Saturday, September 18, 2010

Test Kitchen | Cooper - 09/17/2010

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

I'd never gotten around to trying Shelley Cooper's brand of upscale southern comfort food at First and Hope. Her sudden departure came only three months after the restaurant opened amidst mixed reviews and no small amount of controversy. Thus I was pleased to have one last opportunity to try her cooking at Test Kitchen.

Taters n Cheese - Potato Vodka, Lillet, Pinch White Pepper, Lemon, Shaved Parmesan
Truly a savory cocktail, though I would have liked to see the cheese to play a larger role in the drink but it was there more for aroma than anything else; an intriguing idea but not flawed execution.

Sweet Sixteen - Bourbon, Root, Soda
Straightforward and delicious, the bourbon added a nice "adult" feel to the root beer.

Churro on a Burro - Mezcal, Creole Shrub, Lemon, Mexican Cinnamon Brown Butter
This was easily the most distinctive of the evening's cocktails and perhaps one of the most memorable of the entire Test Kitchen series. The Mezcal was more subtle, adding a savory smoky kick to the sweetness of the brown butter, indeed a heavy dessert-like cocktail.

HAM AND BISCUITS with BUTTER AND JAM - Buttermilk Biscuits, Pat o Foie Gras Butter, Tennessee Country Ham, Fig jam
The meal began with a bold statement, a savory sweet mix courtesy of the ham and fig jam but it was the pervasive butter cookie character of the biscuits that stood out the most. I wouldn't have minded more foie but as it was the liver made for a superb compliment, accentuating the natural butteriness of the biscuits.

3 DEVIL EGGS - Porky, Chive, Truffle
Conceptually simple, but this dish succeeded because all three eggs were masterfully prepared, each with its own unique flair but tied together by a common origin. The bacon was unabashedly smoky tempered by crunchy bits of sweet shallot. Truffle and egg is a timeless pairing and this was no exception, particularly given the lively crunch of the truffle salt. Last but definitely not least, the humble chive, elegant, with a note of fresh onion and herb, the most refined of the trio.

"Falling off the bone" is a term bandied about all too often with barbecue ribs but it was absolutely appropriate for this course as we literally sucked the deliciously tender meat off the bone. The sticky thick sauce possessed a citrus pepper bite that tempered the gaminess of the lamb while the mild peanut apple slaw added a welcome moisture to the meat.

FRIED OYSTERS - Bacon and Tomato Inna Jam, Buttermilk Bleu Cheese
Though I prefer oysters on the half shell, the fried variety has its own charms. A crunchy saporous exterior hides the soft slightly salty oyster while the bacon and tomato are wedded in a thick hearty sauce.

SCOTT STREET LUNCHABLE - Grilled Bologna Tea Sandwich, Pimento Cheese & Crackers, Spicy Pickles
Visually this dish looks a bit tired, fitting for an interpretation of the classic childhood prepackaged lunch. However the flavor is wonderful, like a reuben sandwich bedecked with southern flavor. If only real Lunchables were this well made then I might have enjoyed the more as a kid.

Southern Bride - Gin, Grapefruit Juice, Maraschino Liquer
I'd have thought a Southern Bride would be delicate and sweet but this had more of a sour character to it . The juniper and aromatics of the gin are overwhelmed by the astringency of the grapefruit juice.

Hot Sweet Sexy Cobbler - Clear Corn Whiskey, Lemon, Chili Peach Marmalade
Initially I didn't think much of this drink tart and refreshing but overly simple. The clear corn whiskey, lacked the typical flavors of wood and smoke that I associate with whiskey. The key is to get some of the marmalade which adds the hot and sweet elements, giving the drink some assertiveness.

Dealer's Choice - Vodka, Peach Brandy, Peach Bitters, Lemon
One of my companions, so thrilled by the Churro on a Burro asked for something "interesting" for our final libation of the evening. The result wasn't necessarily interesting but I did enjoy the concentrated peach essence sweet and fruity, this would be the perfect companion on a hot summer day.

SOFT SHELL CRAB - Corn Pudding, Licorice Scented Crab and Corn Relish
Recently I've been warming to soft shell crab particularly when paired with corn. The pudding and relish each carried the sweetness of the corn, the former in a more starchy saccarine form and the latter mixed with a dose of light acid. The herbaceousness of the licorice provided an effective counter to the deliciously succulent and saliferous essence of the crab.

FROG LEGS - Creamy Grits and Red Eye Stew of Crawfish Tails
Without a doubt these are the largest frog legs I've ever seen, immediately drawing comparisons to chicken drumsticks from me and my companions. Indeed this was a play on Chef Cooper's vaunted fried chicken from First and Hope. The seasoning on the batter was spot on for a good fried chicken and the frog meat was just as tender and even more succulent, exuding juice with every bite. The sauce was a dark rich stew featuring an earthy temper from the espresso grounds (hence the name Red Eye) and the subtle fragrance of crawfish which compliments the slight fishiness of the frog.

KENTUCKYAKI PORK OSSO BUCCO - Carolina Gold Rice, Southern Style Kim Chee, Benne Seed Cracklins
The final course of the night was an elaborate pork and rice bowl. The Kentuckyaki moniker refers to the blend of teriyaki and bourbon, a delectably smoky sweet compliment to the richness of the osso bucco. The gobs of spectacularly unctuous fat take particularly well to the sauce. The gravity of the pork would be overwhelming if not for the tang of the southern style kim chee.

SWEET POTATO FRIED PIE - Toasted Marshmallow Ice Cream, Bacon-Butterscotch sauce
I wasn't expecting much from this dessert but it was absolutely brilliant. The pastry had a delectably crumbly texture and a captivating flavor served a base for the gooey sweet marshmallow ice cream and the stupendous amalgam of buttermilk and bacon. Forceful sweetness, candied porcine goodness, lovely textural and temperature contrasts, this dish has plenty of complexity, but even without all that it would be a joy to eat.

This was without a doubt the heaviest meal I've had at Test Kitchen and the one time I walked away stuffed. More than once I've wanted a Double Double or Five Guys burger at the end of the meal but not tonight. The food had plenty of creativity and inventiveness, but more importantly the kitchen never lost sight of maintaining the hearty and bold flavors that are a hallmark of southern cooking.

At the end of the night, Chef Cooper gathered her crew for a quick picture.


Rodzilla said...

Amazing photos. That does look to be the heaviest of the Test Kitchen menus thus far, but also one of the most appetizing. I don't think you showed a single dish that I wouldn't be crazy about.

Epicuryan said...

Thanks Rodzilla. The food was surprisingly good yet approachable. Hopefully Cooper will stick around LA and be cooking again soon

Anonymous said...

You go Cooper and team: Jenny, Samantha, Eddie, Jairo! Looks like a job well done - again!