View more photos in Anne Fishbein's slideshow, “Test Kitchen: A Club That Features Food Instead of Music.”
The buzz in L.A. dining, as we've said, belongs to restaurants that don't technically exist: the pop-ups, roving trucks, temporary residencies and secret feasts that have transformed dinner out into a competitive sport. You were probably not the last of your friends to contemplate the pork-belly adobo from the Manila Machine, the fried-chicken balls from the LudoTruck or Yatai's foie gras ramen at Breadbar. You may have tasted Ricky's shrimp tacos or Piryani's string hoppers at one of Angeli's street-food Mondays, attended a 5×5 dinner at Providence, or gotten buzzed on a Corpse Reviver No. 2 made by Death & Co.'s Alex Day on Radio Room night at the Edison. If you managed to eat a Kogi taco when Roy Choi was still manning the grill, you may crow about it as a certain friend still does about having caught U2 in their first L.A. show at the Roxy, when the band was still being promoted as Duran Duran with better guitar.
Anybody can make a Thursday night reservation at JiRaffe, but you kind of have to know someone to land a seat when A Razor, A Shiny Knife rolls through town. A well-curated Twitter list is worth more than a dozen Zagat guides.
So, in a way, the most interesting opening of the season may be neither WP24 nor the heavily promoted Red O but the new Test Kitchen, which is less a restaurant than it is a club that happens to feature food instead of music; a venue where every night is opening night, the name chef is always behind the range, adrenaline is the drug of choice and cooking is performance art. It may be an exaggeration, but not much of one, to say that between the bloggers, cocktail guys and food fetishists, a devoted restaurant follower might have recognized everybody in the dining room in its first days.
“Weber Haus Cachaca, Condensed Milk, Coconut Milk, Nectarine, Lime, Blended,” read an item from a recent cocktail menu. “Improved from last night.”
As LudoBites or Chicks With Knives functions as a restaurant without a physical space attached to it, Test Kitchen is a physical space without a restaurant: a loud, softly lit basement under what used to be Orlando Orsini and Spark Woodfire Grill, with a wine menu chalked onto a pillar; a big, open kitchen; a French maître d'; and the feeling that anything could happen. Whole restaurant teams, including waiters and runners, may be booked into Test Kitchen for rehearsal runs before their own places open, or a wandering chef, like Walter Manzke or Michael Voltaggio, may be recruited to cook for an evening or two.
Ricardo Zarate, of the Peruvian ceviche joint Mo-Chica and the forthcoming Anticucho grill right upstairs, functions as an executive chef. Test Kitchen is owned and curated by Bill Chait, who also owns Rivera and the aforesaid Anticucho, among other places; and Brian Saltsburg, a restaurant hopper who probably has not eaten dinner at home in years. The bar staff includes Joel Black, formerly of Comme Ça and Caña, and Rivera's Julian Cox. There is no reservation crew — you check out the schedule on the Web site and reserve online, or drop by late for drinks.
Is Test Kitchen a good restaurant? That depends on the chef. It's almost like asking if the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion plays the piano well. But Test Kitchen does seem to function as a restaurant. In its first days, Jordan Kahn and his team from the imminent bistro Red Medicine transformed it into what seemed like their own place, with a $40 prix-fixe of 12 small, Viet-inflected courses that included cured amberjack draped over wedges of French melon, Brussels sprouts caramelized with fish sauce and a sliced beefsteak with an intriguing version of Hong Kong–style XO sauce made with bacon instead of the usual dried seafood. The take on a Vietnamese bánh mì, reimagined as crostini with pâté, herbs and slabs of crisped pork belly, seemed elegant. It may be illegal to open a serious restaurant this year without an exotically seasoned carrot cooked sous vide or a nod to David Kinch's dish of vegetables with edible “soil” at Manresa, and those are here, too.
I'm looking forward to going to Red Medicine when it opens. The Test Kitchen meal did its job.
It may be hard to predict exactly where in the firmament Test Kitchen will end up. A run there isn't quite like spring training — given the crush of bloggers, it may have a higher profile than the restaurant in question — and it's not like New York's James Beard House, where chefs from the provinces travel for command performances at the townhouse of the late cookbook king. It resembles neither Breadbar, which would feel like a sandwich shop even if Paul Bocuse were at the stoves; nor Mauro Vincenti's 1980s restaurant Fennel, where Michelin-starred French chefs, including Guy Savoy, rotated through the kitchen for a couple of weeks at a time.
Still, if you're more interested in the creative chaos of a restaurant's first days than you are in the polished product of a kitchen that has worked together for years, Test Kitchen was designed for you.
TEST KITCHEN: 9575 W. Pico Blvd., L.A. (310) 277-0133, testkitchenla.com. (Online reservations only.) Open Tues.-Sat., 6 p.m.-mid. Full bar. Valet parking. Cost varies.