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.