In today’s television driven culture, what exactly constitutes being, every food writer’s favorite term, a celebrity chef? In the young days of chef television, there was the Food Network constantly, and then chefs teaching Diane Sawyer and Matt Lauer new recipes on morning news programs. These were a highly select group of gifted restaurant chefs with a side project of television. The focus was about the food, not the entertainment. Slowly, things evolved. Remember when Emeril Lagasse’s Food Network program included a jazz band? Bam!
Across the Pacific from Japan arrived “Iron Chef,” pioneering the television chef competition genre at the same time that “Survivor” was a reality television hit for CBS. Viewers of “Iron Chef” were far more interested in the “Survivor” elements than the gastrique made of wood sorrel on the duck confit a chef might have made if the confit was the secret ingredient.
Today, with all of the bells and whistles of blogs, social media, numerous television platforms, and the dining public as captivated by dashing young chefs as thirteen year old girls now are to Justin Bieber, there are hundreds of celebrity chefs. Or at least chefs called “celebrity chefs.” Wolfgang Puck, Emeril (as iconic a first name as Madonna), Bobby Flay, and Rick Bayless were just the forefathers of what has now reached this fever pitch.
It often seems there are more celebrity chefs today than actual entertainment industry celebrities.
There is a very sketchy border between celebrity chefs who are celebrities who happen to be chefs and chefs who are celebrities because of their kitchen acclaim. Alain Ducasse and Paul Bocuse could be recognized by the majority of the French population if either walked down a tiny village road because they are iconic chefs, not television fixtures. They are revered artists of gastronomy, not performing artists.
One of today’s most popular food themed shows happens to be, yes, a reality competition, where judges vote off contestants just like Donald Trump fires his aspiring apprentices on his NBC reality program. “Top Chef” on Bravo, a channel best known as the home of “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy,” is a red hot show amongst the followers of today’s newest restaurants, where the chefs are treated with the same fawning obsession these followers usually reserve for pork belly preparations.
The now 34 year old Michael Voltaggio won the sixth season of “Top Chef” as a 30 year old when he served as chef de cuisine for The Dining Room at The Langham Huntington Hotel in Pasadena. Prior to moving to Pasadena, the Frederick, Maryland native cooked for numerous fine dining institutions, including garnering a Michelin star at Charlie Palmer’s Dry Creek Kitchen in Healdsburg, CA (Sonoma Wine Country). Michael’s older brother Bryan was the runner-up to little brother Michael in the “Top Chef” competition and presently receives rave reviews for his restaurant, Volt, in their Maryland hometown.
After becoming “Top Chef”‘s Top Chef, Voltaggio joined fellow Maryland-D.C. area chef and restaurateur José Andrés as chef de cuisine for Andrés’ flashy three-ring circus modern tapas restaurant and bar in the West Hollywood SLS Hotel, known correctly as The Bazaar. There, Voltaggio would dabble in many of the molecular gastronomy traits that Andrés picked up from his time cooking with Ferran Adrià at the renowned El Bulli, where the concept was first created whether Adrià acknowledges it or not.
At The Bazaar, olives are spherified, foie gras used to be served as lollipops wrapped in cotton candy, and Wagyu beef Philly cheesesteaks are served on air bread with a liquid cheese filling that far surpasses the usual nacho cheese sauce. In the case of the cheesesteaks, the modern flair thrives. In too many other dishes, the flash achieves nothing aside from being a catchy gimmick. Let’s not get started on the chaotic other aspects that truly hamper this overly bizarre restaurant.
Too many of the television chef restaurants seem to underachieve in the eyes of diners. Perhaps it’s from over-expansion and the boss isn’t in the house most nights or its because chefs feel like they can go on cruise control once the television fame is bestowed upon them. It’s the same with many athletes and actors– win the Super Bowl or an Oscar and then there is the chance to let down your guard from the new fame and contract.
There is no such let down at Michael Voltaggio’s year old intensely personal restaurant, the first owned and created by himself. An evening at Ink is a rollicking delight, full of contrasts and relentless, yet controlled creativity that displays this particular (top) chef’s gift and grit. In all my years dining and writing about Los Angeles restaurants, no single restaurant has moved me with such a parade of fully composed, original orchestrations on a plate, complete with a dashing performance space for a dining room with the focus on the kitchen itself, and a crisp, approachable front of the house staff that echoes the professionalism on display in the kitchen.
Not that there is any hype surrounding Ink. GQ‘s Alan Richman named it the best new restaurant in the country earlier this year. Adoring “Top Chef” and Bazaar fans chronicle every move and tweet by Voltaggio. When I left Los Angeles shortly before Ink opened, it almost seemed like Ink was one of the most popular restaurants in Southern California and still hadn’t even provided an opening date.
Voltaggio’s menu is a work of art. I can’t advocate for the undercase, list style of ingredients that keeps each dish’s personality vague until presented to the table. It’s a style choice. However, the tidy organization of 20 savory dishes, hovering in the middle land between small plates and large plates, and four desserts is just the right amount so each dish is thoroughly envisioned and completed, nary a clunker in sight. Prices top out at $30 for branzino with roasted cauliflower, capers, and fermented grape. The only dishes above $20 are the more substantial meat courses and seem like downright bargains, for you would be fully content with having some of these dishes at The French Laundry, especially in the case of Voltaggio’s Wagyu short rib.
There is also a five course tasting menu for $85, $50 more for the wine tastings added on. The tasting menu features similar ingredients to the regular menu, but re-interpreted. Beef tendon would come with wild striped bass and cuttlefish pho, instead of beef short rib on the regular menu, and instead of scallops, the tasting menu has egg yolk gnocchi and mushroom hay join chanterelle mushrooms.
Voltaggio’s culinary concept shares the same traits of the “ink” and “inc.” meanings that inspired his restaurant’s name. The “ink” you write with and read is permanent, much like the character-forward dishes Voltaggio seeks for diners. The “incorporation” concept refers to the camaraderie of his kitchen and front of the house team with the dining audience each night, along with Voltaggio’s pursuit of incorporating the endlessly diverse elements of Los Angeles’ hundreds or thousands of cultures.
No evening at the dinner only Ink shall commence without a cocktail from bartenders Gabriella Mlynarczyk and Brittini Rae Peterson. The cocktails channel Voltaggio’s globally inspired vision, controlled creativity that piques the palate, but is never absorbed in trying too hard to push the envelope. Best was a Tequila cocktail, with a touch of Mezcal, complete with jalapeno’s spice in perfect quantity, agave, lime, and a robust fruit finish of passion fruit.
Equally rewarding was a gorgeous, glowing Bourbon teaming with Aperol and rhubarb for a seductive drink up in a coupe, and a heavily bitter, herbal combination of Rye, Fernet Branca, the soothing kick of ginger, and a pinch of walnut syrup served long on a startling Collins glass-tall single, narrow rock. Ginger also joins Japanese Single Malt Whiskey, yuzu, and honey, and one offering leans towards a completely re-modeled Michelada with Vodka, hot sauce, and elderflower syrup receiving a golden ale float. A heavier, workhorse of a cocktail wakes you up with both Jamaican Rum and Tequila given body from coconut milk, an addition of nutty orgeat, and the alarm clock of cold brewed coffee.
The wine list is of the fascinating, new age variety where for every Sancerre or California Zinfandel, you’ll find up and coming locales, especially in Central and Eastern Europe, and unheard of varietals. This is certainly a place to state your price range, say how willing you are for the unfamiliar, and give the sommelier a chance.
This is the domain of Voltaggio, though, first and foremost. Even the room slants towards the heavily lit kitchen. Everybody knows where the stage is, especially in contrast to the chic black chairs and banquettes, bare wooden tables, slate colored walls, and the Japanese farmhouse windows and pebble garden decorations that speak frequently of zen tranquility. The bar resides at the entrance, next to an exhibition chef’s counter, very similar to a sushi bar without the sushi component.
Every dish has two to three unexpected flourishes, be it an infused powder or house made Doritos, that combined with flawless new and classic techniques, yield the night’s numerous pleasures.
Barnstable oysters come as you’d expect, on ice, with mignonette sauce. Except, that mignonette sauce is in the form of ice, consider it a mignonette granita atop each bivalve. The most normal dish currently at Ink, if you can call it close to normal, is a plate with a bountiful sphere of creamy burrata on one side and a giant, steak-like wedge of Little Gem lettuce opposite, coated in a lemon dressing, and the seafaring notes of bottarga speckled here and there like shaved Parmesan for a caesar salad.
A bowl of shishito peppers is enhanced by a crumble made of almond and bonito, called a sand, and a mustard bolstered by tofu for strength. Whether inspired by the classic French pairing of pâté and crisp toasts or Roscoe’s chicken and waffles, duck rillette comes with thin waffles, griddled pear, and a banyuls vinegar.
A few dishes are slightly more straight forward– a plate of La Quercia Berkshire ham with manchego biscuits and Marcona almond butter that is not too different from the equally terrific ham plate at the nearby Son of a Gun. “Potato charcoal” echoes a baked potato with the fixings. Except here the fixings are house made sour cream and a spray bottle of black vinegar. No bacon bits in sight. And those potatoes do appear as if they took a bath in the chimney soot.
Raw fish and meat preparations currently show Voltaggio at his finest, a heavy, daring hand meets blithe serenity with a hamachi ceviche and the beef tartare. The ceviche is a potpourri of fruit and spice with diced green apple and aleppo pepper, nourished by the funk of a quenelle of celeriac bavaroise. Possibly the finest beef tartare of many fine tartares I’ve experienced features fully rounded beef flavor instead of the usually cloying, mushy, tasteless meat pile that begs for other accoutrements. The meat is topped by julienned matchsticks of hearts of palm, the kick of horseradish snow, rye crisps, and dots of an earthy red onion gelée, alternating with the oceanic transporting effect of a sea bean chimichurri. Both are masterpieces.
Then again, corn porridge is a masterpiece of stick to your ribs comfort. Imagine the most vividly corn studded and corn tasting polenta, melted, served warm, given an umami effect from miso and nori flecks, all topped with house made Doritos that are exactly as they sound. Nacho ranch or traditional?
No restaurant can resist Brussels sprouts right now. Brussels sprouts infused with apple, covered by a thin veil of lardo, with a pile of fried pig ears on the side? Only at Ink. The pig ears’s saltiness lifts the Brussels sprouts to another level. You could fool diners doing a blind tasting that the very crispy pig ears are merely French fries as they don’t have the taste funk or gelatinous texture pig ears often possess.
Pasta dishes could compete with anything from Mario Batali. Baja scallops with mushroom hay are fine, but their accompanying dreamy egg yolk gnocchi take the spotlight. Here is why gnocchi should come from egg yolks, not potato or semolina flour. Squid ink stained “ink.” shells, covered in a buttery, Spanish paprika nuanced (pimenton) broth is the base for exquisitely tender octopus, the ends of the tentacles caramelized to the sugary point of being peanut brittle. The dish is quite substantial, a steal at $20.
Roughly half of the menu changes often and the other half is emerging as the immovable standards. If Voltaggio has a signature dish, it strangely has to be his riff on the Québecois junk food classic poutine. Of course, this poutine is as close to real poutine as José Andrés’ Philly cheesesteaks are to what you’d find at Pat’s or Geno’s. A soulful gravy resonates throughout, based of lamb neck meats that melts upon fork contact. Instead of cheese curds, the curds are made from yogurt, and in place of soggy French fries, dainty cylinders of chickpeas prove to be the dish’s highlight. You won’t find a better falafel in L.A. than these fries.
Twin hefty pieces of pork belly come with charcoal oil and a strong barbeque sauce that immediately lefts you away from Melrose to Arthur Bryant’s in Kansas City. No part of the pork belly isn’t infused with the flavor and the ratio of meat to fat is spot on. Again, the sprinkling of petrified yams and whimsical onion rings may even be the star instead of the meat.
When it comes down to it, the beef short rib is the unanimous showstopper of an evening with many of them. The short rib looks like a rectangular block of raw Kobe beef you might be ready to put into a sukiyaki preparation, as red as a poinsettia petal. Yet, the meat strikes you with its velvety texture. The carrots share the same buttery personality and crisps of horseradish tofu look like and melt like chicharrones, but provide the spark that sets the dish even further apart from the competition.
It isn’t easy to figure out the right amount of dishes or how best to organize the meal. Fortunately, you’re in good hands. Ink’s service staff knows exactly the right amount for a table and is very helpful with recommendations. Such a hip, popular place could give you the attitude treatment and people would still flock here en masse. That’s not the case here. This is a fully thought out restaurant throughout. They know what they’re doing here.
Ink is in the middle of a stretch of Melrose between the street’s Mid-City hub of vintage shops, bars, and restaurants to the east, and the glitzier end with several impressive restaurants, including Lucques and Comme ça to the west next to La Cienega. Really, Ink is its own show here amidst the galleries, along with the bakery Sweet Lady Jane and Ink’s sandwich shop, Ink Sack. For lunch, Ink Sack is essentially Ink in sandwich form. The spicy tuna sandwich comes with miso cured albacore tuna and sriracha and the “reuben” forgoes corned beef and Swiss cheese for corned beef tongue and Appenzeller.
With all of this enthralling eating, you might not believe me in saying the finale may actually be the finest part of a meal in Voltaggio’s care. Trust me. It might sound like a train wreck of flavor clashes, but a landscape of persimmon pudding cakes, corn ice cream, caramel corn, corn powder, white chocolate, and a smattering of a sauce from the rich, earthy corn fungus huitlacoche speaks of autumnal harvest and shows the skill of an avant-garde chef who actually rehearsed this dish before testing it on diners. Every component clicks marvelously, a startling way to end the meal.
Even more startling and exuding autumnal sensations is a dish that shows a touch of down home molecular gastronomy meeting the apple orchard. Dehydrated, peeled apple spheres decorate the centerpiece of a caramel mousse, crowned by burnt wood ice cream and a burnt wood sabayon frozen by liquid nitrogren. You are instructed to shatter the brittle sabayon roof, then collect the apple, caramel, ice cream, and maple fragments for a rollicking ride that will be the most lasting memory of the many Voltaggio provides.
With all of the praise and hype, a sophomore slump seems inevitable. That’s not so here. No way with that apple and burnt wood finale or a start of the corn porridge and beef tartare. Ink is roaring with culinary excitement today, you can write that down permanently.
8360 Melrose Ave., Los Angeles, CA 90069
(323) 651- 5866
Open Nightly for Dinner