There was a moment at Michael Voltaggio’s ink.–where Craig and I went to celebrate our six year anniversary this weekend–when I washed down a bite of my egg yolk gnocchi (the first course on the tasting menu) with a cocktail made of mezcal and smoked salt and thought to myself: “I’ve never tasted anything like what I’m tasting right now. How is this happening?”
It’s the sort of moment that comes rarely at restaurants. Usually, at restaurants, a great deal of fuss is made on the menu or by the server about the methodology behind the dish–“the veal is brushed hourly with a lavender syrup made from organically grown lavender”–and then you take your first bite and you shrug.
At ink., the opposite happens. There’s very little fuss made on the menu or by the server about what you’re eating; that first course, in fact, is described simply: egg yolk gnocchi, bay scallops, accents of spring. (That’s taken directly from the menu; clearly the people at ink. hate capital letters.) And then the food arrives:
Because you don’t really know what this is going to be, you lift that first piece of egg yolk gnocchi to your mouth and take a bite. And suddenly your whole face lights up: that gnocchi is filled with an explosive squirt of a warm cheese. You take your next bite and pair it with one of the small scallops; then you try a raw sugar snap pea, which adds a crunchy freshness to the proceedings.
The wonderful thing about ink., it turns out, is that the food speaks for itself. This makes sense if you watched the Voltaggio season of “Top Chef”; Michael Voltaggio, who you can see behind me here…
…comes across as irascible on T.V. He’s an intense dude and his intensity probably turned some viewers off. But that intensity makes total sense when you experience his food; this is a man who cares enough to place a single leaf of arugula at the tip of his beautifully constructed second course: foie gras, waffle, smoked maple, hot sauce.
Once again, this course triggered a similar reaction as the gnocchi—how is this food happening? What am I eating? The “waffle” component was like a sweet cracker; the foie gras was expertly prepared (like a terrine) and balanced beautifully against the toasted marshmallow fluff at the edge of the plate. And then those little dots of hot sauce came as a surprise too.
Food like this can only be described as inspired. It’s food that wouldn’t occur to a caveman in a state of nature (unless that caveman had access to Xanthan gum); this is food that arrives from the mind of a man who’s studied the basics, built upon them, and then allowed his imagination to run wild, tethering himself to the fundamentals while venturing off into the great unknown. I suppose that’s how you come up with sturgeon, mushroom oatmeal, mushroom hay.
In case you’re wondering what that green stuff is, that’s obviously sea grass. (I say “obviously” but that’s a joke.)
The idea of this dish, I gather, is blending earth and sea; you have mushrooms and oatmeal, both earthy tasting, and then grass from the sea which transitions you to the fish. Plus, it’s served on a really huge plate that looks sort of like a planet.
The final savory course was milk-fed veal, asparagus, curds and whey of buttermilk.
Just the plating alone grabs your attention: on that black surface, the powders pop, the white (which tasted like ricotta cheese) stands out and then the pasta-like dough on top–which almost made the veal underneath something of a ravioli filling–glows its golden aura. In a million years, if you put me in a room with the ingredients that went into this dish, I’d never come close to coming up with it. Whatever the voices are that are telling Michael Voltaggio to make this food, I hope they never stop.
Finally, for dessert, you have your choice of four. Craig went with apple, caramel, burnt wood ice cream.
That ice cream is emblematic of the entire ink. experience. It really, truly tasted of burnt wood, in the most wonderful way. You know that campfire smell that sings of summer nights outdoors, telling scary stories and drinking hot cocoa from a thermos? That’s this ice cream and no writer can properly capture its essence–you just have to go to ink. to try it yourself.
My dessert–greek yogurt, strawberry, rhubarb, coconut–was no less dazzling:
Sure, it was in essence, a bowl of yogurt and fruit, but the yogurt and fruit came in exciting forms. The yogurt itself was like a cream at the bottom of the bowl; there was raspberry ice–almost like a granita–piled on top of it. And then all kinds of surprisingly textured fruit scattered around the bowl. I love fruit desserts and this is the best one that I’ve had in a long time.
In fact, this whole meal was, without question, the best meal we’ve had since moving to L.A. I’m normally wary of experimental food–I prefer rustic, hearty Italian food (which is why Pizzeria Mozza remains a favorite)–but this food won me over in a big way. Every course put a smile on my face and, more importantly, transported me directly into the cavernous mind of a genius chef, a chef named Michael Voltaggio.