Tuesday, February 8, 2011

The Tasting Kitchen: A new way to taste

From a block away, the Tasting Kitchen in Venice is just a sign next to a large, unwelcoming wood-panel door. It blends into its surroundings – a nondescript sushi restaurant and a women’s clothing shop – seemingly content to exist as a secret space reserved for only those who know it’s there.

A glance through the single window in front quickly dismisses the perception of the Tasting Kitchen as just another business lined up on the neat little strip of Abbot Kinney. Even from that clipped view, it’s apparent that the restaurant is pulsing with life and vibrancy. The diners are there to have a good time – to laugh over a bottle of wine from Manager and Sommelier Maxwell Leer’s eclectic list, and to connect through shared plates from Executive Chef Casey Lane’s equally eclectic menu.

The space, divided into a bar, lower dining room and upper dining room, is further enlivened by trees that arch up through the center of the restaurant. In a way, they seem symbolic of the entire concept of the Tasting Kitchen as a living, breathing dining destination where the seasonally-inspired, multi-cultural menu is constantly changing and evolving. In this way, it’s impossible to label the restaurant in any concrete terms – even the menus are scribbled with notes that make it slightly confusing to read and understand.

Fortunately, the confusion does not extend into the kitchen.

The restaurant staff is proficient and eager to assist diners struggling with the “Bill of Fare” for the evening. They’re happy to recommend a pasta – the bucatini alla amatriciana, perhaps – and offer further explanation and clarification where needed. That interactive exchange is part of the point – the Tasting Kitchen encourages a communal dining experience with not just the person across the table, but with the staff, as well.

The dishes can’t – and shouldn’t be – reduced to the scribbled words on the one page menu. The sautéed broccolini with stewed lentils is a pointed example of how Chef Lane combines simple, rustic ingredients to create something far more complex on the palate than what might initially be perceived from the menu description. The delicate spears of roasted asparagus topped with crunchy pistachios are further illustrative of the attention paid to even the humblest of vegetable plates.

Nicely charred chicken wings, lacquered with a sweet apple cider marinade, are messy to eat, but no less refined in terms of flavor. It’s an aggressive dish that requires teeth and hands and a mutual agreement between diners to drop all pretense and modesty. It’s the perfect ice breaker for a restaurant that strives to exist slightly outside the fine dining box.

Pastas are a highlight – especially the rope-like strands of homemade bucatini that are aggressively hugged by a concentrated spicy tomato sauce. The bigoli with lamb is less impactful in comparison, but the focus on this plate is not on the sauce or the supple strands of lamb interspersed throughout. The pasta, a meaty buckwheat noodle, takes center stage.

While the Tasting Kitchen is not known for its desserts, a brief foray with the caramelized pecan topped bread pudding might convince one otherwise. It’s a classic preparation that – like the rest of the items on the well-edited menu – relies on both the quality and careful pairing of its ingredients to elevate its flavor.

As can be expected with any restaurant that lives and breathes in real time, there are misses. A chicken liver crostone with poached egg, frisée and bacon lands a bit heavily on the palate, and an apple galate lands a little too softly. The sweetness of the apples is slightly muddied by the thick, obtrusive texture of the pastry.

But even with the misses, the Tasting Kitchen is still a win. It challenges diners to think beyond the traditional dining experience as they’ve previously known it to be. And it challenges friends and couples to forge new bonds as they decipher that atypical restaurant world together.

The Tasting Kitchen
1633 Abbot Kinney Blvd.
Venice, CA 90291
(310) 392-6644


Gastronomer said...

Sounds like you had a good time, but not a great one. Guess I don't need to trek out to Venice to try this place after all...

Anna A. said...

Guess I don't need to sail down from Portland for this one :-) Venice was always an obscure place to me.

weezermonkey said...

Hmm. Well, it looks good.

Esi said...

The broccolini and asparagus sound so good, but I'm not sure about going "all the way" to Venice for them. But you never know. Lately I seem to be hopping all over town for good food. Wonders will never cease.

Monet said...

Your reviews are great. You have such an objective eye (and palate!) Thank you for sharing your nights out with me. I hope you are having a happy and warm Wednesday night.

Nick said...

That bucatini does look wonderful. I've always been tempted by the restaurant, but there are quite a few restaurants that I am more excited about trying in that price range.

stuffycheaks said...

oh how sad about the liver crostone, it looks so promising. Glad you ladies had fun! We need another dinner on the calendar!

Diana said...

Cathy - I actually had a fabulous time! The company and service was stellar, and I thought most of the dishes were really nicely done.

Anna - Haha, I know what you mean about Venice. Though I did find my beloved teapot at a shop on Abbot Kinney.

Weez - It was good! :)

Esi - You would love the broccolini! Yay lentils! I'll drag you out to Venice with me sometime.

Monet - I hope your week is going well too!

Nick - I really liked the intensity of the flavors in the bucatini. I wish there had been more of the pasta to soak up all that glorius sauce!

Stephanie - Yes, please!