25 November 2011

Lessons in ink.

The Voltaggio Brothers were favorites of the wife and mine during their run on Top Chef season six, which saw Michael best his elder sibling Bryan in the finale. Michael Voltaggio was, at the time, the chef de cuisine of The Dining Room at the Langham Hotel in Pasadena. Before I had the chance to check the food out, he'd left to start what is now ink. in LA.

The first thing to like about ink. is the online reservation system. I didn't have to call, pray, and do a rain dance just to get a call back from someone (I'm still waiting, Animal). You pull up their website and it shows you which days within the next 30 are available.

As for the food? When Voltaggio won Top Chef, he did it with a solid dose of modernist flair. This is a guy who makes yeast-less brioche in the microwave by aerating batter in a whipped cream canister. And while that type of thing is fun to watch on TV, to be honest I wasn't sure if I'd enjoy it as an actual meal.

I did. And as a culinary student currently going through the greatest hits of traditional French cuisine (Butter! Bacon! Stock reductions!), I thought the food at ink. was inventive, but also a terrific example of balance. Voltaggio and his crew get pretty playful with their food, grabbing inspiration from all over the world and putting it in different contexts. Despite the tinkering, dish after dish featured great complimentary flavors and textures.

Also, everything tasted really good. Let me just get that out of the way before I get all food nerd describing flavor profiles and textures.

(The menu descriptions below are lifted from the website menu.)

kale, burrata, pumpkin seeds, pumpkin preserves, yuzu

There are also chunks of asian pear. The burrata was super soft, almost like popping a creamy mozzarella balloon. The preserves (spread at the bottom of the dish) were almost like peanut butter, and the seeds provided a nice crunch.

bigeye tuna, parsnip-sesame cream, grapefruit, soy gel

The only thing we had that could be accused of being conventional, though it was still good. The black cake/crouton things provided the crunch. What stood out for me was actually the soy gel. It helped season the tuna and the saltiness also mellowed the tartness of the grapefruit. I think if soy sauce was simply drizzled over, it would've muddled the dish. Up with gel!

spaghetti, giant squid, squash, hazelnut-ink pesto, piment d’espelette

I'll be honest, I didn't even know I was eating squid until after the second or third bite. Even with the server explaining the dish. For a minute, I kept thinking, "Why does it say spaghetti when it's fettucine?"

This was one of the more playful dishes and I loved it. Just a wonderful plate of pasta-less pasta. Also, another admission: I had to look up "piment d'espelette" when I got home. It's the pepper powder dusted over top.

brussels sprouts, pig ears, house-cured lardo, apple

I've made pig ears once, poorly. They came out like what they are: chewy pieces of cartilage and skin. So, this was a deliciously humbling experience. Crispy strands of pig ear, tartness from the cured lardo and the brussels sprouts, and sweetness from the apple.

Seriously, they make pig ears good. And brussels sprouts. Together. That by itself is worth noting again.

lamb neck, chickpea poutine, yogurt curds, chive purée

High class, modernist greasy spoon food! It's kinda like using ingredients for doner kebab and falafel in a dish that screams drunken American excess but is actually French-Canadian (that's what I think of poutine, anyway).

I've been reading a lot about chefs doing the high brow-low brow thing and this is another shining example of applying technique to a dish that you'd shovel in your face at 2am to help your body soak up copious amounts of alcohol. The lamb by itself was delicious. The chickpea croquette fries were light and crunchy and lovely. The yogurt curds, like The Dude's rug, really tie the room together.

berkshire pork, charcoal crust, macaroni and cheese, leeks

The charcoal crust was actually leek ash, so this dish contains leeks in three different forms: the ash crust of the pork, braised leeks, and crispy leek strands.

I'm pretty certain the pork was sous vide. It was extremely tender all the way through, with the leek ash supplying the smokiness you'd usually get from a seared crust.

The lone, elongated macaroni stuffed with cheese was good, but frankly I would've been satisfied with the pork and leeks.

grapefruit curd, avocado, cilantro sorbet, charred maple-lime

Again, balance. Tart and sweet. Maple can be really cloying, but charred maple with lime flavor cutting through? Quite lovely. Cilantro sorbet was nice and refreshing, too.

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