Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Test Kitchen: A starry night with Starry Kitchen and David Haskell

It wasn’t just about the food tonight.

I hadn’t enthusiastically accepted Stephanie from Stuffy Cheak’s invitation to join her 8:00 pm reservation at Test Kitchen solely because I wanted to gorge on Starry Kitchen’s lime-green fried tofu balls.

I’d gorged on them before. And there would certainly be opportunities for me to gorge on them again.

I was excited because tonight, for one night only, the pop-up style restaurant that is the talk of LA's dining town is featuring eight courses prepared by Chef Thi Tran "The Kitchen Ninja" from Starry Kitchen with wine pairings curated by the Sommelier for the night, David Haskell. The pairing of Tran and Haskell is as unexpected as Champagne and potato chips (which, incidentally, do go well together), or French fries and ice cream.

Just a year ago Tran was cooking and throwing dinner parties in her and husband/Starry Kitchen partner Nguyen Tran's North Hollywood apartment. She has no formal training – no roster of Michelin-star restaurants on her resume nor stints on a reality television show. She cooks from the heart -- cooks by feel -- cooks like a mother wanting to nourish her children.

In contrast, David Haskell's name has become synonymous with wine in LA in the past year. Most recently, he was the Sommelier/Director of Operations at Vertical Wine Bar and Bistro in Pasadena, but has an impressive resume that includes stints at Guy Savoy in Paris, Le Cirque and Aquavit in New York and Aubergine in my own hometown of Newport Beach. Other notable positions include forays as co-owner and managing director of Bin 8945 in West Hollywood, and Director of Operations for Jeffrey Best.

As different as Tran and Haskell appear on paper, however, the two are strikingly similar with regard to their respective fields. They are both passionate about their craft – and passionate about bringing their product – food and wine – to the people they serve.

I can feel that energy – that passion -- pulsing through the air when I enter Test Kitchen's lair in a sleeveless black dress a few minutes before Stephanie and my reservation time. It warms my bare shoulders, excites me and heightens my anticipation (and appetite) for the meal and pairings to come.

Given my dainty physique (read: low tolerance), I request that Haskell select only a couple different wines from the list that he thinks will pair well with most of the courses offered that evening. He nods in agreement, assures me he’ll take care of me and appears a moment later with an unusual looking long thin bottle that I fear contains Riesling.

I hate Riesling.

(Or at least I hate most of them.)

He tosses the label from the bottle down on the table for me to see. It’s a Batic Rebula white wine from the Vipava Valley in Slovenia – I breathe a sigh of relief – it’s not Riesling. The unique bottle was actually created specially for the family-run winery by Slovenian designer Oscar Kogoj.

While Asian food is notorious for being hard to pair with wine, the dry, subtle Rebula goes nicely with the dishes that follow. It’s a clean, well-balanced wine that develops complexity from the food it’s served with. The nuances are heightened by the flavors in each dish, so it's an astute selection for Starry Kitchen’s vibrant and intensely flavored Asian fusion fare.

Our eight course family-style feast ($40) begins with the SK Viet Chicken Salad (“Goi”) with cabbage, banana blossom, anise basil, rau ram, and shredded chicken. It appears to be a fairly standard version of a Chinese Chicken Salad, but the components are far more impactful on the palate than most I’ve the tired salads I've encountered. I love the crunch of the crisp veggies, pungent bite of the anise basil, and the sweet and spicy tang from the vinaigrette. Even though it doesn’t contain any quinoa, this is my kind of salad.

The Pandan Chicken pieces that have been marinated with shallots, lemongrass and galanga and fried in a pandan leaf, are another bright bite. The popular Thai dish reminds me of the paper-wrapped chicken my family and I used to order at Chinese restaurants when I was growing up – except they are far superior with the delicate seasonings and satisfying char on the pieces of chicken thigh.

The next course – “Chicken Wings & Pineapple… 2 Ways!” – is my favorite of the evening. The duo of dishes (a play on all the “fancy schmancy” duos all the “cool” chefs are doing) – includes a Pineapple Beer Chicken Wing Soup with fermented bean curd and watercress, and Malaysian Pineapple Coconut Chicken Wings with fresh pineapple, coconut milk, bay leaves, bell pepper and habanero. I love the acidity of the soup broth and the tender strands of falling-off-the-bone chicken that impart heartiness to the dish. When I finish drinking the remnant broth I tell Stephanie that this is the type of soup I would crave when I’m sick instead of chicken noodle soup.

I’m even more excited about the Malysian Pineapple Coconut Chicken Wings over steamed white rice. I’m floored by the flavor of the well-balanced sauce – it’s the perfect blend of sweet, savory and spicy. I want to drink it. And then order a vat of it to pour over everything I consume for the rest of my life.

Except for chocolate, of course. (That wouldn’t be the best pairing.)

I’m a little intimidated by our next course – the Curry Crab that has been rubbed with curry, onions, Thai chili with garlic and, apparently, "love." I’ve never actually eaten crab out of its shell before and am a little unsure how to tackle the pieces in front of us. I look to Stephanie, who was born in Singapore and grew up eating crabs like this, for guidance. She smiles and encourages me to just “have at it.” So I do.

Ten minutes later I’m licking flakes of crab meat from my fingers and desecrating the surface of several napkins. I know I look repulsive, but I’m having too much fun to care.

Post crab fest, we cleanse our plates with a Cold Kimchi Soup that is pleasantly funky yet soothing after the heat from the crab. I smile as I use a spoon to extract the stray strands of kimchi at the bottom of my cup. My Korean friends would be so proud.

For our next course, the Caramelized Claypot Catfish and Pork Belly with fish sauce, fresh young coconut juice and shallots, Haskell brings us each a glass of the J. Heinrich Blaufrankisch – a smooth red wine from Mittleburgenland, Austria. It’s the type of wine that I imagine would go well with many dishes – it isn’t too assertive or heavy on the palate, yet has a complexity and structure that would make it pleasurable as an everyday wine. It also remarkably holds it’s own against the claypot’s intensely soy-saturated broth -- no easy feat.

While I am typically a sodium-fiend, the broth actually proves to be too salty for my tastes. I do, however, love the robust flavor it imparts to the large chunks of catfish and thin slices of pork belly. When eaten sans broth, they are perfect, melt-in-the-mouth-but-not-in-the-clay-pot bites.
Ironically, the Satay Noodles with minced dried shrimp, lemongrass, flat rice noodles and thin sliced short-rib wafyu beef – the course I thought I might like the best – is my least favorite of the evening. Raw beef is still not my thing, and I’m not particularly fond of the gummy texture of the noodles.

The dessert course – a Young Banana Tapioca in caramel coconut milk served with a Brasserie Lefebvre “Barbar” Honey Ale from Quenast, Belgium – brings things right back on track. The warm tapioca is wonderfully comforting. The pearls are satisfyingly chewy and the caramel coconut milk infuses decadence into the dish. The sweet, buttery flavor is only further enhanced by the honey ale that shares the same caramel undertones. It’s a beautiful pairing. I’d take this over a beer float any day of the week.

As I finish my final sip of beer and bite of pudding, I feel further validation for always ordering a glass of wine (or beer in a wine glass?) when I go out to dinner. There’s a reason that there’s a magazine called Food and Wine. They go together like peanut butter and jelly. Like French fries and ice cream. And, apparently, like Thi Tran and David Haskell.

Test Kitchen
9575 W Pico Blvd,
Los Angeles, CA 90035
Phone: (310) 277-0133


Cathy Danh said...

In all honesty, this menu sounds much more delish and Viet-inspired than Red Medicine's. Wish I had snagged a seat!

weezermonkey said...

Great post, dude.

Anna A. said...

Wow, TALF I am jealous of your balls! I wish I could have joined you ladies.

Anna A. said...

Ps. but would have no doubt passed on the dessert... nanners and caramel.. eeeek!

Anna A. said...

PPS. HAPPY BIRTHDAY!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Esi said...

Happy birthday (again!). I love when people pair wine with Asian food. Sounds like a great night...and I'm super proud of you for drinking beer!

Josie and Carina said...

Bummed to have missed it but great reporting, Diana! You're awesome! Looks great.

Diana said...

Cathy - I think you would have really enjoyed all the dishes. Wish you could have snagged a seat too!

Weez - Thanks. Dude. ;)

Anna - Haha, I would have gladly taken your dessert off your hands! Both Stephanie I were scraping at the bottoms to get every last bit!

Esi - Beer and I may be casual acquintances in the future.

Josie & Carina - Thanks! It was a lot of fun - Starry Kitchen rocks the kitchen! :)