If you live in Los Angeles and haven’t heard about ink. these last few months, then you either don’t dine out at all or were hibernating through the winter. The restaurant was without a doubt, the most-anticipated opening of 2011, mainly because of Chef Michael Voltaggio, whom many know for being the season 6 winner of Top Chef. After stints at The Bazaar and The Dining Room at the Langham, he finally broke out on his own. And after seeing glimpses of the crazy ideas that he had from watching Top Chef, I was really excited about what the chef can do without any restrictions. I went on Urbanspoon everyday after opening night to check for an opening, and made a reservation for late-October.
So even though I went to ink. all the way back in late-October with Ben and Lawrence, it’s taken so long for me to finally write about my dinner that night. That’s because I’ve been going back and forth for weeks regarding my final thoughts of the place. On one hand, the dishes were some of the most creative and groundbreaking ones I’ve ever had in my life. On the other hand, some of them just didn’t work for me. However, the ones that didn’t work failed gloriously in my opinion, and something can be said about that. Again, I know the photos really suck. Luckily KevinEats went the day after, so please refer to his post on how some of these dishes look like (since I’m sure we ordered off the same menu).
So the three of us were set on trying one of each dish on the menu. Apparently they changed up the serving policy there that week. Whereas before everything was to be shared like tapas, when we went they were doing it more on an individual-basis, where each dish would be placed in front of who ordered it – like a self-constructed tasting menu of sorts (but the portions remain the same I believe). No matter – we were still getting everything. So our server was nice enough to bring them out in order of menu listing, in sets of three (with the exception of dessert, where all four came out at the same time).
bigeye tuna, parsnip, sesame cream, grapefruit, soy gel ($15)
octopus and hiramasa, romaine hearts, fried caesar dressing ($16)
charred avocado, hen of the woods, whipped fish sauce, mushroom chicharron ($11)
The first threesome were just downright amazing. Probably the strongest threesome presented to us, if I had to choose. The tuna tartare was fresh and the cream and grapefruit played off each other very well. The octopus and hiramasa was like a seafood caesar salad, but with the dressing oozing out of the fried cubes – delicious. And the avocado dish was fun to eat with the fish sauce. I didn’t pay close attention to the dish description before we received it, and I had the hardest time thinking of what the whipped sauce was. Only Chef Voltaggio can pull of such wacky flavor and texture combinations.
kale, burrata, pumpkin seeds, pumpkin preserves, yuzu ($12)
brussels sprouts, pig ears, house-cured lardo, apple ($10)
spaghetti, giant squid, squash, hazelnut-ink pesto, piment d’espelette ($14)
The second threesome was strong as well. I might sound like a girl who goes to the farmer’s market every week, but I’ve really come around to kale. The pumpkin preserves and yuzu was another example of Chef Voltaggio’s ability to mix and match two flavors that seem to contrast. The brussels sprouts and pig ears were an awesome combination. The squid spaghetti, however, was a bit underwhelming in my opinion. Cute idea with the squid as the noodles, but was a bit too crunchy, and the flavors felt muted after such strongly-flavored dishes that preceded it.
beef tartare, horseradish, hearts of palm, sea bean chimichurri ($15)
bay scallops, lamb neck and chickpea poutine, yogurt curds ($14)
butternut squash risotto, chicken wings, egg yolk, toasted wild rice, aromatic broth ($13)
This threesome was the last of the “appetizers” on the menu (the menu doesn’t specify, but this was the impression I got when looking at it). The beef tartare was anything but boring, like many of the beef tartares you’d find around town. This dish, in particular, looks like it went through a lot of changes since its inception on opening night (I think it was more of a corned beef dish), but it looks like Chef finally has it down. The bay scallops and risotto dishes were solid, but were somewhat pale in contrast to most of the dishes we had. Still very fun to eat such combinations though.
skate wing, red pepper dashi, shishito peppers, kelp pasta, fennel ($20)
quail, banana polenta, beet juice, sorrel salad, bariyuls vinegar ($19)
sea bass, cream of dehydrated potato, black olive oil, lemon, caper ($23)
Now we start our “main courses” with two fish dishes and a quail dish. Our server was gushing over how the skate was his favorite dish on the menu. I have to disagree. It was another solid dish, but it (and the sea bass as well) really didn’t live up to expectations. On the other hand, I really thought that the quail was a fail. The quail was cooked perfectly, but all I tasted was beet. Pretty looking plate though – red, red and more red. This was what I meant earlier by failing gloriously – with a bang in one aspect or another. Also, polenta never made it to the table.
berkshire pork, belly, charcoal crust, macaroni and cheese, leeks ($21)
veal cheeks, red curry, nante carrots baked in salt, fried and sticky rice ($20)
wagyu hanger steak, turnips, coffee-cardamom soil, mustard, vadouvan ($24)
Our last savory threesome were the ones I was looking forward to the most. Pork, veal, and steak? Drool-inducing. But again, like with some of the latter dishes, were just solid. Maybe I was getting a bit impatient after waiting over 20 minutes for these dishes (the others came out like clockwork though). Again, the cooking of the protein was not the issue at all. Some of the combinations just didn’t amaze me like I thought they would. I appreciate Chef for being so adventurous though, and expect the mains to step it up on my next visit.
goat cheese, ash, concord grape, arugula ($10)
grapefruit curd, avocado, cilantro sorbet, charred maple-lime ($9)
apple, creme caramel, burnt wood sabayon, walnut ($9)
chocolate, coffee, spice ($10)
Finally, dessert. Chef Voltaggio doubles as the pastry chef, and has pulled out some creative desserts here. I think that the goat cheese was basically Chef’s take on a cheese course rather than an actual dessert dish. Not being too keen on cheese courses myself, I thought it was okay. But I ended up eating around two-thirds of it (probably because they didn’t like it). The grapefruit curd was refreshing, but nothing groundbreaking. The apple and chocolate ones were very good though. The apple tasted like a smoky, nutty deconstructed caramel apple – delicious. The chocolate had a bit of a chicory-esque flavor to it due to the bitterness and slight peppery taste from the spice, but I liked it.
In the end, I think it’s easy to see why I was torn over this dinner. Some dishes were amazing, and some just didn’t do it for me. But I really appreciated the ones that didn’t work in my opinion for their uniqueness of flavor, ingredient and texture combinations. Chef Voltaggio is really pushing the envelope on these accounts, willing to take major risks (and editing them as he sees fit – the menu has changed drastically and constantly since opening night). I can’t wait to go back when he has even more time under his belt (and hopefully the minor hiccups in service can improve as well).
Chris Hei grade: B+
8360 Melrose Ave, Ste 107
Los Angeles, CA 90069