Test Kitchen with Walter Manzke
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