Monday, August 30, 2010

Test Kitchen | Voltaggio - 08/29/2010

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

Whether Chef Michael Voltaggio would be at Test Kitchen has been the subject of much speculation over the last week. Chef Manzke accidentally let the cat out of the bag ahead of his stint there, though he subsequently retracted his statement. Since then, those in the know at Test Kitchen had been notoriously tight lipped regarding the issue.

Happily the rumors proved to be true, I for one was eager to get my first taste of Voltaggio's food since the end of The Dining Room. Thanks to Mr. Eats of KevinEats for making the restervation. Joining us were Diana of Diana Takes a Bite and Linden of The Gastronomnom.

Basque Sangria - Floc de Gascogne, Flavors of Sangria, Freeze Dried Fruit
The first cocktail of the night was a faithful recreation of a sangria, light and inviting with hints of fruit and spice. The freeze dried fruit was a delicious accent, adding a nice crunch and heighten the fruitiness of the drink.

Petit Befores - Tomato, Mushroom
The meal started with two small bites. First up was a Porcini Canalé drizzled with truffle oil and topped with goat cheese. The truffle oil is readily apparent on the attack but quickly fades leaving a salty sweet cake like flavor accented with the cool tang of the cheese. The second bite was a familiar Tomato Pate de Fruit though I thought the flavors of tomato and basil were more faithfully represented this time around.

01: Mole - Queso Fresco, Chile y Lemon
The first course of the evening was deconstructed mole. The spicy Padron peppers are covered in a mole soil with queso fresco ice cream on the side. Perhaps my own inexperience with mole was showing here, I enjoyed the savory sweetness of the ice cream and the abundant heat of the peppers but I couldn't connect the dots with this course

02: Fish and Chips - Hamachi, Fried Tartar Sauce
Next up was a British classic, fish and chips, only this time the tartare sauce is fried and the fish is served sashimi style. I found the combination of the fish and vinegar a bit astringent, though the tartar sauce balls cleared that right up, adding a lovely fried sapor and creamy consistency to the mix.

03: Caprese - Traditional Look, Smoke, Ocean
Our server described this as a classic Caprese with an oceany flavor and he was spot on. The tomatoes were marinated in a dashi broth and paired with a smoked mozzarella, but it is the topping of bonito and fried calamari that really brings out that oceany essence. The resulting flavor is a delicate balance between the classic freshness and levity of the caprese and a umami-tinged savor from the bonito and squid.

Mr Ice Tea - Scotch, Green Tea, Yuzu Air
I was expecting something sweet here but the drink was surprisingly stiff. The herbaceousness of the green tea and a healthy dose of honey helped moderate the scotch but it still turned out quite boozy.

04: Mc Nuggets - Lamb Sweetbread, Rhubarb Ketchup, Curry
The sweetbreads were easily one of the best things at Sashi and I'm pleased to say Voltaggio has gone and made them even better. As before the flavor and texture are very similar to the dish's namesake, but this time around the creamy consistency and character of the offal were more apparent, not so much as to be intimidating but enough to give a clue to the origins of the filling.

Zorba the Martini - Gin, Ouzo, Olive Powder
I thought this would be more akin to a dirty martini, but a spicy ginger bite kept things a bit lighter.

Brass Monkey - 40oz of Old English, Orange Juice
I hope the fact that this was my favorite cocktail of the night doesn't reflect poorly on my sense of taste. The presentation was classic with a brown paper bag hiding the hooch and the flavors were just like a perfectly balance mimosa.

Porcini Sidecar - 1991 Joy Armagnac, Lemon, Porcini Orange Liqueur
There is actually no mushroom in this, Porcini just happens to be the name of an orange liqueur. The typical sidecar is light and refreshing like an "adult orange juice," this on the other hand was heavier and darker with a savory element in addition to the undertones of lemon and orange.

05: Greek Mezze - Octopus, Falafel, Yogurt
Chef Voltaggio has a way with octopus whose like I've not seen anywhere else. The texture is consistently tender and meaty superb when taken with the soft floral tang of the yogurt and olive oil mixture. As with his other ball, the fried falafel adds a starchy weight, grounding the dish.

06: Melon & Prosciutto - Wagyu Beef Tongue, Arugula, Smoked Mayo
I've always loved the classic pairing of melon and prosciutto and the way the two play off one another, the salty enhancing the sweet and vice versa. The Waygu beef tongue proved to be an excellent substitute for the classic prosciutto, less overtly fatty with a classic hammy sapor which let the melon stand out more.

07: Maryland Crab Feast - Soft Shell, Corn Scramble, Old Bay
Though I've never been much of a fan of soft shell crab, this preparation by Chef Voltaggio never fails to impress. If anything the crab was even better this time, crispy savory perfection tempered by the judicious application of sweet corn scramble.

08: Veal Piccata - Cheek, Chard, Cauliflower, Chanterelles
Quite the departure from your typical veal piccata, this reminded me more of a Provencal beef daube. Probably the most approachable dish of the night; the meat was incredibly tender and exploded on the palate with a smoky-savory unctuousness.

Smoked Gibson - Broker's Gin, Smoked Vermouth, Squid Ink Onion, Russian Tea Smoke
Originally this drink was supposed to involve squid ink spherification but Josh decided to black balls floating in the drink might turn some people off. Instead we got a fairly classic martini with a decidedly smoky kick to it.

Flor De Coco - Lablon Cachaca, Coconut
This drink comes with a strong nose of coconut, but the flavor is marked by a strong tang, quite light and refreshing.

D.F - Riazul Tequila, Verjus, Carpano Antica, Mole Bitters
The last drink was a strange mix of salty and sour that reminded me of Tamarind candy or Chinese preserved plums., interesting but disconcerting.

09: Carrot Cake - Yuzu, Rum Raisin
The first dessert was a new look at an old favorite, carrot cake. I typically find the combination of spiced cake and carrot overly saccharine but Voltaggio manages to keep the sweetness in check with a subtle dose of yuzu.

10: Tiramisu - Soy, Coffee, Mascarpone
Last up, Tiramisu, a tired played out dessert given new life under Chef Voltaggio. Gone are the spongy lady fingers and in its place a brash interplay of bold crunchy coffee nibs and thick creamy marscarpone.

Officially, Voltaggio's night at Test Kitchen was NOT a preview of his upcoming restaurant. Personally I suspect (and hope) a few of the courses might make an appearance. From what information was available, Voltaggio seems to be aiming at a more casual audience and his re-imagined classics certainly fits the bill with familiar names with adventurous twists.
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Sunday, August 29, 2010

The Dining Room - 07/17/2010

1401 South Oak Knoll Avenue
Pasadena, CA 91106
(626) 568-3900

My first meal at The Dining Room was nothing short of epic and ranks as one of my best meals of all time. With that experience behind me how could I settle for anything less at Chef Voltaggio's finalé.

Amuse - Gougere with Caviar Cream, Tomato Pate de Fruit
I make it a rule to order gougeres at every opportunity and this may be the single best gougere I've ever tasted. The classic elements are all there but the burst of caviar cream with its luxurious texture and deep brine elevate this from a simple cheese puff to something truly exceptional. The Tomato Pate de Fruit was equally impressive, highlighting the classic herbaciousness of the fruit in a deliciously sweet sugary body.

01: Soft Shell Crab - Scrambled Corn, Old Bay, Vanilla-Crab Jus
Definitely one of the stronger soft shell crab preparations, the crab lends itself well to the Old Bay seasoning giving it a flavor and texture reminiscent of an onion ring. Meanwhile, the vanilla and scrambled corn offered a moderating sweetness that countered the salty punch of the crustacean.

02: Octopus - Buttered Popcorn, Piquillo Confetti, Cilantro
One of the few courses that remain unchanged from my first visit, the octopus still showed substantial improvement. The buttery flavor of the popcorn was more balanced, letting the piquillo and cilantro play a larger role.

03: Vegetables of the Season - Burrata, Nori Butter, Coffee-Cardamom "Soil"
It was interesting to see how this dish changed with the seasons. Visually it was similar to its Winter predecessor but the vegetables seemed lighter this time and the cheese more prominent. The breakfast radishes were a nice addition, crisp and bitter, they went a long way toward countering the heft of the cheese.

04: Japanese Kampachi - Jamon Iberico, Sea Sponge, Grapefruit, Crispy Rice
Next up was a fresh Kampachi whose clean flavor lends itself well to the salinity of the Iberico and sea sponge. Despite using full-flavored accompaniments, the dish manages to keep the focus on the fish itself, succeeding were so many other crudo fail.

05: Foie Gras Terrine - Strawberry-Yuzu, Arugula Cake, Minus 8 Vinegar
Just by looking at the bright red exterior, I could almost feel the sweetness exuding from the cube of strawberry geleé. Beneath the exterior of sweet fruit lies a rich terrine of foie gras. The classic pairing of foie and fruit is complimented by a bittersweet arugula cake and tiny punctuations of astringency from the vinegar spheres.

06: Foie Gras Frito - Black Sesame, Pickled Blueberries, Basil
Most of the regular diners in my party tend to lean towards cold preparation of foie gras so it was a bit of a surprise when the entire party aside from myself and one other holdout declared the hot preparation the better of the duo. The warm foie has this viscous unctousness that I found slightly overwhelming and in general I found this course much heavier and ponderous than the cold preparation.

07: Pacific Cod - Asparagus, Bonito, Marcona Almond Milk
Cod tends to be one of the more strongly flavored fishes and pairing the fish with smoky bonito flakes only heightens the sensation. Some people found the fish too overwhelming but I appreciated the fishy punch contrasted with the nutty sweetness from the almond milk.

08: Halibut Cheeks - Red Curry, Coconut Rice, Baby Leeks
Typically the cheek meat is the most tender part of a fish and these halibut cheeks were no exception. Halibut has a more muscular chew and milder flavor when compared to the char and cod. The light flavor of the fish lent itself well to the bright flavor of the red curry, which coupled with the sweetness of the coconut rice made for a classically Thai feel to the dish.

09: Arctic Char - Green Pea Tapioca, Black Olive, Porcini Chicharrón
This was easily one of the strongest preparations of Arctic Char I've ever tasted. The fish itself is seductively supple with an oily mouth feel that borders on gelatinous. As good as the fish is, it is the accompaniments that deserve special notice. The tapioca captures the herbaceous sweetness of fresh peas while the crisp porcini crackers offer a earthy savoriness. The two contrasting flavors manage to play harmoniously together and still elevate the essence of the char.

10: Salt Baked Turbot - A Jus of Itself, Summer Vegetables Roasted in Hay
Chef Voltaggio is rightly known for his use of contemporary techniques but with this course he shows his strength with the classics as well. Texturally the fish lies somewhere between the halibut and cod, but it is the subtle brine of the fish so expertly highlighted by its own jus that

11: Pastrami Pigeon - Swiss Cheese, Sauerkraut, Rye
Voltaggio's twist on the classic Reuben was one of the strongest dishes during my previous visit and I am glad to see it hasn't changed. The flavor of the cured squab is remarkably similar to a good pastrami and the modern interpretations of classic Reuben accompaniments convey the flavor and add a complex textural component to the dish. We were also presented with a unique presentation of beef tongue pastrami which was noticeably leaner than the squab.

12: Veal Sweetbreads Tempura - Kale, Buttermilk, Mustard, Potato Puree
I think it's safe to say sweetbreads are beyond the ken of your average American diner, but if anyone ever tried to make sweetbread mainstream they should give Chef Voltaggio a call. Previously at Sashi I tried his Sweetbread McNuggets and found them to be incredibly true to the original and this course continues the theme of making sweetbreads more accessible. The crisp golden batter addes a fried sapor that tempers the offaly flavor and slightly viscous texture of the sweetbread.

13: Jameson Farm Lamb - Fresh Chickpeas, Flavors of Hummus, Yogurt
If there is one thing I worry about when having lamb it is an overabundance of gaminess, but the more potent flavor actually stood the lamb in good stead with this Mediterranean inspired preparation. The yogurt takes the edge off the most disconcerting elements of the game while the fresh chickpeas and hummus add a rustic heft to the smoky character of the meat.

14: Kurobuta Pork Belly - Bok Choi "Kim Chi", Sweet Potato Preserves, Penut Butter Powder
Quite simply this was an absolutely flawless pork belly. The combination peanut butter and pork belly was groan-worthy and the spicy pungent Kim Chi was the perfect foil for the oily layers of fat in the pork.

15: Four Story Hills Farm Suckling Pig - Banana Polenta, Chanterelles, Cipollini, Red Onion
In stark contrast to the previous course, the suckling pig was a dish where the pork stood entirely on its own. While I would have appreciated a crisper skin, it was hard to find fault with this dish: moist, tender, and laden with the rich essence of pork.

16: Waygu Short Rib - Potato Confit, Nantes Carrot, Bone Marrow, Coconut Soubise
Our waiter called this the chef's take on pot roast. The potatoes and carrots did provide a homey feel to anchor the dish though compare this delicately braised Waygu to your typical home cooked variety simply does not do the dish justice.

17: Japanese Kuroge Rib Cap - Fried Béarnaise, Young Turnips, Bordelaise
Even though I was painfully full by this point I couldn't pass up more Waygu beef. This barely cooked rib eye cap was tender and unabashedly fatty. Unsurprisingly, I preferred beef on its own, with maybe a bit of the turnips to temper the richness.

18: Beef Cheeks - Porcini Mushroom Cannelé, Garlic Froth
As with the fish, the cheeks are easily the most tender part of the cow and also one of the most flavorful. Given its natural flavor, the cheeks need little more to make them sing. Still, mushrooms and garlic are classic companions to beef and did the cheeks justice.

Intermezzo - "Peach and Yogurt"
Like the previous visit we were given a small bowl of "Dippin Dots" to mark the transition from savory to sweet. The burst of sweet fresh peach and tangy yogurt were a welcome break after a long meal.

19: Carrot Cake - Carrot Sorbet, Yuzu Curd, Cream Cheese Snow
This looked very much like the signature dessert at Commis If anything though the flavors here were more well developed. I typically find carrot cake a bit blunt but the potent yuzu curd added a levity lacking in more traditional preparations.

20: Baba Au Rhum - Textures of Coconut and Pineapple, Compressed Mango
Next up was a re-imagining of a rum cake, classic fresh fruit and a slight alcoholic burn but with a distinctive mouth feel courtesy of the fruit.

21: Chocolate Caramel Ganache - Chocolate Sorbet, Salty Hazelnut Praline, Cocoa Tuille
The third dessert was a variation on Voltaggio's "Fools Gold," a course that has been on the menu since day one. The dessert is built around the classic pairing of chocolate and hazelnut tinged with a salty sweet caramel.

22: Lavender Flower Macaroon - Crème Fraiche Panna Cotta, Vanilla-Passion Sorbet, Floral Cotton Candy
Easily my favorite dessert of the night, the macaroon possesses a delicate floral sweetness and wonderfully chewy texture. The combination of lavender and passion fruit gives the dessert a light scintillating character, tangy, expressive, and fresh.

If a 22-course dinner wasn't enough we actually ended the meal with a bonus course of Waygu pastrami made by none other than Saul Cooperstein. Even though it hurt to breathe at this point, I couldn't resist the deliciously fatty and wonderfully seasoned slices of beef.

After the meal we spent some time with the restaurant staff as they prepared to leave the restaurant for the last time. The crew seemed to be in good spirits toasting one another, laughing and posing for pictures

As before, we were given a discount on the meal though quite honestly I would have considered the meal a bargain even if they charged us full price. I certainly felt our meal was a fitting capstone for the last night at The Dining Room. As I noted during my previous visit, Voltaggio's skill has improved immeasurably in an incredibly short time to the point that he has outgrown The Dining Room. I wonder had the restaurant actually shut down as scheduled if it would have been able to keep him around longer. Regardless of whatever the management at the Langham did, I suspect Voltaggio's departure was only a matter of time. I am curious to see what the Langham has in mind to fill the void left by the shuttering of The Dining Room. More than that though, I am looking forward to what Voltaggio has in mind. From what I've been able to glean the restaurant will be located on the Westside and cater to a more casual clientele, though there will be an option for those seeking a more upscale experience as well. I hope the upcoming dinner at Test Kitchen gives us some insight into what he has planned.

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