Test Kitchen LA- Walter Manzke

Test Kitchen LA, the newest sensation to hit the restaurant scene in Los Angeles, has been causing quite a stir among the local food community.  In this golden era of the ‘pop-up’ dining phenomenon, Test Kitchen LA comes as an exciting new venture where every night is a pop up night, and every week is a new rotation of chefs taking center stage.  The kitchen line up has been an impressive list of local star chefs, from Jordan Kahn and Ricardo Zarate, to Michael Voltaggio and Neal Fraser, and it’s only by checking the restaurant’s website or Twitter feeds daily, at times hourly, that one can keep up with the constantly evolving roster.  Bill Chait and Brian Saltsburg have successfully created a safe haven where everybody is a part of a big culinary experiment- for chefs, it’s an ideal venue to explore their creativity and try out future restaurant and menu concepts, while for diners it’s a rare opportunity to preview and taste a distinguished chef’s food.  As an added bonus, star mixologists like Julian Cox and Joel Black are always in-house, mixing sensational cocktails to pair with each unique dinner.  After a wonderful experience at Church & State and a sold-out Hatchi dinner at the Breadbar, I was excited for Walter Manzke’s dinner at Test Kitchen LA.

Walter Manzke is one of our resident superstar chefs, having worked all over the world at reputable institutions like El Bulli, Monte Carlo under Alain Ducasse, and Patina in Los Angeles where he earned 3 stars from the LA Times.  Several other successful ventures like Bastide and most recently Church & State really solidifed his authority in the culinary world.  I had high hopes for this dignitary’s dinner, but I have to admit that I was regretfully disappointed.  This is the place to be pushing the creative envelope and testing out new ideas, but he played it safe, even serving a few repeat dishes from his Hatchi dinner like the foie gras butter with honey gelee.  This butter is quite amazing, but I’ve already had it before and the epi bread at the Breadbar was far tastier than the baguette served at this dinner.

Another repeat from the Hatchi dinner was the Santa Barbara spot prawns, butterflied with chopped cherry tomatoes, cucumbers and kalamata olives on top.  Only this time it was dressed with a Mediterranean vinaigrette, a version that didn’t quite drive me to lick the plate clean like the garlic sherry sauce at Hatchi where he celebrated the Spanish style of gambetas in his ‘Around the World’ tasting dinner.

One dish that I really did enjoy was the calamari, alternating pieces of grilled and deep fried squid served on dollops of black squid ink aioli with wisps of wild arugula on top.  The luscious and tasty aioli moved me to put all of my table manners aside and go for the finger sweep.   The foie gras butter, prawns and calamari were part of a tapas menu, along with items like lobster custard, white corn fritters and clear gazpacho, which could be ordered separately from the $52 tasting menu.

The first course to kick off the tasting menu was another familiar dish from the Hatchi dinner, hamachi ceviche.  A spicy and tart yuzu jalapeño marinade was the perfect complement to the tender buttery yellowtail sashimi, and the crunchy green apple cubes and avocado purée added a nice sweetness to temper to heat, although the dish could have used a little more salt.

My favorite dish of  the evening was the Thai curry-carrot soup, a bowl of Maine lobster, coconut tapioca pearls, mango, peanuts, Thai basil and basil seeds that amazed me with its variety of playful textures and flavors.  The hot creamy soup was poured at the table, releasing a powerful enticing aroma of sweet carrots and coconut milk into the air as it filled the bowl.  Manzke balanced the flavors of sweet, spicy and salty to perfection in this amazing soup that I gulped down to the last drop with a smile.

Loup de Mer with crispy grilled skin was served with Sungold cherry tomatoes, pumpkin seeds, crème fraiche and what the menu described as ‘mole verde’, to which my dining companions smiled and shook their heads.  Unfortunately, Manzke’s ‘mole verde’ did not fly with my 5 dining companions, who were Bill Esparza of Street Gourmet LA, Chef Javier Plascencia of the Plascencia restaurant empire in Tijuana, and Chef Javier’s 2 business partners and restaurant architect from Tijuana.  Team Mexico was not crazy about the tomatillo sauce.

Beef tenderloin was good with the chanterelle mushrooms, poached egg and sesame seeds in the katsuobushi bonito broth.  Yuzu-kosho, one of my favorite Japanese condiments made with green yuzu and peppers, was the key element that brought excitement and brightness to the soft flavors of the dish.

The tasting course ended with a strawberry sorbet crème brûlée, more like a strawberry parfait with strawberries, strawberry sorbet, crumbles, cream and a caramelized top layer that was enjoyable, but I expected a little more from this tasting menu that cost more than his Hatchi dinner.

Walter Manzke’s food is always good, and he is an excellent reputable chef, but something was missing that night.  One of my dining companions summed it up very well when I explained the concept of Test Kitchen LA to him, and he inquired as to why, then, didn’t this chef take more risks with his dishes.  I wish Manzke took the opportunity at Test Kitchen LA to be more adventurous and playful with his culinary concepts, rather than recycle old menu items and play it safe.  Even if a dish fails, it’s a Test Kitchen after all, and nobody is there to give a career damaging bad review.  In fact, this is exactly the time and the place to push the envelope, test one’s limits, think outside the box, and execute inventive and daring if but a bit crazy creations.  The staff at Test Kitchen have done an excellent job hand-picking an elite crop of chefs for their dinners.  We already love and adore all of these chefs- if they can reciprocate the love by trusting us and showing us what they’ve really got, it will make for an exciting and memorable evening.

Test Kitchen LA

9575 W Pico Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90035

Phone: (310) 277-0133

Random trivia:  Did you know that tapioca root can be used to manufacture environmentally friendly biodegradable plastic bags?  A polymer resin produced from the plant is a viable plastic substitute that is not only biodegradable (biodegrades in less than 1 year), but is also compostable, renewable, and recyclable.

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Hatchi series at the Breadbar- Walter Manzke

There’s nothing I love more in life than traveling and eating.  I love my hometown of Los Angeles, but on any given day I’d rather be overseas exploring foreign lands and sampling exotic delicacies.  Both through work and for fun, I’ve somehow managed to travel to over 15 countries in the last 2 years- and this doesn’t even include my annual trips to Japan to visit my family.  Traveling the world is exciting, but with unpacked suitcases and travel gear perpetually scattered all over the floors of my house, even this enthusiastic globetrotter can feel weary of planes, trains and automobiles sometimes.  Fortunately, at the most recent Hatchi dinner event at the Breadbar in Century City, I was able to take a virtual trip around the world without packing my carry-on or even leaving my zip code.

The Hatchi dinner event, created by Ironnori concepts in collaboration with the Breadbar, has been introducing a guest chef every month for a special evening of 8 dishes for $8 each (Hatchi means 8 in Japanese).  With past appearances by both up and coming chefs and already established chefs, enthusiastic diners have had the opportunity to enjoy innovative and delicious food for a bargain price while chefs have enjoyed complete freedom to showcase their vision.  I’ve had some spectacular dinners at the Hatchi event with Remi Lauvand, Marcel Vigneron, Ricardo Zarate, Saul Cooperstein and Brian Redzikowski.  For June, in a rare motion of featuring a well established and already famous chef who really doesn’t need such a venue to promote himself, Hatchi featured Walter Manzke, formerly of Bastide and recently the anchor behind Church & State.  Since leaving the restaurant a few months ago, Manzke has been searching for a new place to call home, amidst much talk and anticipation from his LA fans who fell in love with his hearty bistro fare at Church & State.  His Hatchi dinner, called ‘Around the World…in 8 dishes’, featured dishes that represented flavors from 8 different countries, from the Far East to just south of the border.
As we perused the menu, an amuse bouche of shrimp cocktail shooters came to the table.  Lightly grilled shrimp on skewers were sweet and succulent, while clear cocktail sauce in a shot glass went down quite easily, surprising us with its unexpectedly deep and complex flavors.  The lack of color at first tricked my brain into assuming that the liquid was going to taste like something watered down, but how surprising that it tasted just like refined cocktail sauce with a clean tomato water-like flavor.

Warm and toasty Breadbar epi bread was offered for an extra charge with either French Echire butter or foie gras butter, and without hesitation or even a second thought, we ordered the rich and decadent block of what almost tasted like pure foie gras coated with honey gelée and accessorized with gold flakes to up the bling factor.

The first stop on our global Manzke tour was south of the border in Mexico, represented by a yellowtail ceviche dish with tomatillo sorbet, a dollop of avocado cream, microgreens and citrus wedges.  The cold tomatillo sorbet was surprisingly refreshing and light, working in unison with the citrus to complement the fattiness and juiciness of the tender yellowtail sashimi.

Flying across the Pacific Ocean, we arrived in the Land of Smiles, Thailand, for one of my favorite dishes of the evening.  Although I love a good mussel dish, I’m rarely ever impressed with any restaurant rendition- this one was different.  The perfectly cooked mussels were plump and savory in the white corn curry soup which was silky, sweet and bursting with flavor.  Little round tapioca pearls and whole peanuts hiding inside of the white soup added playful textures to each spoonful of coconut milk heaven that I hastily ladled into my mouth down to the last drop.

Manzke’s interpretation of the classic Vietnamese banh mi sandwich came in little slider buns hugging a thick juicy wedge of deep fried breaded pig trotters with fresh crisp vegetables.  The braised trotters were made into a juicy croquette that exploded with fatty flavors into a molten pool of heaven inside my mouth, and I almost wished that there was a bigger presence of pickled vegetables and an addition of jalapeño to cut through the heaviness.  Sriracha and aioli dots on the white plate were so small that they didn’t quite function as a sauce, although the small dip that I managed to get on my banh mi was excellent.

 Jetting across the Asian continent in a non-stop flight to Europe landed us in one of my favorite countries in the world, Spain.  One of the highlights on my trip to Barcelona last year was the scrumptious plate of gambetas at Tapaç 24.  Little did I know that I would get so close to that heavenly plate of sweetness here in Century City in Manzke’s dish of Santa Barbara spot prawns fried in garlic sherry sauce and garnished with a heap of chopped green olives, almonds and tomatoes.  The key to a perfect plate of shrimp is using fresh shrimp, and I could tell that these crustaceans were still alive in the kitchen when they hit the hot pan because of its plump flesh, delicate flavored orange eggs and green innards that I sucked clean off the shell.  Table manners went out the door as I used the entire palmar surface of my flattened index finger to sweep the sauce off the plate into my mouth.

A quick high-speed train ride on the TGV with a transfer in Paris Gare de l’Est landed us in Alsace, close to the French German border, for a savory tarte flambée made with caramelized onions, bacon and gruyere.  The tarte was pre-cut into square pieces so that we could dive right into these wonderful delights made on the perfectly baked thin crispy canvas.

Going down south into the Italian boot using a summer Eurail pass, we enjoyed our molto bene pasta dish of English pea ravioli with parmesan cheese shavings and a soft poached egg that oozed rich yellow yolk all over the dish.  The pea ravioli filling was creamy and sweet, although a bit boring after the modernized banh mi and spot prawn dishes.

Instead of taking the transatlantic route back home, we went through Southeast Asia to the Philippines for some leche flan with molecular sweet coconut pandan.  The dense and sweet caramel flan was topped with crunchy rice crisps, coconut ice cream, heavenly and luscious coconut foam and a shard of sugar glass that we all enjoyed.

What’s a trip through Asia without a stop at Narita airport?  The final destination on our global tasting tour was my home country Japan, Land of the Rising Sun.  There really wasn’t anything Japanese about the chocolate fondant with Bing cherries, black sesame ice cream and arare rice crisps, nor the hot chocolate in a shot glass topped with green tea foam, but we didn’t really care at this point- as with any long journey, we were getting full and saturated, and ready to head home.

Taking a trip ‘Around the World…in 8 dishes’ means that we come right back to where we started.  As we were winding down from dessert, we got a fellow visitor to the table who presented us with a first class ticket back to the Americas.  My good friend Bill Esparza brought over a bottle of Volcán de mi Tierra tequila that whisked us right back to Mexico where we commenced our exciting journey with a fantastic dish of yellowtail ceviche.  I closed my eyes as I felt the heat of the smooth tequila spreading through my esophagus into the core of my body to intoxicate me further into a state of bliss.  When I opened my eyes, I was back home in Los Angeles.  8 countries in 3 hours- was it a dream, or did it really happen?  I smiled as I looked down in front of me and saw the proof:  like stamps in a passport, the colorful food and wine stains on my Walter Manzke Hatchi menu were evidence that I indeed made this culinary journey around the world.

Breadbar at Century City

Century City Mall
10250 Santa Monica Boulevard, Los Angeles, CA 90067
(310) 277-3770

Upcoming Hatchi events:

July 29th- Makoto Okuwa: Power of Miso

August 26th- Chicks with Knives: Love & Kisses & BBQ!

September 30th- Steve samson

Random trivia:  Did you know that falling coconuts kill approximately 150 people every year – 10 times the number of people killed by sharks?