Thursday, July 19, 2012

Inkredible Ink: Food that sets the standard

Nick and I cook often and we eat out often (at great establishments, not just 'eating fresh' at Subway). We both grew up with food as an intimate and important part of our lives so we don't throw around this statement lightly:

We have just had one of the best meals of our lives.

Yes. We just threw down! In fact, we had some food that will ruin us for future meals because many other plates will be compared to this caliber of food.

The Trip.

It started as a total surprise. Nick told me to take a Friday off for a special surprise birthday trip, which I had thought would be somewhere within driving distance.  A weekend trip to Portland perhaps or a surprise foray to Willows Inn at Lummi island? I hoped! But lo and behold, I was whisked away to a totally surprising L.A, which I was totally stoked for, once I got my liquids and gels squared away in the car...

Yay. I love Disneyland. This is me when I walked through those gates. Giggity.

Even better, post Disneyland adventures, Nick informed me that I would be having dinner at Ink, the restaurant founded by Top Chef winner  Chef Michael Voltaggio. That season was one of our favorite seasons of Top Chef because the level of incredible talent there was staggering. Each challenge was a fun glimpse into creative madness and served as a exhibition of crazy imaginations. The top three finalists including Michael's own brother could all have won another Top Chef season on their own; they simply had the luck/misfortune of all competing against each other. So not to be completely geeky, but I've been a Michael Voltaggio fan for a while now. And culinary creativity aside, he's not bad to look at.

We were excited to eat, drink and enjoy the results of Chef Voltaggio's amazing culinary skills and imagination.

The Drink.

While I want to get right to the food, I have to give props to the bartender. The cocktail menu there was inspired with the most delicious and well-mixed cocktails. I am a fan of the move to incorporate classic cocktails, great mixology and artisanal ingredients into the fold of any great restaurant and Ink was no exception. Nick had bourbon cocktails and I opted for a pisco sour because I love egg white cocktails.

bourbon  rhubarb, aperol, lemon, peychauds bitters
pisco  pineapple, coconut water, falernum, lime

Cocktails are an important aspect of a great experience and we needed a little aperitif. 

The Food.

Ink was inkredible.

Nick and I are huge hamachi fans and ravenously devour How To Cook a Wolf's hamachi crudo every time we go eat there.

So we started our meal with: hamachi, dashi sponge, soy-yuzu, radish, rice cracker

This dish was beautiful, dainty and refined. The dashi sponge was more of a thick foam encompassing the fish with a flavorful sauce that wasn't overwhelming to this balanced dish.

We opted for the burrata next because, let's face it, who doesn't love fresh, gooey mozzarella and cream?

burrata, bottarga, egg yolk, little gems, lemon dressing

The best part was that the egg yolk and the burrata were the same temperature and unctuous consistency so the burrata melted into everything as if it were the egg white. It was a perfect little salad with the right crunch from the romaine and the bread.

Here is a photo of my excited self wanting to munch the bejeezus out of this food.

Nick had heard that their poutine was top-notch so that was our next snack.

poutine, chickpea fries, yogurt curds, lamb neck gravy

I ate the chickpea fries with curds, sans gravy and the fries were crisp and delicious. Poutine was once thought of as a disgusting Canadian snack but is en vogue all of the sudden and rightfully so - it's damn delicious. And so was Ink's adaptation.

Now the next dish was definitely my favorite and probably one of the most delicious things I've ever eaten. Nick and I were intrigued by seeing this on the menu:

baja scallops, egg yolk gnocchi, mushroom hay

And we definitely are gnocchi fans! But this was no ordinary potato based gnocchi. The gnocchi was soft, airy and dense like a rich mousse. When we inquired about the technique, our lovely server informed us that it's basically just pure egg yolk that was cryovac'ed and then tubed out. However it was done, it was melt-in-your-mouth rich and velvety along with little perfectly cooked baja scallops swimming in a rich, umami mushroom sauce. The mushroom hay, which must have been some dehydrated mushroomy awesomeness that lent some crunch to the dish.

It was so tasty, here are two photos of how amazing this dish was:

That mushroom sauce was heavenly and complex; Nick and I spooned it up after all of the main parts of the dish were gobbled. We pretty much wanted to bathe in that dish. Ohhh yeah. Next up:

soft shell crab, tarragon mayo, caper, potato

This was certainly a pretty dish! My complaint about soft shell crab in general is that it is often too greasy. This was crispy, not too oily and generally very tasty. It wasn't as intoxicating as some of the other dishes and the Vietnamese in me wanted to dip this in nuoc cham with a side of pickled carrots.

Nick and I puzzled to recall how many dishes we had ordered and then they brought this out:

apple, caramel, walnut, burnt wood ice cream

Yay! For me? Why yes it's my birthday!

The server instructed me to crack open the top of the ice cream and let it shatter all over the dish. The entire plate was familiar, yet new at the same time. It wasn't too sweet and my stomach was satisfied with the combination of delicately sweet, tart and savory flavors and unusual textures. I am not even exactly sure of what this was but it had crumbles and soft creamy bits and fruit and smoky ice cream and all sorts of molecular gastronomical wonders.

Whoops. They had brought out the birthday dessert course out early. Our server joked about it and the manager apologized profusely but we honestly didn't care. It was an amazing meal and I replied that Nick usually likes to end with pork anyhow.

pork belly, charcoal oil, bbq flavor, corn

And this pork belly has changed his life:

It was perfectly cooked with a generous drizzle of charcoal oil and barbecue sauce which, according to Nick, tasted like a perfect summer afternoon of barbecue in your mouth. I mopped up the creamy corn grits on the side that were drizzled with the oil and the charred onion.

This photo is of Nick explaining that he gave up. He was pretty sure he was ruined for pork belly after this and it was undoubtedly the most delicious piece of pork belly he had ever tasted.

"That's it. I give up."

This photo is of Nick explaining the smokiness of the sauce and how it was like a summer afternoon barbecue wrapped up in a sauce.
"It's like they captured the essence of a summer BBQ"
 And this is just Nick in a stupor, dishing more of it into his mouth.
And here are more photos just so you can see the obscene food porn that this rich pork belly is.

All evening long, the manager shuffled a few diners towards the kitchen window to greet Chef Voltaggio as he worked the line. They managed some words of gratitude but didn't get much more than a handshake and a couple of words in. I felt a bit shy but Nick asked our server if we might be able to greet the chef, seeing it was my birthday.

After paying the bill, the manager came out to apologize again for the pork-as-dessert mix up and then said that we could give our compliments to the chef. However, he said, "Michael usually doesn't like to meet people in the dining room and so he would like to meet you outside on the front patio, if that's ok." I was a bit confused but followed him out of the front door. Then, Chef Michael Voltaggio came out magically to shake our hands.


He was so ridiculously sweet and generous. He apologized profusely for the dessert mix up although we giddily told him how wonderful his food was and that we didn't care what came last. We told him that it was inspired cuisine that we had traveled for and were delighted to consume. He asked where we were staying and told us a few fun bars and places along Abbot Kinney to check out. He was sociable and super nice.

That's when the manager said, "So um, this is when we would normally take a photo...?" My jaw dropped. I had heard another patron ask the manager if they could take a picture with him, only to be declined. I quickly grabbed my camera, made sure the settings were okay and shoved it at the manager. Michael put his arms around our shoulders and....

I freaked out. He's amazing.

Chef Michael Voltaggio was completely sweet, humble and genuine but most importantly, he's a damn talented chef who just served us some of the most amazing food we had ever eaten. I now know exactly why he won Top Chef because I have experienced that creativity, skillset and ability to execute myself. Chef Michael: If you're ever in Seattle, hit us up and we'll take you out to delicious places to eat.

Nick: You are the best boyfriend ever and this was the most fantastic 30th birthday a girl could hope for. You even let me ogle at another man. :) But you're the man for me!

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