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Test Kitchen with The Daily Dose

October 26, 2010

I’m still not sure where I stand on the locavore issue.

While I see the advantages of supporting local economies and reducing environmental impact, I’m blessed to live in a region that can support significant and diverse food production.

I’d hate to be a locavore living in Phoenix.

And besides, I do like my foie gras, imported truffles and single malt Scotch!

What I do know is that I like food that comes from a specific point of view. Be that cultural, gastronomical or, in this case, ideological. It’s that singular point of view that brings uniqueness, passion and, for lack of a better word, “soul” to the cooking.

On November 2, The Daily Dose, a locavore restaurant committed to sourcing all their ingredients within a 100 mile radius of LA, opens in Downtown LA in the Biscuit Lofts in the same stretch that houses Church & State, Swill wine bar and Royal Claytons.

But last Sunday, Test Kitchen hosted a preview day for the upcoming restaurant. Interestingly, it was the first time Test Kitchen has served brunch, lunch and dinner. Fitting, though, as The Daily Dose intends to cater to a local breakfast, lunch and dinner crowd.

Incidentally, this is not the first preview The Daily Dose has had. In May, the at-the-time-unnamed restaurant held a series of preview dinners to test the waters and has been eagerly anticipated ever since.

The restaurant is the brainchild of developer and restauranteur Sarkis Vartanian, with Chef Christian Page (previously of Savoy and The Harrison in NYC) heading up the kitchen. I had met Chef Page previously at Walter Manzke‘s dinner at Test Kitchen and we chatted several times throughout the night.

One interesting piece of information that he did reveal was that he and Sarkis are also planning on running an (as yet unannounced) underground supper club, with once or twice weekly dinners held at a nearby (but undisclosed) space, not at The Daily Dose. These will be single seating, family style affairs with a single price covering all food and alcohol. And they were also testing dishes for this concept at Test Kitchen that night, although these were off-menu “secret” dishes.

Off menu dishes? Of course that peaked my interest.

We started off dinner, as has become customary at Test Kitchen, with cocktails and bar bites. A “choose your poison” of tequila for the girl and The Elliot Spritzer (Aperol, lemon, champagne, fresh pomegranate) for me. I can’t say I loved either cocktail and, to be honest, the cocktail list left me rather uninspired that night. I really missed the usual presence of Joel Black and Julian Cox behind the bar. But tonight’s dinner wasn’t to be about the cocktails, it was about the food.

We were also joined for dinner by Liz of Food She Thought and her husband D, two of our favorite dining companions. The bar bites were served family style, as were most of the dishes that night.

Carlsbad Three-way | Carlsbad oysters, cucumber-habenero granita

These were a lovely way to start the meal. Fresh, briny and with a slight kick from the cucumber-habenero “granita”, although this had melted into a liquid by the time we ate it. Still, the flavors were spot on and I could have eaten a dozen. What’s not to love about a three-way?

Sonoma-eatballs | SoCal lamb meatballs, goat cheese mornay, paprika oil, fried parsley

These were slightly dry for my taste with an exterior that had toughened. Still, I happily chomped on mine. The benefits of being hungry at the beginning of the meal.

California pork belly, gastrique, chicharones, gremolata, bitter greens

Our first “off-menu” dish came out, courtesy of the kitchen. This was one of the dishes Chef Page was testing for their supper club concept and it was probably the best dish of the night. A large slab of pork belly, tender and succulent, even for pork belly. It’s a shame most of the other diners that night at Test Kitchen didn’t get to try this dish.

Once you go grassfed… you never go back | Wood grilled Dey Dey’s grass fed beef, Midnight Moon cheese, house ketchup & aioli, pickles

A grass fed beef burger with the bun replaced by a crusty flatbread. Oddly, the flatbread says lunch more than dinner to me but, having said that, this is something I’d definitely have for lunch. The patty was flavorful with a distinct beefiness and, in the absence of lettuce, tomato or other vegetal distractions, this burger was all about the beef and the bread, both of which were very good.

Potato chips, aioli

Our second off-menu dish courtesy of the kitchen. The potato chips were small, perhaps cut from fingerling potatoes. A nice accompaniment to the beef burger when you want that crunch.

On to the five course tasting menu, we began with a baguette, butter, quince preserve, and pork rillettes. The quince preserve was the star here, surprisingly outshining the pork rillettes, which on face value I’d expect to be my favorite.

Fired Up Mussels | wood oven roasted Carlsbad mussels, grilled ciabatta, compound butter

The mussels were very good, the residual garlicky broth in the shells teasingly delicious but the grilled ciabatta with the garlic and mussel broth soaked in was simple, comforting and extremely satisfying. Like sopping up the broth with crusty bread, minus the actual sopping up.

Oaxacan Blood Bath | mezcal, fresh heirloom tomatoes, woodfire oven roasted roma tomatoes, fresh celery juice, petron peppers, cilantro, dill, garlic, red bell pepper, beet horse radish, sal de gusano, pepper, lemon juice and more

My second cocktail of the night and the ingredient list read more like a shopping list than a recipe. It tasted like a more complex Bloody Mary with some nice spice and heat.

What’re You? Chicken? | Fried chicken thigh, rapini, honey vinaigrette, fresh cayenne, chicken leg cassoulet, pistou

Here we had chicken prepared two ways. I actually preferred the fried chicken, if I had to choose. But it’s hard to go past fried chicken. The flavors here were Asian inspired. Nice interplay between the sweetness of the honey vinaigrette and the fresh cayenne and the breading was not too heavy. The rapini could be considered the “healthy” component of this dish, I guess. The chicken cassoulet was actually very good too. Fall off the bone tender, warm and comforting on what was a rainy LA night.

Grass Fed Hash | coffee-cacao flavored Dey Dey’s corned beef hash, poached egg, greens, paprika oil

This is a dish I could crave for breakfast or brunch. Perhaps odd on a dinner menu but, in light of the flatbread burger and the subsequent French toast dessert, definitely in the theme of this breakfast meets lunch meets dinner meal. I loved that the top of the corned beef hash was fried crispy and crusty into almost a crunchy pie crust. Very satisfying to break your fork through. The 62 degree poached egg is something I could only aspire to do (well, without the assistant of an immersion circulator at home) with the yolk and white coming out at the same soft boiled consistency. If you live Downtown, do yourself a favor and stop by The Daily Dose for breakfast when it opens just for this.

Grass fed flank steak, turnip and date puree, olive oil

Around the chicken course, The Daily Dose general manager and “proud father” of this birthing restaurant Sarkis Vartanian stopped by for a chat. How are we liking it? Loving it. Follow us on Facebook and Twitter. Done. Have you tried any of the off-menu dishes? Yes, Christian sent out the pork belly and the potato chips. What about the flank steak? Flank steak?!?

You don’t mention another off-menu dish to a table of food obsessives and not expect to bring it out. And soon we had our third off-menu dish, courtesy of the kitchen. The flank steak was surprisingly tender given the cut and still nicely pink on the inside. But the sweetness of the turnip and date puree was deeply satisfying. Apparently they’ll be serving this dish sandwich-style, although I’d be disappointed if they lost that puree.

French Tickler | brioche French toast, honey & sour cream ice cream, pistachio tuille, raspberry syrup

To end the meal, a “breakfast as dessert” dessert. Now, French toast is always going to be a tough one to wow me with. I’ve yet to taste a French toast nearly as good as Canelé’s. But I loved the honey and sour cream ice cream here and I’m lactose intolerant! Thank God for Lactaid.

And so it was the end of another Test Kitchen meal. This one was no Michael Voltaggio or Walter Manzke or even “Top Sous Chef” fine dining inspired affair. No, The Daily Dose’s aspirations are very different. No different in quality but with a keen eye on affordability, locality and community.

And there was definitely a sense of community at Test Kitchen that night. Chef Christian Page spent much of the evening on the floor, stopping to chat at various tables, ever friendly and approachable. Sarkis, the consummate networker, worked his room like a proud and gracious pro. And of course, Brian Saltsburg‘s (and his hair) and Stephane Bombet‘s ever-present hospitality, making every food follower in the room feel like this was their second home. The only fixture missing was KevinEats. Luckily for us, as we snagged his table for the night.

I’m still not sure where I stand on the locavore issue.

But I do know I stand on the side of community and “soul”.

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

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Welcome to the Wolvesden

October 22, 2010

Pop-ups are tomorrow’s food trucks.

The bleeding edge of food fanaticism right now is underground dining.

And the hardest seat to score in underground dining is one at the Wolvesden.

What’s the Wolvesden?

It’s an underground dining society run by Chef Craig Thornton, otherwise known as Wolvesmouth. A perhaps bi-monthly dinner in a secret residence, seating 8 to 12 guests per night, serving up 12 to 15 courses of whatever Craig feels like cooking. And he never repeats a dish.

Picky eater? The Wolvesden is not for you. You don’t get to order. Craig cooks, you devour. That’s the pact.

(L-R) Photos courtesy of @Amyshungry

How much would you expect to pay for a meal like this? Well, how much would you? That’s the question you must answer as it’s pay what you feel it’s worth. This one’s not about commerce. It’s about food as art, food as obsession and food as manifesto.

Make no mistake. This is not a restaurant. There are no servers, no white tablecloths, no rules. Think of it as a dinner party with new friends. With a one-man kitchen.

Craig shops, preps and cooks solo. A departure from his days at Thomas Keller’s Bouchon Bistro in Las Vegas. This is chef as auteur.

Bring enough alcohol to share liberally and your sense of adventure.

On the night we visited the Wolvesden, we were given an address to turn up to and a phone number to call once there. Where is it? Suffice to say “somewhere in LA”. This is underground dining, after all.

The night’s menu.

Sweetbread, potato, leek, chive

Skate, brown butter, carrot, sage

Beet, valdeon cheese, pineapple

Dungeness crab two ways, cauliflower puree, frozen grapes, tarragon

Arctic char, butternut squash puree, rye bread fritter

Heirloom tomatoes, bacon pound cake, bacon, basil, balsamic

Rabbit, tortilla puree, pickled red onion, huitlacoche, poblano

Duck, duck skin, sauce, green onion, cucumber

Wild boar, parmesan polenta, parsley, orange jus

Short rib, bone marrow stuffed prune, black truffle coffee meringue, chanterelle jus

Foie gras shortbread, praline vacherin, bitter caramel poached pear, Earl Grey panna cotta

Caramel corn ice cream, apple, peanut butter powder

This was 12 courses of inventive, thoughtful, boundary-pushing food. Tastes that skipped as easily from subtle to powerful as from comforting to shocking. In a meal of many highs, the comfort of the sweetbreads with potato and leek soubise stood out, as did the sweet and smooth butternut squash puree and arctic char, Craig’s play on Peking duck perfectly sous vide with duck skin crisp, the brightness of the wild boar and parmesan polenta, and the beautiful subtlety of the Earl Grey panna cotta and the foie gras shortbread.

It’s a shame you’ll never see these dishes again. Craig doesn’t repeat dishes.

But score an invitation to the Wolvesden and you’ll discover favorites of your own.


Well, that’s a secret.


** My photos from this dinner were also published by the LA Weekly to accompany their story on the Wolvesden.

Test Kitchen : Top Sous Chef

September 15, 2010

“It’s Top Chef, not Top Sous Chef.”

Tom Colicchio loves to run that line every season or two on Top Chef.

But tonight at Test Kitchen, it was Top Sous Chef.

Three rising sous chefs took center stage tonight to deliver a meal that was Executive Chef-worthy.

Dan Moody, Ludo’s sous at LudoBites.

Amanda Baumgarten, of Top Chef fame and sous at Water Grill.

And Dylan Hallas, ex-chef at the plagued Barbarella/Ursa space, and previously of The Tasting Kitchen, Bazaar and Osteria Mozza.

Contributing two courses each of a six course tasting menu, they delivered a meal that was surprisingly cohesive.

It was a familiar crowd at Test Kitchen. Having been there four times since it opened less than a month ago (previously for Jordan Kahn, Walter Manzke and Michael Voltaggio), it’s almost become the Test Kitchen family. Kevin Eats was at his usual corner booth, The Minty and F For Food were in the house, as were Ryan TAmyshungry and 3starbackpackerBrian and Stephane kept front of house running smoothly.

Joel Black knocked out great cocktails as usual.

Blogger Holly was in the kitchen as Chef Dan’s sous.

And Top Chef alum and now ex-Cafe Wa s chef Alex Reznik dropped by to expedite service.

The meal started with Chef Dan’s Foie Gras Powdered Donuts with Shallot Jelly Filling. Definitely influences of Chef Ludo here. This was the same infamous foie gras powder at LudoBites 4.0. Rendered foie gras and tapioca maltodextrin. The donut itself was a comforting start to the meal, the shallot jelly dressing looking like a sweet jelly filling but surprisingly meaty in taste. I would have loved to have tried these hot but unfortunately ours came out room temp. The filling was just a bit too firm for me. I would have liked it to ooze upon biting.

Accompanying this was Joel’s first cocktail of the night, the What a Jerk. Smith & Cross Jamaican Rum, Appleton 12 yr Jamaican Rum, St Elizabeth Allspice Dram, fresh lemon and honey, this was a smoky, heady, enveloping cocktail. All that was missing was a Cuban cigar.

Next up was Chef Amanda’s Soft Shell Crab with Corn Relish, Tomato, Bacon and Vinaigrette. Now, viewers of Top Chef probably remember her as the “cute one” but often criticized by certain other chefs. I’ve got to say, editing probably didn’t do her justice as she knocked this dish out of the park. The soft shell crab was meaty and crispy, her corn and bacon relish both sweet and smokily salty, and overall a beautiful looking plate. Inventive? Maybe not. But a satisfying, comforting dish I could eat again and again.

Dylan’s first dish, the Tartine of Chanterelle Mushrooms, Bone Marrow and Herb Salad was 86’ed by the time we ate. Unfortunate, as I would have liked to have tasted it but that’s the vagaries of a one night pop-up. It’s hard to judge the number of covers you’ll do on any given night.

We returned to Chef Dan’s next course, the Pan Seared Striped Bass, Vadouvan Beets, Yellow Coconut, Curry Hollandaise and Fried Spinach. The vadouvan bore the hallmarks of Ludo but the dish was all Dan’s. The striped bass was well cooked, the puree of vadouvan beets below adding sweetness and spice, the curry hollandaise taking us to the Subcontinent, and the fried spinach a textural counterpoint. But what made this dish was a wonderful frozen red beet, sherry vinegar and bacon fat sorbet that sat atop the whole dish, imbuing it with heat, acid and a refreshing iciness. A standout dish and one to keep in his repertoire.

Time for another cocktail, this time the Internal Affair. Tequila, fresh lemon, prickly pear, and cherry bomb jalapeno syrup. Tasting like a cherry magarita with a kick, the prickly pear added a greeness to it that I’m not sure I liked. Still, an interesting cocktail.

Amanda’s next dish was her Wild King Salmon with Sauce Soubise, Leek and Date Compote, and Sherry Reduction. A great story of small catch pre-spawn salmon by a rustically named fisherman in Alaska, but my salmon was rather dry. Still, the skin was nicely crisped and the accompaniments on this dish elevated it. A flavorful and smooth soubise, the sweet leek and date compote, and cubes of a lemon mousse fritter.

Finally, dessert and my first taste of Chef Dylan’s cuisine. A sweet and savory Burrata with Peaches. Made from imported Italian cream, the Di Stefano burrata was expectedly creamy and exhibited a smokiness. But the addition of honey and peaches, and the sparing use of sea salt added layers to the dish. A dessert for those that like a bit of savory in their sweet, Dylan’s Mozza experience came into play here.

Of course, there was another cocktail to accompany dessert. This time the Trinidadian Ice Cream. Zaya 12 year rum, vanilla ice cream, Angostura Bitters, caramel and flowering basil. I liken this to an adult float. Sweet, alcoholic, satisfying and potent. Definitely a dessert cocktail.

We were the final plate of food to come out of the kitchen for the night. Holly joined us at our table for a drink and we migrated to the bar for drinks and industry gossip with Chefs Dan, Amanda, Dylan, Alex, master mixologist Joel, Test Kitchen brains Brian, Bill, and Stephane, and the assorted blogger barflies.

The “boards of fame” came out in the kitchen for signature too. These have been signed by all the guest chefs at Test Kitchen.

Everything from simple signatures to the more flowery prose of Neal Fraser, “Grab your dicks and eat some food”, signed “Kenny Mother Fuckin’ Powers”.

Oh, and of course a final drink. A refreshing whisky and blackberry syrup potion whipped up by Joel.

Tomorrow, these sous chefs might return to the shadows of their executive chefs but, for tonight, the spotlight was all theirs.

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

Test Kitchen - Amanda Baumgarten, Dylan Hallas, Dan Moody in Los Angeles on Fooddigger

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Hatchi with Makoto Okuwa

September 7, 2010

Chef Makoto Okuwa first came to my attention when I heard about a six course tasting he was presenting at his Manhattan Beach restaurant, Sashi.

Six chefs were each presenting one course in this “All Star Culinary Experience” and the talent in the kitchen that night was stellar. Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto, Top Chef champion Michael Voltaggio, Sonny Sweetman (Executive Chef of Wolfgang Puck), Waylynn Lucas (Executive Pastry Chef of Patina), Noriyuki Sugie (Executive Chef of Ironnori) and Makoto Okuwa himself. Of course the dinner was sold out.

Who was this guy?

Turns out he was Morimoto’s protégé for six years, helping him open restaurants in Manhattan, Washington DC and Tokyo, and also served as Morimoto’s sous chef in 13 episodes of Iron Chef. And the dinner was to coincide with his very own Iron Chef Battle Uni against Michael Simon.

I watched that episode and was immediately impressed by his inventive treatment of the mystery ingredient, uni (or sea urchin). Now uni can be an acquired taste but rather than mask it like Michael Simon did, Okuwa put uni front and center and I wanted to reach through the television and devour his plates. Unfortunately he lost, err, was robbed by a judge who admitted he didn’t like the taste of uni and preferred dishes where its taste was hidden. I really wished Jeffrey Steingarten was there to lay some major smackdown on his unsophisticated ass!

But as luck would have it, I had my own opportunity to taste Makoto Okuwa’s cuisine when he guested at Hatchi at Breadbar soon after that episode. Rather than uni, the secret ingredient for the night was miso and every course contained it, from bread through to dessert.

Well, perhaps not every course. Thankfully the cocktails were miso-free. I started the night with a Shiso Mojito. Here shiso was used in place of mint, yuzu augmented the limes, and cachaca accompanied the rum, with a dried plum and sesame seed rim. A pretty good mojito, perhaps a little lighter than usual, although the nuttiness that the sesame seed rim imparted didn’t really work for me. I did enjoy chewing on the sugar cane stick though.

As has become customary at Breadbar, the meal started with their epi bread with miso butter. In fact, three varieties of miso butter of varying strengths. I enjoyed the strongest red miso butter, with the other two tasting rather mild in comparison.

The first course was a Miso Butter Poached Loch Duart Salmon, with Feta Cheese, Micro Basil, Tomato Foam and Pesto Powder. The salmon was beautifully butter poached old school (well, old school as opposed to sous vide) and the rather odd combination with the feta cheese really worked for me surprisingly. Who said you should never mix seafood with cheese? The tomato foam lent a refreshing acidity to the dish although I did feel the pesto powder unnecessarily complicated the dish.

Next up were Asian Donuts Peach “Tacos” with Smoked Lobster, Miso Frozen Yogurt and Paddle Fish Caviar. Dried yam shells replaced the usual tortillas, making these bite sized “tacos”. Taken as a single mouthful, the sweetness of the miso peach yogurt totally dominated the dish and had I not known that it contained smoked lobster, I would have been hard pressed to identify its presence, but for the texture it lent. The caviar somewhat balanced the sweetness of the yogurt with its brine but this was an overwhelmingly sweet dish.

This was followed by California Baby Squid and Tuna Sashimi “Nuta” style, with Pickled Scallion and Wakame Seaweed Chips.  One of my favorite courses of the night, the squid was stuffed with blue crab and sliced, almost like a cut crab roll. The squid ink miso was, in my mind, the best application of miso of the night and perfectly briny, salty and bursting with umami. The cube of tuna sashimi was good, as expected, but didn’t add much to the dish and its taste was overshadowed by the rest of the plate.

Next was the Taiwan Miso Ramen Soup, Ground Steak, Bean Sprouts, Red Hot Chili and Crispy Egg Noodle. What came out was actually a slider between noodle “buns” and a separate soup. The question was whether to eat the components separately, which I did, or add them to the soup, which one of my dining companions did. For me, the slider exhibited good flavor but the egg noodle “buns” lacked structural integrity, making it a messy bite. The broth didn’t quite stand up to the bolder flavors of the slider and the overall dish lacked cohesiveness.

The fifth course was Sushi Rice Salad “Shikai Maki” Cucumber, Prosciutto, Tuna, Fontina and Miso Emulsion. Another fish and cheese combo that threw me but it was an exceptionally beautiful plate. And the accompaniments to the shikai maki – a wonderful miso emulsion and the prosciutto – made this dish.

The final savory course was a Dengaku “Trio” of Braised Wagyu with Summer Truffle, Crispy Tofu with Kinome, and Polenta with Chorizo. The miso glazed wagyu was the single best bite of Okuwa’s whole menu. Rich, gamey, with a one-two umami punch of miso and truffle. The tofu was mild in comparison, almost a palate cleanser before the delicate polenta accented with a smoky chorizo.

Another cocktail was in order before dessert. This time the Nihon Teien made from Grey Goose Le Citron, agave, apple juice, fresh cucumber and cucumber foam. The cucumber lent a refreshing lightness to the cocktail. A good palate cleanser.

The first dessert was the Caramel Miso Cream, Almond Cinnamon Crumble, Apricot Sorbet and Butter Milk Foam. One of the highlights of the meal, the saltiness of the miso paired perfectly with the sweetness of the caramel to create a umami-heavy salted caramel ice cream. The butter milk foam was wonderfully tart and airy, the apricot sorbet refreshingly sweet, and the cinnamon crumble added both earthy depth and texture. One of the best miso-based desserts I’ve ever tried.

The final dessert course was the Pliable Yuzu Curd, Candied Raspberry, Chocolate Sponge, Dry Miso Powder, Sweet Miso Chips and Coconut Sorbet. Looking almost like string cheese, the yuzu curd was bitingly citric and sour, offset by a more calming coconut sorbet. The raspberry provided sweetness, the cookie pieces textures, the miso chips crunch and the miso powder flecks of flavor. For me, there were a few too many things going on in this dessert and it seemed rather confused. Rather than coming together as a whole, it seemed more like a tasting plate of desserts.

So did Chef Makoto Okuwa live up to my Iron Chef sized expectations? There were certainly high points, and points for creativity and plating design. I did feel there was a tendency to add a few too many elements to each plate and, while inventive, this tended to cloud the clarity of his vision. The sum of the parts was sometimes greater than the whole. But still, a challenging, creative and bold exploration of the different tastes and textures of miso and a great showcase of its versatility.

And I’d challenge Michael Simon to do a better job with miso.

Hatchi at Breadbar with Makoto Okuwa
10250 Santa Monica Boulevard
Los Angeles, CA 90067
(310) 277-3770

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Test Kitchen with Walter Manzke

September 2, 2010

The last time we saw Walter Manzke, he was taking us around the world with his Pan-Asian and Pan-European menu at Hatchi.

I really enjoyed that meal as a departure from his previous French bistro digs at Church & State so, when I heard he was guesting at pop-up zeitgeist sensation Test Kitchen, I jumped at a reservation.

To recap, Test Kitchen is the brainchild of Bill Chait, the business mind behind Rivera, and industry insider Brian Saltsburg, a six week pop-up restaurant featuring an ever changing and unannounced line up of well known chefs and mixologists testing out menus and cocktails for future ventures without the constraints of expectation. Ricardo Zarate (of Mo-Chica) provides some continuity in the kitchen by consulting with each chef and will also be testing for his new restaurant Anticucho, which will open above the space now occupied by Test Kitchen. Behind the bar, mixologists Julian Cox (of Rivera and testing for John Sedlar’s new restaurant R26, opening in the old Grace space) and Joel Black (of Caña and testing for the mysteriously named Project 9575) sling cocktails accompanied by guest mixologists for each chef.

When I was last at Jordan Kahn‘s tasting at Test Kitchen, I chatted to Chef Walter Manzke at the bar and asked him if his menu would be along the same lines as his Hatchi tasting or a return to his Bastide/Church & State territory. He was diplomatic and deliberately vague in his answer and, secretly, I was hoping that it would be a return to either classical or contemporary French cuisine. So when I saw a largely Asian inspired menu for the night, I was mildly disappointed. I say mildly because a chance to eat Chef Manzke’s cuisine can hardly be labeled disappointing!

Let me say upfront that this night was marred by service difficulties. I knew Test Kitchen had become even more crowded since my initial visit so I was prepared for a wait at the bar. But after waiting an hour, I checked with the hostess only to find that someone else had been seated in my reservation. Ok, I understand the preponderance of Asian food bloggers in the room toting DSLRs but still, please don’t confuse someone else for The Gastonomnom!

We were seated promptly once the error had been noted. But it was outside on the patio rather than inside where our table would have been, hence the quality of the photos. I challenge any blogger to shoot good photos in that light!

Little did I know that the kitchen was experiencing their own problems. That night, they were working on a grid system where each table and each course was laid out on a grid to keep track of what course each table was up to in the five course tasting. Unfortunately a glass of wine was spilled over the whiteboard, wiping it clean of information and throwing the kitchen into chaos. So courses came out slowly and out of order and our dinner ended four hours later close to midnight.

But that is the nature of a pop-up test kitchen. Teams test the menu as much as their service and front of house. You take the risks with the rewards and the rewards here far outweigh the risks.

Moreover, the delay gave us a chance to try more cocktails from resident mixologists Julian Cox and Joel Black, as well as guest mixologist Matthew Bianchaniello of the Library Bar at the Roosevelt Hotel who is famed for his farmer’s market fresh cocktails. And what a discovery. I had heard many good things about Matthew’s cocktails but had never had the opportunity to sample them until now. They were a revelation.

His Nusco Mojito (Flor de Cana, Zebra Heirloom Tomatoes, Mint, Lime Juice, Habano Simple Syrup) was like drinking a spicy tomato garden, bursting with vegetal freshness.

In comparison, Joel’s The Big Tuna (bonito infused bourbon, tarragon, basil and bitters) can only be described as “interesting”, exhibiting a smokiness thankfully devoid of fishiness that was rather overpowering.

Once we were seated, we started with a couple of items from the tapas menu. This was a change from my previous Test Kitchen meal. Besides Chef Manzke’s five course tasting at $52 (a higher price point than the previous two chefs at $40), there were also six tapas items available a la carte either at the bar or with dinner. I had tried his Santa Barbara Spot Prawns at Hatchi and his Sea Urchin toast at Church & State, and the Calamari had run out, so we ordered the White Corn Fritters and Lobster Custard.

Lobster Custard | Porcini Mushroom
His lobster custard reminded me of the lobster and langoustine custard I had at L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon last year. Rich with the essence of lobster, texturally smooth like custard, this was like eating lobster without chewing. All the taste without the effort, if you will. Absolutely delicious. An unnamed upcoming Test Kitchen chef stopped by our table to chat and couldn’t help but run his finger through our finished cup (at our urging) to taste it.

White Corn Fritters | Parmesan, basil aioli
Sweet, creamy on the inside, fried crisp on the outside. The basil aioli added a herbaceous counterpoint. I can see why this was on the bar tapas menu. I’d be happy snacking on these over a few cocktails and glasses of wine.

Onto the tasting menu.

Hamachi | Avocado, Green Apple, Yuzu, Jalapeno
Served sashimi style in a green apple and yuzu juice, the hamachi was plump but mild in flavor. I expected more acidity from the green apple and yuzu and more heat from the jalapeno but found both lacking. Compared to his exquisite yellowtail sashimi with tomatillo sorbet at Hatchi, this dish underwhelmed.

Given a long wait between courses, another cocktail was in order, this time Matthew’s Kentucky Bubble Bath made from Bulleit bourbon, lavendar syrup, lemon Juice, cynar and a lavender sprig. Refreshing and herbaceous from the cynar, an Italian bitter aperitif made from 13 herbs and plants, this one tasted like a day on a farm.

Thai Curry-Coconut soup | Maine Lobster, Coconut Tapioca
Springy chunks of Maine lobster tail, coconut tapioca and thai basil seeds in the bottom of a bowl with the curry-coconut soup served tableside. The lobster had plenty of snap, the Thai soup immediately reminded me of many Thai meals, and the tapioca balls added texture and starch to the dish. A comforting, aromatic, flavor packed dish and even more successful than his white corn curry soup with mussels and coconut tapioca that I praised at Hatchi.

Beef Tenderloin | Chanterelle Mushrooms, Katsuo Bushi Broth
The beef was tender, flavorful and satisfyingly meaty. But the stars of this dish were the perfectly poached egg that oozed into the katsuo bushi broth when cut into and the broth itself, which imparted a umami depth to the whole dish.

At this point, our dessert course came out, which we sent back. The kitchen had forgotten to fire our fish course, so we ordered some bread with foie gras butter while we waited for it.

Warm Baguette, Vermont Butter with sea salt
What came out instead was the baguette with the Vermont butter. I’d had Chef Manzke’s foie gras butter before at Hatchi so, rather than sending it back again, we just went with the flow. The bread itself was actually very good. Crusty, rustic and satisfying in the absence of our fish.

Loup de Mer | Sungold tomatoes, mole verde
When the fish finally arrived it was moist and succulent and the skin was suitably crispy. But the dense mole verde caught my interest. I can’t comment on its authenticity – that’s not my area of knowledge – but I do know it was brightly flavorful and texturally creamy and elevated the whole dish.

Creme Brulee | Strawberry Sorbet
A simple dessert – something I’d expect of a chef more than a pastry chef – but very well composed and satisfyingly delicious. Strawberries topped with strawberry sorbet, topped again with cream and bruleed for that satisfying crack upon entry.

All in all, Chef Manzke delivered a tasting menu that stepped outside the French box he’s been living in professionally for the past few years. It was an extension of the exploration he began at Hatchi and, while there were high points, I actually preferred his Hatchi menu and felt I got a better sense of his cuisine there. I can’t help but wonder if the fact that the kitchen was in the weeds for most of the night affected the night’s dishes. Certainly reviews from other Manzke nights have been glowing.

But the surprise discovery for me on this night was mixologist Matthew Bianchaniello. He hit it out of the park with his farmers market fresh cocktails and overshadowed the cocktails of Julian and Joel, which is no mean feat. He also serves a small bar menu at the Library Bar and I’ll be visiting him for cocktails and bites there soon.

And, really, I’m just as happy discovering a new favorite mixologist as I am a new chef.

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

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Test Kitchen with Red Medicine

August 31, 2010

The zeitgeist is like the G spot.

Sometimes you’re right there and you don’t even know how you found it.

Elusive and ephemeral. But when you hit it, you know.

And so it is with Test Kitchen, the pop-up restaurant without a chef that’s at the intersection of every food fetishist, twitterrati, food blogger, cocktail crawler, taste maker and industry insider’s wet dream.

The lovechild of Bill Chait, the business brains behind Rivera, and industry insider Brian Saltsburg, Test Kitchen is a six week pop-up restaurant featuring an ever changing and unannounced line up of well known chefs and mixologists testing out menus and cocktails for future ventures without the constraints of expectation. Ricardo Zarate (of Mo-Chica) provides some continuity in the kitchen by consulting with each chef and will also be testing for his new restaurant Anticucho, which will open above the space now occupied by Test Kitchen. Behind the bar, mixologists Julian Cox (of Rivera and testing for John Sedlar’s new restaurant R26, opening in the old Grace space) and Joel Black (of Caña and testing for the mysteriously named Project 9575) sling cocktails accompanied by guest mixologists for each chef.

First up at Test Kitchen was the team behind the upcoming contemporary Vietnamese eatery Red Medicine – Chef Jordan Kahn, Managing Partner Noah Ellis, and Bar Manager Matthew Doerr. I didn’t know much about Jordan Kahn prior to this meal, only that he was a hot shot pastry chef (previously of Per Se, Alinea, Michael Mina, XIV) taking on his first non-pastry chef position in LA. And that he was teaming with Adam Fleischman, the man behind the ever growing Umami chain.

The menu would be a 12 course tasting served family style. Priced at $40, it was the most affordable menu to date. Accompanying cocktails were $10, again a relative bargain compared to the other teams.

We began with cocktails from Matthew Doerr. No names, just numbers for now.

#10 – Plymouth, Douglas Fir Eau de Vie, Lemon, tarragon, Mint, Peychaud’s Bitters

#7 – Don Cesar Pisco Italia, Pineapple, Grapefruit Peel, Purple Basil, Whiskey Barrel Aged Bitters

RADISHES, coco-butter, lime, dried soy

Cured AMBERJACK, lime leaf, french melon, nuoc cham, bird chili, mint
An interesting pairing of amberjack and melon, which really worked. The saltiness of the fish sauce in the nuoc cham over the amberjack was nicely contrasted by the sweetness of the melon, with the chili, mint and lime leaf all adding their respective accents. A favorite dish of mine.

BRUSSELS sprouts, caramelized shallots, fish sauce, prawn crackers
Another favorite, the saltiness of the fish sauce again counteracting the bitterness of the brussels sprouts and the prawn crackers adding that textural crunch.

TOMATOES marinated in an infusion of their vines, silky tofu, crunchy tofu, herbs
This dish was all about the interplay between the sweet acidity of the tomatoes with the soft, almost creamy texture and subtle taste of the silky tofu, which acted almost like a sauce. The crunchy tofu, meanwhile, provided the textural crunch.

Saigon tartine – PORK belly, pate, coriander, carrot pickle, green chili
Essentially an open-faced banh mi, I loved the pickled vegetables cutting across the more subtle pork pate.

Green PAPAYA, crispy taro, rau ram, fried shallots, peanuts
Being more familiar with the Thai green papaya salad, this Vietnamese iteration was milder, brighter and greener in taste. Here, the mint predominated and the crispy taro and peanuts added textural contrast.

Caramelized CHICKEN dumplings, lemongrass, scallion, bibb lettuce
A flavorful and well balanced bite, the chicken dumpling was moist, the sriracha imparting heat, the mint coolness, all wrapped in a lettuce leaf.

Baby CARROTS, fermented black bean, star anise, coconut, tarragon
The baby carrots were cooked soft with the fermented black bean predominating in taste, perhaps to the detriment to the overall balance of the dish.

Bay SCALLOPS, pomelo, young ginger, tamarind, syrup, puffed tapioca, charred friseé
I liked the flavor of the scallops although their size was not quite as satisfying. The puffed tapioca was an interesting touch but the charred friseé for me was too, well, charred.

BEEF bavette, bacon X.O., chinese eggplant, chinese celery, lime, palm sugar, sesame
The star of this dish for me was the bacon X.O. sauce, with dried seafood replaced by bacon, imparting a hot and sweet punch to the beef. Sensational. I hardly remember the other components to this dish.

More cocktails. The #10 again.

And the #6 – Bulleit, Cynar, Lime, Rhubarb Grenadine, Ginger Beer

And onto dessert.

PEACHES, creme de cassis, raspberry, condensed milk, quinine
Essentially peaches and cream in tonic water. Yes, I liked the peaches but, well, it didn’t compare to the other dessert.

COCONUT bavarois, coffee, thai basil, peanut croquant, chicory
Loved the coffee “soil”, loved the peanut cookie, loved the coconut bavarois, loved how all the components played so well together in the glass. Loved finishing the meal on a high note. Not surprising, given Jordan Kahn’s pastry credentials.

Overall, a resounding success. This meal did everything it was meant to. It introduced me to a new chef of considerable talent, it whetted my appetite for the upcoming Red Medicine, it showcased Jordan Kahn’s range outside of pastry and in contemporary Vietnamese cuisine, and it set the bar high for future Test Kitchen visits, of which there have already been two and will be many more.

Stay tuned for my upcoming posts on Test Kitchen visits with Walter Manzke and Michael Voltaggio.

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

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Hatchi with Walter Manzke

August 24, 2010

One of my regrets at Church & State was that, on the two occasions I dined there during Chef Walter Manzke’s tenure, he wasn’t in the kitchen.

And on the second visit, I felt that it showed in the food.

Now I’ve eaten at many restaurants with absentee chefs (e.g. John Besh’s August, Tom Colicchio’s Craft, Hubert Keller’s Fleur de Lys, Gordon Ramsay at the London, L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon, Michael Mina’s Nobhill Tavern, Jose Andre’s The Bazaar, etc) and had no problem with it because I knew the name on the door wasn’t the man behind the stove. But Church & State under Walter Manzke was never intended to be that.

So when Walter Manzke surfaced at Hatchi after he left Church & State, I jumped at the chance knowing he would definitely be in the kitchen.

In a departure from his French bistro fare at Church & State, Chef Manzke decided instead to take diners around the world in eight dishes.

Given that we were at Breadbar, dinner began with the now familiar epi bread but this time with foie gras butter. Relatively subtle, the foie gras imparted a gentle livery-ness, punctuated by the honey gelée on top, which was flecked with gold leaf. I guess if you’re going to do foie gras butter, you might as well make it luxurious.

The first cocktail of the night was barman Michel Dozois’s Untamed Cherries, made with freshly squeezed lemon juice, cherries, yellow chili peppers and organic rum. Sweet to begin, this cocktail soon became about the heat of the chili peppers. Perhaps too much heat. Capsaicin tends to overpower most dishes you pair with it.

To whet our appetites for our around the world trip, the amuse bouche was a deconstructed shrimp cocktail. Essentially a skewered grilled shrimp atop a shot of ceviche sauce, which provided the acid.

Our journey began in Mexico, with a Yellowtail Ceviche with Jalapeno and Tomatillo Sorbet. One of my favorite dishes of the night, the yellowtail was fresh and plump but what made this dish sing was the jalapeno sorbet, which added both heat and a refreshing cold bite.

Leaving Latin America, we travelled next to Thailand with a White Corn Curry Soup with Mussels and Coconut Tapioca. The mussels were well cooked but the soup was exceptional, with the sweetness of corn playing nicely off the subtle curry and the tapioca balls adding an interesting textural counterpoint. Again, another great dish.

Next up was Spain with a Santa Barbara Spot Prawn with Garlic and Sherry. I love Santa Barbara spot prawns, which is lucky given their appearance on menus all over town, but mine unfortunately came out overdone. I also found the tapenade on top slightly heavy handed.

Moving on to Vietnam, we were presented with “Banh Mi” Pig’s Feet Sliders. I can’t say that these reminded me of banh mi except for the picked vegetables, but what’s not to like about panko breaded pig’s trotter patties? The homemade siracha sauce definitely added the requisite Asian kick.

Back to Europe, this time to Italy via an English Pea Ravioli with Soft Egg and Parmesan. Whilst I’m usually a sucker for a perfectly poached egg, this dish underwhelmed me. The English pea ravioli seemed bland, especially after the big flavors of the banh mi pig’s feet sliders. Perhaps if I’d started with this dish, I may have enjoyed it more.

Next to France, Chef Manzke’s usual stomping ground, with an old favorite from Church & State, the Tarte Flambe with Caramelized Onion, Bacon and Gruyere. Essentially a flatbread pizza, perfectly crispy, sweet with caramelized onions, salty with bacon and rich with gruyere. Perhaps a safe choice for Manzke, he’s had plenty of time to perfect this dish and it showed. My favorite dish of the night, which perhaps says to me that he’s best when working within his French roots.

The second cocktail of the night was the Hidden Secret, a concoction of freshly squeezed lemon juice, grape tomatoes, maraschino cordial and True organic gin. Less overwhelming than my first cocktail, definitely more fruity and sweet.

Onto dessert, we move to the Philippines with a Pandan Leche Flan with Coconut Sorbet. I love a good flan and this one did not disappoint. Rich and eggy, this flan brought me back to my childhood with the floral taste of pandan, and nicely balanced with the sweetness of the coconut sorbet and foam. This, to me, was Chef Manzke’s most successful Asian inspired dish and a dessert I would return for over and over again. Whatever his next restaurant ends up being, I hope he finds a place for this dessert on his menu.

The journey ended in Japan with a Chocolate Fondant with Bing Cherries, Black Sesame Ice Cream and Green Tea. Try as I might, I couldn’t find a way to enjoy this dessert. This was the only course I failed to finish and I HATE to leave food on my plate, so that speaks volumes. But one bad destination on a whirlwind around the world trip ain’t bad.

Like any around the world trip, I came home with some great memories and experiences, a few missed steps and lots of photos. Chef Manzke definitely showed his range with this menu and proved he’s happy to venture outside his French roots at Church & State and Bastide before that.

Is this a sign that his own highly anticipated restaurant will feature an international menu? Probably not. I think this was more about mixing it up and flexing his chef muscles.

But, whatever his next dining concept may be, I’ll be there, hopefully on opening night, to support one of the most talented chef’s currently working in LA.

And, before that, I’ll hopefully have a chance to try his next pop-up menu at Test Kitchen.

A menu I’ve been promised will again be a departure from this Hatchi tasting.

Hatchi at Breadbar with Walter Manzke
10250 Santa Monica Boulevard
Los Angeles, CA 90067
(310) 277-3770

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