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?

Stefan’s at LA Farm

For those of you who watched Season 5 of Top Chef, not only will you recognize this cocky bigger-than-life character who lost to Josea in the finals, but will probably also have a strong opinion about him.  Stefan Richter, the Finnish born and German raised chef who made a lasting impact on viewers, has joined his Top Chef alumns in opening up shop in the LA restaurant scene. Last summer he took over the LA Farm space and vamped up the interior.

For those of you who have been to LA Farm, I’m sure you’ve wondered at least once or twice, why on earth somebody decided to build a restaurant there in the middle of absolutely nothing on the most deserted section of Olympic Boulevard.  Although that still remains a mystery, once you make it inside, the beautifully redone atrium patio with leather banquettes and firepits on all 4 corners of the room will make you forget all of that.

Most Top Chef fans will agree that despite his abrasive and in-your-face attitude, Stefan was the more talented of the finalists and probably deserved to win.  It’s not just his impressive resume which include stints at the Bellagio in Vegas, Enoteca Drago in Beverly Hills, the Bacara Resort in Santa Barbara, and his own catering service that give him the upper hand, but he clearly demonstrated superior skills and innovative dishes compared to his competitors.  At his new restaurant where he is very hands on in every part of the operation, you’ll not only get a taste for his food, but also a taste for his loud personality.  He really is just like you saw him on TV, and you’ll still either love him or hate him.

His new menu features items that stick to the basics that Angelenos love like steak frites, veal chop and seafood risotto, and he throws in the occasional twist with sliced pig’s head and pork cheeks.  However, what initially lured me to his restaurant was the small plates menu.   All items are $3-6 each, and everything sounded delicious and fun.

Classic deviled egg with Osetra caviar was surprisingly delicious.  I’m not a big fan of deviled eggs since it’s not the type of dish to ever wow anybody, but we ordered it at the urging of our server.  The subdued acidity and whipped creamy texture of the yolk mixture was delightful, enhanced by the clean saline finish of the caviar.

The Cali crudo, a tuna and halibut carpaccio with lime vinaigrette and cilantro microgreens, was also a winner.  The fresh slices of fish were superbly tender, and dressed with an aromatic and fruity olive oil.

The french onion soup with Gruyere crostini was too cute for words.  It’s hard to tell from the photograph, but these white porcelain soup ramekins were about the size of a nectarine.  Despite its petite size, each bowl was packed so full of flavor and content that it didn’t seem like I was having a mini portion.  The concentrated rich broth was overflowing with sweet caramelized onions, and the crostini had just the right amount of gooey Gruyere cheese to make me happy.  A lot of restaurants offer soup cappuccinos and warm soup shots, but this was the first time that I saw french onion soup being offered in a miniaturized portion.  I can’t even count the number of times that I had to forego ordering french onion soup because I didn’t want to fill up on a whole portion and not be able to eat anything else.  I fell in love with Stefan’s mini soupe a l’oignon for this reason- a mini portion with mega flavor.

We ordered one dish from the regular menu and all of a sudden it seemed gigantic in contrast to all of our other small dishes.  The smoked rabbit salad with pears, fried parsnips and house cured artichokes in a thyme vinaigrette was a well rounded dish.  The succulent and tender  rabbit was the best part of the dish, and I loved the crunchy deep fried parsnips bits, but the salad greens were limp and soggy from too much dressing.

Sonoma foie gras with cracked white pepper, smoked salt and griddled brioche was one hell of a sinful bite of pure fatty goodness.  These half-dollar sized treasures were so decadent, that its buttery and rich flavor was almost too much for me to handle.  At $3 a piece, it’s hard not to get a whole dozen of these tasty morsels.

Sweetbread schnitzel with warm potato salad reflected Stefan’s German upbringing.  The sweetbreads were a little on the gamey side, but the tartness and acidity of the chopped cornichons in the potato salad balanced it out perfectly.  The salad was absolutely divine and made in true German style.

Truffle arancini with lemon aioli was my favorite small plate of the evening.  Arancini, which are Sicilian deep fried rice balls, means ‘little oranges’ in Italian for its similarity in color and shape.  The rice filling in these arancini balls tasted just like the exquisite white truffle risotto that I cooked at home recently (in my previous blog entry).  The warm delectable rice balls were deep fried to a perfect crunchy exterior.  I could have easily eaten another 10 of these.

Although there were many tempting choices for dessert, we had to try the  mousse au chocolat with baumkuchen, more so to try the house made baumkuchen.  I love baumkuchen, and I usually buy it at department stores in Japan where it’s a very popular dessert.  This German ‘king of desserts’, whose name means ‘tree cake’ because of the many thin ring layers that it has, is usually baked around a round spit to make a large ring shaped structure.  The one at Stefan’s was a flat horizontally layered cake that was baked in a pastry pan.  I was hoping for a nice thick cut of the traditional ring shaped version, and was disappointed when they served me an ultra thin cut of flat cake that was brittle and dry.    The dark chocolate mousse was a bit too rich for my palate, and we couldn’t finish it off.

I absolutely adored the lollipop trio dessert for its concept, appearance and taste.  The photo below of the lovely trio is  one of my favorite food photos that I’ve ever taken. Each lollipop had a sweet and rich chocolate center that was surrounded by liquid nitrogen frozen ice cream.  The flavors of the evening from left to right were: passion fruit vanilla, eggnog with cranberry sauce, and red wine chocolate.   Although all three were outstanding, my favorite pick was the passion fruit vanilla for its smooth vanilla flavor and passion fruit tartness.  These lollipops were not only delicious and flavorful, but also exhilarating and fun to suck on.  Just looking at these cute stick desserts made me smile, and I regressed to childhood as we all giggled and laughed.

After our wonderful dinner we took a tour of the bustling open kitchen.  The comforting aroma of freshly baked breads from the pastry station in the back corner and the sizzling sounds of meat on the grill filled the air as we took in the intense energy emanating from the kitchen.

We followed our noses to the pastry station and congregrated around the chef who was in the middle of preparing 2 desserts.  The German cheesecake with fresh berries looked fascinating.

We also discovered the culprit of what gave off the tantalizing aroma that originally lured us to the pastry station.  Buchteln with maple pecan ice cream and crème anglaise was being assembled for an order in the firepit lounge.  Buchteln are sweet Austrian dumplings made of yeast dough and baked in a pan in tight clusters.  Each batch is freshly baked to order and dusted with powdered sugar during plating.

Our persistence in hanging around the pastry station paid off, for we got to sample the freshly baked buchteln (or maybe he gave it to us to make us drooling dimwits go away).  These warm pillowy delights, with a slight dusting of powdered sugar, were quite amazing on their own- I couldn’t even imagine how good the whole compiled dessert would be.

Once we returned to our seats, Stefan joined us for a couple of drinks and a lipsynching marathon to the rocking 80’s mix that was playing in the restaurant.   His signature song, Journey’s ‘Don’t Stop Believin’, came on at the height of our trip back to memory lane.  You can hear this song when you log on to the restaurant website.  Stefan chuckled as he told us that Steve Perry contacted him to ask why this song was on the website, and that Perry was coming to LA Farm for dinner the following week.

I went for a second visit last night and had a few other items off the small plates menu.  Since this was an impromptu late night visit to Stefan’s, I didn’t bring my camera.  I hope my words will be enough to convince you to try these wonderful tapas items at Stefan’s.  The beef tartare with poached quail egg was superb, although the accompanying breadsticks were a bit on the chewy side.  Tiny burger sliders called ‘Like a Big Mac’ with caramelized onions, cheese and lettuce ribbons, were tender and juicy.  They didn’t taste like Big Macs at all, but they were still just as satisfying even at these super mini sized portions.  Kumamoto oysters with green absinthe jello and a tart fennel vinaigrette were amazingly refreshing.  Parmesan truffle mousse with warm porcini crisps were oozing with wonderful truffle essence.  There was an extra drizzle of white truffle oil on the mousse that sent my truffle loving dining companion to truffle ecstasy.  The white mousse was so rich that it almost tasted like truffle butter.  A small portion of this was definitely enough though, as the intense salt content of it made me gulp down a gallon of water before bedtime.  Roasted California pistachios came in 4 flavors of tomato, guacamole, chile and garlic.  Apparently this is one of Stefan’s favorite items, as he finished off our entire bowl when he came over to hang out with us.

Stefan told us that he had just bought 2 other restaurants, one on Montana and one in Culver City.  At that time he couldn’t tell us where, as it was still an industry secret, but a recent press release revealed that he took over the old Cynthia’s on the Corner space on Montana and 15th.  Opening is planned for next week as Stefan’s on Montana.  As for the Culver City location?  We’ll soon find out.  Although I have yet to try his formal dinner menu at LA Farm, I really enjoyed the small plates concept.  Everything that we had was spectacular, and it was really fun to be able to sample an array of small delectable delights for an even smaller price.

Stefan’s at LA Farm

3000 Olympic Boulevard
Santa Monica, CA 90404-5073
(310) 449-4000

Random trivia:  Did you know that a man named George Smith invented the lollipop in 1908 to make it easier and less messier to eat hard candy?  He named this ‘hard candy on a stick’ after his favorite race horse named Lolly Pop.