The day was finally here. When Top Chef Season 6 winner, Michael Voltaggio, opened the arguably most highly anticipated restaurant in LA. And by some miracle, I managed to score a reservation, on that first weekend (thanks, Urbanspoon and high-speed internet!!!)
In interviews, Chef Voltaggio (most recently at the helm of Dining Room at The Langham Huntington, Pasadena) has mentioned that the name of his first restaurant - "ink." - comes from part of his company name, MVink. (a play on incorporated) and is supposed to evoke thoughts of permanence (a la artwork on his arms). And it's certainly already making its mark on the LA culinary canvas, judging by the palpable excitement across the city.
The drink was amazing, light and nuanced in flavor - with lovely layers that all tasted market fresh. Loved this and we could have drunk it all night if only we didn't have to drive!
We took in the decor in the restaurant - simultaneously sophisticated and laid back, with a blue & black color scheme - a triangular bar by the entrance, Japanese inspired omakase bar counter against one wall, intimate and relaxed dining room with tables and seats of dark wood - topped off by carved out counter space leading into an open kitchen. The latter was the best part, as we got seated right in front of it, and could watch Chef Voltaggio at work in the kitchen preparing our meal! Loved that he was actually on the line, making sure the food was great - versus trying to 'work the room' as a celebrity chef might.
The menu at launch is focused - with 15 savory dishes and 4 desserts - designed to be shared tapas style, each dish to feed two. Though I was tempted to order everything, "Teach" wisely suggested with just the two of us, to get a few key dishes, enough to fill up without killing ourselves (fine, spontaneous combustion is not a great way to end the evening).
So we started at our server's recommendation, with the Octopus ($16) buttered popcorn (in mashed form) piquillo pepper (shaped into something that looks like a fruit-rollup, hole-punched all over) and spinach. The presentation was artistic, which made us all the more psyched to taste it. Unfortunately, we found the octopus a bit chewy (when we wanted it to be a bit crunchy) - and though we never expect to complain about girth, the 'logs' of tentacles were a bit too thick for a comfortable chew. The mashed buttered popcorn and piquillo pepper ribbon were fantastically creative in concept, but really didn't add too much in terms of flavor to the dish. What we loved: The creative risk-taking. And the juicy, savory/sweet roasted peppers underneath the mash.
Even with all the efforts though, this wasn't among our favorites. The veal cheek was so tender it pretty much melted in our mouths on contact, but the flavors and textures of the dish didn't come together for us - red curry, nante carrots baked in salt and fried sticky rice (which translated into toy-jacks-like clusters of fried puffed rice) seemed to be disparate elements that didn't all work together.
When asking what the various elements were, hoping for details and insights into the inspiration for the dish - what we got was a vague murmur about the 'noodle' patty being an 'almond cake' and that the green cake-like pieces were 'not arugula, but something...else'. And a recommendation that amounted to 'don't worry about what these are - just eat and enjoy it'. Which, in a regular restaurant, I would accept. But when serving a dish from Chef Voltaggio's kitchen, where his inventiveness is a key selling point for fans - it's a shame the server would detract from the sense of respectful wonder - the way an art lover would admire a painting and think about the artists' intent and the nature of their own connection to it - by suggesting essentially that we stop and just shovel it in. Granted, it's launch week and 'polish' - including service - is expected to be a work in progress, especially as the new servers familiarize themselves with the dishes.
Regardless, though we both loved the concept and visual artistry, the flavors and textures just didn't come together for us on this first dessert.
All in all, we thoroughly enjoyed our 3-hour meal - whether certain dishes worked better than others, whether the server gave us accurate information or not - ink. injects excitement and creativity to LA dining, and for our part Teach and I are rooting for them - and hope that as Chef Voltaggio intended - it will claim a permanent imprint on the city's culinary culture.
On a 7 point scale:
Flavor - 6 bites
Presentation - 5.5 bites
Originality - 6 bites
Ambience - 6 stars
Service - 5 stars
Overall experience - 6 bites
Price - $$ (2 bite marks most mains)
Probability of return visit - 100%
8360 Melrose Ave., Los Angeles, CA 90069