An instant later his response lights up the screen on my Droid.
I quickly type back, “Did Mom or Dad tell you?????” I had, in typical over reactive fashion, already phoned home to tell them about my dinner the following evening at the new Test Kitchen LA with special guest chef Michael Voltaggio.
“Nope. I’m just good.” He responds. “Just had to think about who you would be excited about…”
But it isn’t that he is “just good.” Any one who had read my embarrassing “Love Letter to Michael Voltaggio” after the first episode of last season’s “Top Chef” would have been able to guess the answer to my question.
I hadn’t been exactly… subtle.
Even though my (mostly) exaggerated “crush” graduated to a more respectful appreciation of Voltaggio’s culinary skills as the season progressed, the “letter” continues to haunt me. It’s the third search result that pops up when someone Googles, “Is Michael Voltaggio married?” And it is part of the reason that Kevin from KevinEats invited me to join his reservation for Michael Voltaggio’s one night of service at Test Kitchen, a restaurant arena for chefs and restaurateurs to test out new concepts and experimental dishes for one or more evenings of service.
My excitement in accepting Kevin’s invitation, however, is not necessarily because I had at one point in time written a cringe-worthy post about Voltaggio. I’m excited because I’ve come to admire the attractive chef’s passion and vision in the kitchen. During his stint on “Top Chef,” he took risks, he blurred conventional lines and – perhaps most impressively -- he poured his heart into every dish he served. It’s why Voltaggio was ultimately crowned the victor of Season 6, and it’s why I'm texting my brother and calling my parents at 9:00 pm on a Saturday night.
Despite my anticipation about the dinner, I’m not sure what to expect when I walk into the darkened foyer of Test Kitchen the next evening, fifteen minutes before my party’s reservation. I don’t know what’s on the one-night-only menu. I don’t know if I’ll get to see the famous tattooed chef. And I don’t know if I’m even going to like Voltaggio’s experimental style of cooking.
It’s not exactly… subtle.
I do know, however, that I’m going to have fun in TK masterminds Brian Saltsburg and Bill Chiat’s lair. The room seems to thump with a pulsating energy. It’s not the music that swirls with random tunes like Alvin and the Chipmunks, nor is it the conversations wafting between revelers hibernating with ambitious cocktails at the bar.
It’s a charged energy peppered with excitement from diners. Excitement from the chef for the evening – Voltaggio, who is an arm’s distance away in the open kitchen. And excitement from everyone involved in the operation. There’s a distinct unspoken sensation that nothing like this night will happen again. It’s quite literally a once in a lifetime dining experience.
I pinch myself that I’m so lucky to be there for it.
Voltaggio’s menu for the evening is broken down into two amuse bouches and ten tracks, or courses, that are meant to be shared between two diners. The concept of the $69 tasting is easily discernable from the names ascribed to each track, like “Fish and Chips” and “Melon and Proscuitto.” Voltaggio has reconceptualized traditional dishes with untraditional preparations. This I know for a fact. The rest is akin to a game of charades between myself as a diner and Voltaggio as a mad culinary genius.
I don’t pretend to automatically understand all the flavors I am experiencing in every dish. I know the “Petit Befores” – a savory mushroom canapé with goat cheese crema and truffle oil, and a salted gelatin tomato pop – are meant to be a play on “Petit Fours,” but I don’t know why or how the pop tastes and feels like the sort of gummy candy I could become addicted to if it were stockpiled in my office drawer at work.
Can I count it toward my daily servings of fruits and vegetables?
It’s uncertain. But I’d like to.
Everything seems to move at a dizzying speed once our first official track, the “Mole” hits the table. Little cups of queso fresco ice cream are paired with a coquettish pot of edible flowers and Padron peppers that have been dusted with mole “soil.” My first bite of the pepper is marred by punch of heat that is a bit spicy for my palate. I dig out some of the seeds before venturing in for another bite with the tangy ice cream – much better.
Our server warns us not to eat the fried balls in Track 2, the “Fish and Chips,” in one bite. “It’s tartar sauce,” he tells us before disappearing toward the kitchen. Two seconds later, I instinctively plop the ball into my mouth, completely forgetting his blatant warning. It’s delicious. As are the thin slices of yellowtail, malt vinegar “caviar” and the delicate fried potato chip – all components that the tartar sauce was meant to be eaten with to achieve the “Fish and Chips” sensation. Oops.
I manage better with the “Caprese” that plays with the concept of the mozzarella, basil and tomato salad that is typically simply dressed with salt, pepper, balsamic vinegar and olive oil. On this plate, the salt and vinegar have been replaced with briny flavors exported from the sea – freeze-dried calamari chips, squid ink, sea beans, and green and red cherry tomatoes that have been marinated in dashi (bonito flakes). The effect is startling similar to the original, but is a more potent, texturally interesting version.
I’m a little leery when Track 4 hits the table. While the two “McNuggets” look innocent nestled into the cloth-lined shopping cart with a precious cup of rhubarb ketchup, I know the golden, curry-dusted fried coating is not a cloak for chicken. Voltaggio can’t fool me. I can read menus (even if I do have trouble listening to verbal instructions).
The “McNugget” is actually a fried lamb sweetbread. And even with the knowledge that a sweetbread is thymus or pancreas, I’m going to eat it. And love it.
Voltaggio’s version is far better than the actual McNuggets I used to pretend to like as a kid so I could order fries on the side to eat as my actual lunch. I feel no need to pretend here. (Though I do make a concerted effort not to look at exactly what’s inside the crisp, seasoned package of creamy, glandular goodness.)
I have no trouble taking in Track 5, the “Greek Mezze” plate with sous vide tentacles of octopus, fried falafel balls with liquefied centers, tangy yogurt and a smoky accompanying sauce that mimics the flavor profile that would be achieved if the octopus had been grilled. It’s quirky, but accessible – a refined version of some of my favorite (not always refined) Greek/Mediterranean eats.
When first presented the menu for the evening, I had mentioned to Kevin that I might struggle with Track 6, the “Melon & Proscuitto” plate reimagined with Wagyu beef tongue, arugula, dehydrated arugula, smoked mayo and a concentrated block of sweet cantaloupe. Tongue always makes me think of the Ramona Quimby book where Ramona and her sister discover the mystery meat their mother served them for dinner is tongue. The girls are horrified, and, as a child, I was horrified just by reading about their fictional experience. Tonight, however, I put my childhood prejudices aside, and dive into the long strips of sous vide beef tongue.
Everyone’s eyes are on me as I nervously drape a piece of the tongue over a sliver of melon. I take a breath and slide the tongue into my mouth. I smile.
“Voltaggio slipped me the tongue.” I say with a wink. “And I loved it.”
I also love Track 7, the “Maryland Crab Feast,” with soft shell crab, corn scramble and Old Bay. Instead of being seasoned with Old Bay and steamed like in the traditional East Coast Crab Fest fashion, the soft shell crab is appropriately fried with the Old Bay seasoning appearing on the plate as a sauce. The intensely spiced sauce is a nice counterpoint to the sweet corn pudding accompaniment. I want more of everything – especially the crackly fried pieces of crab.
Track 8, the “Veal Picatta” is another favorite. The tender veal cheek has been braised down to the consistency of a short rib – albeit a much more luxurious one. Even with the dehydrated caper dust and the dehydrated cauliflower delicately perched over the top of the veal, this is a plate that anyone could appreciate. The cauliflower puree and chanterelles round out the dish well – this is comfort food, Voltaggio-style.
For dessert, Voltaggio takes on two classics – “Carrot Cake” and “Tiramasu.” Carrot cake has always been a favorite for me, so I find it a bit disconcerting to experience it in its deconstructed form. The carrot has been taken out of the spiced cake and applied in the form of an intensely carrot-y sorbet instead. Plump raisins are strewn along the edges, a thin thread of yuzu is glazed over the top, and the plate is finished with a dusting of powdered cream cheese frosting. Taken together, it certainly tastes like carrot cake, but I find myself missing the original.
I do, however, prefer Voltaggio’s reinterpretation of tiramisu as a creamy soy budino topped with coffee beans and mascarpone beads. I love the intense coffee flavor, the subtle kiss of chocolate and the crunchy topping. It’s like a grown-up ice cream sundae made with pudding, and I happily acquiesce when Linden from Gastronomnom, my track-sharing dining companion, tells me to finish it.
It’s hard to get up from the table and walk away after such an intense and highly anticipated meal. We all want to stay – to sneak a peak inside the kitchen and bother Voltaggio for a picture (can be viewed at the bottom of KevinEats' review).
When I do finally leave 45 minutes later, my mind is still in the moment – still reeling, still analyzing and still tasting that once-in-a-lifetime meal. I may never completely figure it out, but I can’t wait to see what other tricks Voltaggio has in store for LA in the future.
9575 W Pico Blvd,
Los Angeles, CA 90035
Phone: (310) 277-0133