Tuesday, September 06, 2016

ink. Los Angeles

I don't spend much time in the Los Angeles area.  In fact, as crazy as this is, I hadn't really ever been there until a year or so ago, when I went to visit our office in Venice.  I can't say I enjoy the city.  I love the weather, the access to beaches, and the people watching, but, wow, I can safely say that in my 4 days there, I spent more time in a car than I have in the past year combined.  Do not like.

Anyway, on my recent visit, I had the chance to plan two dinners, one for just Ojan and I, and one for a larger group.  For the larger group, we went to The Bazaar, where I had dined previously on my own last time I was in town, and noted that I really would enjoy it more with a group.  For just Ojan and I, I selected ink.

ink. is the restaurant of chef Michael Voltaggio.  If you recognize his name, it is because he was the winner of Top Chef season 6, where he competed against his brother, also a chef.  I didn't watch that season of Top Chef, but I've seen him on other food TV and was impressed with his skills (at least, on camera).  My research seemed to back this up.  Yes, a celebrity chef, but, one who is often in his restaurants, and, really does creative, but actually tasty things with food.

So, we went to ink. on Sunday night, literally as soon as we arrived (delayed flight, whee).  I loved the feel of the place immediately.  The touches of an owner who truly cares about the dining experience, besides just the food, were obvious immediately.  There were so many little things that added up, like complimentary house sparkling water (with a jug left for us on the table), the dessert menu provided at the start of the meal (planning ahead!), and, overall, just a general comfortable feel.  The food was unique and interesting, and although modern techniques were used, it was never in a gratuitous way.  At no point did I roll my eyes and say, "Oh, another foam", or, "of course, more sous vide".  Everything was deliberate and necessary.

We enjoyed our meal, and I'd gladly return.

The Space

The entry area was funny.  Metal stools on one side, and wooden stadium seats on the other?  I feel like there must be a story here.  I imagine when they get busy that this makes for a nice area to wait, as it keeps patrons outside, and not crowding the restaurant itself.
I don't know how to describe the style of the interior.  It matched the food in that it was interesting,  unique, and trendy, but totally comfortable and approachable.

Wood was prevalent.  Exposed square wooden pools were located throughout.  The windows had wooden shutters.  Tables were wood.  The lighting was also interesting.  Little candles were located on each table.  The ceiling fixtures had those clear bulbs with interesting filaments.

Part of the kitchen was open behind a bar, the rest behind a wall, but with a large exposed pass, so you could somewhat see the action.

Servers were dressed in all black, with black aprons, a bit more formal than I'd expect, but, it did add to a consistent experience.  Service was good and friendly throughout, and all staff were excited to talk about the dishes.


Complimentary House Sparkling Water.
Once we sat down, we were offered house sparkling or still water.  I really, really appreciate house filtered water.  I always want sparkling water, but, $8+ a bottle is just more than I'm generally comfortable with.  Plus, so many plastic bottles!

I also appreciated that they left a cute little jug on our table, so we could refill as needed.  Another common dining pet peeve of mine is running out of water, and needing to rely on the server to refill.  Once we emptied the jug, a replacement was brought.

Excellent water service, all around.
Drink Menu.
The drink menu is fairly diverse.  In addition to beer, wine, and cider, there are plentiful mocktails and a cocktail menu, broken into "House Cocktails" and "Riffs on Classics".  Even coffee and tea selections are included in the drink menu, which was surprising to me, until the table next to me actually ordered coffee and tea the moment they sat down, which they sipped alongside their savory dishes.  Is this an LA thing?

I had a hard time narrowing in on one choice.  From the "Riffs" section, the "penicillin" with scotch (laphroaig is the suggested chef's choice!), and honey, ginger, yuzu, and lemon was a pretty compelling option.  As was the "black manhattan", comprised of bourbon with brown butter, applejack, averna, and cynar.  But, in the end, I went for a house cocktail.
Gin House Cocktail. $14.
"Gin: strawberry, cilantro, dry curacao, strega, lemon, lime."

I selected the strawberry gin cocktail.  It was a pretty drink, with a huge square ice cube in the center, a skewer with house made strawberry "sour patch candy" on top, and a sprig of some little flower.

The drink was simultaneously sweet and sour, sorta like a sour patch candy itself.  The candy on top was more like fruit leather, and it was totally delicious.  It really did taste like sour patch candy, and, who doesn't like a bonus candy with their drink?

I enjoyed this quite a bit.
Cucumber Non-Alcoholic Cocktail. $7.
"Cucumber, mint, simple syrup, lime, club soda."

Ojan also had a hard time picking his drink, from all the mocktails.  In the end, he picked the one that sounded most refreshing, as it was warm out, and we had just walked there.  I wanted him to pick one of the others that I wanted to try but, alas, it was for him after all, so he went for a cucumber based drink, not something I really like.

I had a sip, it was fine, but tasted like cucumber, which is just not what I wanted.

Savory Food

Once seated, our server came to introduce us to the format at ink.  She told us it was basically a "design your own shared tasting menu", where all dishes will be served in the middle of the table, as soon as they are ready.  We pick the dishes, and they'll course it out appropriately.

She also gave us a rundown the menu, as it wasn't broken up into traditional "appetizers", "salad", etc sections.  We learned that the menu starts with cold small plates, then raw dishes, then warm small plates, next pastas, and finally bigger entree items.

The menu also included the dessert menu.  I can't even begin to tell you how happy this makes me.  Of course, I always "leave room for dessert", since, well, I love dessert, but this way I had all the information I needed to order the right amount of food and prepare for a glorious dessert (of course, I did tons of research ahead of time, so, I already knew the menu and what I was going to order, but if I was a normal person, I would really have appreciated this!)

I had already picked 3 savory dishes for us to order, but our server told us that she recommended 4-6 for two people.  I knew that neither Ojan nor I were particularly ravenous, and this was our first meal in the start of 3 weeks of nearly nightly eating out, so, we weren't looking for "restaurant portions", but, I gave in to the pressure an ordered an extra dish.  It was unnecessary, and we ended up with two dishes unfinished.

We did not select any of the raw dishes, nor any cold small plates, nor mains, opting instead for two small hot dishes and two pastas.

Food arrived quickly.  Too quickly actually.  Our first two dishes were delivered before our cocktails.  Before I had a chance to use the bathroom (I wanted to place our order first).  The coursing was also a bit strange ... I expected the pasta dishes after the smaller plates, but, the first dish to hit our table was gnocchi.  The second two courses came about 10 minutes later.  We had no time to come up for air.

I liked the menu format of mix and match, sharing, etc, but, I would have preferred a slower pace and more natural coursing.

It was also interesting to me that even though everything was clearly designed for sharing, as we were told from the start "each dish will be placed in the center of the table", no serving utensils were provided.  It wasn't necessary I guess, but, I could imagine some folks not wanting to serve with the same fork they were using to eat with?
Egg Yolk Gnocchi. $15.
"Egg yolk gnocchi, mushroom brown butter, hen of the woods."

The first dish to arrive was the famed Egg Yolk Gnocchi.  It was, as I expected from my research, unlike any gnocchi I'd ever had before.  At first glance, you could clearly see the mushrooms and brown butter, but, where was the namesake egg yolk?

It turns out, the gnocchi *is* the egg yolk, mixed simply with oil and salt.  That is right, no potato in this gnocchi.  Just egg yolk, olive oil, and salt.  It was as rich as you would imagine.  Each gnocchi pillow was a delight to slowly bite into and savor, I loved the luxurious texture.  The outside had a slight chew, but the inside stayed sorta under-cooked deliberately, keeping it gooey.  Really fascinating and enjoyable.

The gnocchi was served on top of mushroom brown butter, again, very rich, almost like a broth.  It had great flavor, but, a little brown butter goes a long way!

There were also chunks of hen of the woods mushrooms hiding underneath, that, strangely I didn't care for.  I love exotic mushrooms normally, but, they were kinda just slimy and didn't compliment the dish well.  However, Ojan, who doesn't really care for mushrooms, did like them.

On top was a sprinkle of little crispy bread cubes.  I loved these.  They added the crunch that the soft gnocchi and broth needed.

Overall, this was a wonderful dish.  Great flavors and textures, although, I'd like to see something besides the mushrooms.  Given the summer season, maybe peas or asparagus?

It was my favorite savory dish of the night, Ojan's second pick.  We'd get it again.
Corn. $12.
"Corn, housemade ranch “foritos,” nori, green onion."

Moments after the gnocchi was delivered, the dish I had expected to come first arrived, the "corn".

This was a hot corn porridge, topped with housemade ranch seasoning, and a couple huge "foritos", aka, faux Doritos.

The porridge was ok, the corn kernels remained a bit crisp, so it wasn't just mush.  But, I didn't love the flavor of it.  As Ojan reminded me, I hate Cool Ranch Doritos, so, why would I like this?  He had a good point.  I was excited for corn porridge and for a crunchy element, and I do like ranch, but, uh, yeah, I hate Cool Ranch Doritos!

And speaking of the foritos, these were crispy and reminded me of lentil crackers.  So not only did I not like the cool ranch seasoning, I also really didn't like the bean-y base (not that I'm sure these were lentil based).

I really disliked this dish, and only took a few bites.  Ojan on the other hand really enjoyed it, and said it was his favorite dish of the night, while it was my least favorite.  He easily polished it off.
Salt and Charcoal Potato. $11.
"Salt and charcoal potato, housemade sour cream, black vinegar."

Next to arrive was our drinks, followed by the dish I didn't plan to order.  I thought the corn porridge, the gnocchi, and the upcoming pasta dish would be sufficient, particularly given our dessert plans, but, when our server told us we should order 4-6 dishes, not 3, I felt kinda pressured into picking another.

We opted for the potatoes because I had read many positive reviews of them.  Potatoes are not something I'd normally order.

The potatoes were black on the outside, rubbed with a charcoal crust.  This gave an intense smokey flavor that I liked.  They are then coated in salt powder.  This proved to be crazy effective, as these were salty, salty, salty.

Served on the side was scoop of housemade sour cream, that was actually really delicious.  I don't know how to describe it, other than that it was like ..."fresh sour cream".  It really did taste like fresh cream, just, sour.  Unlike any sour cream I've ever had before.

Also on the side was a bottle with a dropper in it to serve black vinegar in the exact amount we choose.  I thought it added an interesting flavor, but, Ojan preferred without.

This was a fascinating dish, and I see why people talk about it.  The salt level was extremely high, and really needed the sour cream to balance it out, in a good way.  The sour cream was amazing.  But, I'm just not into potatoes.

Ojan pointed out that this was a good example of using creative techniques, like powder, very successfully.  "It turns out, there is actual value in powdering something!", he exclaimed at one point.  
This was both our third pick, and neither of us would get it again, but appreciated trying it.  We really didn't need to order it though, and were not able to finish this dish.
Octopus. $23.
"Octopus, ink. shells, young fennel, pimenton."

And finally, the octopus and squid ink pasta shells.

The pasta was fairly standard ink shells, nicely cooked al dente.  I do not know what the sauce was for this dish, but, sadly, I didn't like it, which made me not enjoy the shells, even though they were well prepared.

On top was shaved fennel and young fennel greens.  I think the pimenton was a rub on the octopus?

Now, about that octopus.  Wowzer.  I've never, ever had octopus like this.  Sure, you have likely had rubbery, awful octopus.  And hopefully octopus that is prepared well and isn't rubbery.  But have you had octopus that is .... crispy?  I think it must have been slightly battered and deep fried?  I'm really not sure.

The texture was just downright incredible.  The suckers were crazy crispy.  Our portion included one long tentacle, and then slices of cut up tentacles.

The octopus was just amazing, certainly the best I've ever had.  Bite of the night for me.  Sadly, I didn't like the sauce that coated the pasta, so, the overall dish wasn't as strong as the gnocchi, making it my second pick.  I'd get it again, just for that octopus.


Dessert Menu.
Dessert was an interesting choice for us.  Given the four options, normally, I'd pick the "mango, coconut, sticky rice, chocolate" dish, no question.  I love every element in it.  But, nearly every review I read of it said it was boring and just not great.  Well, hmm.

So, I was between the "strawberry, caramelized white chocolate, nutella cake, toasted yogurt" and the apple dish, easily ruling out the chocolate and matcha one due to caffeine.  I asked our server about each of them.  The strawberry one did sound great, and the "toasted yogurt" element is actually a froyo component.  But ... she really lit up when she described the apple one.

The astute reader might note that I always say I don't really like apple desserts.  So, why on earth would I even think about the apple one?  Well, it has been on the menu since ink. opened.  No other dish has.  And, every single review of it is people raving.

I was so torn, between getting something that sounded good but people don't like (mango sticky rice), something safe (strawberry), or, the one that seemed like I wouldn't like it but everyone loves (apple).  I let Ojan make the final decision.
Apple. $12.
"Apple, caramel, shortbread, burnt wood semifreddo."

Apple it was.  And, wow, best decision of the night.  This was a very, very good dish.  While it certainly has its gimmicky aspect (ahem, frozen sphere that you crack open), it was actually just delicious.  Ojan took the first couple bites, and immediately said, "Wow, this is better than I expected".  A few bites later, he proclaimed, "This was the best dish of the night, by far".  I agreed.

Breaking it down ...

In the very middle, under this all, was a disk of thick caramel pudding, described by the server as crème caramel.  It was thick, rich, and more intensely caramel flavored than standard crème caramel.  More like ... caramel flan? The caramel wasn't on top, but instead was integrated throughout.  It was very tasty.

Next,was the shortbread.  Large chunks of shortbread, a bit harder than a standard shortcake, but more crumbly and chunky than a shortbread cookie, more like a biscuit.  A great textural element.

Another textural element was the crunchy, crispy shards along the outermost ring that we couldn't quite identify.  I said they tasted like speculoos butter mixed with feuilletine.  We were so fascinated by this that we finally asked a server what it was, and he said it was a sablé made with the caramel.  He seemed a bit confused, but, that is what he came up with.  Anyway, it had a great texture and was really tasty.

Then, the apple.  This came in two forms: little balls of apple coated in a sweet glaze and cubes of apple gelee.  Since I don't love apple, I tried both, thought, "yup, apple", and let Ojan have the rest of them.

And finally, the semifreddo, in the middle of it all.  I cracked it open to find fluffy, creamy almost-ice-cream.  It had a smokey flavor (I guess, "burnt wood").  The texture was really incredible.

This was a fun dish to eat, and I really enjoyed trying every element separately, and then crafting up some "perfect bites".  There was a creamy element, a sweet element, a crunchy element, a pastry element, a frozen element, a fruity element ... it had everything, but, nothing was extraneous.

Ojan really thought that a composed bite with the apple, the custard, the crumble, and the semifreddo was incredible, so, if you like apple, this certainly was great.  "It really tastes just like apple pie if you get all those components together!", he exclaimed.

I was happy enough with it even without the apple, and would order it again, apple and all.  Although, I'm even more curious now to try a different dessert, given the clear skill of the pastry kitchen.

Both Ojan and I agreed this was the best dish of the night, and either of us could have polished it off on our own, even though we had failed to finish our savory food.  It took effort to share with each other.  And to not order another.
Decaf Coffee. $9.
As usual, I ordered decaf coffee to pair alongside my dessert.  Interestingly, they do not offer a single cup, only 2 or 4 cup pots are available.  This is due to the brew method.

The coffee was delivered alongside my dessert (points for not being after!), but, it was delivered with the timer on the side you see here.  I was supposed to wait for the timer to run out before drinking.  Doh.

I tasted each element of the dessert while waiting for my coffee to be ready.  The dessert was so good I wanted more.  But, I really wanted my pairing!  So I waited patiently, while Ojan devoured more and more of the dish.  I eventually stopped him, claiming my portion.  Normally, he just wants a few bites and I get well more than half, but, this time, I only got my half.  Did I mention the dessert was fantastic?

Anyway, the coffee.  It was fine.  Not remarkable.  I appreciated that it came with a neoprene sleeve to keep it warm.  I appreciated that it was clearly labelled decaf.  But I'd prefer the option for a single cup, that was ready to drink with my dessert.
Ink Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato


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