uhockey's thoughts on the Los Angeles Area: 11/11/11-11/15/11 including ink, Red Medicine, AOC, Providence, LQ@SK, Jitlada, Animal, and more.
Thanks to all the great LA hounds who not only directed me where to check out, but to the many who actually dined with me - half a dozen great folks at 9 of my total stops. Places visited will be listed here and reviews will come along as I write them; life is busy with the holidays, work, etc.
As it stands I'm soon to be living MUCH closer to LA and given my love of the Kings it is certain to be a frequent destination on weekends beginning with the 2012-2013 season.
Joan’s on Third
Providence (Kitchen Table)
Gjelina and GTA
LQ at SK (White Truffle Menu)
8022 W 3rd St, Los Angeles, CA 90048
5233 1/2 W Sunset Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90027
8400 Wilshire Blvd, Beverly Hills, CA 90211
1429 Abbot Kinney Blvd, Venice, CA 90291
235 N Canon Dr, Beverly Hills, CA 90212
Ancillary Eats: (Joan's on Third, Fonuts, Bhan Kanom, Groundwork Coffee, Intelligentsia, Stella Rossa)
Full review with pictures in the blog, text is as below:
No sooner had I returned from Chicago than I was repacking my bag for the city of angels and although this trip was prompted more by business than by pleasure a fortuitous clinic schedule allowed me to tack on a few more days while some of the very best local foodies, gourmands, and chowhounds I’ve ever met volunteered not only their time and knowledge but also their cars, knowledge, and stomach capacity to meet up for some stellar dining during the course of my five day stay. Using the Beverly Hilton as home base during the first three days of the trip and the home of a friend in Hollywood during the subsequent two this series of eating would see me visit as far west as the Pacific where I’d enjoy coffee on the beach and as far east as downtown LA where after escaping the traffic debacle of the Twilight Red Carpet premier I dined on 18 course of White Truffles with new friends in a scene I cannot imagine occurring anywhere outside of LA.
Beginning the trip with a rundown of what I like to call “ancillary eats” – IE the things that did not entail breakfast, lunch, or dinner but at times wowed none the less my very first stop after cabbing from LAX to The Beverly Hilton would be Joan’s on Third, a place long on my list but always missed for whatever reason but a place whose take-away items would prove invaluable in avoiding “conference food” during my first day.
Arriving just after 11am with the sun shining on a national holiday it was no surprise to find the patio of Joan’s quite full and with the scene very much “Hollywood” as pooches sat on patrons laps outside and every woman wore sunglasses large enough to cover the eyes of both herself and three others I made my way through the crowd and eventually to the door only to find the interior equally packed. With the deli line at least twenty deep and all the seats filled I spent a spent a bit of time browsing the cheeses, dry goods, spices, and meats before making my way to my original destination – the pastry counter and bakery – where a short queue awaited and a number of employees were helping guests with various orders both large and small.
Making my decisions as I waited it would only be a short while before I found myself at the front of the line and greeted by a young man named Hugo I placed my order for a half-dozen items and with each selection carefully wrapped, boxed, and placed in a bag I paid the modest tab before making my way to the door and the subsequent walk back to the hotel – a walk interrupted by stopping to taste the first of the items, a “Cloud” Cupcake with a 5 inch mound of marshmallow fluff dipped in a chocolate shell perched precariously atop a dense dark chocolate cupcake quite similar both in texture and in flavor to the Hostess original.
With some of my bounty being consumed during day one of the conference while others remained refrigerated until day two my second taste from Joan’s would turn out to be the only disappointment – a doughy and surprisingly unsalty Pretzel Croissant that was much more “pretzel” than croissant in texture and much more dinner-roll than either pretzel or croissant in flavor. A decent taste with a lot of buttery notes I imagine I would have liked this much more with some crunchy salt or perhaps in a different context; all in all it simply wasn’t what I expected.
Never one to pass up unique cupcake options or the standard-bearer red velvet my cupcake choices in addition to the Cloud would include both a moist red velvet with slightly tangy cream cheese frosting that did not disappoint but also did not ‘wow’ and a Snickers cupcake that would prove to be the best of the bunch with a nearly fudgy thick cake slathered with literally fudge thick frosting and chunks of chopped Snickers candy. Small in size but not lacking at all in flavor this would prove to be one of the better cupcakes I’ve had in all of Los Angeles and a good indicator that the next two items would work well since Joan’s doesn’t seem to do “light” pastries well but certainly packs a punch when making dense and most treats.
For my last two selections, both holdovers for a post-gym breakfast the following day, a small Peanut Butter and Jelly Bar and a large slice of Banana Caramel French Toast Pie would prove to be the best of Joan’s selections as the first was essentially a brownie in texture but rife with pure natural peanut butter flavors and fresh jam while the second was essentially what would happen if you took thick buttery brioche and soaked it in custard (a la bread pudding) before baking and then topped it with a thick layer of sweet bananas drown in fresh caramel. While I personally would have preferred to see the two incorporated (and to have had the use of a microwave) I have to say that all things being equal it was very good and the balance of salt and sweet was spot on.
For a second sweet stop while in Los Angeles I found myself again on Third Street near a place I’d heard about from a vegetarian friend and with plenty of room to be wowed after an entirely subpar brunch at AOC I walked into Fonuts where I was greeted by a young man named Pete and the fantastic smell of baking donuts…yep, you read that right, baked donuts – the brainchild of former Bazaar pastry chef Waylynn Lucas that opened earlier this year.
With the shop small but cute and featuring a vintage stove as its only decoration save for the cases of donuts and large bags of LAMill Coffee I stood for a moment browsing the selections before stepping up to the counter to place my order. Admittedly skeptical given my own experiments with baking donuts twice resulting in tasty but dry round ‘muffins with a hole’ I asked Pete first of all how these little creations were made and subsequently for his recommendation of what was best – the first answer having to do with high humidity, pressure, and heat and the second including no less than half a dozen selections from which I chose three – a $10 quarter dozen bagged up and taken to the street to enjoy.
Having whittled my server’s suggestion down to the flavors most appealing to my sense my first taste of Fonuts would come in the form of the Peanut Butter and Jelly concoction and for a moment I felt my original cynicism was well deserved – the first bite was dry but buttery, almost like a buttermilk biscuit with no semblance of peanut butter or jam at all. Wondering if I’d somehow gotten the wrong donut and taking another bite it turns out that no, I’d not gotten the wrong donut but rather taken the wrong approach as this turned out to be a “filled” doughnut not unlike a hand-pie with the creamy, fruity, and salty amalgam of peanut butter and grape jam at its core.
Moving on to two more traditionally shaped doughnuts my next taste of Lucas’ wares was the Strawberry Buttermilk donut – a riff on my favorite “chain” donut of all time, the Strawberry Glaze at Dunkin – and every bit as good in texture while much better in quality. Beginning sticky and sweet on the exterior with a rich glaze dotted in candied strawberries and progressing to the mellow tang of buttermilk within the moist batter I can honestly say that with all things being equal I rather doubt I would have been able to distinguish this from a fried version if I were blindfolded and if placed side-by-side with Dunkin I’d gladly spend a few dollars more for this one on taste alone.
Eschewing any concept of “healthy” derived from baking instead of frying my final Fonut would be the oft raved “Maple Bacon” and without batting an eye I can say that although not quite as personally relevant to me as the Strawberry this was one helluva donut. Beginning first with the cake – moist, dense, and as good as if it were fried – this fantastic pastry was next topped with an ample layer of creamy maple frosting every bit as good as Tim Horton’s and subsequently piled high with salty smoky bacon; trendy for sure, but fantastic as well and while some may claim that the “baked” donut is essentially just a cupcake with a hole all I have to say to that is if someone wants to start serving cupcakes as good as Fonuts Maple Bacon or Strawberry Buttermilk “baked donuts” I’ll be there in line with cash in hand.
Moving onward, a third sweets stop would be for dessert following my first “real” Thai experience at Jitlada – appropriately at a “real” Thai sweet shop named Bhan Kanom recommended by my dining buddy as we opted to skip dessert at the famed Sunset Boulevard location both due to capacity and him having to return to work.
Having really never experienced Thai sweets in the past I was quite surprised entering Bhan Kanom to find the location not only quite packed with products but also with people, the majority Thai themselves and a good indicator of the authenticity of the cuisine. With options diverse but the store quite full (much like my stomach) and more dining plans for later I spent some time browsing before settling on my choice and in addition was gifted one of my friend’s “Pangchi,” a small fried disc consisting of Taro, Corn, Coconut, and Sugar that was crisp on the outside and creamy within costing a mere 40 cents and packing a whole lot of flavor into such a small and sweet bite.
Paying the modest tab of $3 and making my way to the street after gathering some plastic cutlery my dessert for the afternoon would be based on my fascination with taro – a root vegetable that should absolutely be more prominent in western cuisine – in the form of a simple chilled dessert titled “Sweet Rice with Taro.” Mildly sweet but full of creamy tones and the unmistakable flavor of coconut infusing the panna cotta smooth layer atop an admixture of soft rice and fibrous taro this dessert was part sugary and part savory but more surprisingly very light yet fulfilling – a slightly solid rice pudding, if you will.
Admittedly impressed and at the same time wondering what exactly the sweet rice would have tasted like warm my only regret in visiting Bhan Kanom is was my limited capacity – I’d have loved to try the warm black beans in coconut milk – and the fact that they were sold out of the fried taro, but in the end I can definitely say I’d like to go back and will certainly be on the lookout for Thai desserts during future travels.
Moving along as always to coffee, the conference that I was attending was thankfully supplied with a continuous (free) stream of LAMill and as such for the first three days of the trip I was appropriately stimulated and admittedly impressed by the quality of the brew being constantly refilled in the large silver containers at The Beverly Hilton but when my “supply” ran out at the end of the meeting I was once again set to finding some unique local brews – a bit of a challenge in Los Angeles compared to other major cities but one I was willing to take with the first of these stops being the Groundwork Coffee in Santa Monica; an experience that almost made me wish I stuck back inside at the conference (at least until I took my cup to the beach.)
A small shop on Main Street Groundwork is apparently a chain billing itself as “Los Angeles' premiere organic coffee resource, and the largest coffee roastery in southern California” and given this descriptor I entered the small shop with high expectations; expectations only improved when a young woman representing the local FOX affiliate handed me a reusable cup as part of the company’s green initiative but expectations that fell off the moment I was forced to deal with the “barista” – a young woman with multicolored hair who not only didn’t bother to answer my question of what they were brewing, opting instead to motion with her head to a chalkboard, but a young woman who also basically told me “tough luck” when the El Salvador Las Lajas coffee I’d ordered ran dry at the fill-your-own-cup station up front thus forcing me to settle for an inferior and over-roasted dark appropriately titled Bitches Brew because “it takes a while to brew fresh coffee y’know?”
Never one to abide the hipster barista attitude (really, you work in a coffee shop and you have tattoos, congrats) I eventually gave up on the ‘brew’ and tried the Lucky Jack despite the “no refills” sign and although a bit better with pleasant almond notes and some spice definitely not something I’d go back for, especially considering the attitude.
Omitting discussion of multiple stops at the Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf – all pretty much what you’d expect and generally high quality for the price – my other “destination” coffee stop during the trip would be the Intelligentsia Coffee and Tea on Abbot Kinney; their brews plenty familiar to me both from Chicago and from my own French Press but a location like this one featuring some of the white label blends a place I’d not yet had the chance to experience.
With the weather warm, sky clear, and the café surprisingly full just after 2pm on a weekday I spent a short time in line talking with an older gentleman who apparently lived in the area and came here daily for his espresso before making my way to the counter where I was greeted by the standard Intelligentsia barista – hipster, pierced, bearded, and inked – but friendlier than those in Chicago and placed my order for a 10oz pour over of Colombia El Trapiche and a Maple Pecan Scone provided by local bakery “Cake Monkey” and waiting for my order to be prepped and poured I browsed the shop (and more so the clientele including a man with an Ipad who I’m rather certain was wearing a crocheted afghan as clothing) and their impressive collection of cups, machines, beans, and even clothing.
With coffee in hand and parking nowhere near ready to expire but no seating available at Intelligentsia I prepared my coffee before making my way to the street to browse the multitude of unique shopping areas and upon taking my first with a sip of the brew – a soft mouth texture with notes of cherry and almond plus low acidity – I was impressed as ever by the quality of Intelligentsia’s roasting and sourcing but what came next, the scone from Cake Monkey would truly prove to be a surprise as I’ve found Intelligentsia’s baked goods quite subpar in the past. Layered and soft with pockets of butter interspersed with those of sugar and small chunks of candied pecans all topped with a thin maple cream glaze this was definitely a scone worth the $3 and although excellent with the coffee I can only imagine it would have been even more wonderful warm with a side of clotted cream or butter.
For the last (in writing, not chronologically) of these ancillary bites, the early conclusion of my meeting on Saturday would see me without a whole lot to do before dinner plans at Red Medicine at 9:30 and as such I phoned a friend offering to pay if he wanted to drive me somewhere for pizza – either Soto, Mother Dough, or Stella Rossa – the later our final decision given the recent rave reviews as well as the early opening hours and more unique offerings plus my familiarity (and fondness despite the critics) with Lettuce Entertain You restaurants…not to mention chef Jeff Mahin’s considerable culinary pedigree including Heston Blumenthal and Juan Mari Arzak.
With traffic light but the night already setting in our drive to Santa Monica would be quite brief and lucky enough to secure free parking just around the corner we walked up to the doors of Stella Rossa just twenty minutes after opening yet with the wine bar and many seats already filled. Greeted at the combined entry point for M Street Kitchen and Stella Rossa we requested a table for two and within moments were led to a tall two-top near the wood fired oven where we were greeted by our server, a young lady named Brittany who proved my theory about the majority of trendy LA spots hiring models as part time servers but who also did a great job of describing the menu, making suggestions, and keeping beverages filled throughout the evening.
With Chef Mahin working directly in front of us at the large commercial oven we spent a few moments taking in the scene – the room itself is rather Spartan with exposed brick, bulb, and hard wood the only decorations aside from a few flat screens and the decibel level moderate though I can imagine it getting quite loud when full. Having read a bit about Mahin’s year-long process to perfect the dough at Stella Rossa I watched as each ball was removed from a large glass storage jar, stretched by hand, topped, and placed in the oven – a rapid fire process seemingly much more efficient than that at other iconic pizza stops like Mozza, Una, Lucali, etc and within moments Brittany would return to the table to take our orders; 2 pizzas and fully expecting some to go home given our later evening dining plans.
With the room slowly beginning to fill and the bar becoming quite the scene my dining partner and I chatted for a bit as our pies were prepared and within twenty minutes of placing our order the two pies would arrive, both fragrant and golden with cheese bubbling but surprisingly (as it is so en vogue) without much notable char. Beginning first with the standard – the house Margherita with hand crushed tomatoes, fresh mozzarella, sweet basil, and organic extra virgin olive oil I was instantly impressed by Mahin’s work on the crust as the locally milled flour with what I can only assume to be spelt, wheat, and cornmeal mixed in was perfectly crisp on the exterior but chewy and with a lot of sponge at the center. Almost like a “pan” pizza at the edges but moist and Neapolitan at the center the structure of the pie was really quite unlike any I’d tried before – a cross of styles if you will – and the toppings were impeccable while the size was quite ample for the rather low price.
Moving on to the more interesting of the two options, at least in my opinion, the Shaved Mushroom pizza with gruyère, melted onions, black truffle, torn parsley, rosemary, and thyme would actually prove to be one of the best pizza’s I have ever tasted – nearly on par with the Pannocchia at Vetri’s Osteria or the Rosa at Bianco in Phoenix. With the same fantastic crust this time tasting even more prominent as a slightly fermented/sourdough note came through the toppings were clearly the star here; a heaping layer of mandolined mushrooms that were deep, heavy, and elevated by notes of truffle amidst a sea of gruyere and lightly applied onions. With herbal aromatics including rosemary and thyme most notable on the finish this was the sort of pizza that becomes a restaurant signature – the sort that people will (and should) come from miles around to experience.
With the tab a modest $45 for two pizzas, a craft beer, tax, and tip plus enough leftovers to sustain me during the morning and early afternoon of my last day of the conference I can say without a doubt that the hype over the pizza at Rossa is well deserved and although there is no “celebrity chef” like there is at Mozza the scene is much less manic and the pizza, although different, is just as good and possibly even better. It will be interesting to see what happens with Stella Rossa given the fickle Los Angeles marketplace but for my part I’ll just say that while he does the basic Margherita well there aren’t many better pizzas to be had than the Shaved Mushroom.
8022 W 3rd St, Los Angeles, CA 90048
El Salvador Cafe
575 E Pico Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90015
5233 1/2 W Sunset Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90027
Coffee Bean and Tea
305 S El Camino Real Ste B, San Clemente, CA 92672
Main Street Cafe
12939 Main St, Garden Grove, CA 92840
445 N Rossmore Ave, Los Angeles, CA 90004
8400 Wilshire Blvd, Beverly Hills, CA 90211
I'm curious as to why you usually choose red velvet as a standard bearer for cupcakes. I usually associate it with Southern cooking, cream cheese frosting, and, well... red dye. I've found bakeries can have amazing vanilla or chocolate cupcakes with buttercream frosting, and horrific red velvet cupcakes. Or is it just your favorite kind of cupcake?
Bar Bouchon, Bouchon Bakery, The Nosh of Beverly Hills, AOC, Portos, Amandine:
Full review in blog with pictures, text as below. Lines placed to divide locations.
BAR BOUCHON/BOUCHON BAKERY
More or less the moment I received my flight confirmation to LAX I started planning my meals and despite the fact that “meals” were provided at the three day conference I was certainly not in town for that sort of dining – not when a number of quality breakfast and brunch spots are within walking distance of the Beverly Hilton and with the conference not starting until 2pm on the Friday of my arrival my I actually managed to get breakfast or an early brunch on each of my five days in Los Angeles, the first of which came with high expectations given my affinity for Thomas Keller – a very early seating at Bar Bouchon followed by a trip to Bouchon Bakery next door.
Having visited each of Chef Keller’s restaurants over the last few years with only Bar Bouchon, Bouchon Bakery Beverly Hills, and Bouchon Bakery Rockefeller Center as yet escaping my reach I admittedly went into my experience at Bar Bouchon with mild trepidation having been only mildly impressed by Bouchon Beverly Hills ten months earlier and having heard mixed things about Bar Bouchon (and the limited selection at this particular Bouchon Bakery) from a number of trusted palates and much to my dismay things seemed amiss literally from the moment I arrived.
Given the fact that it was Veteran’s Day and many folks were off work I was not terribly surprised to find Bar Bouchon rather busy on my arrival, but what was shocking was just how disorganized everything seemed – servers here and there, no one acting as a hostess, and the general flow a mess – especially given the TKRG standard. Standing in place for what seemed to be five minutes before a server asked “if I was looking for something” I suggested I’d like a seat and seemingly confused he wandered off with a different person, a young woman arriving a few minutes later and leading me indoors to the bar as all but a few larger tables outside were full.
Finally seated I waited for another four or five minutes at the empty bar listening to the music overhead and a table of three behind me chat before I was finally met by the bartender/”server,” Timothy who asked me if I’d like to start with something to drink and handed me a menu. Stating that water would be great to start and then clarifying that still would be fine a bottle was placed within reach and a glass filled as I perused the menu, asked a few questions about the daily specials, and was then left again for no less than ten minutes to “take my time” in making my decisions – decisions I made within much sooner than that and an order that I literally had to wave my hand at Timothy to place as he was kibitzing in the kitchen after delivering some beers to the tables outside.
Realizing at this point that a leisurely lunch was quite likely I grabbed a copy of the Los Angeles Times from the rack on the wall to read as I waited and sure enough it would be twenty minutes of sipping water (tables outside got bread and butter) before my Mousse de Foie de Volaille would arrive as a beautiful quenelle with a smear of apricot preserves plus toasted ‘croutons’ on a wooden service board. Taking into account that this was indeed chicken liver and not foie gras I first took a bite with my fork and then spread some of the creamy mousse onto a crouton before rendering my personal verdict that not only was this the best chicken liver I’ve ever eaten, but that it was better than a multitude of foie gras preparations as well. Impossibly light for liver and with the unctuous flavors nicely tempered by the apricot puree I took my time savoring each bite and though I had to ask for more croutons (not delivered, but instead finally given some of Bouchon’s famous epi baguette with butter) I’d have honestly not found this preparation out of place at Per Se or TFL – it was that good.
With another substantial delay as the cleared board and dirty silverware sat in front of me literally until my next plate arrived (requiring Timothy to set my main course down to clear the space and subsequently return with fresh silverware) my second dish of the afternoon would be a daily special listed on the board as “Lamb Shank Salad” and featuring finely shredded Braised Lamb Shank in a bowl with quinoa, broccoli rabbe, pickled onions, and a poached egg. Again prepared with the expected Thomas Keller level of precision and a lovely balance of bitter and savory mellowed by the creamy egg and a touch of acid from the pickled onions I will only note that the salad was rather small for $17, but given the quality of the ingredients and preparation plus the real estate it certainly was not substantially overpriced.
This time sitting, no exaggeration, for fifteen minutes with a dirty plate before me while Timothy first mixed a drink and then spent ample time chatting with a regular at the end of the bar about craft beers and computers I finally grew bored with the game and asked one of the other servers circulating in the bar to obtain my bill – a request that led to him going over to Timothy and asking him to get me the bill and Timothy subsequently coming over to see if he “might interest me in some dessert” – an offer I flatly declined (something I rarely if ever do) with a “just the bill” and on settling the tab sans gratuity I simply walked out with a bitter taste in my mouth but hopes that a visit to Bouchon Bakery next door could provide something sweet.
Having been warned that the selection at Bouchon Bakery Beverly Hills was much more limited than the other locations I was not surprised to find that the Bakery itself was in the exact same space as the “Pop-Up” from the previous Christmas, though the area had been converted from a round central “bar” to a proper pastry case. With the line short and three young ladies ready and waiting behind the counter I spent a few minutes perusing the options – mostly things I’d tasted at other Bouchons – and after asking a couple of questions I placed my order and made my way to the door to head back to the Beverly Hilton eating as I walked.
Beginning first with a seasonal item, one of Bouchon’s oversized Macarons noted as “Pumpkin Spice,” I was impressed as ever by the quality of Keller’s interpretation of the classic French cookie and its perfect crackling shell with a bit more chew than the textbook versions at Laduree but every bit as delicious. With the cookie itself mild and sweet with notes of nutmeg, cinnamon, and clove the interior of this specific macaron would prove to be duo – one third smooth vanilla cream and the other two stripes a heavily sweetened pumpkin puree with great texture and lots of spice. While I know some may say that Bouchon’s macarons are not “traditional,” they are still tasty and featuring more than just a single bite remain amongst my favorites.
Moving next to another pastry native to France – specifically to Brittany – the “signature” Kouign-Amann of this specific Bouchon Bakery would prove to be every bit the highlight item I expected and although not quite as mesmerizing as a couple of the ones I had in Paris (particularly the meal capper at Ledoyen) it was without a doubt one of the best pastries I had in all of Los Angeles. Somewhat similar to a croissant but yeasted for rise and imbued with sugar and butter between the innumerable layers this lovely $4 pastry would prove flawless to the tooth with a crackling lacquered shell giving way to a flaky but moist interior intense with French butter, plenty of sweetness, and just a touch of spice – it really did make me feel for a moment like I was back in Paris and if I lived locally it would be even more fantastic so I could arrive early, get one warm, and pair it with good coffee (something I never did manage to find in Paris.)
THE NOSH OF BEVERLY HILLS
For day two of the conference lectures started early and “breakfast” after a long morning run down Wilshire, Canon, and Robertson would consist of leftovers from Joan’s the day before but with lunch consisting of steamer trays I opted to head back to the streets for brunch at The Nosh of Beverly Hills – a deli that seems to glean most of its attention from the location rather than the food but an “institution” I figured I should check out because I can’t imagine I’ll ever be in the area again without a car and because I noticed on my run that they had televisions and the Buckeyes were playing.
Making my way into the surprisingly large deli/coffee shop/bakery/breakfast nook to find it unsurprisingly full I spent a few moments browsing the baked goods before a short woman named Linda greeted me with a gruff voice and led me to a table – a table later usurped by another server and his patrons when I went to wash my hands thus leaving me with a restricted view of the television, but perhaps for the better as OSU ended up losing the game anyhow. With the restaurant busy and more-so loud I sat for a few moments before a menu was delivered and after that I sat quite a while longer taking in the scene.
Established in 1975 I can only imagine that not much save for the televisions have changed at The Nosh in the intervening 35+ years and all things being equal most of the service staff has been there just as long, if not longer. With the floors a bit too dirty and the service a bit too slow it would be nearly twenty minutes after seating that my order was taken, though water was filled by a young bus boy in the interim, and even after the order was placed it would be a good half hour before it arrived – a single item, reportedly cooked to order and entitled “The Mother of all Waffles with Vanilla Ice Cream.”
Described on the menu as a “delicious waffle smothered with lots of warm apple pie filling, streusel, and drizzled with caramel sauce…mom would be proud” when my Waffle finally did arrive my heart sank – sure the waffle itself looked nice, a golden buttermilk version fresh from the iron with a great crunch and plenty of chew, but the toppings hardly resembled “smothering” with any of the three ingredients though given the low quality of the canned pie filling, minuscule amount of streusel, and no detectable caramel sauce at all perhaps this was for the best. Served with a side of warm Ms. Butterworth’s (real syrup was an extra $1.50) and the supplemental ice cream ($2.00 for a scoop and a half of something clearly from a carton) I decided to make the best of a bad situation and consumed what I can only assume to be the largest single amount of High Fructose Corn Syrup I’ve had in the last 10 years before requesting the check – another fifteen minute adventure – and paying the $15 tab with tax and tip before making my way to the street thinking that maybe, just maybe, the anemic vegetables and beige chicken may have been a better (and certainly more economical) choice.
With two days of subpar breakfast behind me the last day of my conference would begin the same as the second – a ten mile run followed by leftovers from the previous day at breakfast, in this case cold Stella Rossa Pizza – and with the conference completed at noon I grabbed a rental car to begin the “vacation” portion of the trip with brunch at Suzanne Goin’s AOC, a spot long on my must visit list in Los Angeles as its menu always wowed me more than Lucuqes but a place that always seemed to fall just short of making my final list until the recently started offering brunch with reservations easily obtained via OpenTable.
With parking not exactly easy to find but eventually allocated without paying the valet I made my way into AOC having salivated over the menu for a while yet to my surprise I arrived to find the room nearly empty with only one table in the main room and one table in the secondary room occupied. With no one manning the hostess stand I stood for a moment before a tall gentleman would eventually poke his head out from behind the bar and subsequently stride up to confirm my reservation and lead me to my seat – a seat literally in the front window with the option to look out onto the street or into the entirety of the restaurant, the later my selection if for no reason other than to watch the restaurant work, and with that a paper-clipped menu was left for my perusal.
With the front page list of cocktails and the tome of wine passed over it would be a short while before my server, Aleia, would arrive and having already browsed the menu I inquired about the daily pastry selection before placing my order – a scone, a main course, and a “dessert” that she stated would be ‘quite a bit of food’ but an amount I assured her I could handle before she returned to the kitchen to place the order. Without belaboring service issues too much I will note here that although pleasant enough Aleia would prove to be largely inattentive during the course of my stay only arriving to deliver items and making it quite evident that it was not her job to bus tables, fill water, or to inquire about guests needs thus leaving dirty plates in place as she walked by with her nose in the air and glasses empty until the sole ancillary server stopped by with a pitcher.
With menu prices clearly a bit higher than the average brunch my first item from AOC would prove to be the most notable offense by far, a $4 cornbread and blackberry scone that although warm, fresh, and buttery was literally only three to four bites and certainly no better than other scones that cost far less elsewhere. Admittedly tasty with a toothsome texture and substantial complement of berries at $4 I would have at least expected some clotted cream or butter, neither of which were included or offered.
Moving next to my “main course” the food at AOC would continue to impress despite its high cost while service continued to lack as the “Toasted brioche with gruyère, prosciutto, frisée and egg,” would arrive still bubbling and beautifully presented. Essentially an open face Croque Madame with a single slice of brioche lacquered in gruyere and then piled high with frisee, a thin slice of ham, and a barely set egg plus plenty of salt and cracked pepper I have to admit that despite the fact that this was more salad than substance I really did fancy the flavors and textures – a bit bitter, a bit savory, but plenty creamy and with sharp notes from the perfectly aged cheese. While the argument that $14 for such a sandwich is outlandish can certainly be made I’ll simply note that the ingredients were top quality and leave it at that – I wouldn’t pay that much again, not compared to the version at Bouchon, but it was quite good.
After I enjoyed starring at my dirty plate and empty glass for approximately ten minutes while listening to the group in front of me discuss the previous night’s scene at the club one of the back servers would arrive to clear the dishes and pour me a refill of my water only perhaps a minute before my last dish would arrive – the “wood oven baked pain perdu with caramelized apples, smoked bacon, and maple syrup.” Again pricey at $14 and served in perhaps a 12oz iron skillet this dish would prove once again the kitchen’s talents and all things being equal it is one of the best French Toast preparations I’ve ever tasted. Beginning first with the bread – the same brioche as the croque if I’m not mistaken – the pain perdu itself was entirely saturated and baked to caramelization on the exterior while moist, dense, and custard-esque on the interior. Imbued with smoky notes both from the oven and from the bacon and topped lightly with nearly applesauce textured apples plus a sidecar of pure maple syrup this dish this dish was everything I’d hoped – sweet and savory to be sure, but moreso a veritable bread pudding with exquisite ingredients prepared exquisitely.
Again seated with an empty plate until I actually raised my hand (elementary school style) to get Aleia’s attention and the bill I found it somewhat astounding that she failed to realize just how little attention she was paying to the dining room but figuring that perhaps this was just the style of AOC I left an average tip and thanked her for the service just the same before making my way to the street, again past an empty hostess stand where a few customers stood waiting and appearing puzzled. With high quality to match the high prices and never one to let cost (within reason) get in the way of a great meal I guess most of my disappointment with AOC is simply the lackadaisical attitude of Los Angeles service in general but all things being equal when paying a premium I expect service to match the food, something that if AOC could provide would make it a truly exemplary brunch.
For my next breakfast in LA the day would start the same as any other but with my home base now moved from Beverly Hills to the Hollywood Hills my morning run would see me stride over nearly every star on the walk of fame (who knew Bob Hope had two?) past a number of theaters and attractions (Museum of Death, really?) and even part way up the hill before a quick car ride in relatively mild traffic would take me to the city of Glendale to visit Portos, a Cuban bakery long overlooked given my frequent visits to the Griddle Café but a place that seemed ideal on this particular morning after overpriced sit-down breakfasts the three previous days.
With the streets of Glendale largely empty at 8am on a Monday and metered parking available as far as the eye could see I made my way into Portos’ main entrance where I surprisingly found no line but rather three eager servers ready to take my order though with so many choices both in the pastry case and on the large menu hanging from above it was actually I who made them wait as I evaluated their choices and my capacity. Standing and starring for what must have been five minutes as I let a couple of other guests pass by I eventually made my way to the counter once I had a good idea of what I wanted and there I met Francisca, a pleasant lady so short she could barely look at me over the case but so full of great suggestions – some I’d already planned on and some where I just took her word for it – that I ended up walking away with 7 items plus a large coffee…at a grand total of $10.62.
Still surprised by the lack of a queue given the rumors I’d heard of hour plus waits at the 20,000 square foot establishment I took my selections next door to the seating area only then realizing that there was actually a second (smaller) pastry case and take-away counter slightly more busy and finding a seat amongst the crowd before subsequently moving outdoors to enjoy the weather (and decreased noise) I started my tasting of Portos 40+ year old recipes with perhaps their most famous item, a “Papa Rellena” or “fried potato ball” stuffed with seasoned ground beef. Never one to order beef if given a chance but agreeing to this given Francisca’s insistence I took a bite into the Rellena to realize that while I am still no beef convert this certainly was a tasty morsel with the exterior crisp without being greasy and the interior a shockingly pure and smooth potato puree dotted with bits of spicy ground beef. Having been given two of these small balls despite only asking for one I’ll admit I ate both quite quickly and would probably order them again just for the quality of the potatoes.
At this point outdoors and sipping my coffee, a surprisingly smooth blend with cinnamon and earthy tones despite its low price, I proceeded to another suggestion from Francisca – the Rellenito. Served piping hot and wrapped in white paper to sop up some of the oil this unique item was described as a sugarcoated sweet plantain filled with black beans and although I cannot say it was exactly what I expected it was really quite delicious. More a puree of black beans and plantain than either “filled” with the other the concoction was subsequently fried and rolled in sugar, a sweet on sweet yet also somewhat earthy and savory two bite item that could just as easily served as dessert (really, a banana split replacing the banana with a few Rellenitos sounds like an idea whose time has come.)
Moving on to the last of my hot items, the most “savory” of the group for sure, a Ham and Cheese Croissant would prove to be the weakest of my choices (I stress my choices as my server suggested the Cuban pork sandwich instead) not because it was bad, but because it was merely average and everything else was better. With the exterior soft and the interior crumb similar this was certainly not gourmet, just good old fashion cheddar and boiled ham in a buttery puff pastry – no more, no less.
With the next two selections also my own the Cinnamon Roll and Almond Danish would each prove to be good but not stunning versions of their namesake pastries with the cinnamon roll a bit more spicy that I’d have expected – perhaps a Chiapas cinnamon instead of a more mild/cheaper version – and not as sweet as one might expect while the Almond “Danish” was much closer to an almond croissant than a Danish with a golden crisp exterior and giving way to a cavernous center lightly tinged with frangipane and ample butter notes. While certainly not “Cuban” pastries by any means a nice example of the bakery’s skills and given the price each an absolute steal compared to other “French” patisseries.
For my final selection, a “must must try” according to Francisca, the “Pastelitos De Guayaba” or Guava Cheese Danish would not only disprove my general disinterest in cream cheese but also prove to be every bit as good as the rumors. Beginning first with the same golden puff pastry housing the Almond Danish and the Ham and Cheese Croissant this decadent traditional Cuban pastry upped the ante by combining the slight musky sweetness of guava puree with the tang of the cream cheese leading to a flavor something like fruit punch but smoother and sweet but not so sweet as to overwhelm the butter or the saline notes of the cheese. Truly a signature pastry and again an absolute bargain that left me walking away from Portos not only wishing I’d have gone years earlier, but wishing that I’d have saved my money the previous three days and just stopped by Portos on day one and bought enough to refrigerate for the weekend.
For my final breakfast I’d considered Griddle Café for my fifth visit but with lunch at Jitlada and dinner at Animal before flying out I decided against the density of pancakes or French toast and instead after a morning run that entirely by accident led me right past Jitlada I showered, packed up, and made the drive to a place some claimed to have the best croissants in all of Southern California – Amandine Patisserie, a small boutique pastry shop on Wilshire that I’d actually walked by on my visit a few years prior without knowing enough to stop in.
With traffic heavy on Santa Monica Boulevard and my arrival later than I’d have preferred I was thankful to find parking quite just down the street and after a short walk up the hill I found myself at the small storefront where a small sticky note greeted me with the words “cash only – credit system down” and making my way through the door I was surprisingly met with a line ten deep; both a blessing and a curse as this delayed breakfast even further after a particularly long morning run but at least gave me plenty of time to browse the options before reaching the counter where I was greeted by a rather terse yet pleasant woman who seemed to expect that I should know precisely what I wanted by the time I approached. Rather unhurried myself though carrying my laptop I ordered a few items I knew I wanted (including the last almond croissant) and after asking a couple questions about the unlabeled items I settled on a half dozen in total, some for now and some for later, before paying the $22 tab and finding a seat near the patio in back.
Clearly not considering that a downed credit card system also meant no free wi-fi (as advertised) but with plenty of food to keep me busy I started my morning with the smallest of my choices and biting into the “mini” butter croissant, a $1.25 crispy ball of butter with a shell that shattered and an interior that bounced back with each bite I quickly had to agree that this was the best croissant I ever ate in Southern California though perhaps not quite as good as some in Northern California, New York, or Paris which prove a bit more balanced with notes of sweet and salt occasionally punctuating the butter.
Moving next to a $2 scone that I normally would not have ordered but had to taste in order to compare to the one at AOC two days earlier my selection of a Blueberry Cornmeal Scone would prove to be every bit as large and flavorful as that at Suzanne Goin’s brunch but half the price, slightly sweeter, and packed with more fruit intermingling with the moist but crumbly pastry. A great scone by any justification and amongst the best I’ve ever tasted I fully realize that ordering a British treat at a French patisserie may not be terribly logical but trust me, if this one is on the menu it is well worth the modest price tag.
Having snatched the last Almond Croissant – still warm I might add – but with such a variety of the delightful flaky pastries I simply couldn’t settle for one so in addition to the mini butter croissant and the larger almond croissant I also picked up a Chocolate Almond Croissant and a Banana Chocolate Danish planning on some for now and some for later – a plan that actually worked out for once (although later was only a couple hours, to be fair.) Beginning first with the two croissants – slightly different in shape but very similar in texture in that both were of the split and double-baked variety – both would prove to be textbook and nearly on par with those in Paris. Sturdy enough to withstand a bit of pressure but shattering into a hundred flaky pieces to the tooth the texture of each was only trumped by the flavor, both bold and buttery with a lot of almond in the form of those sliced and a thin layer of frangipane and the chocolate almond version piped with a thick core that complimented without overwhelming.
Moving next to the Danish, quite similar to the croissant but heavier due to the inlaid banana compote and sliced caramelized bananas, this treat would prove just as good as the Croissants even if not quite as “balanced” and with the layers just as crisp and buttery along the exterior the soft and moist interior was intensely sweet yet somewhat mellowed by the almonds. Best taken in large bites incorporating the edge and center into a single mouthful this dish probably would have benefited from the fork and knife treatment as both my shirt and my hands ended up covered with powdered sugar but c’est la vie, it washed right off.
For my final bite of Amandine I debated whether the Choux Cream would last in the car and with the weather mid -60s I decided to take a chance on the softball sized $2.25 pocket of vanilla custard; a good choice that I would appreciate shortly after lunch as the crackling choux gave way to a hollow core stuffed with creamy custard aromatic with eggy notes and vanilla. Not the prettiest pastry after my assault with a spoon left over from Bhan Kanom, but delicious none the less and a fitting last taste to what is now my favorite pastry shop in Southern California and a place that I will undoubtedly return to on future visits to try the French Toast and fruit galettes – ideally when the credit card machine and internet are up and running.
I never frequent the Nosh anymore after several bad experiences with both service and food. We had to literally go and get our own spoons and sugar for coffee after waiting for 5 minutes. Then after 20 minutes we still hadn't been able to order we got up and left.
The next time you go to Portos make sure to try the cheese roll. It's the sweet flaky delicious cousin to the cheese danish. The best item at Portos (or 1b. next to the potato balls depending on who you ask).
Glad you enjoyed Amandine. In my experience, they bake the best croissant in SoCal, and at a very reasonable price. For breakfast, go with the quiche (great custard, wonderful crust) or the french toast (two thick slices of brioche, almost moist interior) and avoid the ordinary omelets. Note it is on the north side of Wilshire, a block and a half west of Bundy.
Full review as below, pictures in the blog:
As it turns out Michael Voltaggio has achieved quite a bit since I first encountered his cooking at The Bazaar by Jose Andres shortly after its opening in 2009 – and when I say ‘a bit’ I clearly mean earned four stars in the LA Times, won Top Chef season 6, and headed up the highly acclaimed Dining Room at the Langham…y’know, small things like that. Of course since that time I myself have also accomplished a few things like finishing residency and getting licensed but also quite a bit of traveling including a visit to Voltaggio’s home town of Frederick, Maryland where I had a fantastic meal at brother Bryan’s VOLT Table21 and having enjoyed both the brother’s cuisine a great deal (despite never watching a single episode of Top Chef) it was with great interest that I watched their combined website throughout the development of Michael’s first solo restaurant, ink. and made every effort to land a reservation during my most recent visit to Los Angeles.
With a concept focused on "modern Los Angeles cuisine," meant to envelope the city’s various times, traditions, and ethnicities in Voltaggio’s distinct style and a location on a rather chic section of Melrose it would be a rather short ride from the Beverly Hilton to ink and all things being equal both finding a dining buddy and finding parking proved much easier tasks than landing a reservation to the restaurant with its strange online-only system and substantial hype yet despite all this our 10:00pm arrival found the restaurant only perhaps three quarters full, though plenty loud. Greeted at the door by a young female hostess and checking in we were asked if we would prefer a table near the kitchen or near the window and taking into account both the low lighting and the open kitchen we opted for the former, a good choice in the 70ish seater save for the substantially inebriated ladies at the table next to us.
Having met my dining companion only twenty minutes earlier we spent some time chatting while waiting to be greeted by our waitress, a pleasant young woman who explained the menu with great enthusiasm and made suggestions to order 3-4 plates a piece before leaving us to our decisions and after a bit of discussion we decided that since the Omakase was not yet an option (coming soon) we’d eschew her advice and attempt to recreate the experience on our own by ordering all but the three beef items on the menu – 16 total – plus a cocktail each to start, an order that seemed to make her day and spurred her to much longer presentations of the items with great knowledge of the chef’s techniques as the meal progressed.
Rather industrial in appearance with the as yet unutilized sushi bar in the back, dark woods at the tables and bar, steel in the kitchen, and track lighting above it was no surprise that ink was loud given the substantial bar scene and see-and-be-seen crowd but overall the restaurant felt comfortable and rarely did we have to speak loudly to converse even over the sounds of the kitchen where Chef Voltaggio captained his team in relative silence. Told that our courses would be sent out as duos or trios in a progression that the chef felt best it would be a few moments later that our drinks would arrive – for myself the Rum, lime, house grenadine, green chartreuse with rich notes from the rum and chartreuse nicely tempered by the lime and as I sipped the drink slowly the progression of food would begin – and not end until just over three hours later.
Having given Voltaggio the right to send out things in any order he chose it was really no surprise that he chose to start light but impressively he did not simply go in order, instead pairing things up logically and delivering in waves that worked well. Beginning first, light as stated, “Bigeye tuna, parsnip-sesame cream, grapefruit, soy gel” would arrive along with “Charred avocado, hen of the woods, whipped fish sauce, mushroom chicharron.” With the two of us sharing and swapping dishes I began with the Avocado and instantly felt we were in good hands for the evening as the beautifully plated dish displayed not only great flavor from the smoky ash on the avocado balanced against woodsy tones and the mild funk from the fish sauce but also great textures ranging from cool and creamy in the sauce to crisp and crackling in the fantastic fried mushroom crackers.
Moving next to the tuna, not a dish I would normally order on a menu, this tartare would prove to be rather standard in the exemplary protein paired with slices of grapefruit but what made it interesting were the black pieces of soy infused bread – intense and briny – along with the earthy parsnip cream and even more intense soy gel. Delivered with plenty of nuance, just like the avocado, I felt that these two dishes in particular exemplified Chef Voltaggio’s concept of “Modern Los Angeles” by taking ingredients generally thought to be very “California Cooking” and delivering them in a new and unique way.
For our second pairing, more on the mild side would be served up yet again each would show off Voltaggio’s flare for modernist cuisine while remaining firmly rooted in California’s bountiful growing season. Beginning first with the lightest dish of the evening – “Fluke crudo, romaine hearts, fried Caesar dressing, lemon oil” would arrive as an opaque drape of mild fish resting overtop the very heart of a romaine lettuce trimmed to fit the plate and kissed with lemon vinaigrette. Tasty on its own and complimented with radishes, herbs, and esplette what truly made this dish fun was in fact the dressing – small cubes with a golden flaky shell that burst into the creamy flavor of Caesar when cut or eaten whole. Sure it is a trick I’d seen before but it was delicious none the less.
A second salad would arrive along with the Fluke and would be one of my favorite dishes of the evening – a bowl described as “Kale, burrata, pumpkin seeds, pumpkin preserves, yuzu” that showed off all the nuances you would expect from the list of ingredients and an adept hand in balancing the bitter kale, creamy cheese, crunchy and salty seeds, sweet pumpkin jam, and light notes of lemon. While my dining partner noted that the dish may have been slightly better with one more ball of burrata I guess I probably cheated in taking two, but all things being equal it would be hard to argue with his assessment as the burrata was very well made and more would never be a bad thing.
Changing it up a bit and this time pairing something heavy with something light a chicken dish would arrive along with a spaghetti dish…kinda. Beginning first with “Jidori chicken, waffles, smoked maple, hot sauce” this dish would prove to be another of the more memorable of Voltaggio’s creations for the evening pairing savory and moist sous vide chicken thighs with the skin actually made crispy separately and then reapplied hidden beneath a thin and crispy “waffle” laden with buttermilk notes and resting in a pool of maple and pepper tinged pan jus. Tasty on its own but never to settle for anything simple the staff at ink finally completed the plate with orange dots and bruleed white dollops – thickened hot sauce and sweet maple marshmallows respectively – both delicious and unique point/counterpoint additions to the chicken and waffles.
For the spaghetti dish we were served one of the few items that has been on the menu at ink since the restaurant opened and to be completely honest it just didn’t wow me as much as expected. Titled “Spaghetti, giant squid, squash, hazelnut-ink pesto, piment d’espelette” and featuring snappy noodles literally made of squid the texture was fine and the flavor quite tasty but where this dish stumbled for me was in the pesto, an overpowering though complex sauce that buried the nuances of the dish leaving only hazelnut, basil, and garlic flavors plus a light fishy tone coming from bread crumbs made of “shrimp chips.”
Arriving in trio the next three dishes would prove to be a hefty bunch but when considering the following selections the progression again made sense and with that in mind we started our fourth course with “Lamb neck, chickpea poutine, yogurt curds, chive puree” – a clearly upscaled take on the traditional French Canadian comfort food replacing fries with what tasted very much like good falafel sitting atop a ragout of smoky braised lamb neck and topped with tangy yogurt curds, shredded chives, and greed dollops of “chive puree” emulsified in olive oil. Obviously lighter in conception and delivery than greasy potatoes with beef gravy and cheese curds this was yet another dish that to my Midwestern palate screamed “California Cuisine” in a very ‘right’ way with excellent balance, myriad textures, and a bit of tongue in cheek.
Fairing less well than the poutine, “Brussels sprouts, pig ears, house-cured lardo, apple” would prove my theory that sprouts are/were THE en vogue vegetable of 2011 and all things being equal the blistered and charred vegetables themselves were top notch; small, caramelized, and full of their characteristic flavor while the draping of briny lardo and crispy pig ears (more en vogue ingredient) with a bit of spice also worked well. Where this dish faltered for me, unfortunately was the “apple” component – a sour Granny Smith variety brought to a nearly lemon/bitter point through the addition of vinegar that I personally could have done without.
For the third of our trio we would receive yet another exemplary dish, this time focused on Voltaggio’s interpretation of the local Asian food scene in the form of “Vegetable congee, duck tongue, egg yolk, root vegetables.” Having only had a couple average experiences with congee in the past but with this dish to be the first of three on this visit alone I must say that as an unabashed lover of puddings, oatmeal, risottos, and custards this mushroom porridge was an absolute delight with the rice smooth but toothsome and the flavor tinged with deep woodsy notes but also some sweetness. Moving past the rice and on to the toppings, the egg would serve to add another degree of creaminess while the beets, crispy brassicas, and savory duck tongues upped the ante in terms of flavor, nuance, and texture. Despite all the food on the table this was actually the one dish where at the end I only wished I had more…a problem that would fortunately not recur the following night at Red Medicine.
Before our final and largest savory a duo of fishes arrived – the first “Skate wing, red pepper dashi, shishito peppers, kelp pasta, fennel.” Generally underwhelmed by the fish and having also had some rather foul meat in the past this lightly breaded and pan seared wing was actually high quality, fresh, and tasty but unfortunately this dish fell apart for me after the skate as it was nothing but acid, heat, and more acid. Though clever in texture with the “kelp pasta” much like the squid spaghetti there simply was not enough of the other components around to balance the intensity of the amalgam of peppers and as such I enjoyed much of the top wing and a bit of kelp but left the rest to my dining partner who seemed to enjoy it much more than I.
With the skate failing to wow the “Sea Bass, cream of dehydrated potato, black olive oil, lemon, caper” would prove to be vastly more impressive with perhaps the best balance between tender juicy flesh and crisp scales since Guy Savoy. Noting that the fish was a superior specimen prepared with the utmost skill the accoutrements would additionally prove impressive with the “cream of dehydrated potato” essentially house made instant potatoes infused with notes of butter and chive every bit as smooth as Robouchon’s and the rest of the plate dotted with sliced Spanish style salted potatoes, sliced black olives and its oil, a tinge of lemon, and a prolific brine cast by powdered dehydrated capers; a great dish from start to finish.
For our final savory – and certainly the biggest plate of the evening – “Berkshire pork, charcoal crust, macaroni and cheese, leeks” would arrive in a large bowl with three beautiful medallions of sous-vide pork loin at the base, each rolled in lightly sweetened charcoal powder with notes of cocoa and mellow bitter notes that balanced well with the savory pig. With pan seared leeks as well as tempura shredded squash blossoms resting atop the pork adding light vegetal notes and a bit of crunch the rest of the bulk of this dish was provided by the “macaroni” – large hand rolled noodles stuffed with a blend of aged cheeses including cheddar and gruyere – adding a creamy component to the dish. Not a subtle dish or delicate in any way save for the blossoms it really didn’t have to be – it was delicious.
With the meal largely quite successful and the dining room still perhaps 3/4 full as the calendar flipped to November 12th our waitress returned with a smile and inquired if we’d saved room for dessert and knowing this was a foregone conclusion at this point we ordered…all of them; four dishes arriving as two pairs with the first entitled “Peanut butter, milk chocolate, coconut, banana.” At this point expecting anything but boring or simplistic this dessert would prove that much like his brother at Volt Michael has a skill with sweets that rivals his hand with savories as a log of milk chocolate crema sat at plate center flecked with crunchy bits of chocolate and peanut butter-coconut tuilles making for an experience something like an Almond Joy (sans almonds) and only improved by the addition of creamy coconut ice cream, whole salted peanuts, and bruleed banana. A very nice dish with lots of texture and flavor this would actually prove to be the least impressive of the desserts which says a lot about what followed.
Arriving as a counterpoint to the sweet peanut butter dessert “Grapefruit curd, avocado, cilantro sorbet, charred maple-lime” would prove to be the most interesting of the desserts and although not something I’d commonly have ordered a very memorable dish. Beginning at center with a curve of panna cotta textured tart grapefruit curd tinged plenty of sugar and a buttery top note the tartness was first enhanced through the use of sliced chunks of ruby-red grapefruit but then reigned in through the use of the smoky bruleed maple marshmallow and buttery ‘pie crust’ crumbles. With dots of creamy avocado further smoothing out the acid the dish was completed with a large ball of lush cilantro sorbet – up front and herbaceous and a bit too much if taken alone but simply wowing when considered as a foil to the citrus.
At this point sated but not stuffed the finale of our meal would arrive as a duo including what was perhaps the best dish I had in all of Los Angeles – “Apple, crème caramel, burnt wood sabayon, walnut.” Beginning first with apple, at least three forms were present with balls of compressed Fuji plus gelee and sauce of the same and all were sweet, distinct, and pure while being nicely paired with the smooth crème caramel in a rather classic way. Moving away from the classic and truly making this dish a game changer, however, was the crumbled and cracked walnuts and buttery shortbread base for texture and last but not least a liquid nitrogen frozen custard made from a distillation of smoked barrel wood essence; a clever trick every bit “mg” but utilized to add a smoky note that simply brought each of the other flavors to a peak on the palate.
Opting to eat the apple first while my friend enjoyed “Chocolate, coffee, spice” so as not to blunt my tongue with the dark chocolate first I have to admit that I was a little disappointed when we traded plates but all things being equal the fourth dessert would be at least as good as the other chocolate option and although not as attractive a bit more interesting and tasty. Beginning first with chocolate in forms – dark soil, medium nitrogen frozen meringue, milk cream ice, and white crema – and subsequently adding a dusting of bitter espresso plus gelee of cardamom, clove, ginger, and notes of anise and allspice as well this dessert was certainly a unique way to show off the nuances of chocolate but all things being equal it just couldn’t stack up after the Apple…then again, not much could.
Asked if we would like coffee or a digestif to finish and joking that we’d like to order the beef dishes we’d skipped our server commended us on our stamina and subsequently brought the bill offering a “whenever you’re ready” even though the kitchen was now being scrubbed and Voltaggio was out talking with folks at the bar and wishing everyone a good night. With the bill paid (graciously by my dining partner) I waited for a moment while he went to the wash room and when Chef Voltaggio stopped by briefly he thanked me for coming in and again commended us for managing so much of the menu before asking what did and did not work, a great bit of hospitality showing that he is still interested in what the diner thinks – particularly when he admitted that the skate dish was a “work in progress” and also that he was surprised at my comments about the spaghetti as it has become a “customer favorite.”
With a copy of the menu in hand and now en route to the car and back to The Beverly Hilton with much more eating to be done in the coming days I can say without a doubt now that the Voltaggio brothers are both extremely talented and although quite distinct in their restaurants (an locations) both show a undeniable knack for using whimsy and technique to coax the best out of their ingredients. With service friendly and impressively informed and food that doesn’t always “wow” but invariably takes a chance (often with outstanding results) I can only imagine that ink will continue to grow with time and the Omakase will most certainly be on the short list for my next visit to Los Angeles.
8360 Melrose Ave, Los Angeles, CA 90069