflower chips added a wonderful crunchy texture to the dish.

Japanese tacos with grilled eel, shiso leaves, cucumber, wasabi and chicharron.  I didn’t care much for this dish, it was very predictable.

Miso linguine with tomato, salmon roe and lemon.  The dashi flavor of the noodles was very strong, maybe a bit too strong for me.  The textures of this dish were delightful though, with the slurpiness of the slippery noodles and the bursting salmon roe. It served as a nice refreshing palate cleanser before the heartier meat dishes.

A signature fun Bazaar dish of cotton candy foie gras.  They have a gigantic stainless steel cotton candy machine next to the Patisserie where they make these.  Our server instructed us to shove this massive piece of fluffy vanilla scented cotton candy containing chilled salted foie gras into our mouth in one bite.  We put our inhibitions aside and did exactly so, and what a sensational play of flavors it was!  The whispy texture of the cotton candy that collapsed down onto the succulent cube of foie gras coated with crunchy sea salt was sensational.  A genius that Andrés is…

I loved the boneless chicken wings with green olive purée.  First of all, how can you go wrong with fried chicken?  They were crispy and flavorful on the outside and juicy on the inside.

One of the best executed dishes of the evening where we could really appreciate the true flavor of the food was the oven roasted cippolini onions with clementines, passion fruit and pumpkin seed oil.  The onions were wonderfully caramelized, and their dense sweetness paired nicely with the tart clementines.

The braised veal cheeks with California oranges was another delightful savory dish with that perfect balance of citrus tartness and rich veal jus.  The braised meat was extremely tender and melted in my mouth.

To finish off the dinner, sautéed cauliflower ‘couscous‘ with quinoa, pomegranate, dried raisins, pine nuts, cauliflower purée, harissa and lemon.  The ‘couscous‘ here is actually made from finely chopped cauliflower florets.  The sweet and smokey Moroccan flavors of this dish went well with the braised veal cheeks.

Wow, we ate a lot of fine dishes.  And we still had room for dessert!  After a quick kitchen tour we went to the charming Patisserie for sweets.  The pink and white dessert counter is lined with beautiful glass jars and containers filled with delightful colorful treats that are visually pleasing.  A true Alice in Wonderland experience.

Candy jars in the Patisserie

Candy jars in the Patisserie

Beautiful pastries

Beautiful pastries

The patisserie offers exciting sweets such as passion fruit marshmallow, white chocolate lollipop with black olive and sea salt, pineapple gum drops, and lemon ginger bonbons.  We had 2 wonderful desserts.  The hot chocolate mousse with pear sorbet and salty hazelnut praline was beautiful.  The contrast of warm and cold, smooth liquid and juicy solid fruit was delightful.

But my big surprise for the evening was the floating nitro coconut island with passion fruit, banana and vanilla.  WOW, amazing.  The external shell of the white coconut sphere that is hard frozen with nitrous instantly collapses into the molten center with the spoon.  The textures of the external shell and the internal goo is wondrous, and the passion fruit seeds explode with tart crunchiness.  This dessert was really fun to eat, and I had a big smile on my face as I approached it from all angles with my spoon.

Our evening at The Bazaar was fantastic, superb, delightful and fun.  The service was impeccable, the wine selection thorough, the Starck interior design genius, and the food amazing.  It was a thrilling and inspiring adventure into a magical culinary world, and a wonderful sampling of traditional versus modern gastronomy.

The Bazaar at the SLS Hotel

465 S La Cienega Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90048

Random trivia:  Did you know that couscous has twice as much fiber as an equal portion of oatmeal?