Test Kitchen: Closing Night – 12/13/10

Test Kitchen: Closing Night
9575 West Pico Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90035

Over the past four months, there’s no restaurant I’ve been to more than Test Kitchen (well, outside my weekday lunch rotation). Since its debut in August with Red Medicine, the restaurant has been a wild success featuring a diverse array of continuously changing chefs and menus. It remains even more popular than when it first opened, and I feel like its “pop-up” concept could be sustained for a while longer. However, all good things must come to an end – tonight was Test Kitchen’s last dinner service.

Originally, the finale was a $500 a plate charity (Gettlove and Share our Strength) benefit where 5 courses were prepared by 5 of the biggest names that have cooked in the kitchen. As much as I loved to go, it was way too expensive for me. However, just within the last week, the price was lowered to $150 and the chef/course count upped to 8. Yes! That was more than enough to get me here.

The restaurant was completely packed with a full dining room and bar area, bloggers (I dined with Kevin of kevinEats and Ryan of Epicuryan) and, of course, many chefs (including many past Test Kitchen chefs). It was great to see everyone come out to support the restaurant and the two charities. By no means an exhaustive list, just who I saw throughout the night: Dan Moody (LudoBites, upcoming San Diego project), Sherry Yard (Spago), Marcel Vigneron, Eric Greenspan (The Foundry on Melrose), Adam Horton (Saddle Peak Lodge), Ben Bailly (Fraiche), Nguyen and Thi Tran (Starry Kitchen), Chris “CJ” Jacobsen (The Yard), Haru Kishi (Chaya Brasserie), Alex Reznik, Amanda Baumgarten (Water Grill), Kevin Meehan (Cafe Pinot), and Gary Menes.

menu

Ricardo Zarate: Lobster Tartare, Cucumber Mango Ceviche Sauce, Caviar, Sweet Potato Chip

lobster

We started with this lobster tartare. I enjoyed the small pieces of lobster paired with the sweetness of the mango, and I thought the crisp cucumber was integral in balancing out the dish. The caviar added a briny, salty dimension while the sweet potato chip added the textural component.

Alain Giraud: Oxtail Consomme, Mushroom Royale, Truffles

soup

This was one of the strongest dishes of the night for me. The chicken and black truffle quenelle was simply delicious with a tasty chicken flavor heightened by black truffles. The consomme screamed umami with a deep, hearty flavor that was just really soul-satisfying.

Walter Manzke: Scallops, Hazelnuts, Cauliflower

scallop

Manzke orchestrated what was probably my favorite meal here, and this dish did not disappoint. The scallop, perfectly cooked, was topped with small bits of hazelnuts. This was an interesting textural interplay as I probably would have preferred the “crunch” from something thinner…like a chip. Regardless, I thought the nuttiness paired well with the scallop, and the green apple added just a little bit of tartness, which I thought was important.

Michael Voltaggio: “EcoPez” Turbot, Earth, Ash, & Sea

turbot

Leave it up to Michael Voltaggio to create the dish that took the longest to explain. He created an ash by cooking down leeks and mushrooms, then pureeing them and drying them out. This created a strong mushroom flavor to accompany the fish. An interesting way to impart the earthy flavor, I thought it really worked. A mushroom chip added some crispiness to each bite.

Steve Samson & Zach Pollack: Toasted Wheat Strascinati, Lamb Ragu, Braised Greens, Pecorino

pasta

Toasted semolina was the base of the pasta dough here. The pasta was rather thick, making the bites overly doughy for me. However, the rich lamb ragu was wonderfully flavorful.

Neal Fraser: Grilled Pork Tenderloin, Squash, Chestnuts, Bacon, Violet Mustard

pork tenderloin

This pork tenderloin was unbelievably tender. Unbelievable. I’m not sure how Fraser did it, but the meat was moist and flavorful as well..really uncharacteristic of a pork tenderloin. It was seriously closer to beef than pork. The pureed squash and chestnuts added sweetness (and a holiday tone!), which was tempered by the brussels sprouts and some bitter greens.

Amy Pressman: Pear Pandowdy with Gingerbread Ice Cream, Pear Bourbon Hard Sauce

pear pandowdy

I loved the presentation here with the gingerbread man topping the pandowdy. Similar to a bread pudding, this was actually the most filling course of the night. The pandowdy was very moist with a flavor best described as “spiced pear.” I probably would have preferred a lighter dish to finish off the meal, but I still enjoyed this.

Jonathan Grahm of Compartes Chocolatier: Special flavors created for Test Kitchen

<choc1choc2

Lastly we were presented with a duo of chocolates from Compartes Chocolatier to take home. We had a rosemary truffle and a raspberry ganache – my favorite was the rosemary truffle for its subtle herbaceous flavor. I thought the rosemary-chocolate combination was unique and pretty delicious.

Alain Giraud came out to chat with us a few times and was the first to sign our menus. Given the restaurant (and kitchen) was packed, having all of the chefs sign the menu was quite a task, but Kevin was able to make the rounds and get it done for us!

alain

volt

manzke

kitchen

What’s next for the Test Kitchen space? Samson and Pollack will be opening an Italian restaurant named Sotto on the Test Kitchen floor, while Zarate will open a Peruvian restaurant called Picca on the second floor. Lastly, mixologist Joel Black will be debuting a bar on the top floor. While Test Kitchen no longer exists, it’s good to see that the space will be filled by some of the people that were integral to Test Kitchen’s run.

It’s bittersweet to see Test Kitchen’s doors close. I’m not sure what’s next – rumors of everything including a TV show have been mentioned. Regardless of what happens, it’s proved that Los Angeles is a dining scene open to trying new things, and that the pop-up restaurant continues to thrive in LA.

Previous Test Kitchen posts:
Jordan Kahn (Red Medicine)
Walter Manzke
Adam Horton (Saddle Peak Lodge)
Marcel Vigneron
Ricardo Zarate
Alain Giraud
Haru Kishi (Chaya Brasserie)

Flour + Water – 11/28/10

Flour + Water
2401 Harrison St
San Francisco, CA 94110

Flour + Water opened last year and quickly became one of the hot restaurants in town for its homemade pizzas and pastas in a “neighborhood” setting. It has been awarded numerous accolades, including Best New Restaurant by SFWeekly and nominated as one of the best new restaurants in the country by James Beard. It’s still very popular, something I realized as I was trying to make a reservation during Thanksgiving weekend. It was booked solid, but we decided to just walk in and wait for a table…however long it took. About half of the restaurant’s seats are not reserved and are available for walk-ins only. Odds should be pretty good, right?

We walked in with a party of 2 and were told the wait would probably be an hour or so. Damn. It was literally almost freezing outside, so we decided to wait it out in the restaurant over a couple of drinks. Just as we were deciding to order, the hostess came up to notify us that someone was a no-show…and we were taking their table! Score!

margherita – tomato, basil, fior di latte, extra virgin olive oil

At a place called “Flour + Water,” a pizza was a must-try. Here we had the margherita. A crispy, thin crust was topped with a sweet tomato sauce and mozzarella. A very good pizza; though, I did prefer Zero Zero’s version, as I thought their flavors were a little more vibrant.

cocoa tajarin with brown butter braised giblets & butternut squash

Of course, some pastas were in order. This was a pretty interesting pasta, as it was made with cocoa. I did taste a subtle cocoa flavor in the pasta, but the deep, meaty ragu was much more pronounced. The corn added a nice sweetness and freshness to this rich dish.

rosemary pappardelle with braised hen, rabe leaves & meyer lemon

One of the best things I ate in 2010, no doubt. Now, I love myself a bowl of good pasta…which is exactly what we had here. First, we had pieces of rosemary speckled throughout the pasta – this gave the pasta a unique look and an interesting way to impart the herb’s flavor. Rosemary can often be overwhelming, but it wasn’t at all here. The hen was tender and succulent, and made for a fantastic bite with the al dente pasta. Finally, some meyer lemon zest added just a little bit of citrus to complete the dish. Amazing!

agnolotti dal plin

A meaty pork shoulder filled these agnolotti. The pasta was cooked a nice al dente, and really packed a lot of flavor with the pork. A light butter-based sauce was a welcome addition.

chocolate budino with espresso-caramel cream & sea salt

This has to be the restaurant’s most well-known dessert. The budino was rich, yet not too thick, with a good chocolate flavor. I especially liked the espresso-caramel cream with the chocolate, and the sea salt was a really nice way to bring out the flavors.

While we were only able to try a few dishes between the two of us, I thought it was a pretty good sample of what the restaurant had to offer. I’d have to say I was impressed. I’m a sucker for good pastas, and here I found them to be imaginative, well-executed and, of course, delicious. The menu is small and changes often, so I’m not sure if I’ll ever be able to try the rosemary pappardelle again, but it’s something I will remember for a long time. A return visit is in order.

LudoBites 6.0 – 12/5/10

LudoBites 6.0 at Max
13355 Ventura Blvd
Sherman Oaks, CA 91423

This past Sunday was the final night of LudoBites 6.0. I was happy to have a chance for a return visit, coming full circle from my first meal opening night.  It was clear that this was a night to remember, as a professional photographer and camera crew were wandering about the restaurant. The Lefebvres even left a disposable camera on each table so that each party could document their own viewpoint of the night.

The mood in the dining room on this night was pretty different from the opening – one of triumph and celebration. While this was a relatively short pop-up, it was evident that a lot of work and preparation went into each meal, and I could feel the sense of relief and accomplishment by the end of the night.

Warm Baguette, Baratte Smoked Butter, Sardine-Laughing Cow Cheese


The baguette was excellent as always, and we had the same duo of cheese/butter spreads as the first night.

Hamachi, Vietnamese Style


This dish has been served since night one, and it’s sure to be one of the most memorable dishes of 6.0. We had the textural components of the fried lotus root and shallots up front. Combined with the tender, flavorful fish and a little bit of acidity and this was a fantastic dish!

Escargot, Brussel Sprouts, Red Mole, Corn Ice Cream

I had this dish during my last visit, and I actually enjoyed it more this time around. The escargot was perfectly cooked, yielding a really tender piece of meat. Loved the sweet corn ice cream in tandem with the rich mole too.

Boudin Noir ‘Parmentier’, Apples, Mustard Tapioca


This was another standout dish, inspired by the flavors of a Shepherd’s Pie. The duck fat mashed potatoes and blood sausage “pudding” combined rich, deep flavors. I especially liked the purple potato chips to add just a bit of crunch to each bite, as well as the mellow heat from the tapioca.

White Rice Veloute, Mascarpone, Poached Egg, Spinach, Fresh Black Truffle, Parmesan Bubbles


This was a brand new dish for me. The veloute itself reminded me of a Chinese congee in a way, which I thought was really interesting. However, I found that the spinach gave a slightly overwhelming “vegetable” flavor. The parmesan bubbles and shaved black truffles made for an interesting presentation, but I didn’t get those flavors if I got too much spinach.

Marinated Mackerel, Leche Del Tigre, Baby Leeks, Verdolagas Leaves

This is another of the most memorable dishes of 6.0, served since opening night. The mackerel, enhanced by the marinade, was very flavorful and had a pretty meaty texture. The bruleed skin added a subtle sweetness and a great crispy texture to the fish.

Salmon ‘a l’huile’, Somen Noodles, Carrots, Red Wine Vinaigrette, Grilled Salmon Roe


I appreciated this dish for the salmon and crispy shaved carrots; however I found the grilled salmon roe to be the most interesting component. The roe imparted a nice smoky, charred flavor to the dish, which I thought really added an interesting (and welcome!) complexity. I didn’t really need the somen noodles though.

Beef Tartar, Celery Root Remoulade, Red Port, Foie Gras Powder


This was another brand new dish for me – it looked nothing like what I was expecting.  Unfortunately, I thought the beef and foie gras “snow” were both overwhelmed by the milky, creamy remoulade.

Roasted Pickled Foie Gras, Honey, Autumn Fruits, Rose Flowers


Loved the perfect preparation of the foie gras here. Really tender and very rich. I appreciated the sweetness of the fruits, but found the rose petals to be overwhelmingly floral.

Cod, Smoked Potato, Pickled Bell Pepper, Pil-Pil Sauce, Amaranth


We rebounded with one of my favorite dishes of the night. The cod was very moist and flavorful, and there was a nice sweetness from the bell pepper. A little bit of heat from the sauce rounded out the flavors, and I liked the potato crisps, which added some welcome texture.

Braised Veal Ravioli, Umami Broth, Dried Tuna, Radish & Gingerbread Mayo


This was probably my favorite dish of the night. I really liked the ravioli for its rich and meaty filling which was balanced by the cool and crisp radishes (can you guess which one is the watermelon radish?). The aptly-named “umami broth” was just that..full of in-your-face flavor. I loved it! I thought it worked really well with the pasta; though, it was so delicious I could’ve eaten a bowl of this with the somen noodles and been content.

Marinated Korean Steak, Crispy Kimchi, Radish, Bone Marrow, Shiso


The steak was very flavorful, and I really appreciated the charred exterior. The kimchi added a little bit of heat and crispy texture – perfect for the steak. I don’t think the bone marrow was necessary, but I wasn’t complaining.

Crème Fraiche Panna Cotta, Caramel, Caviar


Great dessert. We had two orders of this during my last trip, and we ordered two of them again here. The light, yet creamy, panna cotta melded so well with the sweet caramel and briny caviar. I don’t know who else uses caviar in their desserts…but maybe more chefs should!

Cantal Cheese Mikado, White Chocolate, Candied Black Olive

I’m never really a cheese fan, so this wasn’t necessarily down my alley. I did enjoy the sweetness of the white chocolate in tandem with the firm, nutty cheese.

Warm Carrot Cake, Coconut Thai Curry, Mango Sorbet, Kaffir Lime Oil


A staple on the menu since night one, the carrot cake came out steaming hot. Combining all the elements really gives the flavors of a thai curry – albeit, in a dessert setting.

So ends another LudoBites. I’m always amazed at Ludo’s innovation in creating really interesting dishes using both familiar and new ingredients. Some of the most memorable dishes that I had from this run are the hamachi, marinated mackerel, veal ravioli, Nebraska ribeye, the chicken and the panna cotta. I likely will never have any of those dishes again, so I’m happy I was able to get a chance to try them.

I look forward to seeing where and what Ludo cooks up next…and I’m already worried about how I’m going to get a reservation!

Past LudoBites 6.0 visits:
10/21/10
11/11/10

Zero Zero – 11/27/10

Zero Zero
826 Folsom St
San Francisco, CA 94107

Zero Zero opened up in July of this year, adding to what I think is a pretty strong San Francisco pizza scene.  While its most notable menu features are Neapolitan style pizzas and pastas using zero zero flour, it’s also become pretty well known for its fried chicken and customized soft serve sundaes (using Straus Dairy). This was meant to be a lighter meal for a brunch, so we just tried a couple of the pizzas.

Margherita Extra Tomato Sauce, Basil, Buffalo Mozzarella, Parmesan and De Padova Extra Virgin Olive Oil

When trying a new pizzeria, I always like ordering a Margherita pizza. It’s on everyone’s menu so it’s easy to compare across pizzerias.  It’s also a pretty simple pizza with primarily the crust, sauce and cheese, making it much easier to really judge the pizza’s individual components.

This Margherita was a little bit different in that it used buffalo mozzarella. I really liked the use of this mozzarella, and the sauce was a standout. Slightly sweet, slightly tangy, it was excellent in tandem with the thin, crispy crust. Definitely a very good pizza.

Brunch Pizza Escarole Pizza with Fennel, Bacon, Gremolata, Provolone Mozzarella, Poached Egg

It was brunch, so we decided to go ahead and try this pizza. I liked the idea of the pizza coming whole to the table – you get to cut your own slices with a pizza slicer. I thought the flavors of this pizza were fairly incoherent. To me, it was a little all over the place and the bacon wasn’t really evident. I liked the idea of the poached egg, but it turned out to be a bit of a mess in the center of the pizza. Similar to the Margherita, the crust was very good here too, but the components just didn’t meld too well for me.

We were a little pressed for time, so we didn’t have a chance to try the customizable Straus Dairy sundaes.  Although I didn’t care for the toppings of the brunch pizza, the pizzas were clearly well-executed. I would return to try some of the other pizzas, and definitely to try the sundaes and fried chicken.

Frances – 11/27/10

Frances
3870 17th St
San Francisco, CA 94114

While just under a year old, Frances has already received so much attention and critical acclaim that it can’t be ignored. Bon Appetit, Esquire and Forbes have all named it one of the best new restaurants in America in 2010, while the James Beard foundation named it a finalist for Best New Restaurant. Restaurant critic Michael Bauer had another rave review, awarding it 3 stars; to cap it off, Frances received one star in the 2011 Michelin Guide.

Chef Melissa Perello’s background is fine dining (Aqua, Charles Nob Hill, Fifth Floor); but Frances is something different. Inspired by and named after her grandmother, Perello’s Frances uses her formal training to prepare California cuisine in a comfortable, casual setting.

Some persistent OpenTable stalking yielded an available reservation, and I quickly snatched it up.

We started off with this amuse bouche of sorts.

Rosemary Lavender Almonds

I found these to taste like regular almonds, with no trace of rosemary or lavender. Odd. I thought it was just me until my dining companion agreed too.

Applewood Smoked Bacon Beignets – maple creme fraiche and chives

Warm and fluffy, these beignets had a strong, but not overwhelming, bacon flavor. They were a little denser than I had expected, but were still good.

Salsify and Pacific Oyster Chowder – creamed leeks and creme fraiche

There weren’t any chunks of oyster in this soup, but the flavor was evident. Light and creamy, the soup had a deep “sea” flavor, with some sweetness from the leeks and a little tartness from the creme fraiche. Very enjoyable, especially on a very cold night.

Parmesan and Ricotta Gnocchi – Boccalone pancetta, chanterelles, napa cabbage

The gnocchi were pretty dense, though very soft. The chanterelles were fantastic and, in tandem with the pancetta, added the bulk of the flavor to this dish.

California Black Cod – roasted winter squash, melted leeks, chanterelles

The fish was very moist, flaky, and had good flavor. I liked the creamy squash, as well as the return of the wonderful chanterelles.

Braised Liberty Farm Duck Leg – Italian butter beans, chicories, Sicilian olives

This duck was very tender with a crispy skin. The meat was moist and flavorful, and I thought the creamy butter beans worked really well alongside. The rich and deeply flavored jus really brought everything together quite nicely.

Creamed Winter Greens – broccoli di ciccio & red russian kale

I was pleased to find that these vegetables weren’t soaking in a thick and heavy cream sauce; instead the cream was quite light and did not overpower these delicate greens.

“Lumberjack Cake” – bartlett pear, medjool dates, maple-walnut ice cream

I’m not really even sure what was in this cake, other than the bits of pears and dates. It looked rather plain, but was surprisingly moist and sweet. The maple-walnut ice cream (from Humphry Slocombe) was delicious.

The Boozy Affogato

This affogato was an amalgamation of two of San Francisco’s more notable gourmet purveyors: Humphry Slocome (for the ice cream) and Blue Bottle Coffee (for the espresso). I enjoy myself an affogato – add a little liqueur, and you’ve got something pretty special.

Frances was a very good meal, though I found it a little underwhelming. Granted, given all the critical acclaim, I had very high expectations coming in. While I thought the food was definitely strong, it didn’t really stand out in any way. The entrees (the cod and duck) were probably the highlights for me, as both were perfectly cooked with spot-on flavors.

Prospect – 11/26/10

Prospect
Infinity Towers
300 Spear St
San Francisco, CA 94105

exterior

Prospect is the latest restaurant opening by the team behind Boulevard, which has been a fixture in the SF dining scene for over a decade. One of the highly anticipated openings this year in the city, it features a contemporary American menu with an emphasis on local and sustainable ingredients (though, who doesn’t nowadays in San Francisco?).

We started off with a few appetizers.

Yellowtail Crudo seaweed rice cracker, pickled cucumber, white miso

yellowtail

This yellowtail, pounded thin, was accompanied by crunchy pickled cucumber and a little bit of a mild miso flavor. These clean, bright flavors were complemented by the textural addition of the crunchy seaweed rice crackers.

Handpicked Dungeness Crab chilled beets, vadouvan yogurt, spiced onion rings

crab

The crab was in nice chunks, sweet and tasty. The beets were also good, while some onion rings provided a nice crunch. I would have liked a little more crab in this dish, however.

Seared Calamari & Octopus house made chorizo, savory clams, aillade, confit garlic potatoes

octopus and calamari

This dish looked really interesting, and it didn’t disappoint. Squid, octopus and clams were all present in this dish, and I really liked the slightly spicy, smoky chorizo.  The potatoes added some heaviness to this dish making it a filling, yet delicious, appetizer. I thought the octopus was a little chewy though, especially compared to the tender calamari.

Black Cod shiso shrimp fritter, shiitakes, snap peas, red curry

<black cod

The black cod was extremely moist and flaky. Very nice. The curry added some extra depth of flavor.

Roasted Quail wild rice, broccoli romanesco, fuyu persimmon, almonds, brown butter

quail

Very nice preparation of quail here with a good char on the outside and a very juicy and moist interior. Lots of flavor.

Next were the entrees.

California White Sea Bass chanterelles, celery root & sunchoke puree, oyster bisque emulsion, crispy sunchokes

sea bass

This was much denser and less moist than the black cod. I wouldn’t say it was dry, but it didn’t have the same moist flakiness as the cod.

Lamb Loin fingerling potatoes, artichoke, marcona almond romesco, green olive, mint & tongue relish

lamb

This was a nice preparation of lamb – very tender and flavorful.

Wagyu Zabuton butterball potatoes, creamed cippolinis, smoked trumpet mushrooms, spinach, mustard seed jus

wagyu beef

I ordered this medium rare, and this turned out to be sort of on the lower side of medium rare. As a result, the meat was kind of chewy (not tough) for my tastes. The flavor of the meat was good though, with the mustard seed jus adding depth of flavor. The spinach and buttery potatoes were great accompaniments.
Next we tried three of the desserts on the menu.

Petit S’mores house made peppermint marshmallows, graham wafers, melted ganache, crushed candy canes

smores

I really enjoyed these holiday s’mores. The cookie was gingerbread, the marshmallows were peppermint, and there were some crushed candy canes on top, all adding to the holiday theme. The ganache and marshmallows were warm and gooey – in tandem with the gingerbread cookie, these were comforting and delicious.

Ice Cream Sandwiches chocolate cookies, eggnog ice cream

ice cream sandwiches

I love ice cream sandwiches so this was a must-try. In keeping with the holiday theme, eggnog ice cream was the choice. While the cookie and ice cream were both good individually, the cookie was way too hard; as a result, the ice cream just squeezed out after each bite…defeating the purpose of the sandwich. I don’t understand how this was overlooked.

House Made Ice Cream chocolate brownie chunk

ice cream

Lastly, we tried this ice cream. A very good ice cream with a deep chocolate flavor, though not exceptional.

I was pretty happy with this meal. I thought the menu was interesting, and offered variety of appealing dishes that tasted good. While nothing was mindblowing, all of the dishes “worked” for me and were things I’d come back for. Though, probably not for the ice cream sandwich.