Tuesday, April 10, 2012

The Coop: Rising to the Occasion Easter Sunday

Whatever you may have thought of Marcel Vigneron, the character on Top Chef, you can't deny that he is an incredibly creative force.  Syfy's Marcel's Quantum Kitchen grew on me, for the sheer reason that there was more time to look further past that established persona - to see the inventive mind at work, to root for seemingly impossible food experiments to pull through in the 11th hour, to see the development of an individualist talent to a gradually improved team leader and chef on screen.  And the marketing geek in me loves it every time he's given a challenge and pulls off incredible dishes that are cerebral and perfectly on theme.
I was actually sad not to see a Season 2 of the innovative show, but happy to see that Chef Marcel's catering company is alive and well and thriving...and when I heard that they were doing a pop-up Easter brunch (albeit, late - like at 4:30 in the morning, the morning of the last day of the pop-up...) in one of my favorite venues in LA - the now shuttered Gonpachi - I had to check it out. 
The concept was "The Coop": a 5-course brunch focused of course on the humble - but in the hands of Marcel and event partner Haru Kishi (most recently of Chaya Venice) - limitless holiday icon, the farm fresh egg. All for the unbelievable (for fine dining) price of $38! 

And true to form the theme was meticulously carried through down to every last detail.  (Even though they only had literally 3 days to pull the whole restaurant together!) Loved the little decorative touches like a pink egg sitting in a tumbler of hay.
Devon Espinosa, mixologist extraordinaire - also last seen on Quantum Kitchen (and since moved on to .ink and now Pour Vous) - was on hand with a themed list of 'cock'tails to kick off the meal.  I couldn't resist the devilishly sacrilegous Blood of Christ ($12) on an early Easter Sunday morning...though the description of ingredients should have told me otherwise (beef eater gin, orgeat, strawberry, pastis), I think in my mind I was envisioning some variation of a Bloody Mary.  What arrived was pinkish, light and refreshing, and more of a girly drink than I expected, with a giant strawberry as garnish.  So much for my plan of devious defiance!
More sacrilege was to follow though, in the form of unrepentent gluttony.  The first course was Truffle, Gold, Egg.  Which arrived in an eggshell, with a straw.  Which would be the first time in my life I've had to suck eggs through a straw.  And I loved it.  Inside the delicate eggshell was the most ethereal scrambled egg espuma, topped by fragrant truffle infused egg white, then gold leaf.  A refreshing start to the meal, in concept, presentation, texture and taste.
I was fortunate enough to sit at the bar, where Marcel was personally preparing the dishes, and I got a front row view! Look at that concentration!   
The second course of Salmon and Fried Egg Sauce was also beautiful - and here you can see much more Japanese influence: a gorgeous slab of lush salmon, cooked and cured in lime juice and vanilla bean, sat on top of nori puree (that also contains caviar powder, Marcel remembers at the last minute), fried egg sauce with pickled daikon in the shape of cherry blossoms, with compressed kumquat and compressed radish for textural contrast and lovely bursts of tart/bitter to counterbalance the savory/sweet/sour of the other ingredients. And some micro basil and coriander flowers for garnish to evoke the spring.
Third course was another fusion dish that blossomed from Japanese roots: Tiger Chawan-mushi, or steamed egg with tiger prawns, and split pea soup on the side.  Served in an adorable ceramic box topped by a white bunny!!!  Again, loved the attention to detail. 
But, right, back to the food: the steamed egg was enhanced with dashi, a clear broth made with seafood from lobster to shrimp - and topped with deliciously fresh peas and bite sized chunks of tiger prawns.  Simple, clean and delicious. I could have done without the split pea soup, which I was advised to pour over the egg - to me it was too heavy and its taste drowned out the delicate flavors of the chawan-mushi. But, that's all part and parcel of risk-taking - sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't, but it keeps things interesting and I'm still glad to have tried it.

Apparently the chefs saved the best savory course for last: Nesting Egg with Hay Smoked Bacon.  Suffice it to say: Mind, blown.  It's a dish of simple ingredients, but the creative execution is what makes it oustanding. With a meal of day that is not known for innovation - Chef Marcel succeeded in coming up with the most creative preparation of eggs and bacon I've ever seen/tasted.  What appears to be thin noodles are wrapped around a soft-boiled egg and fried, so that it evokes a bird's nest (pretty much like the Chinese banquet favorite).
Chef Marcel explained that he wanted to bring the egg back to the nest at the end of the meal, and that's where the concept came from.  Love the thought process that went into creating this - and it wasn't just a cool concept - it was amazing in taste as well, with a perfect contrast of smooth, liquid gold center offset by stringey, crunchy fried shell.  So good.

The bacon itself didn't have a high concept attached to it, but I was interested to know the thought behind use of hay for smoking the meat versus more familiar items like applewood...turns out Chef Marcel had just run out of mesquite, but had plenty of hay that he had bought to use as decor (remember that adorable little glass tumbler with 'bed' of hay for the pink egg?).  So he tried it - it tasted good, so he went with it.  These sorts of MacGyver moments and creative problem-solving mixed with two parts luck were elements I particularly enjoyed in the Quantum Kitchen episodes as well.
For the sweet finish: The last course was Albion Strawberry, Sabayon and Bread Pudding.  The strawberries were fresh, and perfectly balanced between sweet and tart, and the bread pudding was fairly light and airy, which was nice - but overall this dish just didn't hold any surprises and didn't make that much of an impression.  But I guess everything is relative, so perhaps if the savory dishes hadn't been so fantastic, my expectations wouldn't have been so high for the dessert..and maybe I would have enjoyed it more...

All in all though, an inspired meal, and by the time I left the place it was full house (and Gonpachi is a huge space with 3 separate wings and an upstairs). A great meal that definitely renewed my faith for culinary creativity to continue to thrive in LA outside of 'organized/corporate kitchens' - flying in the face of naysayers, whose declarations that the pop-up is dead are thankfully ruled (at least in my blog) premature.

Thank you chefs for an amazing Easter!
On a 7 point scale:
Flavor - 6 bites
Presentation - 6.5 bites
Originality - 6.5 bites
Ambience - 6.5 stars
Service - 6 stars
Overall experience - 6 bites
Price - $$$ (3 bite marks)
Probability of return visit - 100% (whenever they have their next pop up!)

The Coop at Gonpachi

134 N. La Cienega Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90211 

Twitter: @marcelvigneron 

No comments:

Post a Comment


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...