Thursday, September 22, 2011

ink - 09/21/2011

8360 Melrose Ave.
Los Angeles, ca 90069
(323) 651-5866

It is no exaggeration to say I've never been more excited for a restaurant opening than I am for tonight's opening of ink by Michael Voltaggio. Considering the first month's reservations were completely booked within an hour, I'm not the only one who feels this way. When he left The Langham in August 2010, Voltaggio optimistically expected to open his new restaurant before the year ended. A myriad of delays, including a lawsuit, delayed the opening for months, but today the waiting comes to an end. Built on the bones of the former Hamasaku, ink features a 60 seat dining room, a 10-seat bar for walk-ins and a private dining room that may be the future home of Voltaggio's omakase menu.

I first encountered the Top Chef Season 6 winner at The Bazaar, where he was Chef de Cuisine in charge of executing Jose Andres' contemporary tapas menu. Prior to coming to Los Angeles, Voltaggio rose through the ranks at The Greenbrier in West Virginia and headed Charlie Palmer's Dry Creek Kitchen in Healdsburg. As much as I enjoyed my later meals at The Bazaar and Saam, Voltaggio truly came into his at The Langham; breathing new life into the venerable but staid Dining Room. During the eleven months Voltaggio spent in Pasadena he blew my mind with two legendary meals at The Dining Room, firmly establishing himself as the most exciting chef in LA.

tequila - serrano, lime, grapefruit, soda
Tequila was made to pair with citrus and spice, and this drink had the form but lacked the polish. I could taste all the flavors, but the drink felt diluted, I kept hoping for a bit more sharpness and focus.

gin - dolin dry vermouth, green chartreuse, orange zest
This was Devon's take on a classic gin martini. Exceedingly smooth, this drink went down like liquid velvet, the citrus aromas of the orange zest complimenting the herbaceousness of the vermouth and chartreuse.

mezcal - lemon, ginger, clover honey, angostura bitters
This was my favorite of the opening trio, exceedingly woody and petrol-y on the nose, the flavors continue on the palate but with an herbal spice thanks to the ginger and clover honey. I especially appreciated the forcefulness of this drink after the tequila

blue prawns - green papaya, finger lime, shrimp cracker
The meal opened on a high note. The citrus on the green papaya is simply electric, a screaming acidic counterpoint to the sedate creamy sweetness of the coconut and I haven't even gotten to the prawn yet. The shrimp provides a steady dose of salinity to the dish that helps ground the more expressive elements on the plate.

hamachi - green apple, aged soy, ginger ice
Though hamachi is a fairly mild fish, the apple actually accentuated the fish's oiliness while the soy and ginger ice gave the dish a comfortingly familiar feel reminiscent of a piece of nigiri.

bay scallops - cream of dehydrated potato, potato skins, buttermilk-shellfish broth
My big concern with such small scallops is cook time, it is all to easy to leave these dry and overcooked and while these were fairly moist, still a touch firmer than I'd like. Still I appreciated the seamless interplay between the meaty scallops and the creamy heft of the potato.

dungeness crab - toast, tarragon mayo, celery, house made hot sauce
This was one of the stronger courses of the night, with the perfect oily richness to compliment the sweetness of the crab. The house made hot sauce reminded me of a tempered Siracha, and complimented the crab beautifully while the celery help balance some of the fried sapor.

gin - house tonic/lavender tonic
I didn't realize there were two choices of tonic, or I would have gone for the lavender. Like the tequila, I found the gin and house tonic to be a bit diluted for my tastes. The flavors were there, they just needed to be stronger.

bourbon - pineapple, anise
Definitely on the sweet side for a bourbon drink, I got a potent tropical sweetness tinged with a spicy bitter edge with the barest hint of the bourbon.

rum - lime, house falernum
Our waiter said this was his favorite drink and he was spot on. An overarching tropical sweetness precedes a cleansing citrus bite and the weight of the rum.

young turnips and radishes - coffee-cardamom soil, vadouvan, frozen yogurt, socca
This might be the best turnip dish I've ever had. The bitter vegetal succulence of the turnips contrasts perfectly with the tart frozen yogurt. The fried chickpea cake adds sufficient savoriness while the soil provides a delightfully earthy emphasis to the dish.

corned beef - appenzeller churro, red onion, pastrami syrup
This might be my favorite dish of the night. The churro could be a dish in its own right, crunchy and savory with just a hint of cheesy sharpness to compliment the peppery bite of the meat. The resounding tang of the pickled red onions cuts right through the cheese and meat leaving a lingering piquant sweetness on the palate.

brass monkey - olde english, oj
Though it didn't come in the 40oz bottle, this was a combination of malt liquor and orange juice, think of this as a ghetto screwdriver.

octopus - buttered popcorn, piquillo pepper, spinach
This was one of the few courses that made it through almost unscathed from The Dining Room. As much as I liked it back then, the dish felt more refined this time around. The octopus was more complex and nuanced texturally while I thought the piquillo stood out a bit more against the buttery heft of the popcorn.

sea bass - egg yolk, caper, romanesco, black olive oil
A simply beautiful sea bass, the alabaster flesh is flaky and tender while the mild flavor is complimented by a slate of tart accoutrements highlighted bits of tart grapefruit. Rounding out the dish is the crisp fried skin of the bass, unabashedly salty with a almost caramelized sweetness to it.

seaweed mashed potatoes - sea grass, sea beans
A surprisingly simple yet effective course, the potatoes exude a buttery richness balanced by an assertive umami-laced salinity .

spaghetti - giant squid, squash, hazelnut-ink pesto, piment d'espilette
Despite being called "spaghetti" there is actually no pasta in this dish. Instead the noodles are made of thinly sliced squid, giving them a snappy texture slightly north of al dente. I was surprised how well the pesto went with the pasta, its dull black hue belying its lively zest.

bourbon - antica, fernet jelnic, allspice dram
A derivative of the classic Manhattan, this was heavy but not overly alcoholic and a nice change from the lighter cocktails.

aperol - gin, cardamaro, orange
Definitely one of the more complex drinks of the night. The cloyingly fruity attack evolves into a much more nuanced finish with a delicate balance between fruit and herbal flavors.

black cod - red pepper dashi, shishito peppers, kelp pasta
This was a fairly unconventional preparation of black cod. Rather than smother the fish with sweetness, the dashi and kelp provide a rounded umami essence while the peppers add a jarring bitter contrast. I would have liked to see some more from this fish, perhaps a nice char to draw attention back to the star of the dish.

mushroom congee - duck tongues, duck egg, ash oil
I don't think I've ever seen congee in a fine-dining restaurant. The texture of the rice was spot on, and imbued with a rich earthy emphasis from the mushrooms. The duck tongue was a little lost on the dish, but I still enjoyed the hearty flavors of the porridge immensely.

vodka - lime, ginger, soda
This was a classic Moscow Mule right down to the copper cup. The tooth aching chill and effervescent ginger-lime spice were the perfect palate cleansers for the heavier dishes ahead.

quail - jordan almonds, charred orange and onion, sorrel cream
It has been a while since I've had a quail dish with this focus and depth of flavor. The meat fairly oozes with the savory essence of game bird and the exterior is accented with a light caramelized sweetness. Though I appreciated the juicy smokiness of the onion and the levity of the greens, the bird could have easily stood on its own.

veal cheek - red curry, coconut rice, nante carrots baked in salt
This is veal to the nth degree, the meat itself is so tender it is almost jellied in its consistency, no chewing required. The crispy rice was reminiscent of the popcorn we had earlier, but when combined with the curry and subtle undercurrents of lemongrass made for a very complete Thai-inspired flavor.

beef short rib - hearts of palm, smoked marrow toast, gremolata, ras al hanout
The beef short rib was one of my favorites from The Dining Room so I was glad to see it on the menu at ink. The meat is just as wonderful as I remember, smoky, meaty and tender but with a supple resistance. Unfortunately I was feeling a bit full by this time so the marrow felt a bit overwhelming, especially when taken with the already ponderous short rib.

Iberian pork - chanterelle mushrooms, mushroom chicharron, hazelnut "beans"
Apparently, this was a loin from Iberico de Bellota, arguably the most prized pork in the world. The meat itself is pure decadence with a subtle sweetness reminiscent of char siu. I especially appreciated the unabashed saltiness of the mushroom chicharron which helped highlight the savoriness of the Iberico. Another heavy course, I think I would have appreciated this more if I weren't so full.

goat cheese - ash, concord grape, arugula
This is easily one of the top five cheese presentations I've ever had. The cheese itself is beautifully nuanced, with a slightly gamy tang and mild blue-like flavor tinged with a creamy sweetness. The accompaniments run the gamut from savory to sweet to vegetal and despite the sheer complexity and number of moving parts taken together the dish just sings.

grapefruit curd - avocado, cilantro sorbet, charred maple-lime
The grapefruit curd was surprisingly subdued. I was expecting a mouth puckering acidity but the flavor as more of a gentle tang marked by a round sweetness. What did really get my attention was the cilantro; its fresh verdant savoriness fairly explodes on the palate.

apple - crème caramel, burnt wood ice cream, walnut
This was hands down the table favorite for desserts. The velvety disc of crème caramel almost reminded me of a foie gras terrine in terms of texture. The sweetness in conjunction with the complex smoky essence of the burnt wood ice cream was nothing short of wondrous.

chocolate - coffee, spice
The chocolate felt a touch simplistic especially after the complexity and grace of the two preceding desserts. I found this dessert a bit monolithic, with a pure note of coffee that resonated throughout.

scotch - lemon, apple cider, egg white, cinnamon
We were going to order this drink earlier but our waiter recommended we save it for dessert which proved to be a wise decision. The egg white foam gave this libation a satisfying thickness while the flavor reminded me of Christmas.

brandy - figs, mint, lemon
I was expecting the figs to dominate and they were apparent to start but as time wore on the mint and lemon played a bigger role.

Fourteen months and five days after leaving The Dining Room, Michael Voltaggio and crew are back in the kitchen where they belong. Voltaggio's trademark creativity and progressiveness are on full display, with an impressive slate of 20 well developed and well executed courses. Twice Chef Voltaggio remarked that he would have rather Kevin come a week later. I'm here to say the entire experience from the food to the service felt as if the restaurant had been open for months. Food was paced perfectly, with dishes coming one or two at a time and never more than a few minutes between courses. Compared to The Dining Room, ink is decidedly more accessible, exhibiting a whimsical joie de vivre that should make it an overnight sensation. Welcome back Michael, you were sorely missed! Now if I could only weasel my way into a seat at the omakase bar.


gourmetpigs said...

Ooh, did you just beat Kevin?

Epicuryan said...

haha it happens once in a blue moon ;)

Nicole M Iizuka said...

Great seeing you last night! We definitely did not make it through the whole menu, but considering I can walk there pretty much every night, I'll conquer the rest one dish at a time :-).

Charlie Fu said...

So what'd you think of the price to food ratio?

I thought the food was good and my sentiments follow yours quite closely but when you think about it, for the price there wasn't really that much food was it?

For our table of 4, we had all but two of the dishes and we left a little hungry. Granted we only spent $70 after tip opposed to $200+ like you guys so we didn't have nearly as much food, but at $200 a person that's in high end fine dining territory!

I'd hate to be splitting plates when I'm paying that much ;D

Rodzilla said...

That congee really caught my eye. Odd questions, but I'm back to the duck tongues - what did you do with the bones?

Epicuryan said...

Great seeing you last night as well. There were surprisingly few familiar faces there last night. How many courses did you try and what were your favorites?

I thought the value varied depending, some things like the prawns were priced reasonably. Both the potato and congee were filling but probably didn't go that far split 4 ways. Overall the meal was a bit pricey but we had like 13 drinks too. Food alone was $135 per person which is not out of line for a 10 course tasting. Still I see your point, if they are trying to bring fine dining to a wider audience, the price might still be prohibitive.

Voltaggio did mention he would have liked a week before Kevin came in. Let me know what you think after your next visit.

Lol, you and your duck tongue. They actually took your suggestion and deboned it before serving which makes sense given it would be easy for the tongue to get lost in the congee and be a choking hazard.

Sam C. said...

Thanks for the post man. It's definitely great to see what Ink has to offer after such a long wait. Now I'll just have to wait till i get a reservation there......>.<

Epicuryan said...

No need to thank me Sam. For the Omakase, we'll try to book the whole bar... Don't worry we'll sell you a seat, I think $100 ought to do it :P

WillSung said...

Hey Buddy! been a long time!

So jealous I've been waiting for opening at Ink as well. Gotta make it to the Omakase for sure!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the post! And I've seen congee in fine dining - Uchiko, Austin, TX -

GREAT food.

Epicuryan said...

It has been too long. If I knew you wanted to try ink I would have cleared a spot for you. Tell you what if I can get some extra spots at the omakase bar you get one first.

Thanks that restaurant looks pretty impressive. One of my friends regularly flies to Austin I'll have him check it out.

Anonymous said...

Great post! Loved the detailed info. Let me know when that bar gets booked, I'd love to attend. :]

K. Mehta said...

Sam, we should just convince the boys that the Omasake bar should be Royce 2.0

Epicuryan said...

Sounds good... I'll be checking on the bar daily in a couple of weeks.

I suspect you've drastically underestimated the difficulty in getting a reservation.

Jennifer Park said...

I want to go next time! Can I join you guys?

Epicuryan said...

Haha sure provided I can get a reservation.