Monday, September 26, 2011

ink. - Making Its Mark on Melrose / LA Dining Scene

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.

Joining me for dinner on opening weekend was my friend "Teach".  We had been counting down all week to the meal, and kicked it off with a cocktail from masterful mixologist Devon Espinosa (of Marcel's Quantum Kitchen fame!) - Rum ($10) made with lime, house falernum.  To be honest, at first glance the cocktail list looked uninspired - with drink names that simply referenced types of liquor (i.e. "gin", "tequila") followed by a listing of 2-4 simple sounding ingredients.  I'm all for farm fresh and am anti-gimmick when it comes to cocktails - but the drink list just didn't do Devon's creations justice.  I asked him for a recommendation, and on hearing that "Rum" uses his own housemade falernum involving cardamom, clove, ginger and allspice, I had to try it.

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.

Perhaps our server was strategic in the progression of dishes - dipping our expectations only to send them shooting through the roof starting with the very next dish: Blue Prawns ($12) - from the description alone, we thought this might be a fairly traditional Thai-inspired dish.  What came out was a sort of re-interpreted sushi with the freshest blue prawns (whose sweet, natural flavors were allowed to shine) wrapped in and enhanced by thin, refreshing, crisp ribbons of green papaya, flavored with finger lime, counterbalanced with crunchiness of crushed peanuts, and creamy dollops of coconut on the side with the consistency of burrata.  This was hands-down our favorite dish of the evening and a pretty good deal at $12.

Next up was Quail ($19) with charred orange and onion, sorrel cream - loved the lush flavors and succulent pieces of gamey meat.  It's not often that we encounter quail outside of ethnic enclaves in LA, so we jumped on this one right away when we saw it on the menu.  We devoured these and sucked every fiber off the bone.

The next dish we'd vote as Least Photogenic - but the Black Cod ($18) with red pepper dashi, shishito peppers, and kelp pasta was delicious, and another best-of-meal (I think we were adding almost everything to that list at this point).  Perhaps intending for the Japanese inspired dish to look like a large piece of seaweed in bowl of broth - it initially just looked like a black amorphous blob.  But presentation aside, one bite and we were sold - the cod was perfectly cooked, tender and beautifully flaky, and went well with the kelp-flavored pasta sheet - roasted shishito peppers added subtle heat, and the flavorful dashi brough all elements together into a cohesive whole. 
I love eating with Teach as she is as unabashedly trigger-happy with her camera as me - however, this coupled with our uber-chattiness became a cause for concern for our servers.  They took back the Veal Cheek ($17), after noticing we had not gotten around to it after about 7-10 minutes of fawning over other dishes, snapping pics and being completely engrossed in conversation.  We felt super guilty committing that cardinal sin of bloggers, but appreciated the attentiveness and quality control - they wanted to ensure we enjoyed the dish at the correct temperature.  We made sure to dig into it second time round as soon as it arrived.

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.

Our last 'main' dish was Beef Short Rib ($25) - another favorite for the night.  The pieces of short rib were so perfectly cooked, juicy and tender, the robust texture reminded me more of filet mignon than short rib - these were served with an incredible mix of sweet and sour mushrooms, topped by thin crisp, deliciously salty panels of mushroom chicarron, and punctuated by black garlic.  It was the most expensive dish on the menu, but well worth it.  I don't think I've ever had any short rib quite like it - and would go so far as to say that it's one of the things I would put on my shortlist of things I'd consider if I could choose my last bite on earth.
At the last minute, our server had recommended Seaweed Mashed Potatoes ($8) with sea grass, sea beans as a side. It didn't arrive until we already finished all of our savory dishes - but with its lush, creamy texture and extremely subtle seaweed flavor, it ended up being a good bridge to dessert.  

Where we exercised restraint with savories - we threw out convention / decorum with dessert, and ordered all four on the menu.  We again left progression to our server - and again the first one seemed to be a throwaway: Goat Cheese ($10) with ash, concord grape, arugula. The presentation was inventive and completely unexpected - but here is where we wished our server would have been a little more knowledgeable and passionate about the ingredients and thought processes that went into what goes on the plate! 

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.

Dessert #2: Grapefruit Curd ($8) avocado, cilantro sorbet, charred maple-lime.  The consistency reminded me of panna cotta, but the true breakout star was the cilantro sorbet - herbaceous where your mind expects sweet, light and refreshing and an intriguing pairing to the citrus infused curd. 

Dessert #3 was possibly my favorite of the four in terms of flavor, though it looked like a pile of rubble: Chocolate ($10) was accompanied by a minimalist ingredient description of "coffee, spice".  I loved the classic combination of coffee and chocolate, with the variety of textures from creamy to crunchy pie-crust crumbs to pop-corn like puffs.  It took a minute for my mind to process the textures and flavors - as there was an interesting spice woven through the dish that we couldn't quite place - the server told us it was "coffee spice" - which means we may never know what was in it.  The mountain of rubble was punctuated by globules of an unnamed fruit for bursts of juiciness.  Whatever the ingredients were, I thought the dish was fantastic.

The final dessert was Teach's favorite, simply named: Apple ($8) but with the mysterious description of creme caramel, burnt wood sabayon, walnut - again not sure how much stock to put in what the server told us, but according to him they had burned wood in the parking lot out back, then soaked it in milk for days, then made a sabayon out of that milk.  Interesting for sure, but don't know that it really sounded appetizing, and I couldn't really taste smokiness in the sabayon.  The giant sphere of sabayon sat on what I thought was like a disc of cheesecake, but was really creme caramel, surrounded by candied walnut clusters with small apple orbs for crunch / juice with sweet & tart flavors. The dish overall felt sort of like a deconstructed hybrid apple pie and cheesecake.  Creative, and overall delicious.

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 
Ph: 323.651.5866


ink. on Urbanspoon

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