Going Rogue

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.

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Massimo in Los Angeles

February 16, 2018

Among today’s hero chefs – and they are a growing group – two people really stand out.

Jose Andres, who’s showing the world how private citizens can deal with disaster if they have the heart, the will and the energy to do it. His work in Puerto Rico makes me proud to be human.  And Massimo Bottura, who’s making it his mission to enlist fellow chefs to feed the hungry all over the world.

Massimo was in Los Angeles last night, raising money for his foundation, Food for Soul (and also the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank), and to celebrate his new book, Bread is Gold.

This is what we ate – described in the chef’s own words. (Please forgive the photography; the lighting was romantic, which was lovely but all those candles made shooting food very difficult.)

Insalata di Mare

“The classic Italian antipasto reinvented like a game of hide and seek where octopus, shrimp, cuttlefish, calms, oysters, mussels, bottarga, yuzu, seaweed and aromatic herbs delight and surprise.”

A perfect description of one of my favorite Massimo dishes.

Maine Meets LA

A playful take on the East Coast lobster roll puts tradition on the back burner.  The hot dog roll is substituted with a Chiense steamed bun filled with fresh Maine lobster and dressed with crustacean sauce and marinated vegetables.

Autumn in New York: Winter in LA

“This dish is a tribute to Billie Holiday’s infamous rendition of the jazz standard. The main ingredients are apples prepared according to diverse culinary practices.  They are glazed with red beet juice and smoked, pickled in apple cider vinegar and warming spices, roasted in pork fat, pureed with red wine and onions and served with a green apple gel, and finished with a cream of Campanine apple mostarda and burnt apple dashi.”

(You’ll find my notes on this dish – and others – here.)

Riso Arancia

“Centuries ago, Caterina de Medici brought the original Tuscan recipe ‘anatra all arancia’ the celebrate her union with King Henry II and the recipe has been traveling ever since. This version, with duck, orange and spices bridges the cuisines of Europe and Asia.  Vialone Nano rice is cooked in a fragrant broth of burnt oranges and served with a hand chopped duck ragu and a coriander Peking sauce.”

What you’re missing here is the fragrance; the scent of oranges went wafting across the table in the most seductive fashion.

In the Cherry Orchard

“An edible landscape celebrates ingredients from the Modenese countryside. Three DOP cherries: ciliegia, duroni and amarine are blended into a deep cherry sorbet.  Crumble from a local chocolate and coffee delicacy called Torta Barozzi represents the rich agricultural soil while an almond infused ricotta from the foothills of the Apennines covers the dish like an Emilian fog.”

Popcorn

“A sweet and salty dessert becomes a celebration of the small and simple pleasures of life.”

Cracker Jacks on a visit to Antartica. Cold, warm, sweet, salty. Very fun.

 

 

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A Few Bites of LA

February 14, 2018

Have you ever seen a prettier shrimp?  It’s on the menu at Osteria Mozza: one giant prawn on a plate of pasta.  You pull off the head and allow the drippings to shower over your plate.  Then you eat the shrimp – with great delight – and finally twirl the pasta around your fork.  So delicious.

This is the satsuki rice porridge at Orsa and Winston, a wickedly delicious concoction that borrows from both Italy and Japan.  More rich risotto than spartan porridge, it’s topped with sea urchin, scallops, salmon roe.  I couldn’t stop eating it.

I loved the restaurant’s pickle plate too: each one so gently cured it retained its crunch.  It was as if the word “vinegar” had been whispered across the plate.

And the house-cured culatello is superb.

Stopped by Hearth and Hound for dinner one night. It’s one of the coziest restaurants I know, dimly lit, the table widely spaced so you can have a conversation. And on warm nights the patio is the place to be.

That spicy chicharron is a great way to start.

An admirable puntarelle salad revels in its anchovy dressing.

There’s a wicked grill – flames leaping – and almost everything on the menu meets that fire. These shrimp perhaps?  There’s no better way to get messy hands….

Black cod with orange sauce.

And if you eat nothing else here, don’t miss the charred cabbage.  Laced with meat drippings and plopped atop a little oyster-scented puddle, it will change, forever, your notion of cabbage.

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Dinner on the Dark Side

February 8, 2018

I arrived at the glowing spaceship that houses Vespertine with a large chip on my shoulder. Everything I’d read about the place put me off.  I was even irritated by the  message that arrived with my reservation. “Checking in with the valet before dinner is required, as this member of our team is integral to your experience.’’  I’m not even there yet, and already there are  “requirements.”

Indeed, when said valet insisted my first stop be the outdoor garden, I balked.  It was dark. It was cold. I wanted to go inside that strange perforated orange building. But he led me, inexorably, to a concrete seat and very reluctantly, I sat down.  The seat was heated! A soft fuzzy blanket was draped around my shoulders. The air was fragrant. Against my will I found myself snuggling in for a glass of champagne.  By the time my guide gently suggested it was time to enter the edifice I was loath to leave.

Dinner at Vespertine involves a fair amount of traveling. Your guide directs you to the elevator and you exit through the kitchen where otherworldly music plays as a team of eerily silent cooks ply tweezers. The substances they are working with do not resemble food, and the vessels they are so carefully placing it on do not resemble any plates or bowls you’ve previously encountered. Then you are outside again, climbing steep stairs to a dark lounge whose low tables are covered with twigs, candles and branches draped with strange black objects. It is like a campground on Mars.

The first offering is some sort of Douglas fir and white wine beverage topped with oxalis (a wood sorrel). That green concoction in the bowl starts off strange and becomes increasingly appealing; laced with tiny roe, it is like taramosalata conceived on Pluto. By the time I’d finished using it as a dip for the various sea vegetables (those black objects hanging from the twigs) I was sorry to see it go.

But here comes the waitress, gliding silently to the table with the next course.  Pull this little volcano apart and you find the most delicious cracker you’ve ever eaten, a kind of savory sable made of burnt onions and black current.

“I love this!” My companion says it with a kind of shock.

 

We both love the next course too, layers of green gage plums and apples, a sticky, gooey little treat that we pry from its ceramic tower.

We love this too, this dark cracker topped with abalone mushroom.

We’ve grown comfortable here, but now it seems it’s time to journey on to another galaxy on another level. I’m actually disappointed to discover that the dining room resembles… a dining room.  It is disappointingly conventional, filled with ordinary people conversing as they eat their dinner. And then the food arrives. 

Inside this spruce-sprinkled bowl are raw peas, kiwis cut to the same dimensions and a third little unidentifiable orb that is both sweet and sticky.  On top is a little round of frozen salad dressing that slowly melts.  It is delicious.

“The bowl is meant to activate your senses other than sight,” the waitress says as she sets down this peek-a-boo bowl.  I could have done without the lecture, but hidden inside that giant maw is the most wonderful rice pudding laced with little texture bombs – popped rice, tiny roe – and topped with onions and sunflower petals. I find it irresistible.

virginal wedding feast?   An essay on whiteness – smooth scallops, crisp white asparagus, fuzzy blossoms, crunchy shrimp crackers. When the pale yuzu -pine broth is poured into the bowl, all the textures meld, melt, change.

This dish looks like as strange and alien as a large red slug, but in the mouth it’s utterly familiar.  A gorgeously cooked spot prawn paired with the sweet crunch of water chestnut, the edgy acidity of quince, the electricity of sorrel and spinach.  More please.

Jordan Kahn is an interesting chef.  Unlike most of those who work in this particular idiom, he’s more artist than scientist.  Unlike Ferran Adria, who revels in taking food apart and putting it back together in ways that twist your perceptions, Kahn works in a gentler mold.  He’s trying to make you experience food in new ways, playing with color, texture and shape to coax out shy flavors. His is an art of combination, not reduction. Against my will I slowly allow myself to be seduced. 

Mussels and pork fat.

Dungeness crab and leeks.

Naragansett turkey,  with a complex sauce made of  bones and currants. Hyssop.  It arrives on long branches of yarrow, looking like  Thanksgiving in the middle of winter. (It took an effort of will not to pocket that knife.)

Smoked lamb’s heart, Marionberries, puffed rice, fresh cheese

Sea urchin with Pedro Jimenez sherry.  A dessert for people who don’t like dessert.  Pure heaven.

Black raspberry, sorrel and frozen buckwheat. Even the edges of the bowl are meant to be eaten.

The meal is long, slow, measured.  It is delicious.  It is entertaining. Some people will hate this restaurant, and I understand that. But I’m fascinated by chefs who are pushing the envelope as they reconsider the very nature of what a restaurant might be. Vespertine offers up the restaurant as performance art, and they’ve enlisted the help of artists, architects and musicians to enhance the experience. Kahn’s certainly not the first to do it, but he’s moved the concept farther down the road. This kind of cooking often ends up with extremely stupid food. And that’s the surprise of Vespertine: there is nothing remotely ridiculous about the food.

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Do You Kuku?

February 6, 2018

“Hey,” said my friend Margy, “wanna learn how to make kuku subzi?”

Of course I wanted to.  I’ve always been intrigued by the Persian herb frittata, which is not only a savory egg dream, but also, with its deep green hue, one of the prettiest dishes you’ll ever see.

So there we were with Debbie Michail, a talented chef famous for her Persian pop-ups, watching her make her grandmother’s kuku.  It soon became clear that this is one of those personal dishes, one that changes  with each cook, one that rarely needs a written recipe  It’s a forgiving dish: all you need is lots of herbs, onions and eggs.

Debbie didn’t want to be photographed, so all you’ve got here are the steps in the recipe.

Saute the onions in a LOT of oil.  Add salt and turmeric at the end.

Chop the tareh, which is the one essential herb.  Translated as leeks, garlic chives or chives it’s a lovely, gentle herb.  I can think of dozens of other ways to use it.  (The radishes are just garnish.)

Saute great handfuls of spinach.

Add chopped parsley, dill, cilantro – any herbs you happen to appreciate. Lots of them.

Add the onions to the greens.  Break in a lot of eggs.  (This is more herbs with eggs than eggs with herbs; you don’t want it to be too eggy.)

Cook in more oil until the bottom is brown.  Flip it and cook the other side. You want it to be gently cooked, but not runny.

Serve with sliced cucumbers (Debbie sprinkles hers with maras pepper), tomatoes, olives, fennel, radishes and feta.  Top with yogurt that has been infused with lots of spicy lime pickle. (For my next lesson, I want to learn to make Debbie’s wonderful lime pickle.)

Eat with enormous pleasure.

There are dozens of recipes for kuku sabzi on the internet.  This link is to the recipe of the great Persian cookbook author Najmieh Batmanglij.

Willing to wait? Debbie’s planning to open a restaurant sometime next year, where you’ll be able to indulge in her superb version.

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