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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

Test Kitchen - Walter Manzke in Los Angeles on Fooddigger

Test Kitchen on Urbanspoon

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

Test Kitchen - Red Medicine in Los Angeles on Fooddigger

Test Kitchen on Urbanspoon

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