This week was a double-dose of Michael Voltaggio, a chef who's been making headlines as of late, thanks to his recent, well-publicized move from José Andrés' The Bazaar/Saam to The Dining Room, as well as his stint on the new season of Top Chef (where he'll be competing against older brother Bryan). Just two days earlier, I'd experienced Voltaggio's cooking at Breadbar's Hatchi dinner series (http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/640906), and my positive experience there definitely whetted my appetite for this more formal, more complete examination of Voltaggio's culinary aspirations here at The Dining Room. Early in his career, Voltaggio worked at The Ritz-Carlton in Naples, Florida, so his return to The Langham, previously a Ritz-Carlton property, seems somehow appropriate.
The Dining Room's highly-anticipated new menu represents a stark change of pace from the carte of former chef Craig Strong. Voltaggio presents a collection of small plates, ordered from light to heavy, that blend tradition with ultramodern flourishes, highlighting local, seasonal ingredients while simultaneously embracing global influences. The recommended way to experience the cuisine is to order four courses per person (three savory, one sweet), but obviously that wouldn't be enough for moi. Given that I'd had several of the menu items at Hatchi at Breadbar just two days earlier, Chef Voltaggio prepared a special tasting menu [$110], paired with an intriguing selection of beverages chosen by Sommelier Matthew Lathan [$70].
Now the food:
1: Pacific Yellowtail, Sashimi Style | Soy-Watermelon, Sea Sponge, Smoked Egg Yolk
Here, we have a fascinating study in the interplay of sweet and savory. There was a lot going on, but the focus for me was the complex of hamachi, melon, and sea sponge (an admixture of dashi and gelatin). The yellowtail, in a sense, was a canvas; on one hand, it was kissed by the fruity essence of (compressed soy-) watermelon, with just a hint of rice, while on the other, the sponge and yolk provided a foil to an otherwise saccharine crudo, giving the whole amalgam a lingering, salty finish. Furthermore, the wasabi was instrumental in contributing a piquant tang, offsetting the gravitas of the rest of the dish. Finally, the wild rice gave things a delightful crunch, adding a bit of fun to a complex, contemplative dish.
2: Rougie Foie Gras | Grapefruit-Campari Puree, Parsnip, Soy
Upon seeing this dish, I was expecting a distinctly sweet preparation of foie, something like the cranberry gelée-topped Foie Gras Terrine at Michael Mina's XIV. Rather, it was the savoriness of the soy that stood out to me, with the bittersweet grapefruit-Campari coming only in the finish. This approach emphasized the weight, the flavor of the foie, really forcing me to examine the richness and complexities of the liver. The parsnip "bark," at the same time, added some well-placed textural variety.
3: Langoustine Tempura | Vanilla Mayo, Rice Vinegar Pickles, Tomato Seeds
Here, we have prawn, done tempura-style. The use of vanilla really emphasized the natural sweetness of the langoustine, which would've been too monolithic had it not been for the tart, tangy pickles (which had a great crunch) and "sexy tomato seeds." Both were instrumental in cutting the weight of the tempura, taking the place of tentsuyu, in a sense. I would've liked things done a bit crisper, however.
4: Pastrami Pigeon | Rye infused Jus, Brussels-Kraut, Puffed Gruyere Cheese
Apart from Saul's Pastrami (named after Saul Cooperstein, head of business development for SBE), this is Voltaggio's other signature pastrami dish. It consists of brined and marinated pigeon (Voltaggio makes it a point to emphasize pigeon, not squab) breast, crusted in spices, sliced thin. The "pastrami" is then served with puffed Gruyère, which lends an excellent weightiness to the bird, and brussels sprouts, which add a tangy vegetal component while providing a nice crunch. Finally, the pigeon is doused in a rye jus; the overall effect, which recalls the deconstructivist cuisine of Moto, is reminiscent of a Reuben sandwich.
5: Halibut Cheeks | Scrambled Cauliflower, Lemongrass-Scallion Froth
Taken from near the head, halibut cheeks are distinct from other cuts of halibut, being sweeter, richer, and more buttery. Here, I loved the cheek's flaky, supple texture and mouthwatering flavor. I would've been happy just eating the halibut by itself, but the tart notes of lemongrass elevated the dish even further, providing a fitting foil to the fish. And the cauliflower? Wonderful. A standout for me; I wanted a bigger piece!
6: Suckling Pig | Pistachio Beans, Onions, OJ, Coriander
A suckling pig is a young hog that's only been fed with its mother's milk, and the example here was arguably my favorite course of the night. It was immensely flavorful, as expected, with a tender, fatty consistency to boot, heightened by the sweetness of cipollini onion. The key though was the cilantro, which effectively cut the gravity of the pork while leaving a long, lingering finish of coriander on my palate. I also appreciated the pistachio, which added a nutty, crunchy element to the dish.
7: Lamb Chop Confit | Vadouvan, Pickled Tongue, Eggplant-Raisin, Fresh Hummus
Vadouvan is a spice blend commonly used in Indian cookery. Its application here was subtle, but profound, and upon tasting the dish, I instantly recalled the sensation of eating a lamb curry. However, further layers of complexity were provided by the eggplant-raisin, which gave the lamb a sweet-smoky complement, and the sprouts, which provided a bracing tang that tempered the weight of the meat. Excellent.
8: Warm Peach Cobbler | Coconut Streusel, Thai Basil, Brown Butter Sorbet
A peach cobbler is basically a baked amalgamation of peach and batter, but that's only half of the equation here. What made this really work for me were the basil seeds, which lent a pungent, minty tinge to the dish, forming a great interplay with the sugary peach. The sorbet, meanwhile, added depth and a nutty potency to the dessert, while the coconut made itself known on the finish. Very nice.
9: Chocolate-Vanilla | Baked Honey, Avocado Ice Cream, Lime
The meal proper ended with a rather innocuous-sounding "Chocolate-Vanilla." And indeed, the chocolate, and the vanilla, were fairly standard preparations. The focus here for me, thus, was strictly on the avocado ice cream. Tasting somewhat like a smooth, mild, cool guacamole, the avocado was a tad disconcerting at first I'll admit. Once it settled in though, I began to appreciate its lush, vegetal, nutty flavor and how it balanced the sweetness of the chocolate (especially when taken in concert with the mint-tarragon sauce). The baked honey crisp, meanwhile, mixed things up texturally.
At Hatchi, I wrote that service left something to be desired, so I'm glad that I was able to experience Voltaggio's cuisine in an environment where it wasn't a detractor. Coordinated by Robert Hartstein, service was nearly faultless, and certainly up to the level that I expected of The Dining Room. As for the food, Voltaggio's new menu is clearly a breath of fresh air, daring but not over-the-top, an inventive blend of traditional and modern, of the foreign and the familiar. Based on this experience, I think that The Dining Room is well on its way to becoming one of the most exciting restaurants in greater LA, and I look forward to what Voltaggio and his team have in store.
Full review with photos: http://www.kevineats.com/2009/08/dini...