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Food Porn: My Night at "Top Chef" Michael Voltaggio's Restaurant

After a day of interviews and covering press sessions at the Television Critics Association Winter Press Tour, I had the honor of dining at Top Chef winner Michael Voltaggio's restaurant, The Dining Room at The Langham, in Pasadena.

I've been dying to eat there since Top Chef ended... and what an evening it was. I was joined in this culinary adventure by several fellow television journalists/foodies including: my editor at The Daily Beast, Kate Aurthur; Denise Martin of The Los Angeles Times; Zap2It's Hanh Nguyen; and St. Louis Post Dispatch TV columnist Gail Pennington.

Arriving at the Dining Room, we were greeted with several warm welcomes by the restaurant's manager and the hotel's PR executive. We sipped on some lovely glasses of non-vintage champagne while we perused the menu and ultimately decided to go with a five-course chef's tasting menu, with the dishes to be expertly selected by Michael Voltaggio, with whom we visited in the kitchen following the conclusion of dinner. (Affable and warm, Voltaggio came off nothing like the arrogant upstart he appeared on Top Chef last year.)

A restaurant thrives or dies on the details and here every little detail was expertly thought out. The precision of our five-person waitstaff--who set down and removed all of our plates in unison every time--and the attentiveness of the sommelier and manager were complemented by some nice touches during the service. Not one but two bread courses, each with separate butter pairings. (Yes, each bread came with two separate butters, adding up to four total butters offered to us during the course of the evening.) A warm bacon bread crackled with saline porky goodness while a black truffle roll offered a luscious hit of umami flavor.

The modern style of the cooking was at contrast with the Old World clubbiness of the restaurant itself as damask curtains and shadow boxes containing antique ships competed with molecular gastronomy. It's worth noting that the restaurant is due to undergo a remodeling (which was wisely delayed after ex-Bazaar at the SLS Hotel chef Voltaggio won Top Chef) but there was something fun and off-kilter about the stylistic disconnect if I'm being honest.

What did we feast on? Read on to discover each of our expertly prepared courses and check out photographs of each course. (Apologies for the darkness of the photos. Took these snapshots with my iPhone in the dimly lit restaurant.)

Amuse bouche:

Sesame "bagel" with smoked salmon and horseradish powders.


A fantastic way to kick off the meal and a novel reinvention of the humble bagel with lox and cream cheese. The "bagel" itself was a remarkable colloidal substance formed in a tiny ring mold. Given its sesame flavor, I can assume that it's made from a tahini-like substance which is then whipped up and given body by the addition of a thickening agent. Breaking it with the tiny accompanying spoon (which, like the small bell-shaped glass, had its own resting plate on the slate dish) and mixing it with the powders created the sensation of biting into a bagel with lox and cream cheese. The horseradish powder didn't give you the hit of heat of regular horseradish but somehow approximated the cool, creaminess of cream cheese. Delicious.

First Course:

Langoustines with egg and lobster mousse ravioli with bouillabaisse.


My mouth was already watering when the waiters set down this dish in front of me and then I could barely contain myself when the waitstaff delicately poured a piping hot bouillabaisse into the bowl. The sweet lightness of the langoustine was nicely contrasted with the richness of the egg and lobster mousse, contained under a tiny rectangular ribbon of pasta. Wisely anticipating the need to get every last drop, the waiters arrived with spoons, which we gratefully used to carry every last drop of the heady bouillabaise to our lips. The dish is a skillful one, demonstrating boldness of flavor, precision of presentation, and a subtle hand.

Second Course:

Skate wing with scrambled cauliflower and caper and brown butter powders.


I've never had skate wing before (I know!) so I wasn't sure what to expect with this dish, which made a believer out of me. Despite already being wowed with the powders from the amuse dish, I was worried that these two powders might be overkill but they worked perfectly here and didn't seem gimmicky. I also appreciated that, being dry "sauces," they didn't moisten the skate, which was perfectly flaky inside and crisp on top. (See, a logical use of molecular gastronomy at work.) The saline hit of the caper powder was offset beautifully by the richness of the brown butter powder (the latter of which I could have quite happily eaten an entire bowl). The scrambled cauliflower was a nice touch as well, transforming itself into something between cauliflower and mashed potato, at once vegetable and starch.

Third Course:

Pastrami pigeon, Swiss cheese puff, rye jus, mustard greens, and Brussels sprouts reduction gel.


Had we done the individual tasting menu, this was one dish that I had my eye on so I was overjoyed to see it come out of the kitchen for us. While it sounds like an odd combination, it was essentially a deconstructed Reuben sandwich and absolutely knocked my socks off. The pigeon breast was perfectly cooked and had the exact flavor of seasoned pastrami. Taking a bite of it with each of the other elements on the plate created the exact flavor of a well-crafted Reuben. In awe of the Swiss cheese puff (essentially, Voltaggio somehow added air to a piece of Swiss cheese, puffed it up, and then crisped it creating a light and airy chip), I was absolutely blown away by the "sauerkraut" component: the Brussels sprouts reduction gel. Salty and vegetative, it had the brisk flavor of sea air and the sourness of sauerkraut; Voltaggio had cooked down sprouts and reduced it to the point of a broth and then added gelatine to create an aspic cube. The rye jus on the plate added just the right hint of earthiness to the dish. A truly accomplished and confident plate.

Fourth Course:

48-hour sous-vide of Wagyu short rib with butter and masala, Nantes carrots, white ketchup gels, and smoked tots.


This was heaven on a plate, manna for the foodie. Voltaggio rendered the Wagyu so smooth and silky from a 48-hour sous vide process and infused it with masala and butter, turning out tender ribbons of short rib onto the plate. I've been craving expertly cooked carrots and these were little crisp batons of beta carotene goodness. The white ketchup gels were fantastic: little liquid spheres containing... a yellow tomato ketchup? An approximation of ketchup? I'm not sure, but these little savory gumdrops peppered the plate with earthiness. And the smoked tots? Heavenly little cheesy potatoes that put all memories of childhood tater tots out of my mind forever.

Pre-dessert:

Yuzu and raspberry.


The perfect palate-cleanser, really, and one that recalled Dippin' Dots to everyone at the table: individual pearls of yuzu and raspberry sorbets that melted as soon as it came into contact with any sort of heat, whether that be your mouth or even the metal spoon. Cool, creamy, and sweet-tart, it was exactly what was required after such an extensive and rich meal.

Dessert #1:

"Fool's Gold": hazelnut praline, salty caramel, chocolate ganache, hazelnut spread, milk sorbet.


A heady and complex dessert that had me ready to lick the plate. It also showcased the playful, whimsical side of Michael Voltaggio with the inclusion of gold flakes festooning the rich chocolate lusciousness of the slightly V-shaped ganache. The praline itself, underneath the ganache was delectable and I used my fork to scrape up every last little morsel on the plate. Sweet, salty, creamy, it was divine and blended together some of my favorite flavors into one dish. I would have been more than content with this as my final course, but...

Dessert #2:

Sticky toffee pudding, lime foam, banana pudding, and jasmine "rice cream."


I'm a huge sticky toffee pudding fan and this was absolutely delicious. Despite the oddness of the ingredients, I thought these components worked quite beautifully together on the plate. The date cake element was rich but oddly light at the same time and lacked the stodgy heaviness that have ruined many a sticky toffee pudding in the past for me. The banana pudding, piped onto the plate in curls, was rich and comforting and the sweetness cut subtly by the inclusion of the lime foam. In a play on the traditional custard or ice cream accompanying sticky toffee pudding, the faux ice cream (derived from jasmine rice) was cool, creamy, and soothing. A fantastic dessert.

Petits fours:

Passionfruit pate de fruit in edible rice paper wrapper, fennel pollen macaron with lemon curd, and chocolate on stick with a surprise.

While some at the table didn't care for the overt sweetness of the passionfruit pate de fruit, I actually quite enjoyed it (but it might have been because of my undying love for passionfruit in general). The least successful of the petits fours was the middle item, the teeny-tiny fennel pollen marcaron with lemon curd; it wasn't bad but it was such a tiny bite that it was hard to get a sense of the flavor profiles as anything else was obliterated by the tartness of the lemon curd. Last, the "surprise" of the chocolate stick was the inclusion of pop rocks. I've had chocolate-covered pop rocks in the past but this was a nice bite at the end of the meal: sweet and effervescent at the same time with an auditory component as well.

All in all, a truly sensational meal that had Michael Voltaggio showcasing his considerable talents, the staff effortlessly anticipating each and every whim ahead of time, and a convivial, clubby atmosphere. I'll definitely be coming back in the future.

Comments

MC said…
Great write up Jace! I'm so very jealous of your evening last night. Please continue these in the future as it is great to see and hear about what us common folk never get to experience culinary wise.

Thanks!
Bella Spruce said…
Amazing! I am SO jealous but also so appreciative of your wonderful write up ( I almost felt like I was there ). From your glowing review it seems as though Mr. Voltaggio truly does deserve the title of Top Chef!
Annie said…
Beyond jealous!!!! Sounds like amazing food and great company. You have the best job!
Anonymous said…
WOW - my mouth is watering. I hate to ask but what type of price range was this experience - it obviously was more that a meal!!!
Mary Murphy said…
Awesome write up. You made me feel like I was there. What was Voltaggio like?
ChrisMCtv said…
Good God. Finally getting a chance to check this out. It's the equivalent of a 16 year old boy's birthday party at the Playboy Mansion. Really impressed with the use of M.G., seems more thoughtful than some attempts by Richard Blais, although Michael wasn't limited by ingredient or time parameters. Amazing cooking, but it's also very apparent how out-classed many of the other cheftestants were on the past season.

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