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?

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Bar 210- Los Angeles

Imagine yourself in the middle of the vast landscapes of Burgundy where rows and rows of lush green grape vines in the middle of summer extend far beyond your visual field, interrupted only by quaint farm houses and rolling hills.  You pop open a 1971 Romanée-Conti, swirl it around in your glass, and savor it in your mouth as you bask in the warm sunlight.  You make love to every molecule of this elegant vintage wine with your palate and appreciate life for getting you to this moment.  Now imagine dumping that same bottle of wine into a styrofoam cup and drinking it at a rowdy state fair where screaming kids in overdrive terrorize their parents.  Does it still taste as good?

High quality ingredients, excellent seasoning, exciting flavor combinations and proper preparation define good food, but ambiance and atmosphere can make or break it.  Oceanfront views, romantic candlelight, crackling fireplaces, water fountains, perfectly dressed servers and gorgeous interior decor attract diners who want a relaxing and pleasant dining experience.  Patrons are more likely to revisit a restaurant with mediocre food but beautiful atmosphere and professional service, than one with the opposite combination.  When your sense of sound, sight and smell are pleasantly stimulated, your food will naturally taste that much better.

Chef Marcel Vigneron is no newcomer to the culinary scene- we know and lovingly hate him from his notorious Top Chef days when he shined on screen as the nation’s new villain with knives.  He seemed to have found the perfect home in The Bazaar where his molecular gastronomy skills were given an extra coat of polish.  His solo venture at the Hatchi Breadbar dinner sold out to satisfied diners who swooned over his adventurous and delicious creations.  This classically trained chef’s latest gig comes as a surprise to me, a rowdy and pretentious bar called Bar 210 in the former Trader Vic’s space in the Beverly Hilton Hotel.  The 7,000 square foot space also houses Plush lounge where young party-goers can dance the night away in stilettos and boots.  Hanging gold chains against a background of more gold add extra bling to the dimly lit Bar 210 space where the scantily clad (but beautiful) waitresses in one shoulder minis try their best to hear your order over the loud music.  It’s a sexy establishment, but hardly the right venue for Vigneron’s innovative culinary art.

Marcel, as always, was a gracious host, welcoming us to his new crib and coming out to present each plate to us.  But even this bigger-than-life chef seemed painfully out of place at Bar 210 where the other patrons in flashy garb and here-to-be-seen attitude were more interested in the overpriced cocktails.  The Global Tastings concept that we saw in his Hatchi dinner back in December 2009 where he married international spices with modern interpretations is continued in the small bites menu at the bar.  We settled into our uncomfortable bar stools for our tasting dinner that kicked off with a momochan amuse with mint and saffron yogurt powder.

The Ahi tuna tartare plate was a breathtaking bouquet of vibrant colors and sensational flavors.  Tender chunks of meaty tuna over crunchy biscuits topped with an artistic palette of ponzu gel, pineapple, jicama, nasturtium flowers, avocado cream and wasabi tobiko excited my palate with each successive bite that introduced a new medley of textures and flavors.  As I desperately tried to block out the annoying music from my aching head, I couldn’t help but wonder how much better the tartare would have tasted in a proper restaurant environment.

Compact but meaty Kusshi oysters were served on a salt bed with grains of paradise seasoning and citrus dashi air.  As always,  Chef Marcel’s presentation demonstrated elegant beauty with a touch of playfulness- these pearls of the sea looked like they had been swept up by the ocean breeze and miraculously washed up onto a white sandy beach.

Speared tails of plump succulent shrimp with Thai tom kha flavoring were curled up over a carpet of white coconut milk powder and covered with a blanket of basil seeds, crispy ginger and Thai herbs.  It was a wonderful dish of tantalizing textures and fragrant aromas, but I much preferred the more intricate version of langoustine ravioli with tom kha foam and avocado wrapped mango that he presented at the Hatchi dinner- but the theme at Bar 210 wasn’t elegant cuisine, it was simplified bar food.

Yogurt, caramelized walnuts, celery and microgreens stayed afloat in Wally boats of purple endive while a walnut shipmate shouted ahoy from an apple raft nearby.

Leave it to Vigneron to interpret and twist classic concepts, like the Cobb 2010 which offered a modern presentation on a traditional salad dish.  Cobb salad ingredients were mixed together in bite-sized rolls and topped with small portions of the individual ingredients- bacon bits, avocado cream, tomato caviar, quail egg and blue cheese.  Just picturing the mischievous look on his face as he invented this dish made me smile, and it left me longing to see how far he could stretch the potential of this concept.

A familiar face from The Bazaar came by to say hello- boneless chicken wings brined for 24 hours, then confited, deboned, breaded and fried.  Only this time, instead of a green olive purée, they got a face lift with micro celery and a butt job with blue cheese injection.  Although the cheese was a bit overpowering, the incredibly tender chicken, barely able to contain its savory and rich juices, was electrifying.  Knowing the unbelievable amount of painstaking preparation and thought that went into this chicken, it bothered me even more to see it underappreciated in this bar environment.

Tuscan style potato cubes were deep fried to a perfect crisp exterior and steamy moist interior, going well with the creamy chlorophyll mayo.

In an unexpected potato stand-off, I preferred the velvety wrinkled skin of the Canary island potatoes with chlorophyll mayo, a joyous encore dish from The Bazaar.

Yogurt seems to be his thing right now, as it appeared in numerous dishes including the gravlax on toasted bread with kalamata olive dust, pickled ramps and dill.  The fatty and luscious cut of salmon practically melted in my mouth, but a boost of acidity or salt to counteract the mellow yogurt would have perfected this dish.

Modernized banh mi sandwiches came in the form of pork belly sliders with red onion, shaved carrots, green beans and daikon slivers.  This was the perfect bar food that made you want to reach for a glass of ice cold beer.

There were too many salty components in the short rib sliders with tomato confit, arugula, black olive aioli, brie cheese and caramelized onion purée but the meat was juicy and tender, making for a satisfying bite.

I was ecstatic to see another encore from his fantastic Hatchi dinner which also happened to be my favorite dish from that event, Vadouvan lamb with tzatziki, lavosh, za’atar, mint, cucumbers and preserved lemon.  It’s obvious that sliced meat would never taste as good as meat served on the bone, but given that the original lamb chop made such an impression on me, I was even more saddened to see this less inspiring rendition at Bar 210.

The chef finished our tasting with a dessert plate of liquid brownie sticks, chocolate covered strawberries, blueberry tarts and macaroons.  The cold ice cream brownie sticks with crunchy rice puffs made me feel like a kid again.

Although I appreciated the beauty of each dish and how much preparation went into them, it was difficult to live in the moment and savor each bite with the loud music and atmosphere obstructing my dinner.  It also bothered me that no matter how good the food was, the crowd that this bar attracted would never fully appreciate it, as they were less likely to be interested in his work and more likely to be keen on their waitress’ hourglass figure.  But it’s a bar, after all, and people don’t come here for the food- they come here for the scene and the scenery.  Considering that Chef Vigneron had to simplify his dishes from fine cuisine to finger food in order to cater to this younger bar crowd, he maintained his style and flair as best as he could.  Still, the usual explosion of creativity and vivacity that I’m used to seeing in this chef’s work was regretfully muffled.   Just like a good bottle of wine deserves to fall upon the lips of an appreciative gourmand, Chef Vigneron’s food deserves an environment which is more fitting and worthy.  It’s a good thing that he’s pursuing his passion in his upcoming SyFy network show, as his personality and stage presence is too perfect for TV, but the real next step is to open his own restaurant where we can see, smell and taste the true soul of this outstanding chef.

Bar 210

9876 Wilshire Blvd

Beverly Hills, CA 90210

(310) 887-6060

Random trivia: Did you know that chlorophyll, a green pigment found in plants that aids in photosynthesis, acts as a deodorizer that eliminates bad odor, and is therefore routinely added to chewing gum?


Hatchi series at the Breadbar- Marcel Vigneron

The Hatchi 8 series, an innovative 1-night only event featuring a guest chef who compiles an original menu of 8 dishes for $8 each, continues its successful stint at the Breadbar in Century City.  After a wonderful performance by Chef Remi Lauvand in September (who is now at Cafe Pierre in Manhattan Beach) and a disappointing night by Chef Eda Vesterman in October, I was excited to attend this month’s dinner by Marcel Vigneron, the recognizable cocky villain from Top Chef Season 2.  I’m amazed at the power of the media and the ever growing popularity of reality TV shows, as Vigneron has become so famous that he is even on Wikipedia.  Regardless of his annoying attitude and outspoken nature, he is an accomplished chef who trained at the CIA and worked at ‘Chef of the Century’ Joël Robuchon’s restaurant in Las Vegas. Vigneron, who just left his stint as sous chef at The Bazaar a week or so ago, is a master of molecular gastronomy and a lover of foams.  I was interested to see what he would do for his Hatchi dinner called “Modern Global Tastings’.

The restaurant was completely packed and there was a buzz of chaos in the air.  Service was  backed up and table turnovers just weren’t happening- from my observation while waiting an hour for my table, it was a combination of poor timing and confusion in both the kitchen and the front of the room.  Still, the staff was trying their very best and I appreciated the gracious hospitality that they gave us while we waited.

The amuse bouche was a pomegranate blueberry spherification, a large plump grape-sized blueberry inside a sweet blob of fruity jelly. I loved the bursting textures of this jiggly spoonful, and it was a pleasant welcome after a long wait.

By the time we were finally seated, it was already past 9pm and I was deeply saddened to find out that they had run out of the hamachi sashimi dish that was garnished with kumquats, iceplant, momo chan and a splash of piment d’espelette.  I ran into my dear friend Chef Benjamin Bailly from Petrossian Caviar, who told me that the hamachi dish was excellent.  Grrr…Luckily I was still in a good mood thanks to the medium-bodied velvety smooth bottle of 2004 Primitiu de Bellmunt, Priorat that I brought.  This Catalan wine was quite amazing.

The Dayboat Scallops with cauliflower couscous on a bed of seaweed was delicious.  Colorful dots of cauliflower purée in Easter colors of pink, yellow and purple added a cute touch to the plate.  The perfectly cooked seared scallops were meaty and plump, and the slightly grainy texture of the couscous coupled with the firm crunch of the seaweed added an extra dimension to the dish.

2 of my fellow diners claimed that the Langoustine Ravioli was their favorite dish of the evening. A succulent piece of langoustine nestled inside a wonderfully thick ravioli looked longingly across the sea of thom khai foam to its perfectly coiffed lover, an avocado wrapped mango topped with basil seeds and coconut milk powder.  With the aid of a fork and knife, these 2 star crossed lovers were quickly reunited in a celebration of coconut and lemongrass aroma.  The silky avocado sheets gently glided across my tongue in joyful union with the chunks of juicy mango whose heavenly sweetness petted my taste buds into submission.

The Lyonaise Salad stuck pretty close to its classic flavors and Vigneron didn’t do anything too molecular or crazy in his interpretation.  The thick runny yolk was wonderful with the thin cuts of savory bacon and the zesty vinaigrette, but I noticed that we suffered the consequences of being seated late once again- we got breaded eggs that looked like a Scottish egg, rather than the intended ‘nesting’ egg with twigs of deep fried potato ribbons enveloping the poached egg.  They probably ran out of frisée too, as the salad was heavy on arugula and other baby greens.

Yet another slight tragedy in being seated during the busiest time of the dinner service was the miso honey black cod dish order.  The sweet, tender flavorful cod was served with a sesame oil powder in an aromatic dashi broth and garnished with nasturtium flowers and leaves.  The dish was served as you see it in the photo below.  I’m not easily fooled though- I know that the warm broth was supposed to be poured tableside, but the dish was still delicious so I’m willing to let it go.

My favorite dish of the evening was the Vadouvan Lamb with crispy light lavosh, pickled onions, yogurt powder, a sprinkle of sumac and Vigneron’s interpretation of tzatziki.  Small crunchy cucumber balls with a nicely tart sour yogurt cream went superbly with the great cut of lamb chop.  The perfectly cooked lamb was to die for, and if it weren’t for such a packed venue I would’ve started gnawing on that bone.  Nothing on this dish failed, and everything was delicious.  I couldn’t believe that I was eating this for $8.

Grass fed ‘Corned Beef’ was the title of this next dish.  A large tall piece of sous vide beef short rib stood towering over Saul’s pastrami, dehydrated black trumpets and a potpourri of corn.  The playful corn medley featured baby corn, corn purée and popcorn.  The thinly sliced pastrami slices were beautifully marbled and stunningly flavorful, and I would have been happy just having a whole plateful of it, especially since the short rib was a bit on the tough side.  Both of our red meat dishes were perfectly paired with a bottle of 2006 Rey Grenache from Paso Robles.

The complimentary ‘palate cleanser’ from the kitchen was a classic Bazaar delicacy, liquid nitrogen cooked caramel popcorn, aka ‘Dragon’s Breath’.  As soon as we popped these frozen bites into our mouths and bit down, cold white liquid nitrogen smoke came swirling out of our mouths and nostrils.  A true Kodak moment.

The green chartreuse soufflé came out warm, fluffy and airy.  Although the consistency and the taste was a little too eggy, I loved the subtle anise kick that the chartreuse imparted to the dish.  The vanilla ice cream with orange zest and almond crumble was exquisite.

As if the fruit spherification amuse and the nitro popcorn weren’t enough bonuses to the dinner, we were also surprised by a plate of mignardises.  Cute tiny chocolate macaroons and pillowy marshmallows rounded up this sensational dinner.

Vigneron’s contemporary interpretation of classic global dishes shined at the Hatchi series dinner.  I was really impressed with his innovative creations and compelling combinations of flavors and aromas.  He didn’t go too overboard with his usual display of molecular gastronomy, but just enough to keep us smiling.  Normally the 8 dishes of the Hatchi series are supposed to have 6 savory dishes and 2 sweet dishes, and I’m not sure why Vigneron decided to do 7 savory dishes instead.  He even did 3 extra bonus dishes on top of that, perhaps creating a little too much work for his kitchen staff, resulting in the inconsistent plating and skewed timing of service flow.  Nonetheless it was a great performance and each dish was worth well over $8.  Now that he’s left The Bazaar, I wonder what’s next?

Breadbar

January 28th: Ricardo Zarate- Peru Mucho Gusto

February 25th: Iso Rabins- Forage

Random trivia:  Did you know that the classic paisley design came from India and was inspired by the irregular shape of the mango?