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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Cooking at home with lobster

Dining out with friends and sharing a nice meal is one of my favorite pastimes, but inviting friends into my home and cooking for them is what I love most.  Cooking with my good friend Chef Haru Kishi has become somewhat of a ritual, where I take great joy in sharing our mutual love of cooking and good food.  It’s rare to find somebody who has a similar palate and an equal amount of passion for the culinary arts, and I feel extremely lucky to be able to share these kitchen experiences with him.  We’ve created some memorable and fantastic meals together using theme ingredients-  lamb saddle, suckling pig, white truffle and black truffle.  This time we chose lobster, and we prepared a tasty dinner for a special gathering of friends at my house.

Our Maine lobsters arrived alive and kicking in mint condition.  Apparently FedEx has state-of-the-art lobster aquariums, designed to keep lobsters in a spa-like stress-free environment for optimum flavor and efficient delivery.  Although it’s common to dunk live lobsters directly into hot water for boiling, it is said that the shock of hitting the boiling water toughens the muscles, resulting in a less palatable plate of crustacean.  Some also feel that this method is cruel, although research indicates that the lobster has no central nervous system or cerebral cortex to register pain.  To kill a lobster humanely, you can put it in the freezer for an hour, or you can do what we did- plunge a sharp knife at the crosshatch behind the eyes through the spinal cord for a quick kill.  Of course, the most humane way to kill a lobster is to not kill one, but humans are going above and beyond in trying to devise humane methods of lobster execution, such as a machine that electrocutes crustaceans called CrustaStun.  Are we going too far?

After cutting down through the top center of its head, we separated the tail from the head in a steady twisting motion.  Removing the hard exoskeleton on the head revealed its contents: gills which were removed with kitchen scissors, and pale green tomalley (liver) and dark green coral (eggs) that were carefully extracted for our sauces.  The claws were also removed from the body and the tail was cleaned of its central intestine or ‘vein’.

The lobster tails and the claws were boiled separately in lemon salt water, as they have different boiling times.  The flesh was carefully removed whole from each part of the lobster in preparation for the entrées.

All of the shells and legs were thrown into a dutch oven along with star anise, shallots, lemon zest, carrots, bay leaf, garlic, tomato paste, chopped tomatoes, basil stems, black peppercorn, thyme and white wine to make a lobster bisque.  This wonderfully aromatic and enticing stew was slowly reduced on the stove top and eventually strained to make the perfect sauce for the lobster dish.

We were pleasantly surprised to encounter an abundance of fresh mushrooms at the Farmers market that morning.  Large spongy morels, plump firm porcini and earthy seductive chanterelles were irresistible, even though we already had a summer black truffle for our lobster feast.  The three soft mushrooms were pan sautéed with shallots and garlic, deglazed with white wine and finished with heavy cream.

Bright beautiful radishes that came in colorful bunches were transformed into a simple but hearty farmers market vegetable pot along with cherry tomatoes and fresh herbs.

For appetizers we served foie gras 4 ways.  I had too many ideas for what I wanted to do with my Rougié whole duck foie gras torchon that I had previously bought from Epicure Imports, so I decided to play around with it a little.  Some were coated with Thomas Haas‘ Aztec cocoa powder containing ancho chile powder and decorated with gold flakes.  Another variation was simply finished with Halen Môn Welsh sea salt with Tahitian vanilla.  Yet another got a luxurious coat of freshly grated summer black truffle while the fourth and final preparation was topped with Bing cherries that were pitted and pickled with apple cider vinegar, black peppercorn, cloves, star anise, sugar and water.

Each preparation introduced a new and exciting way to enjoy foie gras, but the table favorite seemed to be the cherry pairing.  The second round of the foie gras torchon was prepared with a combination of all 4, topped with a splash of vanilla sea salt, a heap of black truffles, a topping of marinated cherries and a touch of gold flakes.

For the second course, I wanted to recreate one of my favorite dishes from a recent dinner that I had at Pierre Gagnaire’s Twist in Las Vegas- red beet and champagne parfait with beet würtz spuma.  I loved the vibrant blood red color of the beet spuma and the refreshing flavors of the champagne sorbet, but I wanted to give it my own ‘twist’ for a simpler at-home version.  After roasting red beets in the oven, I cut them into bite sized cubes and marinated them with Navel orange juice, pulp and zest in the fridge.  To serve, I filled martini glasses with the beet cubes, poured champagne over it and topped it with bright red beet root foam made with gelatin.  The layers of different textures and sweet flavors was a success, thanks to Gagnaire’s inspiration.

For the final lobster course we quickly sautéed foie gras morsels with a splash of black vinegar, and mixed it with the farmers market vegetables, creamed mushrooms, lobster bisque,  lobster coral and lobster tomalley to make a luxurious and flavorful base upon which to crown the juicy lobster meat. This was one decadent and truly delicious plate, bursting with fresh vegetables and fungi at the peak of their season and complemented by the rich umami of the lobster innards and foie gras.

Lobster can’t get any better than this, but even in this already perfect dish, something was still missing.  A final garnish of shaved black summer truffles did just the trick.

With wonderful champagne and French wine from our sommelier dinner guest, a beautifully set table with Calla lilies and candles, delicious food, lively music and a good bunch of friends, this intimate dinner at home was a successful and fun event.  Dinner chez moi…the best place on earth.

Random trivia:  Did you know that you can hypnotize a lobster by rubbing its carapace (the area between the eyes) vigorously with either your hand or an object?  We used a butter knife to hypnotize our lobster, and made it do a perfectly balanced handstand on its head and claws with its tail straight up in the air.