Thursday, September 23, 2010

Test Kitchen | Redzikowski - 09/22/2010

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

I first heard about Brian Redzikowski when he took over the BondSt restaurant at the Thompson Beverly Hills. My first experience was tainted by a visit to the rooftop bar whose clientelle pretty much typified the douchebag stereotype often applied to LA. It didn't help that the restaurant had been universally panned prior to his arrival, including a zero star review. Still I shouldn't have held it against the young chef, whose background includes stints at Le Bernardin, Matsuhisa in Aspen, and Joel Robuchon in Las Vegas. Given his blend of classic French and Japanese training he was probably uniquely positioned to take the restaurant and turn it from staid to stellar.

PASSIONFRUIT - blueberry, prosecco
The meal started with a little welcoming cocktail. Passionfruit is normally such a powerful flavor it was nice to see it effectively harnessed here, balancing well with the lightly effervescent prosecco. Forgive the lack of picture with this course. I accidentally left my camera on overnight and drained the battery. Luckily one of the staff members just happened to have a Nikon dSLR battery with him. Thanks Aaron you are a lifesaver.

TERINNE - "marco pierre white"
Next up was a blend of baby leeks and lobster. The baby leeks were chosen for their high pectin content, a carbohydrate used as a gelling agent, to provide the terrine with structure. Both the lobster and leeks possess a gentle sweetness that compliment one another well but needed something to give the pair a lift. That something was a dollop of caviar whose sharp brine brought the lobster's essence into focus. The dish is named after a famed British chef Marco Pierre White who has been called the "first celebrity chef and was awarded three Michelin Stars at the tender age of 33.

Bloodless Shine - Original Moonshine, cherry tomato, aged balsamic vinegar, bell pepper, sage, basil, Worcestershire sauce, Tabasco, beet infused horseradish and honey
Looking at the contents of this drink it might actually be good for you. Given the ingredients it is no surprise the drink tastes a lot like a salad, slightly sweet, verdant, and very refreshing.

Polish Punch - Luksusowa vodka, lemon, Funkin pear puree, marjoram, St. Germain, champagne
The second cocktail was an interesting mix, tasting of grapefruit and a disconcerting medicinal flavor that I can only describe as chewable vitamins.

POTATO - chorizo, rosemary
The potato is perfectly fried, deliciously salty and with textures going from crispy to starchy. Meanwhile the sauce, a blend of aerated chorizo and potato, added a delightful smoke to the dish. Even the sprig of rosemary which I thought was just for show was an integral component, adding a wonderfully aromatic herbaceousness to counter the weight of the sauce. This was an absolutely stellar course that my companions and I instantly wanted more of.

ARNOLD PALMER - hot and cold
Next up was a little palate cleanser to mark the midpoint of the meal. We were given sub-zero lemonade with a layer of warm tea on top and told to shoot the mixture. The result was a fun temperature twist on a classic Arnold Palmer.

HALIBUT - black truffle, romaine
The presentation of fish with black truffle shavings and a single lettuce leaf reminded me of a similar technique used at Robuchon which stands to reason given Chef Redzikowski's background. The fish itself was one of the best preparations of halibut I've ever had, a nice buttery brown surface covers a succulent glistening perfectly cooked interior. The black truffles provided a earthy musk so critical with such a mild fish while the single leaf of romaine added a brief bitter counterpoint that lightened the weight of the truffles perfectly.

Gold Rush - Bourbon, lemon, honey
Such a simple cocktail yet so effective, the lemon and honey pair so well with one another and temper the smoky heat of the bourbon. I think I found my new cold fighting drink.

Who's got the Herb - Landy VSOP, tarragon, rosemary, mint, lime, cane syrup, and ginger beer
The final cocktail of the night was also heavy with herbs, but it was the ginger beer that won out giving the drink a delightfully spicy feel.

LAMB - chanterelles, onion
The lamb was served two ways, a tenderloin and terrine with classic accompaniments of chanterelles and onion. The terrine was superb, perhaps the best I've ever tasted, utterly tender with a dark stew-like heft that paired beautifully with the mushroom. The loin offered more of the characteristic game of lamb and paired very nicely with the vegetal sweetness from the onion and asparagus

FLOAT - asahi, acacia honey
We've all heard of Root Beer Floats, but a Beer Float? I had my doubts about how the Asahi would pair with ice cream, extremely well it turns out. The sweet honey ice cream masks the initial attack of the beer leaving only a trace of bittersweet wheat on the finish.

"HALF BAKED" - pistachio, kaffir
My initial thought on trying this course was Cookie Dough Ice Cream. In a testament to just how good this was I got so caught up in the child-like simplicity that I forgot to take any more detailed notes.

I have to say I've never left such a wonderful meal so let down. This was one of those rare experiences where each course leaves you wanting more and each dish is stronger than the last. That made it all the more disappointing when they ran out of the Foie Gras and King Crab. Rather than focus on the sublime food we did enjoy we kept wondering just how good the two courses we missed were. As if that weren't enough, another diner kept reminding us how it was her favorite course and so richly imbued with the essence of crab. Thanks Helen for twisting the knife deeper!

Of course the challenges of the Test Kitchen environment have reared their ugly heads before: an unfamiliar kitchen, a new menu, more covers than normal. Tonight happened to be one of the busiest nights ever at Test Kitchen and being the last table it was inevitable that there would be some problems. Those missteps aside, Chef Redzikowski turned out the best meal I had in 13 trips at Test Kitchen, applying avant-garde techniques to craft dishes that were as exciting to behold as they were delicious.

At the end of the night, Chef Redzikowski apologized for running out of food and graciously promised to make it up to us at Bond St. As a testament to how truly brilliant the food was, when I told my companions that the chef offered to redo this meal for us whenever we wanted one of them hopefully turned to me and said "Tomorrow?"

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Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Test Kitchen | Smith - 09/21/2010

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

After sampling Joshua Smith's spectacular North African cuisine, I was eager to revisit Church & State to see how the restaurant had fared under his care. However the powers that be conspired against me and in a move that has me questioning not only the business acumen of Church & State's management but also their sanity, they replaced Chef Smith the day after his stint at Test Kitchen.

Still when God closes a door, he opens a window. Test Kitchen was holding a BBQ night to celebrate the last day of summer and the man at the pass was none other than Josh Smith. Ironically this turn of events probably allowed me to enjoy Chef Smith's food sooner than I otherwise would have. As an aside this is the first repeat chef I've had in 12 trips to Test Kitchen and given his current circumstances, perhaps a third trip is in the cards.

Albacore Tuna Tiradito - Ginger-Lime Jus, Crispy Sweet Potato, Habanero Oil
Peruvian Pilsner - Scrimshaw Pilsner Beer, Fresh Lime, Ginger, Pisco
I don't normally associate Tiradito with BBQ but the bracing acidity certainly fit the bill for a fun summer starter. The sweet potato chips added a nice textural wrinkle to the fish and the habanero oil contributed a controlled burn that lingered on the palate. The beer paired with this dish was equally refreshing with a slight citrus sweetness on the attack and a clean bitter finish.

Wood-Charred Octopus - Southern Salsa, Corn Tostada
Sour by Choice, Southern by the Grace of God - Bulleit Bourbon, Lemon, Sugar, Bitters, Creamed Corn Consomme Foam
The octopus from Chef Smith's first Test Kitchen appearance was one of the strongest courses I've had in 12 trips to the restaurant. This time around the mollusk was just as tender though perhaps a shade less flavorful. This more restrained preparation worked well with the Southern salsa whose acidity and spice were tempered by the earthy flavor of the beans. Rounding out this dish was a corn toastada that boasted a delightful crunchiness that contrasted sharply with the supple meatiness of the octopus. The cocktail lived up to its name with a blast of mouth-puckering acidity totally unfettered by the creamed corn consomme.

Jidori Chicken Wings - Serrano, Nam Pla, Toasted Garlic, Peanut Oil
This Agua is SO Fresca - Famous Grouse Scotch, Watermelon Puree, Mint
What barbecue would be complete without a heaping plate of chicken? The wings were seasoned with herbs and toasted garlic, enjoyable but a bit plain. That's where the Nam Pla comes in, giving a subtle funky salty sweet lift to the chicken, a simple addition but so very effective. The Agua Fresca was the perfect companion for the wings, washing down the greasy lip-smacking chicken with a refreshing draught of ice cold watermelon.

The Burger - Veal Skirt, Beef Hanger, Pork Belly, Chipotle Aioli, Potato Bun
The Amexicillin - El Jimador Blanco Tequila, Lemon, Ginger, Mist of Chipotle Mezcal
Burgers are without the quintessential barbecue food. So much of a burger's distinctiveness is in the blend and Chef Smith chose his very well the skirt and hangar are among the most flavorful cuts of beef while the pork belly gives a light touch of porcine sapor. Complimenting this simple burger are an airy potato bun and a spicy chipotle aioli. As delicious as it was the burger could have used some vegetables to cut the heft. Though I added some of the cole slaw I found it overwhelmed by the rich aioli.

Alternating Sides - Potato Salad, Layer Dip, Cole Slaw
We were brought three sides along with the burger though my companions and I felt they would have complimented the entire meal. First up was a very astringent potato salad; for my part I prefer the more common variety with its softer acidity. Next up was a superb 5 layer dip the avocado in particular was creamy and lush; I wish I had the presence of mind to slather some on my burger. Last up was a unique blue cheese cole slaw. The flavor of the blue comes through forcefully on its own but gets lost when paired with the burger.

Alternating Desserts - Banana Pudding, Grandma’s Butter Cake,Walnut-Chocolate Chip Cookies
No Donnie, These Men are Nihilists - House Vanilla Vodka, Cream, Sugar, Vanilla Wafer Crumble
Dessert consisted of a trio of classic favorites that should be part of any family barbecue. The banana pudding was redolent with the mellow sweetness of its namesake fruit and though I loathe bananas, even I found the pudding enjoyable. The pound cake fairly oozed butter and one of my companions joked that the kitchen must have used a stick of butter... for each slice! Ironically, the cookie which I expected to be my favorite was the weakest of the trio; too hard and overly laden with nuts, I got none of the chewy goodness so essential in a fresh chocolate chip cookie.

Chalk up another superb dinner to Mr. Smith. I've really been impressed with the range and versatility he has shown, a far cry from the classic French Bistro fare of Church & State or Anisette. I suspect he had been chafing at the restrictions placed on him at Church & State and isn't too broken up about the split. At the end of the meal he mentioned he was looking for a position that gave him more control over the menu with an eye towards owning his own restaurant. Hopefully we'll see him again sooner rather than later.

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Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Test Kitchen | Pressman & Silverton - 09/20/2010

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

8-courses of balls by a "big big name chef" there was no way I was missing this. In fact, this was perhaps the busiest night at Test Kitchen to date with plenty of chefs, bloggers, and other food cognoscenti in attendance.

The powers that be at Test Kitchen were playing this one close to their vest, not willing to reveal the name of the evening's chef until the last minute. Turned out it was two big names Amy Pressman & Nancy Silverton who were previewing their new burger restaurant Short Order.

01: Amuse-bouche - Teardrop Pretzel Roll, Mustard Butter, Assorted Pickles
More of a bread course than an amuse, the pretzel rolls possessed a buttery richness and light saltiness that paired beautifully with the piquant sweetness of the Dijon butter.

Strawberries on Fire - Jalapeno Infused Gin, Strawberry, Lime, Cane Syrup
Fresh fruit with spice seems to be a popular combo, this time around the jalapeno was more forward intertwining seamlessly with the strawberry for a fiery sweet drink that all of us adored.

Virginia Bootlegger - Moonshine, Fresh Citrus, Rosemary, Red Bell Pepper
Next up was the Virginia Bootlegger which used a citrus zing with a subtle vegetal twang cut the overarching booziness from the moonshine.

Fall Rangoon - Pimm's no 1, Seasonal Fruit, Lime, Lemon, Mint, Canella Syrup
Completing our initial trio was a cocktail that possessed an herbaceousness that I couldn't put my finger on until my companion aptly referred to it as "root-beer" like.

02: Tofu Silken Tofu - Heirloom Tomato, Arugula, Basil, Soy, Balsamic, Olive Oil, Yuba
Apparently the staff believes in a balanced diet, tossing in a salad course prior to the meatball onslaught. The dish was a play on caprese with tofu in place of the mozzarella, though the texture was sufficiently creamy, I would have appreciated a bit more flavor from the tofu. The star of this dish was the interplay between the forward earthy arugula and the fragrant tomatoes.

03: Tuna Tartar Aioli - Aioli, Haricot Vert, Shell Bean, Roasted Pepper, Botarga
The fish itself wasn't particularly noteworthy though the saffron aioli did give it a nice bite. Instead the flavor was all in the accompanying salad, an astringent and austere style that I've just never cared for.

04: Paired Birds (Duck and Turkey) - Bird Jus, Truffled Stuffing, Poached Duck Egg
After a rocky start, the meal picked up sharply starting with this course. We all wished for a chicken meatball to accompany the duck and turkey, a deconstructed turducken of sorts! As it was, the dish was still a superb interpretation of a Thanksgiving dinner. Both meatballs showcased the distinctive flavors of their origins and the viscous layer of yolk gave the already tender balls an extra layer of moistness. Naturally no Thanksgiving dinner would be complete without stuffing and the truffled preparation here was hands down the most delicious stuffing I've ever eaten and the perfect foil to the birds.

05: Lamb - Salsa Verde, Feta, Eggplant, Fregola, Harissa
Lamb and feta are such a natural pairing, something that was eminently evident with this course. The natural essence of the lamb is heightened by the piquant tang of the cheese while both are tempered by the lively salsa verde. The fregola added a nice textural contrast but I could have done with a bit less on the plate.

Notorious F.I.G - Cognac, Black Mission Fig, Crème de Cassis, Champagne
Cognac and champagne pair so well together in cocktails, their boozy edge was balanced here by juicy fig and blackcurrant giving the cocktail a definite sweetness and a minty herbal undercurrent.

Flight of the Concord - Gin, Concord Grape, Crème de Violet, Peach Bitters
One of the more complex cocktails of the evening, the fragrant aroma of the violet leads into a sweet herbaceous body with strong notes of sweet wine on the finish.

06: Pork - Rapini, Crispy Garlic, Sage Leaves
In terms of the meatball alone, the pork was the best of the entire night, densely textured with a succulent porcine sapor yet not overly heavy. The rapini provided a violently bitter counterpoint that was best used sparingly. I appreciated the use of bitterness to balance the meat but a less aggressive vegetable might have been more effective.

Drunken Girlscout
- Vodka, Ice Cream, Mint, Crème de Cacao, amaretto
It is a point of immense pride that a drink named the Drunken Girlscout was created in his honor, but I wonder what that says about him. Despite the name and its dubious honor, the drink itself is spectacular, notes of sweetness, chocolate, and mint are muted by a strong alcoholic heat which always left me wanting one more sip.

07: Grass-fed Beef Ravioli-o - Summer "Gravy" (Philly for Red Sauce), Ricotta, Basil Butter
If I had to use one word for this I would say uninspired. Aside from the verdant aroma of the basil butter, the flavor profile is that of a textbook lasagna. Not that the course wasn't enjoyable but its simplicity felt out of place in the meal especially for the final savory course.

08: Peach Pie - Peach Brown Sugar Caramel, Buttermilk semifreddo
Chef Pressman is not one that I normally associate with the words "liquid nitrogen" so it was a pleasant surprise to see it incorporated in the buttermilk semifreddo. The texture was incredibly airy almost dissolving on the tongue and leaving only the essence of the buttermilk behind. A clever and effective foil to the sugary sweet peach pie.

This was the type of meal I was expecting when I first heard about Test Kitchen, some hits, some misses but always fun.
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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.

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