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
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!