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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Cecconi’s

I recently had delicious Sunday brunch at Cecconi’s in West Hollywood, where the old Morton’s space used to be on the corner of Robertson and Melrose.  I had already heard great reviews about Cecconi’s, whose original flagship restaurant was in London.  As soon as I walked into the restaurant on that bright sunny Sunday afternoon, I was in love.  The large outdoor patio with comfortable and inviting benches adorned with plush white shabby chic cushions took my breath away.  Brilliant sunlight spilled generously over the entire patio, illuminating the colorful flowers behind the couches as chirping birds filled the air with summer song.  IMG_9810Large open wooden framed accordion doors separated the patio from the inside dining room and bar.  The center bar, made of white and black marble countertops and tall teal colored leather barstools with brass studs, was lined with perfectly polished wine glasses and colorful bottles of liquer.  Middle aged men in jeans and collared shirts drinking bourbon seemed relaxed and happy as they chatted with the handsome bartenders through hanging hams and sausages.  To the left of the dining room was a gorgeous private room called the Butterfly Room, ornamented with a large chandelier, tall iron candelabra and a large orange heart-shaped wall installation with floating butterflies.  As the servers promptly set my table with crisp white napkins, silver salt and pepper shakers and polished cutlery,  I felt like nobility in this peaceful colonial chic restaurant.

We started off with freshly squeezed blood orange juice which was nicely tart and refreshing.  Each order was an entire full carafe of juice, which I appreciated.  The grilled squid salad with lentils, spicy salami and sundried tomato was marvelous.  It’s actually difficult to find a restaurant here in Los Angeles that not only serves squid but does it well.  The thick cuts were perfectly cooked to an exquisite tenderness, and the saltiness from the salami and sun dried tomatoes was well balanced.

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The baked pancetta frittata came straight out of their wood baked oven behind the bar.  The eggs were cooked just right and the pancetta had great savory smokey flavor.

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I loved their thin crusted wood baked pizza with homemade sausage and roasted red peppers.  The crust had a splendid chewy consistency with a crispy warm outer shell, and the sausage was delicious.

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So far so good…I felt confident that they would make a good tiramisu.  I still have yet to encounter a restaurant that can make a tiramisu better than mine, but this one was pretty close.  The sweetness of the mascarpone was nicely subdued, and the ladyfingers were perfectly soaked.

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Too bad I was only there for brunch that day with one other friend, otherwise I could have ordered much more.  I will definitely be back to try more items like their pastas and grilled meats.  I also have my eye on their cicchettis (Italian tapas), such as the bone marrow with focaccia, grilled octopus, and zucchini blossoms.  What’s amazing about this elegant restaurant is that they are open for almost 24 hours.  I can go for early breakfast at 7am, lunch at noon, afternoon eats at 4pm, dinner at 8pm or afterhours munchies at 1am.  Or maybe I’ll just hang out on one of their comfortable patio couches for a continuous 19 hour Cecconi fest.

http://www.cecconiswesthollywood.com

Random trivia:   Did you know that in the male squid, one smaller arm is modified for the purpose of planting a packet of sperm in the female’s oviduct?  Next time you eat these scrumptous long delicacies, see if you can tell which one that is!

Or not…

Cooking at home with lamb saddle

Dining out at elegant restaurants is always a wonderful experience, but cooking at home for close friends is a more special and memorable treat.  Bringing friends together to enjoy good food and wine in an intimate and relaxed home setting is the best way to spend an evening.   On this particular night, friends from all walks of life and different parts of the world came together for a special meal that my talented chef friend Haru and I prepared.

IMG_5293_3We commenced the evening with our first bottle of champagne, Louis Roederer Brut Vintage 2003, to enjoy with fresh farmers market strawberries dipped in sugar and freshly ground black pepper.  The black pepper actually draws out and intensifies the juicy sweetness of the strawberries, and creates a sensational play of spicy and sweet flavors to complement the bubblies.

For appetizers, we served sea trout prepared 2 ways.  Haru cured a whole filet of sea trout overnight with sea salt, sugar, orange peel and lime peel.  The incredibly moist and tender filet was thinly sliced and garnished with kumquat confit, pea sprouts, chives, chive flowers and caviar.  It was a dazzling plate of vibrant spring colors and complex layers of sweet and salty flavors!

Fresh kumquats for the confit

Fresh kumquats for the confit

Cured sea trout

Cured sea trout

We also had a magnificent dish of sea trout sashimi with ponzu and olive oil, garnished with chives, chive flowers, caviar and lemon basil.  The sea trout belly was beautifully fatty and melted in my mouth like sweet toffee.  The fresh lemon basil added a refined and subtle citrus lift to the dish.  This gorgeous dish was a glowing feast for the eyes and the stomach.

Sea trout sashimi

Sea trout sashimi

As we broke into my favorite bottle of champagne, a Billecart-Salmon Brut Rosé, my friend Giuseppe helped plate the prosciutto with mizuna, organic heirloom tomatoes and burrata.  The heirlooms were delightfully juicy and sweet, the prosciutto slightly smokey, and the burrata creamy.  All of the plates were quickly devoured as we contemplated which bottle to open next.

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The next course was a fresh spring green salad with 15 year aged balsamic vinegar, Jerez sherry vinegar, Nogalera walnut oil, olive oil, sesame oil and shaved pecorino cheese. The Nogalera walnut oil added an amazing nutty aroma to the salad, which was enjoyed with a bottle of Moet Chandon White Star.

IMG_5337For the main course, we served a special trio of meats- roasted Sonoma lamb saddle, pork chops, and beef bone-in tenderloin.  A whole lamb saddle was skillfully deboned and prepared with Moroccan Raz el Hanout and rosemary seasoning.  Raz el Hanout means ‘head of the shop’ in Arabic, and refers to a house blend of roasted and ground spices.  Raz el Hanout typically contains cardamom, cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg, turmeric, coriander, black pepper, and cumin among other numerous spices.

Saddle of lamb
Saddle of lamb

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Rolled filet of lamb saddle

Rolled filet of lamb saddle

A delicious lamb jus was made with the lamb bones, rosemary, leeks, carrots and onions.  Meanwhile, the pork and beef were slowly roasting away in the oven as we opened a beautiful bottle of a rich and dry 1997 Chateau Pichon Longueville that served as the perfect pairing.

Pork chops and beef bone-in tenderloin

Pork chops and beef bone-in tenderloin

Beautiful trio of meats

Beautiful trio of meats

The meats were served with roasted potatoes and a beautiful and colorful pot of farmers market vegetables with lemon basil.  The kitchen came alive with the splashes of vibrant reds, greens, yellows and oranges.  You can really taste the natural sweetness of every vegetable in this pot- carrots, radishes, asparagus, peas, baby squash, and turnips.

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The meats were garnished with parsley oil, spring garlic purée, marsala onion compote and lemon onion compote.  It was an intriguing and fun experience to try different combinations of the meats with the garnishes.  Every bite was a new discovery and explosion of flavors.  By this time we were knee deep in heartfelt conversation, laughter, and 2 excellent dry red wines- 2004 Clos Rougeard Saumur Champigny and 2007 Côtes du Rhône La Lagesse.

IMG_5371With smiles on our faces and our bellies full, we gathered around our musician friends who serenaded us with their intoxicating voices and guitar strumming.  Music, laughter, food, wine and a little bit of dancing…  It’s wonderful to be alive and to be able to share such a  valuable and memorable experience with precious friends.  We all wished that the night would last forever, as we dug into homemade tiramisu and a 2005 Firestone late harvest riesling from Santa Ynez Valley.  I made the tiramisu with imported Italian mascarpone cheese, sweet marsala wine, Illy espresso and Valrhona cocoa powder.

Tiramisu

Tiramisu

Cooking with friends, and for friends.

Life is beautiful!

Random trivia:  Did you know that some older versions of Raz el Hanout included ground beetle, which is said to be an aphrodisiac?

 

Minestraio Trattoria

What a timely follow up to my previous blog entry about Riva- last week I dined at the newly opened Minestraio Trattoria in West Hollywood.  It hadn’t even been open for a week, but the restaurant was packed.  The restaurant was reopened by famed Italian chef Gino Angelini (of Angelini Osteria and La Terza; he is also Jason Travi’s mentor), in the previous La Terza space.  The interior decor and layout has not been changed at all.  This was a tad bit disappointing, as well as the large flat screen TV by the bar airing ESPN.  Seriously, what is it with the sports bar thing?

Especially in these tough economic times, Minestraio Trattoria is a breath of fresh air.  There is no pretentiousness, no attitude, and no ridiculously overpriced meals.  We got friendly smiles, wonderful service, spectacular food, and a great deal.  Minestraio is very reasonably priced, but they absolutely do not compromise on the quality of the food.

For starters, the bread and olive oil was superb.  I knew that I shouldn’t be filling up on bread, but I couldn’t stop.  The olive oil was green, earthy, rich  and nutty.  Just delicious. We had the chopped salad with chicken, avocado and cannellini (white beans).

Chicken and avocado salad

Chicken and avocado salad

This was a very simple salad that was well executed.  All of the ingredients were fresh and flavorful.  The dressing had a nice acidic citrus kick to it that worked well with the buttery avocado and cannellinis.  Other items on the antipasti menu were caprese, eggplant parmigiana, and beef carpaccio.  All are priced between $7-12. They serve 3 types of panini during lunch only- vegetarian, chicken breast, and turkey provolone.  They are priced between $7-9.

Pastas are the main star of the Minestraio menu.  There are 20 different types to choose from, and they are all priced between $8-16.  Most of the pastas are very basic and classic Italian dishes, like pomodoro, arrabiatta, vongole and lasagna.  The food culture has become so snobby and pretentious these days that it’s unusual for a big name chef to open a restaurant that serves basic simple dishes.  I’ve become used to reading long complicated explanations under each menu item, so it was a pleasant surprise to see this menu that was so easy to read and navigate.  Angelini has always been known to be strong in his basic meat ragus, so I opted for the Bolognese, made with homemade tagliatelle, beef ragu and parmigiano.

Bolognese

Bolognese

How beautiful is that?  A simple, basic, pure bolognese.  Nothing excessive, nothing added onto it for extra flare or fanciness, nothing to spoil the pureness of it.  And this, may I remind you, is at a Gino Angelini restaurant.

The first time I had a real bolognese dish was back in college when I was backpacking through Europe.  I was 21 years old, and until then I thought that bolognese was the kind of spaghetti with runny meat sauce that you see on Prego jar labels.  I didn’t know any better.  I had never been to Italy.  But boy, I can still remember so clearly that hot summer day in Firenze that I had my first true bolognese.  It blew my mind away.  It was my first time having homemade tagliatelle pasta.  It was dense and chewy, yet tender and light at the same time.  I couldn’t believe how good this pasta was, and how it went so well with the ragu.  The sauce clinged so well to the wide flat pasta, and it was a perfect combination.  I was also amazed at how the true Italian ragu wasn’t runny or liquidy.  It didn’t overwhelm the pasta, but it existed in harmony with it.  I was so shocked at this bolognese experience, that I was left speechless for the rest of the day.  And here I was at Minestraio, many many years later, reliving that experience of having amazing bolognese.  I almost cried.

We also got the Melanzane, rigatoni with eggplant ragu and dry ricotta.

Melanzane

Melanzane

The rigatoni was cooked to a perfect al dente, and the eggplant ragu was rich, light, and smoky.  Again, another basic dish that was cooked flawlessly.

We also got the Funghi dish, a homemade papperdelle with mixed mushrooms.  They used shiitake and oyster mushrooms.  A very aromatic earthy sauce that complemented the superb homemade pasta.

Funghi pappardelle

Funghi pappardelle

This was another dish where the pasta and the sauce was in perfect balance.  It was just as much about the pasta as it was about the sauce. Some of the other pasta dishes that I want to go back and try are: homemade tortellini filled with pork beef and parmigiano in chicken broth, gobetti pasta with sausage cream ragu, fusilli pasta with lamb ragu and mint, agnolotti filled with veal ossobuco, and taglioni with lemon zest parsley and cream sauce.  Most of the pasta dishes are $10-11.

My friends and I shared the grilled sausage with roasted potatoes as a secondi dish.  Other items on the secondi menu are rotisserie chicken, pork chop alla milanese, and beef tagliata dry aged rib eye.  The rib eye, for $19.50, is the most expensive item on the entire menu.  The grilled fennel sausage was absolutely delicious.  I could’ve easily eaten the whole dish by myself. It wasn’t greasy or heavy at all.

Grilled sausage

Grilled sausage

I loved the glass of 2005 Ruffino Modus Cabernet Sangiovese that I had with my meal.  All of the wines are also reasonably priced here at Minestraio.

Last but not least, dessert.  All three of us wanted something different, but we only wanted to order 2 desserts.  Uh oh, do we need to start a cat fight? I wanted tiramisu, especially since I couldn’t have it at Riva.  Tiramisu is my favorite dessert in the world.  If it’s available, I will always order it no matter how full I am.  I will be forever grateful to the Italians for inventing tiramisu.  Our friendly and wonderful waiter solved our dilemma by offering us complimentary tiramisu tasters.  What?! Free tiramisu at an Angelini restaurant?  Did I die and go to heaven?

Tiramisu

Tiramisu

Even though the tiramisu only lasted 3 bites, it was divine.  The mascarpone zabaglione was light and airy with just the right sweetness and creaminess.  The soaked lady fingers were still fluffy and not overwhelmed by the espresso.

My other favorite dish of the evening was the Torta della Nonna, Italian for ‘grandma’s cake’.  This was a pine nut tart with vanilla bean gelato.  It was superb.

Torta della Nonna

Torta della Nonna

I wonder which lucky Italian bastard’s grandmother first invented this?  I loved everything about this dish.  The custard inside the cake made with vanilla beans was smooth and creamy, the cake crust was dense and buttery, the pine nuts were soft with an aromatic earthy flavor, and the vanilla gelato was delicious.  Oh, Nonna!

Our third dessert was the Panna Cotta alla Vaniglia, vanilla panna cotta with strawberry sauce.

Panna Cotta

Panna Cotta

The panna cotta was good, but it wasn’t great.  It wasn’t creamy enough.  The best panna cotta I’ve ever had is my foodie friend Shirley’s homemade panna cotta that I had a couple of months ago.

Shirley's panna cotta

Shirley's panna cotta

How cute is that?  She brought the panna cotta, chocolate wafers, and homemade chocolate sauce in that cute little basket.

Panna cotta

Panna cotta

This panna cotta was rich, dense, creamy and thick.  It was pure heaven.  Shirley made a chocolate sauce to go with it, but I opted to enjoy this dish in its pure and naked form. Sorry to go on a tangent, but this was the perfect place to showcase her panna cotta.

Minestraio Trattoria is Italian food in its most pure, true and uncorrupted state.  It just doesn’t get any better than this.  My friends and I ate all of this fantastic food plus wine for $38 a person.  Angelini Osteria used to be one of my favorite Italian restaurants, but I didn’t go too frequently because of the cost.  On the other hand, Minestraio is the type of place that I will probably go a few times a month.  It’s casual, reasonably priced, the service is great, and the food is fantastic.  When we left, the entire wait staff and the chef de cuisine came out to thank us and give us a warm farewell.  From beginning to end, my dining experience at Minestraio was wonderful.

http://www.minestraio.com/

(website not up yet, but this is the address that was on their menu)

8384 West 3rd street, Los Angeles, 90048

(323) 782-8384

Random updates:

Pizzeria Mozza is making a take-out counter that is under construction right now.  It is sandwiched between the Pizzeria and the Osteria.  They are planning to open in April.  FYI, after trying all of the pizzas on their menu, my favorite is still the fennel sausage, panna, red onions and scallions pizza.  Nothing beats it.

http://www.mozza-la.com/

Comme ça (see previous blog entry) closed down the Boule patisserie, but they are planning to open a new bakery this summer just down the street from the old Boule location on La Cienega Blvd.  The Comma ça Bakery, spearheaded by Japanese baker Hidefumi Kubota, will still sell some of the macaroons and caramels that were made famous at Boule.  David Myers is planning to open a second outpost of Pizzeria Ortica close to the bakery.  Are we ready for another pizzeria in LA?  Hmmm…I’m not so sure…

http://www.commecarestaurant.com/