My Dinner at Michael’s

February 28, 2017

FullSizeRender (21)“I want to knock your socks off!” Michael McCarty declared  when he opened his restaurant in 1979.

I have a special place in my heart for Michael’s in Santa Monica: before it made its debut I persuaded my editors at New West Magazine that it was going to revolutionize restaurants. It was, I insisted, brash, exciting and utterly new.  I then spent a few days a month for almost a year hanging out with Michael and his chefs as they built the place.

It WAS revolutionary: the chefs were all American (unheard of in those days), young (they were all under 25, equally unheard of at the time), and college educated. On top of that they were using American ingredients and showcasing American wines.

There were other innovations: Michael was one of the first restaurateurs to computerize his kitchen. He filled the dining room with great modern art (still there), and dressed his waiters in Ralph Lauren.  He created a garden so lovely that eating among the plants was reason enough to entice many people through the door. But the food was the main draw. Michael had an eye for talent: the first chefs – Ken Frank, Jonathan Waxman, and Mark Peel- all went on to distinguished careers.

I’ve been back many times over the years, but my last visit left me with a sinking feeling. Nearing forty, the place felt like a tired old star limping along on its last legs.

So I was thrilled to walk in a few nights ago and find the place packed to the rafters and filled with energy.  I was even happier to look at the menu and find that I was eager to taste every single dish.  This is the old age we all yearn for: the rooms have been spruced up, but the basic bones are so good they don’t need a face lift. As for the garden – it has only grown more graceful over time.

The energy comes from the new chef, Miles Thompson (he worked at Animal, opened Allumette and then went north to work at Shed).  His menu is pure fun.

Consider that barbecued quail up above, the flavors amped up with tangerine, miso and plum vinegar. Plain delicious.

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Octopus with lime curd, chrysanthemum and a shrimp vinaigrette: a few irresistible little morsels.

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The most wonderful squid, the flavor underlined by a devilish smudge of burnt eggplant puree and the gentleness of maitake mushrooms.

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Chawanmushi – but a bracingly clean version – flooded with the voluptuous flavor of crab and sea urchin and sparked by a flash of ginger.

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Hiding somewhere under all that greenery are light little ricotta gnudi

The entrees are more straightforward – although they do their best to startle with strangeness.  This tiny, juicy little chicken – beautifully cooked –  arrives embellished with both head and feet.

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A righteous steak: big, bold, meaty.  Something for everyone.

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This branzino was delicious – but that black carrot puree?  Over the top. Addictive. Enough, all by itself, to bring you back.

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The excitement over the food has also infused the staff: they’re young, pumped, eager to make you happy. It’s really good to see Michael’s come roaring back.

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How To Peel Farm Fresh Eggs

February 26, 2017

Bought eggs at the farmers market this morning, then decided to make deviled eggs to eat as we watch the Oscars.  Problem: fresh eggs are impossible to peel, and these were gathered yesterday.

Solution: steam the eggs for twenty minutes.  Put them into an ice water bath. Wait till they’re cool enough to handle. Roll on the counter.  Peel.

Worked like a charm: every single egg slipped happily from its shell.  No green ring. Bright orange yolks.  Lovely deviled eggs.

 

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Dinner in Egypt, Thirty-Five Hundred Years Ago

February 25, 2017

Following in the steps of the Rijksmuseum and the New York Public Library, the Metropolitan Museum of Art flung its doors open to the internet last month. Anyone, anywhere, can now access nearly 450,000 digitized works for free non-commercial use. (And more than a million pieces still await digitization.) I can’t think of a single rabbit hole I’d rather fall into.

Scrolling around, looking for food, I came upon some truly ancient dishes. This loaf of bread came out of the oven 3,500 years ago, and went straight into the tomb of Hatnefer and Ramose to provide sustenance in the afterlife:  36.3.78

A royal child named Amenemhat got something a little heartier: embalmed pigeon. This wooden fowl sarcophagus, which was found next to Amenemhat in his tomb near Thebes, is approximately the same age as the bread:

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Then there’s this remarkable fellow: a fully embalmed goose.

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Finally, this dark dense morsel found in Hatnefer’s tomb. What is it, you ask? Nothing less than our old friend fruitcake! Thousands of years ago it was already known for its staying power.36.3.81

 

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Sour Banyan and King of Lions

February 24, 2017

A friend brought back this incredible English-language cookbook from a recent visit to Myanmar. The book was first published in 1975 by Mi Mi Khaing, who had quite a distinguished career writing about Burmese life. IMG_0672

It’s hard to resist the recipes. Unfortunately, many require Burmese staples – special tea leaves, pressed fish, soybean powder  -that are hard to find unless you live in a city with a good Burmese market. And how many American cities have those?

But I did find this delicious recipe for pork. (Shrimp paste can be found at any Chinese or Southeast Asian grocery store. )IMG_0675

IMG_0673Unless you happen to be in the backwoods of Burma, I doubt you’ll find any of the ingredients below. Still, just reading these names makes me happy.

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The Three T’s of Ink.

February 23, 2017

Here’s the problem: the first courses at Michael Voltaggio’s Ink. are so sneakily delightful that by the time the steak arrives, you’re unable to give it the respect it deserves.

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For this is a great piece of meat, beautifully aged and gorgeously seared, filled with that elusive primal beef flavor.  (That little frill of puffed tendon is a nice touch.)

I was also taken with this Japanese red snapper, cunningly peeking out of the mushroom pepper pancake in which it was swathed. The flavor was intense, the textures exciting.

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But alas, I could not do justice to either dish; I’d been too excited by everything that came first.

Voltaggio treats temperature as the third element in his cooking (along with taste and texture). His endive and blue cheese salad is a perfect example:

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This is a simple dish, a familiar combination, but in Voltaggio’s hands it’s entirely new. He’s frozen the cheese, and as it slowly melts in your mouth, you experience the flavors in entirely unexpected ways.

He does something similar with foie gras, freezing it into lovely little curls, then setting it atop radishes and setting it on hazelnut butter.

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Served like this, you experience foie gras as if you’ve never encountered it before.  At first you taste only the hazelnut, but as the foie gras warms up, its flavor leaps forward. There’s a similar textural effect when the crisp crunch of the radish is overtaken by the increasingly soft and seductive foie gras.

The chef also has his way with fried calamari, which arrives looking like some sinister sea monster. But this is the crispest calamari you’ve ever eaten, and after one bite it becomes so irresistible you simply keep on eating.

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Voltaggio’s signature dish is the egg yolk gnocchi, another textural tour de force that goes somersaulting through your mouth, changing with each bite.

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There’s so much here – melting onions, tiny crisp croutons, shaved appenzeller, and then those little gnocchi, which evaporate as your mouth closes around them. This is like onion soup gratinee on steroids – and very hard to stop eating.

Ink. serves exciting food, and it’s a  perfect place to consider when you’ve got a group that includes people with traditional tastes (those steaks!) along with extremely adventurous eaters. The room is dark, casual, and a bit noisy – but the service could not be sweeter.

 

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