February 17, 2018
Getting a seat at Wolfgang Puck’s Rogue Experience isn’t easy. There are only eight seats at the experimental laboratory counter, and when I tried to snag one it turned out they were taken for the foreseeable future.
But I was really curious, eager to find out how this venture into the future of food stacks up against other LA places like Vespertine and Dialogue (going next week). And I’m not beyond begging. The fact that I’ve known Wolf for almost forty years (I spent an entire year writing about the opening of Chinois for New West Magazine), undoubtedly helped. A seat was found for me.
It certainly doesn’t look like any other restaurant in the world. Hidden inside the Puck corporate offices in the Pacific Design Center, you are led through a labyrinth of designer shops into a cozy den that might belong to anybody. Behind the bar a mixologist stands shaking drinks with manic energy. The Rogue 35 (this is the restaurant’s thirty-fifth week), a mad combination of Scotch, honey, pomelo, grapefruit juice (even ice cubes made from grapefruit water), is the opening shot.
Nearby a couple of earnest young chefs ply their tweezers, and after you’re introduced to your fellow diners you stand around the counter casually eating their offerings with your fingers. First up is this fantastic corn concoction, a kind of fresh polenta topped with chicharron and aji amarillo.
This spot prawn, fresh from Santa Barbara, is set on brioche along with its roe and a little hit of kumquat. Still, it’s the head that knocks me out.
Now we’re led through a large kitchen filled with space age tools that look like they’d be more comfortable in a science lab than a kitchen. It’s a wonderland of centrifuges and anti-griddles. Then it’s on to the counter, where still more chefs are busy at the stoves.
Despite its name, Rogue has an overarching sweetness; it seems to be Wolf’s way of giving the people who work for him the ultimate cooking experience. He invites chefs from his far-flung empire to come for a week and gives them a single mission: find great ingredients and use them in innovate ways. The catch: each dish has to be something they’ve never cooked before. Money, it seems, is not an object. And a professional photographer’s on hand to catalogue each dish.
The menu changes weekly, but tonight the first dish is this take on steak tartare, the coarsely chopped beef rolled up in daikon and topped with dry-fried seaweed. The seaweed is a truly inspired touch.
Oysters are next, little gems set in a puddle of pancetta stock and topped with a green garlic mayonnaise. I’ve always thought oysters Rockefeller ought to be retooled for the 21st century: now it’s been done.
The next dish is greeted with oohs and ahs. Then an awed dead silence ensues. Yes, it is truly that delicious.
Sea urchin, yuzu mousse, caviar… But the truly elegant touch is those sweet-sour little red dots dancing around the edge. A mixture of umeboshi and beet puree, it frames the flavors in the most intriguing fashion.
Black cod, the most luxurious fish, is simply served on a puree of parsnip and miso, garnished with sprouting broccoli.
“This,” says Chef Joel as he plates the next dish, “is my version of ramen. The noodles are made of fish cake, there’s egg yolk jam, and be sure to eat the crispy fried egg before the broth is poured over.”
The little lace cap of egg is a treat. And that deep, rich broth! I taste chicken, pork, bacon, roasted onion, scallion, a hint of ginger. More please.
Chef Jenny calls this “accidental pasta,” and it is like none I’ve ever tasted. The texture reminds me of dried tofu, and the entire flavor profile – dashi, bamboo, spiny lobster – is more Asia than Italy.
Back to Mexico for the quail, with its cake made of masa, its queso fresco, its garnish of corn silk.
Foie gras mousse with strawberry glaze and litchi. Need I say more?Let me just add that the little fortune cookie made of dried strawberries is a fine surprise.
What is this strange wiggly black thing? An egg rolled in burnt brioche crumbs! The pork jowel on the side has been zapped with gochujang. Absorbing and delicious.
“Were an amusement park,” says Chef Micah as he helps compose the next dish. “We’re trying to give you a roller coaster ride of flavors.” This must be an e ticket: spoon-soft beef cheeks with truffle, peas, pea leaves and carrots of many colors.
On to dessert. Can I eat another bite? This treatise on coconut, all texture and temperature, proves irresistible. Tapoica, young coconut, and coconut ice in a chocolate shell. On the side, a roasted banana. To my astonishment I inhale every morsel.
And finally the single most seductive strawberry shortcake I’ve ever encountered. Strawberries frozen into ruffles, cooked into gelee, served with sheep milk sorbet. It’s like shy little Cinderella after she’s been touched with a magic wand.
There’s more. A trip back to the den, for more drinks and this little parting gift of pineapple, brown butter and pecan.
One of the qualities I’ve always admired about Wolf is his unerring talent for management. People stay with him for years, sometimes their entire careers.
As the team – Joel, Micah, Jen, Jett, David, Erik, Jay, Jenny, George and Alan – wave a cheerful goodbye I suddenly get what is unique about Rogue. It’s the first restaurant I’ve ever encountered that isn’t about you. It’s about them. About encouraging them, about giving them a chance to develop their talents.
But if we’re very lucky, we get to go along for the ride.
Categorised in: restaurants