Sunday, September 19, 2010

Test Kitchen with Shelley Cooper

Arguably the hottest restaurant right now in Los Angeles isn't even a restaurant by the traditional sense. With a name like "Test Kitchen", you can probably guess that this is a place for chefs to test their dishes with the general public, most of whom are obsessed with food like yours truly. On a regular, almost daily basis, a new chef and his or her crew is brought in to showcase new or experimental dishes that might not otherwise be available in the chef's regular restaurant. Recently, for example, John Rivera Sedlar--who is the executive chef and owner of Rivera in downtown LA--helmed Test Kitchen to preview the menu at his upcoming establishment, R26. Top Chef season six winner Michael Voltaggio was also present a few weeks ago to showcase dishes for his new restaurant opening soon somewhere in LA.

For tonight's meal, chef Shelley Cooper was leading the kitchen to cook her style of southern comfort food with a tasting menu of five dishes. Chef Cooper was the executive chef of the newly-opened First and Hope restaurant in downtown Los Angeles, but she abruptly left the restaurant for undisclosed reasons. Since then she has not landed at any other eatery, but with her guest appearance at Test Kitchen, one can assume she is probably very close to doing so.

We begin the night by going over the menu which lists the tasting menu along with optional side dishes. Regardless of the chef, there is only one meal option for the diner, and that is the full tasting option which can range from 5 to 10 or so courses depending on the chef and the price. There are no substitutions or vegetarian options, nor are there modifications allowed. This is part of the philosophy behind Test Kitchen as it allows the chef to focus on small set of dishes that he or she is testing with.

As you can see, this tasting menu has five courses for $55; also note the mandatory 18% gratuity. There is also a small wine list as a well as a specialty cocktails menu meant to compliment the chef's cuisine. We decided to bring our own wines, a pair a reds from Paso Robles, and pay the fair corkage fee of $20. Let's move along to the first course.

Buttermilk biscuits, pat o foie gras butter, Tennessee country ham, fig jam. First course for this evening was this biscuit sandwich with ham, foie gras butter, and fig jam. I wasn't sure if I should cut this half before eating or just go at it with my hands. Utensils be dammed; I attacked it post-haste. The biscuit was a little too crunchy for my liking and it was slightly burnt on the bottom, but the taste was buttery, delicious, and with a wonderfully flaky texture. I loved the pairing of the ham and fig jam, with the sweetness of the jam counteracting the savoriness of the ham. None of us could taste much foie gras in the butter, but it was enjoyable nonetheless.

Scott Street Lunchable with grilled bologna tea sandwich, pimento cheese & crackers, spicy pickles. This wasn't part of the tasting menu but was actually one of the optional side dishes. Chef Cooper's take on the Lunchable is this assortment of finger sandwiches, pimento cheese with crackers, and pickled vegetables. I can't remember the last time I had a Lunchable--probably when I was a chubby teenager in high school--but it certainly wasn't anything like this! The star of this plate was clearly the tea sandwiches with their thick-cut bologna slices, which were very meaty and tasty. I enjoyed sampling the pimento cheese with crackers as well as the pickled vegetables.

Soft shell crab with corn pudding, licorice, corn relish. This was my favorite dish of the night and I hope chef Cooper makes this a permanent addition to her menu if and when helms another kitchen in Los Angeles. The crab was utterly delicious and cooked to perfection. A few of us claimed it was on the salty side, but I thought it was perfectly seasoned. As for the corn pudding and corn relish, I simply could not get enough of them, making sure to scoop every last trace of said items from my plate.

Frog legs with creamy grits and red eye stew of craw fish tails. It should be obvious by now that this clearly a southern-inspired tasting menu. After all, First and Hope's cuisine represents an upscale take on classic southern dishes. Here we have battered and deep-fried frog legs served over a craw fish broth with pearl onions and green beans. The legs were juicy and flavorful and I made sure to gnaw every morsel of tender frog meat from the bones. Our server instructed us to eat these with our hands and did I ever. I loved the creamy grits, too. They made me want to ask, "can I get some grits with that cream?" A delicious course all around. This dinner is turning out to be one of the better meals I've had in recent times.

Kentuckyaki pork osso bucco with Carolina gold rice, southern style kim chee, benne seed cracklins. Our final savory course is this Asian-inspired dish of pork osso bucco. It's hard to tell from the picture, but the pork is bone-in and it's HUGE. The ladies at our table couldn't finish this, but you can bet the boys licked this plate clean. The pork was fall-off-the-bone tender and extremely juicy. Small bits of pork and the juices was fall into the stew and made for a deliciously porky and chunky soup. I'm not sure what the "cracklins" were, but they definitely added a loud crunch to the soup.

Sweet potato fried pie with toasted marshmallow, ice cream, bacon-butterscotch sauce. Our final course was of course a sweet one, and it doesn't get much better than what you see here. A flaky, deep-fried pocket filled with sweet potato and drenched with ice cream and bacon-butterscotch sauce was like nothing else I've had. A piece of candied bacon lies in back adding to the bacon theme of this dessert. The sweet potato was delicious--it's one of our favorite vegetables--and it was actually a great counterbalance to the heavy sauce. My wife didn't care for the toasted marshmallow--house made of course--but I was a fan and proceeded to stab at her piece.

And with that our dinner at Test Kitchen was complete, and I must say it was absolutely fantastic. The service, which from what I've read has had its rough patches--was nearly flawless and attentive. Multiple servers brought out each course so that we could all receive our plates at the same time. Our server corked and poured our wines. Our plates and utensils were cleared after each course, and our water glasses were topped off throughout the night. The only hiccup was that our osso bucco course was brought out while a few of us were still enjoying the frog legs.

Chef Cooper has overwhelmingly won our palates with her upscale southern cuisine. I am so looking forward to her return to the LA dining scene. Thumbs up all around.

Test Kitchen with Shelley Cooper, Sept 17-18
9575 West Pico Blvd
Los Angeles CA

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Taste of Beverly Hills, The Art of Brunch

The Taste of Beverly Hills took place over the past weekend at the Beverly Hilton and I was in attendance for the Sunday brunch session aptly named “The Art of Brunch”. I was so looking forward to this event after seeing the restaurant line up of Fig, Bazaar, Nickel Diner, Huckleberry, Craft, and about three dozen other fine restaurants. The Art of Brunch did not disappoint. In fact, it completely surpassed my expectations as the food samples were in ample supply, the crowds were minimal, and the overall event was incredibly organized. Joining me for this glutton fest was my wife and her mom. For the mom-in-law, this turned out to be quite an experience for her and she probably ate more food in the span of nearly four hours than she usually eats over two days :).

Yes, only a red carpet entrance will do for a food event in 90210.

Breakfast beignet with fruit sauce from Ammo. They were freshly prepared and fried, and oh so good. I ate two of these in short order.

The spread at Huckleberry's table was worth the admission price alone. I did as best as I could to try everything. We sampled maybe a dozen items, including a massive piece of coffee cake, miniature muffins, various tarts, and some cookies.

Fig restaurant was in attendance and they were serving soft scrambled eggs over Chantrelles on toast. These were absolutely delicious. The creaminess of the eggs with the earthy mushrooms and crusty bread was an incredible combination of flavors and textures.

Stuffed French toast from The Farm of Beverly Hills. A little dry but the caramel sauced helped.

Salmon slider, homemade potato chips from NineThirty at the W Hotel. The salmon was perfectly cooked and the bun was soft, warm, and very tasty. It was a perfect pairing with the salty potato chips.

Potato pancakes from Factor's Deli. These were really good but I had to stop at 1. There was so much food to be had.

The team at Stefan's at LA Farm was serving ice cream pops dipped in liquid nitrogen to go with house-made lollipops. This was a popular booth and a line quickly formed. Stefan Richter (Top Chef finalist) was there and he actually took a few minutes to chat with my wife and I.

Home-made pastas from Terroni.

Marble cake from Hansen Cakes. The cake was very moist with a nice balance of chocolate and vanilla, while the frosting had the perfect amount of sweetness. We were impressed and we eat a lot of cake.

Smoked trout rillete and house-made bacon-plum Pop-Tarts from Mercantile/District. Both were very good and I was surprised by how well the Pop-Tart tasted. There wasn’t an overpowering presence of bacon; rather, the bacon added a slightly salty taste that went well with the overall sweetness.

Soft scrambled eggs and bacon in egg shells, from Firefly. I admired the presentation with the eggs served within it shell. These were good though they could have used more bacon.

Homemade ricotta and granola, lemon honey, from Craft. One my favorite dishes was this simply prepared granola and ricotta. It was so unlike any granola or ricotta that I’ve had from a grocery store.

Quiche Lorraine and a potato from BreadBar. Creaminess and saltiness on one plate. Delicious.

BBQ pork over eggs and polenta, and a bacon donut hole from Nickel Diner. I tried the bacon donut a while ago and wasn’t a fan. I’m still not a fan, but I did enjoy a strawberry doughnut (not pictured). The BBQ pork was very satisfying.

Scott Conant was giving a cooking demonstration of spaghetti with tomato and basil. Chef Conant is the owner and executive chef of the Scarpetta chain of Italian restaurants. He also appears on Food Network's Chopped series as a judge, and is the host of Food Network's 24-hour Restaurant Battle series. He was quite entertaining to watch and the crowd was very much involved with asking questions. At one point chef Conant adds about a half-stick of butter into the sauce and the says "butter is expensive these days--that's why we charge $26 for this dish!" The crowd erupted into laughter.

House-made jams from Valerie Confections. We tried the strawberry over a biscuit, and the jam was indeed very good but the biscuit was too dry, distracting from the taste of the jam.

I believe this was from Auntie Em's Kitchen. It was just OK. Both items became a soupy mess when plated; I'm sure this would be much better in the restaurant.

This small unassuming sliver of cheese focaccia from Angeli Caffe was heavenly. Perfectly crispy on the outside with the cheese oozing out when I took a bite.

Walter Manzke (former executive chef of Church and State) was on hand at the Simple Human booth serving BBQ ribs with an Asian-style sauce. Messy to eat but very good and perfectly seasoned, I went in for seconds. I’m so looking forward to his new restaurant, whenever it opens.

Jason Travi (former execute chef of Fraiche) and Eric Greenspan (execute chef of Foundry on Melrose) exchange pleasantries. The pastrami and turkey monte cristo from Foundry was a bit lacking in meat as all I could taste was fried bread.

Richard Ruskell gave a very lively demo of molecular gastronomy. He showed us how to create coffee "caviar". Chef Ruskell is the pastry chef at the Montage Beverly Hills, and he regularly appears as a contestant on Food Network during pastry competitions.

Blood orange mimosas with blood orange foam from Bazaar. These packed a punch!

I’ll leave you with more pictures of the foods we tried. I apologize as I can’t recall the descriptions of every dish. At one point--about 4 hours into the event--I was becoming uncomfortably full and had to ask my wife to please drag us the hell out of there. Otherwise I just would have kept eating and would have eventually exploded like Andrew did on Man vs. Food during the milkshake episode. Yes the food was THAT good, and NO I cannot stop myself! Enjoy.

Are you getting full yet?

I hope you've enjoyed looking at these pics as much as we did consuming the eats. I'm so looking forward to next year's event.