Monday, September 6, 2010

Test Kitchen | Abgaryan - 09/04/2010

9575 W Pico Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90035
(310) 277-0133

It had been five days since I'd last been to Test Kitchen and I was starting to go through withdrawl. Despite being born and raised in the OC, I've developed something of an LA bias when it comes to restaurants leading to have lower expectations than with the earlier dinners. To be fair, the evening's chef, Vartan Abgaryan, is a relative unknown compared to Manzke, Voltaggio, and Fraser who headlined my three previous dinners.

Chef Abgaryan honed his culinary chops as a chef at Red Pearl Kitchen, part of Domaine Restaurants run by Tim and Liza Goodell of Aubergine fame. He has remained with the Goodells now heading A Restaurant in Newport Beach. The restaurant touts itself as offering an affordable market driven menu and a cursory glance at the menu reveals a fairly tired selection so typical of the OC food scene. Earlier in the day one of my friends did say she loved the food at A which eased my concerns somewhat.

Thoroughbred Cocktail - Bourbon, Muddled Mint, Cucumber, Fresh Lime
I love whiskey and cucumber in my drinks so this was a winner from the get go. The combination of mint, cucumber, and lime was appropriately refreshing and tempered the harsh burn of the bourbon but left its characteristic smokiness intact.

Gin-Gin Mule - Gin, Mint, Ginger, Lime, Soda
The second drink was similar but substantially simpler with the switch from bourbon to gin. I detected a light spiciness from the ginger but I would have liked it to show more forcefully.

Pork Belly - Fig Variations, Mascarpone Agnolotti, Maple + Black Pepper Gastrique
The meal started out strong with an absolutely superb pork belly. The belly was a textural wonderland unto itself: crispy skin, molten fat, and tender lean meat saturated with a brazen unctuousness. I was a bit leery about the fig, though I needn't have worried, the flavor was subtle yet darkly sweet and a fitting pair for the belly.

Hamachi - Greek Yogurt, Cucumber, Citrus, Mint, Spiced Granola
I found myself going back and forth on this course. The quality of the fish is apparent in the clean taste and fresh texture but the accompaniments just didn't play well with the fish; particularly the distinctly bitter aftertaste of the granola.

Chicken Liver - Crisp Skin, Candied Kumquat, Fennel, Chamomile
I was worried that the kumquat and fennel might overwhelm the natural flavor of the liver, but those concerns proved to be unfounded. The liver was delightfully smooth and creamy with a potent iron tang well tempered by the accompaniments. The crisp skin was delightfully salty though it didn't really integrate with the rest of the course.

01: Bay Scallop - Chili, Lime, Melon, Iberico Ham, Sea Salt, Herbs
My initial impression of this course was of the citrus-laced melon soup, delightfully bracing and sweet the soup would be a welcome dish on a hot summer day particularly with the subtle finish of chili and herb. However the soup was utterly overwhelming and even though the ham added a salty counterpoint, the scallops themselves were lost. In fact it may have been better to drop the scallops entirely and the dish as a clever play on the classic prosciutto and melon combination.

02: Cauliflower Soup - Vadouvan, Raw Cauliflower, Cauliflower "Popcorn"
I had my reservations about this course, fearing that it might be overly heavy and one dimensional. The dish exceeded my expectations, showing off a nice textural versatility. What made this course work was the French Masala curry cream which provided a nice temperature contrast to the soup and gave this dish a distinctly Indian feel.

03: New Zealand Turbot - Zucchini, Tomato, Young Fennel, Bouillabaisse Broth, Black Garlic Emulsion, Harissa Oil
The fish looked as if it has been sous-vided, delicately flavored with a flaky and succulent texture and semi-translucent color that suggested the perfect temperature. The bouillabaisse was a brilliant addition intensifying the natural flavor of the fish with its own delicate savoriness, the French answer to a dashi broth. I wanted some bread to sop up my remaining broth but with none available I had to settle for drinking every last drop of the delicious liquid.

Fall From Grace - Champagne, Aperol, Lemon
Another enjoyable cocktail, showing a nose of fresh citrus zest and a bitter orange bite courtesy of the Aperol and a light effervescence from the sparkling wine.

That'll Do Fig - Cognac, Muddled Fig, Lemon, Honey, Crème de Cassis, Soda, Cinnamon
The last cocktail of the night was heavier and sweeter than the others courtesy of the honey and fig, perfect when paired with the final savory course of the night.

04: Pork - Pork Short Rib, Pork Cheek, Pig's Ears, BBQ Flavors, Anson Mills Grits, Pickled Slaw, Stone Fruit
This meal proved to be unusually pork-heavy though considering Chef Abgaryan's skill with the meat I didn't mind one bit. The short rib and cheek were both braised but covered with distinct barbecue sauces that played to the unique characteristics of each cut. Both cuts were supremely tender though I preferred the bold fattiness of the short rib. The tart slaw and stone fruit salad were absolutely vital as a counterpoint to the richer flavors of the pork.

05: Chocolate Tart - Valrhona Chocolate, Caramel Panna Cotta, Peanuts, Sea Salt
Apparently Chef Abgaryan wanted to make sure we were full by following up the huge pork dish with a super heavy chocolate and caramel dessert. Sandwiched between a fudgy brownie and salty/sweet caramel panna cotta was a crumbly cookie-like chocolate tart. Heavy, sugary, sweet this is one of those desserts we'd love to eat as children but feel too guilty to order today.

By the time we finished our meal things were just picking up in the kitchen so we couldn't get our customary signed menus. Instead we dropped by the kitchen to snap a couple pictures of Chef Abgaryan working the pass with his sous Alex Reznik.

Happily my concerns before the meal proved unfounded. By and large I enjoyed the meal, the food was a bit on the heavy side, but when the flavors were on point so it's hard to complain too much. Thanks to Kevin for holding the receipt. Anyone else think he's got a future as a hand model in case this blogging thing doesn't work?

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