Monday, October 17, 2011

ink. Review: Voltaggio on His Own Terms

I don't think I've ever been as excited about a restaurant opening as I have been about Michael Voltaggio's ink., which I first heard about almost a year ago in November. Michael Voltaggio has been my favorite Top Chef winner by far and I've been eager to try his food ever since he won several years ago. I may have had some of his cooking at the Bazaar pre-Top Chef, but I never made it to the Langham in Pasadena and missed out on various one night pop-ups that he has appeared at. Ink only opened a few weeks ago in late September, and I was lucky to score a Saturday night reservation for 2 for K's birthday early one morning.

We were a little late for our reservation due to typically brutal traffic on Santa Monica Blvd, but they were really nice about it when I called and we were seated right away. The restaurant was about 3/4 full when we got there at 7, although completely full by the time we left. The space is nice, clearly very masculine with dark paint, but relatively open feeling with high ceilings, a sushi bar and bar on the right as you enter, and a open window into the kitchen, much like at Test Kitchen, where you can see the chefs, including Michael Voltaggio and Cole Dickinson, constantly hard at work. The restaurant doesn't feel formal, stuffy or intimidating at all; definitely more on the casual side. Service was great, very friendly, helpful and prompt. Pretty much each course was served one at a time.
We definitely over ordered a little, with 8 courses plus a dessert between the 2 of us. We were really eager to try as much as we could from the menu so we really stuffed ourselves. The food was really good; lots of big, contrasting yet complementary flavors and textures in the dishes. Clearly a lot of thought was put into each and every component of the dish. The descriptions on the menu were a little vague, so you really didn't know what to expect until the dish was in front of you, which was quite fun. Before the visit, I assiduously avoided all reviews of the restaurant like the plague in order to preserve the surprise. Some dishes were a touch on the salty side, but I would rather more flavor than less flavor. There's not really a discernible theme or ethnic cuisine to the menu, it's probably just food that Voltaggio enjoys eating and cooking. While there were a lot of new flavors, it wasn't quite as "avant garde" or as "modern" as I would have expected, given his background at Bazaar and from what I remember of his cooking on Top Chef, but that could be an unfair comparison because it may not be his style anyway. Also, it's not necessarily a negative, as modern cooking is sometimes unnecessarily fussy and more about the technique over taste. In any case, good or bad, it definitely wasn't as innovative as the food I had in Barcelona and Madrid earlier this year. But it was definitely tasty and an overall good experience. His food is flavorful and comforting and not overly precious or refined. It's quite approachable, which is also the vibe of the restaurant. I think he changes the menu quite often, as the opening night menu (via kevineats) only had a little overlap with our menu, so I would definitely like to return to see what else he comes up with. The wine list was short but well edited with good by the glass selections that matched up to the food, and the cocktails were excellent.
Dungeness crab / smoked mayo, bok choy kimchi
Spaghetti / giant squid, squash, hazelnut-ink pesto, piment d'espelette
Bay scallops / lamb neck and chickpea poutine, yogurt curds
Kale / burrata, pumpkin seeds, pumpkin preserves, yuzu
Seaweed mashed potatoes / sea grass, sea beans
Quail / banana polenta (not pictured, served in a separate bowl), beet juice, sorrel salad
Berkshire pork tenderloin / charcoal crust, macaroni and cheese, leeks
Veal cheek / red curry, nante carrots baked in salt, fried sticky rice
Apple / creme caramel, burnt wood sabayon, walnut
Tequila / serrano, lime, grapefruit, soda
My favorite dishes were the ones where every component worked perfectly with the other components without overwhelming the others. Favorite dishes included the bay scallops; I loved the crispy chickpea fries, the rich lamb ragu, the sweet seared scallops and the tangy yogurt. I also loved the super tender veal cheek, which had a bit of Southeast Asian flair with the curry. The kale with burrata as well as the buttery and creamy seaweed mashed potatoes were a bit salty, but so delicious as well. We were totally stuffed at this point, but the apple creme caramel was amazing; airy, creamy, crunchy all at the same time with luscious caramel, tart fresh apple and smoky flavors.

We also bought the Voltaggio brother's cookbook, which the chef was nice enough to sign for us.
8360 Melrose Ave
Los Angeles, CA 90069
(323) 651-5866

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