Test Kitchen- Dominique Crenn

Test Kitchen was one of the hottest restaurants in Los Angeles in 2010, revolutionizing the culinary scene with its unique restaurant concept.  Every night was a pop-up night where different chefs took center stage for 1 to 3-night engagements to experiment with upcoming restaurant projects and new menus, while renowned mixologists paired the revolving menus with creative cocktails.   This new style of dining captivated flighty Angelenos, especially with its line up of celebrity chefs like Michael Voltaggio and Marcel Vigneron, and local darlings like Walter Manzke and TiGeorges.

Like many enthusiastic diners, I was hooked on Test Kitchen- who will be cooking next, and what exciting dish can I sample?  During its 3 month run I enjoyed 14 unique dinners, representing all facets of the culinary rainbow- from Vietnamese green papaya salad, Peruvian anticuchos, Haitian goat fricassee, Baja Mexico’s chocolate clams and Japanese pickled vegetables to microwaved spongecake with berry spherification.  It was a joy to see all of these talented chefs pour their hearts and souls into beautifully plated dishes, and there was one dinner that topped them all, one of the final dinners by Chef Dominique Crenn.

I was excited to meet this Michelin starred French female chef who has built quite a reputation, as Esquire Magazine’s 2008 Chef of the Year, as Indonesia’s first female executive chef, as the winner of a Michelin star for 2 consecutive years as executive chef of San Francisco’s Luce, and mostly recently, as the sensation that dominated Michael Symon on Iron Chef America in Battle Yogurt.  A stunning beauty with deep brown eyes and a fierce passion for her craft, Crenn is one of those extraordinary people that you only meet once in a blue moon.  She is not only charismatic and friendly, and undeniably talented in what she does, but also dedicated to supporting the delicate balance of our environment by fostering locally sourced seasonal food sources.

In a recent TEDx event, she preached what she practiced when she shared her vision of using food and art to honor nature as our ultimate nurturer, and her dedication to serve as an ambassador for the sustainable food movement.  In her preview dinner for her new restaurant Atelier Crenn, her poetic tribute to our beautiful earth proved to be the most memorable and delicious dinner at Test Kitchen for me.

After an amuse bouche of baby beets, radishes and turnips served raw with a hint of pesto, a duo of Kumamoto oysters arrived on a bed of sea salt, flash poached and topped with uni foam and Meyer lemon ‘cloud’.

The second course was a delicious marriage of eggs and truffle, a perfectly poached egg nestled comfortably in the arms of a decadent truffle emulsion and dressed with micro greens.  Their holy union was celebrated with a sprinkling of pure white truffle snow and a showering of dehydrated wild rice that added a wonderful contrast of textures to the creamy dish.  ‘Eggs and truffle’ was such an amazing dish, that we special ordered another round.  I couldn’t imagine anything being better than this, until the next course came.

Crenn’s food doesn’t try too hard- it doesn’t have to.  With her command of flavors and ingredients, she understands that good food is about preserving the inherent natural flavors of the ingredient, without overwhelming it with condiments or accessories.  Many chefs forget the ‘simple is better’ concept, overutilizing foams, dots, sauces and a variety of other components to impress diners with colors, 3 dimensionality and flair.  For the first time in my life, I felt as though I tasted real venison, lightly flamed, rare, tender and pure, like it was always supposed to taste, and it melted in my mouth.  Pickled pea shoots, cauliflower shoots and baby radishes had just the right amount of oil and vinaigrette coating, the rye sauce was perfectly tart and creamy, and a blanket of buckwheat imparted a sensational texture to the dish.  It was refreshing to have this simple and delicate venison dish without the overwhelming sweetness of berries with which it is usually paired.  I was confident that this was the single most successful and delicious dish in Test Kitchen history, until the next course came.

Veal sweetbreads, creamy and rich, were served with bone marrow discs, hickory smoked then breaded and fried.  Both sat in an oxtail bouillon with garnishes of micro celery, leeks and turnips.  This rustic meat dish surprised us all, as it was even more delicious than the previous dish, and the reason was simple- everything tasted like nature intended it to taste like.  Vegetables had the sweetness and bitterness of dark brown mineral rich soil, and bone marrow was cut to the perfect size with just the exact amount of breading to augment, not weigh down, its flavors.  The key element was the bouillon, a comforting broth with a touch of acidity, an understated presence and an intense flavor.  Crenn’s food was simple, graceful and honest, and I couldn’t imagine the final dessert course being better than this dish of perfection, but I was wrong.

The winter grain porridge, a completely new type of dessert, was the creation of Crenn’s pastry chef Juan Contreras.  Red Peruvian quinoa cooked in chamomile tea, tossed with poached quince braised with Tahitian vanilla, hazelnut milk, nougatine, kumquats, micro chamomile and hibiscus flowers, were arranged at a slant as a soft bed of earthy colors, evoking an image of a sloping hillside garden in spring. A hint of honey ice lay hidden underneath the soft mound of sweetness, each bite introducing a new combination of warm, cold, chewy, crunchy, light, sweet and fluffy.  I felt like I was digging my spoon right into the ground and enjoying the fruits of mother earth’s labor, and I couldn’t feel happier at that moment.

Inventive and modern, yet at the same time familiar and comforting, Dominique Crenn’s preview dinner for Atelier Crenn kept getting better with each course.  It had been a long time since a meal filled me with so much joy.  With food tasting like it was supposed to, and light simple ingredients, my body felt healthy and happy at the end of the meal, unlike others that drive me into a debilitating state of food coma fatigue.  This was one of the best meals that I have had in my life, and it made it even more perfect to know that it was prepared by a woman who takes an active stand in fulfilling her social responsibility as a chef.  At Atelier Crenn, which opened last month in San Francisco, we will no doubt see her grace and elegance breathe life into each plate to create beautiful ‘poetic culinaria’.

Atelier Crenn

3127 Fillmore st
San Francisco, CA 94123
(415) 440-0460

Random trivia:  Did you know that chamomile, the national flower of Russia, was used by ancient Egyptians as an important ingredient of embalming oil for mummification?

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Test Kitchen- Brian Redzikowski

First, we feast with our eyes.  Vibrant colors of garden and sea, 3 dimensional textures of foods both familiar and unfamiliar, linear shapes juxtaposed against round edges, and beautiful arrangements worthy of a gallery piece.  Then we taste, exploring through our gustatory senses whether the flavors presented to us reciprocate our visual expectations.  Sound, smell and touch come somewhere in between, but our appetites become ignited the moment we lay eyes on our food. In Chef Brian Redzikowski’s dinner at Test Kitchen in Los Angeles, this concept was taken to its purest form.  He deliberately withheld the evening’s menu from diners until the very end of the meal, wanting for each course’s experience to start the moment a dish arrived at the table.  Not knowing what to expect, each dish was a real surprise, over and over again, fresh, exciting and new.

As Executive Chef of Bond St at the Thompson Hotel, Chef Redzikowski understands the intricate mastery of food aesthetics, utilizing his training in French and Japanese cuisine to create beautiful pieces of edible art.  The Test Kitchen preview dinner for his upcoming restaurant project Claustro was a culmination of his delicate and refined style of cuisine, executed with the help of his chef sibling Frank.  Redzikowski started the dinner off with a shot of passion fruit blueberry granité and prosecco foam, in a playful arrangement of dry ice and colorful glass marbles- bubbly, fruity and flirtatious.

A ‘Marco Pierre White’ terrine of baby leeks and lobster, pressed for 16 hours and congealed with natural pectins from the vegetable, was served with caviar.  The simple and light dish was an ode to the infamous 3 Michelin starred bad boy chef who first made this dish for one of his mentors.  On this YouTube video, not only can you see the step-by-step process of this wonderful terrine, but also a young fledgling Gordon Ramsay learning how to curse in the kitchen.

My favorite dish of the night was a potato cube pierced through the center with a bouquet of rosemary twigs, nestled in a sea of luscious potato and chorizo foams.  Amazing aromas from the twigs whetted my appetite, and the orange chorizo foam delivered an incredible savor that I still yearn to relive. As the only course that didn’t require utensils, feeling the weighted twigs in our hands as we bit into the potato tapped into our tactile senses, heightening the experience.

A generous wedge of King crab dressed in an aromatic foam arrived at our table in a dainty black ceramic bowl, balanced on a saucer with a crab exoskeleton tangled in fishing net.  The moment it arrived, I felt a powerful splash of cold ocean wave, delivering with it a waft of buttery crustacean scent.  Refreshing flavors of preserved Meyer lemon balanced out the fabulous richness of lobster butter in this delightful dish that was served with small carrot, zucchini and celery balls.

Arnold Palmer served with a bottom layer of ice cold lemonade and a top layer of warm tea was interesting…if not baffling.

Halibut was served with chanterelles, rutabaga balls (a cross between a cabbage and a turnip), generous slices of black truffles and interestingly, crisp Romaine leaves that gave the dish an interesting textural variation.

Foie gras foam and parmesan cheese added too much saltiness to this dish, but the liquid foie gras-filled raviolis were quite magnificent in concept, flavor and texture.  Lettuce leaves were again added to this entrée, a surprisingly clever and fresh new way of incorporating greens.

The plating of the sous vide lamb loin and tongue dish was distinctly Redzikowski, showcasing a playful arrangement of color and geometry.  Little brown buttons of chanterelles, a leaning solitary asparagus spear, squiggles of onion demi glace, the gentle curl of transparent mint paper and a rectangular cut of leathery dehydrated onion crisp with precise right angles- a delicious composition of abstract expressionism.

My hopes were fulfilled when the Asahi float dessert arrived at our table, my favorite dish from Redzikowski’s Breadbar Hatchi dinner last year.  Vanilla ice cream with acacia honey gel, showered with a tableside pour of Asahi Super Dry beer, was again a sensational and unforgettably delicious combination.

The ‘half baked’ dessert was a glass terrarium of sweet delights with caramel panna cotta, liquid nitrogen frozen raw cookie dough, kaffir lime foam, soft brownie sponge, ground pistachios, ice cream and an egg yolk chip- another playful culinary concept with delicious results.

Look forward to Chef Redzikowski’s new restaurant project, Claustro, which will hopefully keep the Asahi float and potato on the menu while introducing new artistic and avant-garde creations.  It will surely be a feast for the eyes, and a delicious banquet for all other senses.

Chef Brian Redzikowski’s website:

www.brianredzikowski.com

Random trivia:  Did you know that the bitterness of watercress, mustard greens, turnip and rutabaga is perceived through the influence of a gene affecting a bitter receptor?  Some people are born with a stronger expression of this gene, making them perceive these vegetables infinitely more stronger than others who don’t.

Test Kitchen- Marcel Vigneron

For those of you who have been tuning in to this season’s Top Chef All-Stars, it’s been an exciting season full of drama and high energy competition.  The star-studded cast from all of the past seasons have been neck and neck through the quickfire challenges and gruesome elimination rounds, proving each step of the way that even a small oversight or a momentary careless falter can cost the big one.  Last week saw the unfortunate fall of my competition favorite and top contender, the notorious Marcel Vigneron, who got a strong kick start on the opening episode and seemed to be gliding through to the top.  But alas, ‘Restaurant Wars’, as usual, was the killer.  As I tearfully watched him pack his knives on TV, I thought back to the amazing dinner that he had a few months ago at the recently closed Test Kitchen in Los Angeles where he demonstrated his unique sense of creativity, artistry and chefsmanship.

I went on the final night of a 3 night stint at the Test Kitchen, completely packed, as expected, with enthusiastic fans who came to see what this now freelance chef was showcasing.  While it seemed that Marcel suppressed his wacky eclectic tendencies to favor a more simple approach to this dinner, there was still an abundance of creativity and originality in many of the beautiful dishes, all autographed with little sprinklings of Marcel’s signature style.  Sautéed shishito peppers dressed with kabayaki sauce and bonito flakes were especially spicy this time of the year, and almost every pepper was a strong hit.

A welcome encore from the chef’s days as sous chef at The Bazaar, the wonderfully salty and velvety papas canarias with chlorophyll mayo was familiar and comforting.

For a chef who is famous for incorporating the discipline of molecular gastronomy in his cuisine, the kombu cured hamachi dish was as molecular as he got in this dinner.  Like a relaxing summer picnic on a blanket, deliciously fatty slices of hamachi laid out on a bright yellow pineapple sheet, cooling off from the heat of serrano chiles with a light foam of dashi and dots of avocado purée.  Crispy kernels of puffed wild rice added a delightful texture to the dish that incorporated hints of Asian flavors through garnishes of seaweed, shiso leaves and ponzu gel.

An off-the-menu hamachi collar with kabayaki sauce and bonito flakes that Marcel kindly sent out to us, was one of my favorite dishes of the evening.  Perfectly cooked, full of flavor, juicy, fatty and simply delicious.

Somewhere between the melting clocks of Salvador Dalí’s ‘The Persistence of Memory‘ and the mythological figures of ‘The Endless Enigma‘ was Marcel’s scallop dish, its combination of tall erect shapes and soft liquescent outlines representing a bizarre dream vaporizing into a haunting memory.  Dayboat scallops sousvided in smoked paprika oil were mounted alongside an artichoke marinated in balsamic vinegar and olive oil, and served with a caramelized cipollini onion, crispy capers, marinated anchovy, crostini, dots of parsley purée and cherry tomato confit on a bed of garlic purée.  The medley of Mediterranean flavors illustrated his ode to the Italian puttanesca, with splashes of kalamata olive dust that screamed Marcel.

A 65 degree poached egg, coated with panko and fried, was perched on a pillow of bean purée to complement the tender slices of sous vide Wagyu beef tongue, which were delicately strewn in a colorful garden of pickled radish, arugula, red beets and yellow beet fluid gel.

One of many highlights of the evening came in a superbly grilled piece of Vadouvan rubbed lamb chop, the cauliflower couscous with golden raisins, almonds and pomegranate seeds another flashback to his days at The Bazaar.  The foam loving chef won’t let a main entrée go without a touch of foam, and indeed a lovely feta cheese foam with just the right amount of saltiness elevated the savoriness of the dish.  In addition to foams and Mediterranean flavors, puffed grains are his thing, and little pearly beads of puffed amaranth were sprinkled for texture, but the real moment came courtesy of a drizzle of sweet honey that really made this dish superb.

A dainty half-slice of green momochan decorated a preserved lemon and vanilla bean panna cotta, served with a ricotta fritter and some agave syrup.

The final delicious surprise of the Test Kitchen experience was a tall cylinder of macadamia sponge cake, soft, airy, spongy and amazing, thanks to the powerful electromagnetic properties of a conventional microwave.  The strawberry foam and carbonated berry spherification didn’t quite do it for me, but the pairing of black pepper and celery leaves in this dessert dish was quite an ingenious revelation.

As always, the surrealist artistry, vibrant color displays and savory flavors of Marcel Vigneron’s cuisine were an absolute joy to experience.  After a long stint at The Bazaar, followed by a shorter one as Executive Chef at Bar 210, he is now on his own to explore his direction in the culinary industry.  Although he was booted off of Top Chef last week, no other chef in the competition can boast what he’s got going for him- his own TV show, called Marcel’s Quantum Kitchen, coming this spring on the SyFy Network.  It’s guaranteed to be fun, entertaining, whimsical and magical, just like the chef himself.

Random trivia:  Did you know that the pineapple is not a single fruit, but a cluster of 100-200 tiny fruitlets?

Test Kitchen LA- Jordan Kahn, Red Medicine Beef Banquet

With the much anticipated and highly awaited opening of Red Medicine just around the corner, I was reminded of Jordan Kahn’s Test Kitchen dinner in the beginning of September.  Pastry chef prodigy Jordan Kahn took center stage at Test Kitchen for the second time to showcase menu concepts for his upcoming project with Noah Ellis, former head mixologist for the Michael Mina group, and Umami Burger founder Adam Fleischman.  The project is called Red Medicine, and they have taken over the former Hokusai space on Wilshire Boulevard to open a contemporary Vietnamese fusion restaurant with a unique modern twist.  Back in August Kahn headlined Test Kitchen’s debut with a fantastic preview dinner where he impressed with crispy brussels sprouts, pork belly tartines and the most sensational coconut bavarois.  This time the theme was Bò 7 món, a Vietnamese banquet of 7 courses of beef using American wagyu.

Bar bites included beer battered sweet potato fritters with crunchy turmeric, wrapped in lettuce leaves and dunked in nuoc cham, a satisfying starter with a great balance of sweet and spicy flavors.

Pho bo with brisket and rare beef in caramelized onion and star anise broth was met with mixed feelings from all diners at the table, especially the Vietnamese diner.  The meat cuts were incredibly tender and savory, like none I have ever had in a bowl of pho, but the hyper-concentrated overly-salty broth dampened the joy of the beef.  Most will agree that the broth is the most important element of any noodle soup dish like pho, ramen and laksa.  Although all of the other components in Kahn’s rendition of pho were perfect, the soup broke the dish.

LANGUE (tongue), daikon, cassava, peanut, salted plum: rolled sous vide tongue topped with crumbled cassava root and ground peanuts with a side of daikon radish ribbons on a bed of salted plum was a good dish with distinct crisp flavors, although the tongue had a distinctly gamey finish that wouldn’t have been able to stand alone without the radish and plum.

ONGLET (hanger) tartare, mustard leaves, chili paste, herbs: my favorite dish of the evening.  Tender beef tartare with the bitterness of mustard leaves and the jolting heat of homemade Sriracha sauce was a winning combination, especially when topped on crunchy and light shrimp chips and toasted baguette. 

ENTRECÔTE (strip), Boule d’Or melon, chlorophyll, fines herbs, fried shallot, lime: perfectly cooked beef, prepared medium rare, paired with many different flavors, some subtle like the sweet and watery Boule d’Or melon and others more pronounced like the fines herbs and homemade Hoisin sauce (made from raisins and yams), complemented by a touch of crunchy texture from fried shallots in a vibrant palette of bright green hues.  

OS À MOELLE (marrow), beef cheek ragout, rice powder, chicories, nuoc cham, onion pickles: a decadent and rich plate of crunchy then buttery deep fried bone marrow on a bed of beef cheek ragout, nicely balanced with the sharp and slightly bitter flavors of radish slices, onion pickles, sautéed chicories, friseé and a hint of nuoc cham.

CALOTTE DE BOEUF (ribeye), lemongrass-brown butter, pickles, herbs, nuoc cham, lettuce, rice cake: a perfectly grilled piece of beef, a delight to wrap in lettuce leaves with pickled carrots and daikon, then dunked in delicious nuoc cham.  Yet by this portion of the meal I am beginning to think the unthinkable- that there is too much beef and I cannot handle another bite.  The beef was beginning to feel like a block of iron weighing my stomach down, and I was craving some bún rice vermicelli to go with the protein. 

POITRINE (brisket), Vietnamese caramel, green peanuts, flowering brassica:  I was happy to know that this was the last course of beef, yet overwhelmed with the large mound of brisket topped with flowering brassica greens.  The brisket in the pho bo was amazing, yet the cut that we got for this course had a lot of fibrous gristle, too tough to cut with a knife.  Although the caramelized flavors infused into each fiber of the brisket was amazing, this was simply too much beef for one night.

CONSOMMÉ, espelette, coriander: we declined the final consommé dish after hearing that it was the same broth used in the pho bo.

LIME SABAYON, cucumber, jasmine, cashew, hyssop: with Jordan Kahn being an award winning pastry chef, naturally the dessert was amazing. The delicate textures and flavors of tart lime sabayon, cucumber foam, sesame streusel and dense cashew financier resuscitated me from my beef overdose, and in my excitement I forgot to take a photo.

Although this meal featured a hefty quantity of beef that even I couldn’t conquer, and some dense heavy flavors, the beautiful plating, the mixture of textures and vibrant color schemes all reflected the creative thought and intention that Kahn puts into his works of art.  He is without a doubt one of the more talented young chefs to grace the Los Angeles culinary scene, and many have been anxiously waiting for his upcoming solo venture at Red Medicine.  Stayed tuned for news on the opening, which is now rumored to be after Thanksgiving.

Red Medicine

8400 Wilshire Blvd.
Beverly Hills, CA 90211

(323) 651-5500

Test Kitchen LA

9575 West Pico Boulevard

Los Angeles, CA 90035

(310) 277-0133

Random trivia:  Did you know that there are many theories for the origin of the word pho, the popular and loved Vietnamese noodle soup?  Some believe it came from feu, the French work for fire, as in pot-au-feu, while others argue for the Chinese word fen for rice noodles, and the Cantonese word hofan for rice vermicelli.