As it turns out Michael Voltaggio has achieved quite a bit since I first encountered his cooking at The Bazaar by Jose Andres shortly after its opening in 2009 – and when I say ‘a bit’ I clearly mean earned four stars in the LA Times, won Top Chef season 6, and headed up the highly acclaimed Dining Room at the Langham…y’know, small things like that. Of course since that time I myself have also accomplished a few things like finishing residency and getting licensed but also quite a bit of traveling including a visit to Voltaggio’s home town of Frederick, Maryland where I had a fantastic meal at brother Bryan’s VOLT Table21 and having enjoyed both the brother’s cuisine a great deal (despite never watching a single episode of Top Chef) it was with great interest that I watched their combined website throughout the development of Michael’s first solo restaurant, ink. and made every effort to land a reservation during my most recent visit to Los Angeles.
With a concept focused on “modern Los Angeles cuisine,” meant to envelope the city’s various times, traditions, and ethnicities in Voltaggio’s distinct style and a location on a rather chic section of Melrose it would be a rather short ride from the Beverly Hilton to ink and all things being equal both finding a dining buddy and finding parking proved much easier tasks than landing a reservation to the restaurant with its strange online-only system and substantial hype yet despite all this our 10:00pm arrival found the restaurant only perhaps three quarters full, though plenty loud. Greeted at the door by a young female hostess and checking in we were asked if we would prefer a table near the kitchen or near the window and taking into account both the low lighting and the open kitchen we opted for the former, a good choice in the 70ish seater save for the substantially inebriated ladies at the table next to us.
Having met my dining companion only twenty minutes earlier we spent some time chatting while waiting to be greeted by our waitress, a pleasant young woman who explained the menu with great enthusiasm and made suggestions to order 3-4 plates a piece before leaving us to our decisions and after a bit of discussion we decided that since the Omakase was not yet an option (coming soon) we’d eschew her advice and attempt to recreate the experience on our own by ordering all but the three beef items on the menu – 16 total – plus a cocktail each to start, an order that seemed to make her day and spurred her to much longer presentations of the items with great knowledge of the chef’s techniques as the meal progressed.
Rather industrial in appearance with the as yet unutilized sushi bar in the back, dark woods at the tables and bar, steel in the kitchen, and track lighting above it was no surprise that ink was loud given the substantial bar scene and see-and-be-seen crowd but overall the restaurant felt comfortable and rarely did we have to speak loudly to converse even over the sounds of the kitchen where Chef Voltaggio captained his team in relative silence. Told that our courses would be sent out as duos or trios in a progression that the chef felt best it would be a few moments later that our drinks would arrive – for myself the Rum, lime, house grenadine, green chartreuse with rich notes from the rum and chartreuse nicely tempered by the lime and as I sipped the drink slowly the progression of food would begin – and not end until just over three hours later.
Having given Voltaggio the right to send out things in any order he chose it was really no surprise that he chose to start light but impressively he did not simply go in order, instead pairing things up logically and delivering in waves that worked well. Beginning first, light as stated, “Bigeye tuna, parsnip-sesame cream, grapefruit, soy gel” would arrive along with “Charred avocado, hen of the woods, whipped fish sauce, mushroom chicharron.” With the two of us sharing and swapping dishes I began with the Avocado and instantly felt we were in good hands for the evening as the beautifully plated dish displayed not only great flavor from the smoky ash on the avocado balanced against woodsy tones and the mild funk from the fish sauce but also great textures ranging from cool and creamy in the sauce to crisp and crackling in the fantastic fried mushroom crackers.
Moving next to the tuna, not a dish I would normally order on a menu, this tartare would prove to be rather standard in the exemplary protein paired with slices of grapefruit but what made it interesting were the black pieces of soy infused bread – intense and briny – along with the earthy parsnip cream and even more intense soy gel. Delivered with plenty of nuance, just like the avocado, I felt that these two dishes in particular exemplified Chef Voltaggio’s concept of “Modern Los Angeles” by taking ingredients generally thought to be very “California Cooking” and delivering them in a new and unique way.
For our second pairing, more on the mild side would be served up yet again each would show off Voltaggio’s flare for modernist cuisine while remaining firmly rooted in California’s bountiful growing season. Beginning first with the lightest dish of the evening – “Fluke crudo, romaine hearts, fried Caesar dressing, lemon oil” would arrive as an opaque drape of mild fish resting overtop the very heart of a romaine lettuce trimmed to fit the plate and kissed with lemon vinaigrette. Tasty on its own and complimented with radishes, herbs, and esplette what truly made this dish fun was in fact the dressing – small cubes with a golden flaky shell that burst into the creamy flavor of Caesar when cut or eaten whole. Sure it is a trick I’d seen before but it was delicious none the less.
A second salad would arrive along with the Fluke and would be one of my favorite dishes of the evening – a bowl described as “Kale, burrata, pumpkin seeds, pumpkin preserves, yuzu” that showed off all the nuances you would expect from the list of ingredients and an adept hand in balancing the bitter kale, creamy cheese, crunchy and salty seeds, sweet pumpkin jam, and light notes of lemon. While my dining partner noted that the dish may have been slightly better with one more ball of burrata I guess I probably cheated in taking two, but all things being equal it would be hard to argue with his assessment as the burrata was very well made and more would never be a bad thing.
Changing it up a bit and this time pairing something heavy with something light a chicken dish would arrive along with a spaghetti dish…kinda. Beginning first with “Jidori chicken, waffles, smoked maple, hot sauce” this dish would prove to be another of the more memorable of Voltaggio’s creations for the evening pairing savory and moist sous vide chicken thighs with the skin actually made crispy separately and then reapplied hidden beneath a thin and crispy “waffle” laden with buttermilk notes and resting in a pool of maple and pepper tinged pan jus. Tasty on its own but never to settle for anything simple the staff at ink finally completed the plate with orange dots and bruleed white dollops – thickened hot sauce and sweet maple marshmallows respectively – both delicious and unique point/counterpoint additions to the chicken and waffles.
For the spaghetti dish we were served one of the few items that has been on the menu at ink since the restaurant opened and to be completely honest it just didn’t wow me as much as expected. Titled “Spaghetti, giant squid, squash, hazelnut-ink pesto, piment d’espelette” and featuring snappy noodles literally made of squid the texture was fine and the flavor quite tasty but where this dish stumbled for me was in the pesto, an overpowering though complex sauce that buried the nuances of the dish leaving only hazelnut, basil, and garlic flavors plus a light fishy tone coming from bread crumbs made of “shrimp chips.”
Arriving in trio the next three dishes would prove to be a hefty bunch but when considering the following selections the progression again made sense and with that in mind we started our fourth course with “Lamb neck, chickpea poutine, yogurt curds, chive puree” – a clearly upscaled take on the traditional French Canadian comfort food replacing fries with what tasted very much like good falafel sitting atop a ragout of smoky braised lamb neck and topped with tangy yogurt curds, shredded chives, and greed dollops of “chive puree” emulsified in olive oil. Obviously lighter in conception and delivery than greasy potatoes with beef gravy and cheese curds this was yet another dish that to my Midwestern palate screamed “California Cuisine” in a very ‘right’ way with excellent balance, myriad textures, and a bit of tongue in cheek.
Fairing less well than the poutine, “Brussels sprouts, pig ears, house-cured lardo, apple” would prove my theory that sprouts are/were THE en vogue vegetable of 2011 and all things being equal the blistered and charred vegetables themselves were top notch; small, caramelized, and full of their characteristic flavor while the draping of briny lardo and crispy pig ears (more en vogue ingredient) with a bit of spice also worked well. Where this dish faltered for me, unfortunately was the “apple” component – a sour Granny Smith variety brought to a nearly lemon/bitter point through the addition of vinegar that I personally could have done without.
For the third of our trio we would receive yet another exemplary dish, this time focused on Voltaggio’s interpretation of the local Asian food scene in the form of “Vegetable congee, duck tongue, egg yolk, root vegetables.” Having only had a couple average experiences with congee in the past but with this dish to be the first of three on this visit alone I must say that as an unabashed lover of puddings, oatmeal, risottos, and custards this mushroom porridge was an absolute delight with the rice smooth but toothsome and the flavor tinged with deep woodsy notes but also some sweetness. Moving past the rice and on to the toppings, the egg would serve to add another degree of creaminess while the beets, crispy brassicas, and savory duck tongues upped the ante in terms of flavor, nuance, and texture. Despite all the food on the table this was actually the one dish where at the end I only wished I had more…a problem that would fortunately not recur the following night at Red Medicine.
Before our final and largest savory a duo of fishes arrived – the first “Skate wing, red pepper dashi, shishito peppers, kelp pasta, fennel.” Generally underwhelmed by the fish and having also had some rather foul meat in the past this lightly breaded and pan seared wing was actually high quality, fresh, and tasty but unfortunately this dish fell apart for me after the skate as it was nothing but acid, heat, and more acid. Though clever in texture with the “kelp pasta” much like the squid spaghetti there simply was not enough of the other components around to balance the intensity of the amalgam of peppers and as such I enjoyed much of the top wing and a bit of kelp but left the rest to my dining partner who seemed to enjoy it much more than I.
With the skate failing to wow the “Sea Bass, cream of dehydrated potato, black olive oil, lemon, caper” would prove to be vastly more impressive with perhaps the best balance between tender juicy flesh and crisp scales since Guy Savoy. Noting that the fish was a superior specimen prepared with the utmost skill the accoutrements would additionally prove impressive with the “cream of dehydrated potato” essentially house made instant potatoes infused with notes of butter and chive every bit as smooth as Robouchon’s and the rest of the plate dotted with sliced Spanish style salted potatoes, sliced black olives and its oil, a tinge of lemon, and a prolific brine cast by powdered dehydrated capers; a great dish from start to finish.
For our final savory – and certainly the biggest plate of the evening – “Berkshire pork, charcoal crust, macaroni and cheese, leeks” would arrive in a large bowl with three beautiful medallions of sous-vide pork loin at the base, each rolled in lightly sweetened charcoal powder with notes of cocoa and mellow bitter notes that balanced well with the savory pig. With pan seared leeks as well as tempura shredded squash blossoms resting atop the pork adding light vegetal notes and a bit of crunch the rest of the bulk of this dish was provided by the “macaroni” – large hand rolled noodles stuffed with a blend of aged cheeses including cheddar and gruyere – adding a creamy component to the dish. Not a subtle dish or delicate in any way save for the blossoms it really didn’t have to be – it was delicious.
With the meal largely quite successful and the dining room still perhaps 3/4 full as the calendar flipped to November 12th our waitress returned with a smile and inquired if we’d saved room for dessert and knowing this was a foregone conclusion at this point we ordered…all of them; four dishes arriving as two pairs with the first entitled “Peanut butter, milk chocolate, coconut, banana.” At this point expecting anything but boring or simplistic this dessert would prove that much like his brother at Volt Michael has a skill with sweets that rivals his hand with savories as a log of milk chocolate crema sat at plate center flecked with crunchy bits of chocolate and peanut butter-coconut tuilles making for an experience something like an Almond Joy (sans almonds) and only improved by the addition of creamy coconut ice cream, whole salted peanuts, and bruleed banana. A very nice dish with lots of texture and flavor this would actually prove to be the least impressive of the desserts which says a lot about what followed.
Arriving as a counterpoint to the sweet peanut butter dessert “Grapefruit curd, avocado, cilantro sorbet, charred maple-lime” would prove to be the most interesting of the desserts and although not something I’d commonly have ordered a very memorable dish. Beginning at center with a curve of panna cotta textured tart grapefruit curd tinged plenty of sugar and a buttery top note the tartness was first enhanced through the use of sliced chunks of ruby-red grapefruit but then reigned in through the use of the smoky bruleed maple marshmallow and buttery ‘pie crust’ crumbles. With dots of creamy avocado further smoothing out the acid the dish was completed with a large ball of lush cilantro sorbet – up front and herbaceous and a bit too much if taken alone but simply wowing when considered as a foil to the citrus.
At this point sated but not stuffed the finale of our meal would arrive as a duo including what was perhaps the best dish I had in all of Los Angeles – “Apple, crème caramel, burnt wood sabayon, walnut.” Beginning first with apple, at least three forms were present with balls of compressed Fuji plus gelee and sauce of the same and all were sweet, distinct, and pure while being nicely paired with the smooth crème caramel in a rather classic way. Moving away from the classic and truly making this dish a game changer, however, was the crumbled and cracked walnuts and buttery shortbread base for texture and last but not least a liquid nitrogen frozen custard made from a distillation of smoked barrel wood essence; a clever trick every bit “mg” but utilized to add a smoky note that simply brought each of the other flavors to a peak on the palate.
Opting to eat the apple first while my friend enjoyed “Chocolate, coffee, spice” so as not to blunt my tongue with the dark chocolate first I have to admit that I was a little disappointed when we traded plates but all things being equal the fourth dessert would be at least as good as the other chocolate option and although not as attractive a bit more interesting and tasty. Beginning first with chocolate in forms – dark soil, medium nitrogen frozen meringue, milk cream ice, and white crema – and subsequently adding a dusting of bitter espresso plus gelee of cardamom, clove, ginger, and notes of anise and allspice as well this dessert was certainly a unique way to show off the nuances of chocolate but all things being equal it just couldn’t stack up after the Apple…then again, not much could.
Asked if we would like coffee or a digestif to finish and joking that we’d like to order the beef dishes we’d skipped our server commended us on our stamina and subsequently brought the bill offering a “whenever you’re ready” even though the kitchen was now being scrubbed and Voltaggio was out talking with folks at the bar and wishing everyone a good night. With the bill paid (graciously by my dining partner) I waited for a moment while he went to the wash room and when Chef Voltaggio stopped by briefly he thanked me for coming in and again commended us for managing so much of the menu before asking what did and did not work, a great bit of hospitality showing that he is still interested in what the diner thinks – particularly when he admitted that the skate dish was a “work in progress” and also that he was surprised at my comments about the spaghetti as it has become a “customer favorite.”
With a copy of the menu in hand and now en route to the car and back to The Beverly Hilton with much more eating to be done in the coming days I can say without a doubt now that the Voltaggio brothers are both extremely talented and although quite distinct in their restaurants (an locations) both show a undeniable knack for using whimsy and technique to coax the best out of their ingredients. With service friendly and impressively informed and food that doesn’t always “wow” but invariably takes a chance (often with outstanding results) I can only imagine that ink will continue to grow with time and the Omakase will most certainly be on the short list for my next visit to Los Angeles.