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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ABC Kitchen- New York

My last blog post left off with the question of where world renowned chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten will open next.  This famous chef and restaurateur is on a roll, opening restaurants all over the world in big cities like London and Paris, and even remote locations like Bora Bora and Doha.  I was pleasantly surprised to find the answer in his current home turf, New York City.  Jean-Georges’ newest venture, called ABC Kitchen, brings him back to the Big Apple where he keeps a close watch over several successful and award winning restaurants, including his 3 Michelin starred namesake Jean-Georges in the Trump International Hotel and Tower.  As if he’s not busy enough, he opened ABC Kitchen in March of this year, just 2 weeks after opening The Mark Restaurant in the Mark Hotel on the Upper East Side. The theme at ABC Kitchen is farm-to-table with an emphasis on sustainability and conscious sourcing.

Jean Georges partnered with Paulette Cole, CEO of ABC Home, to open ABC Kitchen on the 1st floor of the ABC Carpet & Home Building near Union Square.  The beautiful restaurant and café space looks like an extension of the posh furniture and interior store, decorated in Boho chic with white wooden furniture, antique crystal chandeliers, distressed mirrors and salvaged entry doors that are so beautiful that they could easily sell as ‘as-is’ merchandise. Distressed wooden ceiling beams salvaged from a barn, exposed brick walls painted in pure white and artwork by local artists create a warm and inviting countryside atmosphere that transport you far away from the honking taxis and busy streets just outside.

ABC Kitchen salutes sustainability and local resourcing by constructing their menu around fresh organic and local ingredients that cultivate a harmonious relationship with our environment.  Every produce that is proudly displayed on a table by the semi-open kitchen comes from organic farms that don’t use pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, pesticides or insecticides, and can be traced to a specific farm.  Meat, fish and dairy are also locally sourced from farms that promote cruelty-free humane animal treatment.  Herbs and microgreens are grown on a rooftop garden while teas, coffees and spices are organically cultivated on fair trade cooperatives.

The gorgeous interior is something to be proud of too.  Reclaimed wooden tables and porcelain dinnerware were handcrafted by local artists, bread baskets were handcrafted by indigenous Mapuche people of Patagonia, and many of their cups and flatware are antique.  Soy candles that come alive for dinner service are free of pesticides, GMO’s and additives.  The menus are printed on FSC certified 100% post-consumer fiber and coasters are made from cardboard shipping boxes.  Front-of-the-house staff uniforms were bought at local thrift stores.  The concept extends even to places that we cannot see- all cleaning products used in the restaurant are organic.  It’s no wonder that the space feels warm, clean and radiant.  From the moment that I stepped through the front door, I felt the refreshing and pure energy of the room.

It was the perfect place to catch up with my friend Steve Plotnicki of Opinionated About Dining over lunch.  Needless to say, as an out-of-towner choosing a restaurant for a New York based gourmand and blogger, I was a bit nervous.  What venue do I choose for a man who not only has dined at practically every restaurant in Manhattan, but has also appeared on No Reservations and can summon the voices of Jay Rayner and Eric Ripert for a food survey?  It was my luck that ABC Kitchen was one of the few restaurants in New York that Steve had not dined at yet.  We were both excited to try Chef Dan Kluger’s (who has previously worked at Gramercy Tavern and Tabla) market-driven cuisine.

We started with the sweet pea soup, a bright and almost fluorescent green broth with mint ribbons, carrot slices and big crunchy croutons.  Whole round green peas added snappy texture to the wonderful vegetable soup that was full of vibrant flavors.

Raw Maine diver scallops sliced into thin carpaccio slices were garnished with horseradish shavings, sea salt and olive oil in a beautiful pearly scallop shell.  The fresh scallops were incredibly tender and soft, melting in my mouth with the ease of warm butter.  What really made the dish was the olive oil, an intense fruity Californian oil with deep nutty aromas.

Pretzel dusted calamari served with marinara and mustard aioli could’ve been more crisp, as this dish is really all about texture.  Perhaps we would have had more success with their other appetizers, such as wood oven roasted asparagus, caprese salad, roasted carrot & avocado salad, or mackerel sashimi with ginger & mint.

Perfectly cooked steamed halibut with shiitake mushrooms, avocado and asparagus juice was a light dish with simple flavors but wonderfully orchestrated to enhance the innate delicious flavors of each vegetable.  I could really taste and appreciate the bounties of the earth in its purest and uncorrupted form.

The restaurant offered a variety of pastas and whole wheat pizzas, from housemade ricotta ravioli and veal meatballs to spinach & goat cheese pizza.  We tried the pizza with morels, parmesan, oregano and farm egg, a dish that has not quite found its perfect state yet and needs a lot of tweaking.  A better preparation of the various fungi to bring out its flavors better, coupled with more parmesan would have made it much more palatable. 

The best dish at ABC Kitchen was the Akaushi cheeseburger with herbed mayo, pickled jalapeños, wild arugula, herbed mayo and grated Cato Corner cheese.   I had never heard of Akaushi before my lunch at ABC Kitchen, and am now left wondering why this incredibly tender and flavorful meat hasn’t become mainstream yet.  Akaushi means ‘red cow’ in Japanese, and it’s a Japanese Wagyu brand of cattle that has the characteristic marbled meat and rich flavors of other Wagyu brands like Kobe beef.  Akaushi originally came from Kumamoto prefecture in Japan, and the small number of Akaushi cows that were imported to the US many years ago are now being raised at Heartbrand Beef in Harwood, Texas.  The perfect spiciness of the jalapeños, the creamy herb mayo, the sharp grated cheese that doesn’t overwhelm, the bitterness of the wild arugula and the soft Eli’s bun, all perfectly balanced the luscious fattiness and flavors of the medium rare Akaushi burger patty to make one of the best burgers that I have ever had in my life.

Salted Caramel-Peanut Ice Cream Sundae: The perfect balance in a sweet-salty dessert with a whipped creme fraiche topping, chocolate sauce, and caramel popcorn crisp.

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ABC Kitchen

35 east 18th street (between broadway & park avenue)
new york ny 10003
phone 212 475 5829

Random trivia:  Did you know that intact horseradish root has hardly any aroma or sharp flavors, but when cut or grated, the enzyme myrosinase released from the damaged cells degrades sinigrin to a mustard oil, giving it its characteristic pungent taste?

Riva


IMG_3605Fraiche in Culver City is one of my favorite restaurants in Los Angeles, and it even won praise as Los Angeles Magazine’s Best New Restaurant Pick for 2007.  Chef Jason Travi and his wife Miho really established themselves at this wonderful restaurant that still brings in the crowds.  I’ve been a huge fan of Travi’s food from the time when he spearheaded La Terza restaurant on 3rd Street (which is now gone.  Gino Angelini, Travi’s mentor at La Terza, just reopened the space this past weekend as Minestraio Trattoria).  I was really excited to try Riva, Travi’s new digs in Santa Monica.  I went in with an open mind, despite mixed reviews on Yelp and Chowhound.

Riva means ‘shoreline’ in Italian; it features more seafood, and is only a few blocks away from the Pacific Ocean in Santa Monica.  The interior features high ceilings, large mirrors on the walls, an open kitchen, and a large bar-  simple and elegant like most other nice restaurants in LA or NY.

As soon as we were seated , the first thing we all noticed was the deafening noise level.  Hands down, this was the noisiest restaurant that I’ve ever been too.  I felt like we were at a bar or a lounge.  Halfway through the meal, I got so tired of leaning in, shouting, and saying “What?” all the time, that I just zoned out of the table conversation.

The menu has 4 categories: Crudo, Appetizers, Pizza, and Entrees.  Crudo means ‘raw’ in Italian and Spanish, and it generally refers to raw slices of seafood dressed in olive oil, sea salt, and some type of acid (vinegar or citrus juice).  Depending on how it’s arranged or dressed, it’s fancy sashimi, ceviche, tartare, or carpaccio.  This concept of Italian sashimi became popular when Mario Batali succeeded in doing it well at his NY eatery Esca many years ago.  Riva makes them with fluke, geoduck clam, cuttlefish, sea bass, tuna, and other sea creatures.  We ordered the scallops that came in a citrus oil dressing with bread crumbs and red peppers.  It was good, but a bit bland and lacking in acidity.

Scallop crudo

Scallop crudo

I ordered the house made Testa Rossa from the appetizer menu.  Testa is head cheese, which is a cold cut meat dish made from the head of a pig, calf, cow or sheep.  The head of a freshly slaughtered animal is carefully cleaned and prepped, then it’s simmered in a large stockpot for hours until the meat falls right off the skull.  All of these juicy tender bits of meat along with the stock, are refrigerated to set in pans or molds to make a terrine, or rolled into a large sausage.  The collagen from all of the cartilage and bone marrow of the skull gives head cheese that gelatin-like consistency when cooled.  Head cheese is usually eaten chilled or at room temperature so that all of that wonderful collagen doesn’t melt.

Testa Rossa

Testa Rossa

The testa was garnished with radish, mint, lemon and watercress.  As you can see, theirs is a rolled testa (looks like a slice of pancetta), as opposed to a terrine with chopped up bits.  It was heavy in fat content and low on meat, which went well with the tart acidic garnish, but somehow I was left unsatisfied.

We ordered the Nizza pizza with black olive, anchovy, sweet onion, capers and thyme.  Riva makes thin crust pizzas.

Nizza pizza

Nizza pizza

Our server told us that the pizza is made without cheese, but if we wanted it with cheese, it was an additional 2 dollars.  I wish they would either not offer the cheese option if the cheeseless pizza was their original inspiration, offer the cheese option gratis, or indicate the $2 cheese option charge on the menu.   Was I being too picky or is it the noise level getting to me?  Well, we did order the pizza with cheese.  The pizza was well done, and the crust was done the way I like it- crispy on the outside, doughy on the inside.  The flavor of the toppings came together nicely and it made for a nice shared appetizer.

For main entrees, we ordered the monkfish, lamb, and seafood bouillabaisse.

Monkfish saltimbocca

Monkfish saltimbocca

Monkfish saltimbocca on a bed of potato puree, spinach and pancetta, with a sage and marsala sauce.

Lamb Spezzatino

Lamb Spezzatino

Braised lamb in a tomato sauce over a bed of three color cauliflower and creamy semolina with a hint of smoked cheese and parsley gremolata.  I didn’t taste the monkfish dish, but the lamb dish was fantastic.  The lamb cubes were very tender, and each bite had so many layers of flavors- the rich and robust tomato flavored lamb stew, followed by the creaminess of the semolina, with a smokey cheese undertone, finishing off with the tart freshness of the gremolata.  I wanted to order that dish but since somebody else was getting that, I decided to go with something else for variety.  I regretted this decision.

Shellfish Fra Diavolo

Shellfish Fra Diavolo

Fra Diavolo is a tomato based sauce with garlic and hot peppers, frequently used for pastas and seafood.  According to the menu, my dish was supposed to have a half lobster, shrimp, mussels, clams, squid, and fregola sarda.  Fregola sarda is a toasted Sardinian pasta, and it looks like pearl sized cous cous or tapioca, only much denser.  My dish was okay- the tomato sauce lacked richness and flavor, and the lobster meat was spongy.  I was so bored with my seafood dish that I didn’t even realize it was missing the squid until I was almost done with it.  Instead, it had a few chunks of tasteless unidentified white fish.  I informed my server about the missing squid, and she apologized for the kitchen screw-up.  Sigh…

Another turn off with the seafood dish was that the half lobster came with a fully intact large lobster claw, and they gave me a large silver lobster cracker.  I was very surprised that this seemingly upscale restaurant would expect their customers to get their hands and clothes dirty trying to crack a lobster claw doused in tomato sauce.  I was wearing a white silk blouse, and was not about to ruin it with bright red tomato splatter.  Sigh…

There’s an entree item on the menu called Costata di Bue per due, prime rib for 2.  The table close to us ordered it.  They bring a big chunk of prime rib from the kitchen and the maitre d’ slices it on a rolling chopping block in front of you.

Prime rib

Prime rib

I think I was the only one who noticed that the maitre d’s jacket kept brushing up against the meat.  Yuck.

I was hoping that Riva would redeem themselves with dessert, but they loved letting me down that night.  I was so excited to try their Tiramisu, but I was told that they were out.  How can you be out of a dessert option?  That’s crazy.  The others got carrot cake and gelati.

Carrot cake

Carrot cake

Carrot cake with pineapple sorbet.

Gelati & sorbetti

Gelati & sorbetti

Butterscotch gelati and peach sorbetti.

I was so let down by this point that I didn’t even have the motivation to try these desserts.

Despite my excitement about trying this restaurant,  I didn’t have a good dining experience at Riva.  I was thoroughly disappointed with the quality of the food, the poor service, and the low caliber of the staff.  For $90 a person, I think it’s fair to expect a certain level of service and food.

The best thing about my dinner was the wine.  We had a wonderful 2005 Capezzana, Barco Reale di Carmignano.

Riva is supposed to be strong on their crudo dishes and pizza.  My advice for you- go to Japanese sushi restaurants for good raw fish, and Terroni or Pizzeria Mozza for better pizza.  If you’re looking for a good dining experience in Santa Monica, take your loved ones to Anisette.  And if you’re still keen on trying Travi’s food, stick to Fraiche.

http://www.rivarestaurantla.com/

Random trivia: Did you know that Oscar Best Actress winner Halle Berry ate raw fish so she could throw up on cue and look authentic doing it while filming the movie ‘Perfect Stranger’?  Now that’s dedication to your art, girl.