Season 6 of Top Chef hasn’t finished airing yet and I’m impatiently waiting for them to cast out the garnishes and get to the top 4 (Kevin, Jen, the Vs) so the show can really get started. Even though the champion has yet to be crowned, the cheftestants are already feeling the effects of fame and the fans that come with it. This is why AT and I found ourselves at the tail end of a receiving line worthy of a wedding reception last Friday at The Dining Room of the Langham Hotel in Pasadena. Except there was no wedding, no bride and groom, and we were standing in the midst of a busy kitchen trying to put out the last plates of the evening. At the head of the receiving line was a friendly and gracious Michael Voltaggio greeting a group of adoring Breeders.
The Langham Hotel stands on a mansion-lined street that I’m sure houses ladies with haute couture wardrobes and men with monocles and pocket watches. If Southern California has any equivalent of the staid and proper lords and ladies of old England, Pasadena would be their shire. This is probably why the blue blood members of the Breeder’s Cup chose The Langham to house their members for the Breeder’s Cup classic in Santa Anita Park this past weekend. Into this proper mix, throw in the celebrity and talent of a tattooed Michael Voltaggio with his modern cuisine and you’ve got a mix that promises to be more exciting than the counting the number of ascots and top hats at the racetrack.
Here is how dinner unfolded. Our evening started with an amuse of tomato, basil, and horseradish powder. It was a small scoop of pink sorbet resting on a white powder base. I definitely tasted the horseradish, but had trouble finding the tomato, which I thought was in the sorbet but it seemed to have more of a plum and green tea finish, two flavors I really liked. The ratio of horseradish powder to sorbet was too high as I found myself tip-toeing around the powder because an accidental spoonful could have turned the evening into a very bad rendition of Cry Me a River.
The first course in the tasting menu was a slice of sashimi (I think it was amberjack), pickled baby peaches, and a cube of pillowy sea foam that tasted like they bottled the froth from an ocean wave. The fish was firmer in texture and not as buttery as other types of sashimi fish so it did not taste as moist. The green baby peaches had the texture of a pickled plum and were pleasantly tangy in taste. However they were not enough to add some needed moisture and acidity to balance out the dryness of the fish. A little squeeze of something would have brought everything together for me.
The next dish was lovely. It was langoustine with young fennel over lobster ravioli. The langoustine was perfectly cooked and was complemented by the richness of the ravioli and the sauce. AT, a non-shellfish eater, had a tender chicken paillard with a creamy chestnuts and foie sauce.
Along the way, we were served some choice bites of bread. I had a tasty bacon roll (who could resist?) as a well as an awesome truffle brioche served with goats milk butter. I can live off that truffle brioche. Truffles are a food group all their own, right?
Another dish I enjoyed was foie with aerated brioche and salisfy. Inside the molded disc of foie was a liquid made of sweet concord grapes which spilled out like a river of wine when I cut into the foie. The light airy brioche completely balanced out the richness of the foie. Very delectable. I must admit that I did not know what salsify was nor did I know that it is also called the oyster plant because it tastes like oysters when cooked. Had I known, I probably would have paid it a bit more attention. As it was, I treated it as a worthy palate cleanser in between bites of the foie.
Our fish dish for the evening was turbot decorated with the quintessential elements of fall. It was served with sorrel leaves, butternut squash and crunchy pumpkin granola. There were also dollops yogurt crowned with tiny pools of pumpkin seed oil. Since I’m a huge fan of the humble pumpkin in all its forms, this dish easily won me over. I’m sorely tempted to go out and buy some of that dark and nutty pumpkin seed oil after eating this.
If there was a low point in the meal, the meat dishes were it. First we had the Pastrami Pigeon. It was a play on a ruben sandwich where the pigeon had been cured in a pastrami brine and served with sauerkraut gelées, a gruyère cheese puff, and rye-jus. Sadly, the salt from the pigeon was so overwhelming that I could not enjoy the dish at all. It was a great concept and I very much wanted to like it but it just didn’t cut the mustard as there was no ingredient on the plate that could temper the salt. The explanation given to us was that the pastrami pigeon is not as salty if you have it with beer. Unfortunately, we weren’t drinking beer and that should have been communicated to the kitchen so adjustments could have been made.
The lamb with vadouvan was nicely seasoned and I liked the diced marcona almonds and the deep flavor of the raisin sauce. What gave me pause were the hummus tempura and the slice of tongue that were stacked on top of lamb. The tempura batter was really thick and I had a hard time cutting into it to compose a bite of all the elements on the plate. As for the tongue, even though I generally like offal, it just left a odd taste in my mouth. I could have done without the two extras and have been perfectly happy.
We were served a “pre-dessert” of green tea molecules of ice cream to clean our palates. It was like frozen green tea matcha and I love anything tea flavored. I likened these little pearls to Dippin’ Dots and mentioned that to the chef when I met him and he laughed saying that he had unknowingly served it to a group of marketing people from the Dippin’ Dots company just the other day. Perhaps the R&D folks are now working on a green tea flavor to add to their line. Maybe they can create a Top Chef line of flavors or be the product placement for a quickfire challenge on the show.
Dessert was Fools Gold, a salty hazelnut praline over chocolate mouse and milk sorbet. The praline was covered with crunchy gold flakes to add some balance to the soft praline. Michael explained how they were made but he threw out some terminology that was foreign to me so I just smiled and nodded blankly. The presentation of the dessert looked just like the chocolate ganache and mint ice cream dessert that Bryan V. made for Restaurant wars. I guess it’s a family thing.
The mignardises at the end were yummy, consisting of soft passionfruit candy wrapped in rice paper, fennel pollen macarons, and my personal favorite, a chocolate lollipop with a surprise. “I’ll let you discover it on your own,” said our server with a mysterious air before leaving us to ponder his meaning. At first bite, I thought maybe it was just a Crunch bar disguised as a lollipop but then my mouth started to snap, crackle, and pop, making static sounds like a radio antennae implanted in my head trying to contact outerspace. Hello? What is this? Pop rocks! Yes, neutral pop rocks folded into chocolate! How very quirky! I am so going to try this at home.
After dinner, we asked to meet the chef and that brings me back to the beginning of the story where I’m standing in line as the Breeders are having their moment with the famous Michael Voltaggio. Finally it’s our turn and we shake hands and say hello. While AT slyly tried to ask about rumors of the filming location of the finale (No comment from Michael. Next question please!) and discussing a recent dinner at Bazaar, I notice the chef’s eyes glancing continuously over to a dessert that was being plated. He said that it was a new dish that they just placed on the menu the other day and he wanted to give the plating a once over. It was a date cake, dipped in toffee, with bananas, sugary lime bricks, and lime air (read foam). My response to the description (after I discreetly checked my drooling) was “Yum!” which led him to ask, “You guys want to try it?” Heck yeah!
So we bid our adieus and headed back to the dining room in anticipation of our dessert. And no, I did not bring my camera into the kitchen so I’m sorry Dr. Mary for not providing you with up close shots of his sleeve tattoos. The dessert encore was fantastic. It could easily have been bogged down in the density of the cake but the lime air added a crisp accent that livened up the party. It was the high note that finished the evening in grand form.
Overall, I enjoyed the meal but a couple of dishes lacked the final touch or that one ingredient that would have taken it to the next level. Meeting Michael Voltaggio was a highlight of the night and not just because he gave us extra dessert. The chef is definitely making his mark on the restaurant I’m looking forward to seeing what changes are made to the menu when the The Dining Room completes its remodel early next year. It’s nice to see jagged edges emerge from the round, stately walks of Pasadena.