Michael Voltaggio wore a T-shirt that read “People Hate Me on Yelp” at the Gold Standard food event in 2012 as he served beef tongue dunked in liquid nitrogen. This was post–Top Chef fame, during the tail end of L.A.'s molecular-gastronomy heyday as diners were moving on from Jose Andrés' “Philly cheese steak” on air bread at the Bazaar to the refined takes offered by Ludo LeFebvre and Ricardo Zarate on their respective cuisines.
I always liked Voltaggio's cooking style, because he emphasized flawless technique and flavor-bomb levels of salt and acid. “Volt” opened ink. on Beverly as a way to capitalize on the modernist-food-experience essentials, such as seeing things explode on your plate whose fragments you were then supposed to eat. But as fun as it was to eat nitrogen-dunked popcorn and breathe out fumes of “dragon breath” vapor through your nose, it soon became apparent that a perfectly cooked steak was just a hell of a lot more satisfying and memorable than sodium alginate.
ink. briefly turned into a steakhouse but eventually relocated and got an extra word in its name earlier this year. ink.well is a stripped-down version of the original where Voltaggio has nailed a happy, satisfying medium between modernist glam and just complex takes on simple good food. It's the type of place where you can get Teutonic's Laurel Vineyard pinot noir — an exceptional, eucalyptus-forward natural wine from Oregon that's a steal for $13 a glass — while Nate Dogg's notoriously explicit first verse of “It Ain't No Fun” blasts on the speakers at a decibel level where you can clearly hear the brazen words. You know it, I know it, we all know it: “'Cause you gave me all your pussy, and ya even licked my balls.” The unabashed lyrics, it turned out, were a precursor to Voltaggio's food.
The menu seems straightforward, with seafood, vegetables and a couple of pastas and meats thrown in for relief: Gem lettuce, corn, calamari, sea bass, rigatoni, lamb and plenty more. Except when you take a closer look at them, every single dish has done serious time inside the head of the chef. That calamari is battered in a black corn masa/potato crust with a flavor profile closer to pakora than any fried calamari you've encountered. That Gem lettuce salad is halved, not torn, and draped with a vinegar-intense frozen blanket of crunchy avocado reminiscent of taqueria-style guacamole. The big-eye tuna tartare features tofu and is tightly rolled up with shaved celery root, looking more like a fresh Cohiba than any cylinder of raw fish.
The more dishes you order and think you know what you're getting, the more your head will be spinning from all of the flavors, textures and presentation.
Voltaggio demands your attention; it's almost impossible to come into ink.well and have a casual dinner with someone, because the food has this way of sucking you in and keeping you from carrying on a conversation. The “beets by Michael,” with densely tender, pickled beets placed on a smear of pistachio butter, will make you re-examine your love or disdain for beets. The texture of the root vegetable, and hear me out on this, is somehow custardy and cakelike. His lamb belly glazed with a pine nut casserole is insanely rich and has a small fortune's worth of pine nuts, yet you will still find a way to fork up every last little morsel. It's eerie how he makes boiled macadamia nuts taste like hominy in his take on green pozole with chia seed–crusted sea bass. Though, his version of street corn, which I suspect was intended as an ode to esquite, is more like creamed corn than anything I've had in the streets. If you're into creaminess, it will be fine. If you were looking for a fun, cheffed up version of street corn, you will feel duped.
The desserts are studies in perfect technique in the same way as the savory stuff, and ink.well is not the spot to pass them up. If you're a chocolate-or-nothing person, you can get your thrills with his take on Mexican chocolate. You will use a little bit of elbow grease to dig into the thin layer of frozen chocolate asphalt with your spoon, but the fudgelike, crunchy Mexican chocolate is worth the work. It's topped with little bits of “toasted rice cream” (aka horchata) chips still smoking from a bath in liquid nitrogen, because old habits die hard. However, if you are of the other dessert school and would much rather just have a big bowl of ripe seasonal berries after a rich, complex meal here, the market berries with lemon curd will feel like a sigh of relief.
The kitchen's runner brings out dishes at an impressive speed, as if the kitchen starts to cook the moment your eyes scan over an item on the menu a second time. Hopefully you'll have some time to look up at the walls and admire some of the art inspired by liquor stores. The service is swift and attentive enough for the high caliber of food if you have a reservation. If you don't and try to casually jaunt in at 8:30 on a Tuesday night, you might have to wait 45 minutes at the bar just to get a table, as I did. But it's still L.A., so you may leave wishing your server was just a little bit warmer.
But hey, “People Hate [Him] on Yelp,” so who cares?
INK.WELL | Three stars | 826 N. La Cienega Blvd., Beverly Grove | (310) 358-9058 | mvink.com | Sun.-Thu., 6-10 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 6-11 p.m. | Meat & poultry dishes, $14-$62