Los Angeles is the land where the celebrity chef was born, where Q ratings ruled, where journalists first learned to ask, "What do you cook on your night off?'' But L.A. has never seen a phenomenon like Michael Voltaggio, whose snarling passion, antihero good looks and devotion to his chef brother have made him a hero to people who have yet to taste a single mouthful of his cooking, a chef as beloved by high-school-age cooking-show fans as he is by regulars during his terms as chef at The Langham and at Bazaar. This town is full of Top Chef winners, some of them splendid chefs, but with his line at Williams-Sonoma, his 115,000 Twitter followers and his devotion to modernist cuisine, he is a step apart.
So the much-delayed Ink. is probably the most eagerly anticipated brick-and-mortar opening in years -- you can only reserve on the restaurant's website, and the first month's reservations were snapped up in seconds. And when you manage to get into the place, the dim blackness of the dining room -- formerly Tulipe, Jozu and the sushi bar Hamasaku -- flickers like something from a Robert Irwin installation, a restaurant ready to swallow you whole.
Voltaggio is famously an advocate of modernist cuisine, as driven by technique as by ingredients, and overall by the imperative of originality. His dish of young turnips and radishes is clearly inspired by the gargouillou of Michel Bras, a touchstone dish of modernist cuisine embraced by chefs like Rene Redzepi and David Kinch, but his version is subtly different: The lightly cooked vegetables are planted in the coffee-cardamom soil, sure, there's the requisite jellied underlayer (flavored here with nasturtium) and heaps of frozen yogurt transformed into powder snow in a Pacojet, but the composition seems his own.
The restaurant is brand-new and the preparations fiendishly complex. You can decide for yourself whether you are transfixed by cigars of Dungeness crab wrapped in microthin sheets of toast, or rather emulsified beef tartare garnished with sea beans and a scoop of modernized sauce raifort whose shell has been frozen solid with liquid nitrogen, or seaweed mashed potatoes, one of his most popular dishes from the Langham. Twirls of spaghetti made from julienne squid, an old izakaya trick, with ink-black hazelnut paste and strands of spaghetti squash? Why not? Octopus tentacles with pureed buttered popcorn? Compressed shortribs with crunchy mushroom chicharrones and black garlic? Sure. Iberian pork in black olive oil? We'll have to see.
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In keeping with the restaurant's theme, there is probably more black-splotched food here than anywhere on earth -- I kept thinking of the black dinner described in J.K. Huysmans' Against Nature, a feast celebrating the loss of the hero's virility. Is this what Voltaggio has in mind? I suspect not.