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Michael Voltaggio's ink. Succeeds at the Intersection of Ego and Location

Cuttlefish with green papaya and peanut-coconut cream at ink.

PHOTO BY ANNE FISHBEINCuttlefish with green papaya and peanut-coconut cream at ink.

See more of Anne Fishbein's photography from ink.

Our waiter has a lot of tattoos. And a Rolex.

He's in the midst of describing the "Old School" and "New School" delineations on ink.'s wine list. "The wines in the Old School section are more terroir-driven," he says. "The New School wines are more winemaker-driven."

I'd be more likely to quibble with this somewhat meaningless and outrageously pretentious way of presenting a wine selection if that selection weren't so much damn fun. There are wines from Slovenia and Hungary, glorious bottles of $200 Burgundy and weird $35 bottles of something from Croatia you've never heard of but are glad your tattooed, Rolexed waiter pointed out to you.

But, still. Terroir-driven or winemaker-driven? As if you could make wine without sun and dirt. As if you could make wine without ego. The best wines, the ones that are truly memorable, are an expression of both.

The same could be said for ink. As an artistic act — and there's no doubt that chef Michael Voltaggio views ink. as a stage on which to perform his art — the restaurant is an expression of both ego and location. The setup of the place forms a quite literal stage: A diagonal open kitchen faces a room draped in dark gray paint. It's a play on the name, of course, to saturate the whole restaurant in inky heft, but it also allows the glow emanating from that kitchen window to illuminate Voltaggio as he works. He faces the diners, brooding and serious and glowingly chef-tastic, bathed in golden light. It is not a mistake of design that Voltaggio himself is the decorative centerpiece of this restaurant.

The chef has good reason to bask. At 33, he's had more success, received more accolades and enjoyed more attention than most chefs could hope to achieve in a lifetime. He's worked with iconic chefs in legendary restaurants in West Virginia, California and Florida. He held the position of chef de cuisine at Jose Andres' Bazaar. He won Top Chef. GQ just named ink. the best new restaurant in America.

There's good reason for the hype. The food at ink. is gorgeously camera-ready — completely prepared for its close-up. Pure Hollywood. Not only that, but an almost insane amount of thought, manpower and technique go into most dishes.

Take a recent addition to the menu. The description reads "cuttlefish, green papaya, peanut-coconut cream, black lime." What's put in front of you is utterly stunning: Delicate, inch-wide, whitish/greenish paper-thin ribbons tumble down the side of a bowl and into a black paste; various powders and greens and gratings of things garnish the cascading jumble. Despite its precise plating and resplendent appearance, there's even more to this dish than you'd think. Those ribbons are one part cuttlefish, or squid, which has been blanched, then frozen, then sliced super-thin, and one part green papaya, which has been sliced raw, then vacuum-packed until showtime. The black paste is the peanut-coconut cream, with squid ink added for color. The garnishes include basil, coriander and chili powder, as well as fried cuttlefish crackling, made by freezing the squid in liquid nitrogen, blending it into a powder, dehydrating it and then frying it.

"Mix it all together," the waiter suggests. "It's better that way."

We obey and, in so doing, destroy the visual artistry of the dish. Once mixed up, it tastes ... pleasant.

Don't get me wrong, there's been no crime against flavor here. The fresh crunch of the papaya and the chew of the cuttlefish play nicely against the peanut and silky, generous coconut. Everything is harmonious. Nothing is challenging.

I found this to be true with a majority of the dishes at ink. A plate arrives, and you oooh and aaahh, but when you take a bite, while it tastes good, it's not nearly as interesting as it looked, and you move on to the next thing. Eating like this is sheer playtime, a kind of whimsical romp where you can at once be awed by your food and not have to think too hard about it.

There are some places where taste becomes just as important as image. Roasted shishito peppers' vegetal green savoriness is totally balanced by the oddly sweet bonito and almond "sand" in the bowl. The tofu mustard underneath is just tangy enough to bring everything together, and the odd spicy pepper every now and then keeps the dish different with every bite.

Smoked kanpachi is one of the simplest dishes on the current menu, but also one of the best. The real triumph here is the subtle amount of smoke infused into the fish's delicate flesh, and the fact that the freshness remains — that slight pop of firmness, the cooling wonder of raw fish. There's soy-yuzu, and sesame candy, and radish on the plate as well, but rather than compete with the kanpachi for attention, they play their important but secondary role of garnish with grace and dignity.

But for every dish that makes its impact on taste as much as looks, there's another whose substance is lost in the name of style. Steak tartare is minced especially fine — so much so that it's almost a paste — and then topped with a kind of horseradish snow, made by freezing the horseradish and grinding it into a powder. The result is visually stunning and texturally disconcerting. The first bite is weird enough to be cool, but the second is just weird. By the third or fourth, the horseradish has begun to actually freeze the meat paste. There was no fifth bite for me.

A lamb shoulder with tongue has a kind of corned-beef quality to it. Which is fine. In fact, it's an accomplishment of sorts, being a totally new take on this cut of meat. But something is lost in the alchemy of Voltaggio's cooking here, namely that tender, dripping, rich, lamby thing that makes lamb so seductive. This dish was cool and interesting, and yet I had no desire to finish it.

But, ah, there are places where Voltaggio's impulse, to push past what's always been good, to harness that thing and make it anew, is just plain brilliant. This philosophy extends to the cocktail list, where gin and vermouth tussle with carrot and ginger for an utterly refreshing (in both senses of the word), utterly winning combination, and to sweets, where everything you've ever loved about apple desserts — the crunch, the nut, the pastry, the caramel, the apple — are pulled apart and put back together in strange ways, then scattered across a plate like a great apple tundra. There are times, at ink., where you just want to get up out of your seat and turn to the glowing stage and give a hearty round of applause.

When you mix Michael Voltaggio's ego with the terroir of Hollywood, that's a performance worth eating.

INK. | 8360 Melrose Ave., L.A. | (323) 651-5866 | mvink.com | Dinner nightly | Reservations accepted 14 days in advance | Full bar | valet parking $6

Cuttlefish with green papaya and peanut-coconut cream at ink.

PHOTO BY ANNE FISHBEINCuttlefish with green papaya and peanut-coconut cream at ink.

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ink.
miles

8360 Melrose Ave.
Los Angeles, CA 90069

323-651-5866

www.mvink.com