By S. IRENE VIRBILA
October 7, 2009
Now the former AK in Venice has become the Tasting Kitchen. In July, the former AK in Venice became the Tasting Kitchen after founding chef Conny Anderson and AK partners agreed to disagree and the investors promptly sought a new chef for their Abbot Kinney restaurant. After closing briefly, the restaurant reopened with a temporary concept -- a one-page "bill of fare" that changes every day.
That was supposed to be only a provisional measure, but it turns out it's been such a hit that it's here to stay.
The name isn't. Once the restaurant closes toward the end of the year for a couple of weeks for a minimal remodel to reflect the philosophy of the food -- handcrafted and personal, it will reopen with a new name. Confusing? Yes. But here's the main thing: The food is lusty and delicious. And the place is fun. And the menu is definitely not the same generic California menu seen all over town. Not in general. And not specifically either.
The magic chef
The rabbit that the hard-pressed restaurateurs pulled out of the hat is Casey Lane, a 26-year-old chef who's worked at Oliveto in Oakland under Paul Bertolli (now owner of the salumeria Fra' Mani) earlier in his career and in Portland, Ore., most recently at Clarklewis restaurant there. The Texas native moved down to L.A. a year ago to head up the kitchen at a Silver Lake project that never happened. When he got this job, he imported some other Clarklewis alums to help him, which makes the Tasting Kitchen a Portland-slash-California restaurant.
Lane revels in cooking off the cuff. His food is spontaneous, direct, ingredient-driven. Only in this case, the chef and his crew don't just talk the talk: They walk the walk. They butcher whole animals and use all the different parts in dishes. They do their own curing and pickling. And the fact that this is one of the few restaurants that seems to be booked every time I call shows they're doing all right in a tough market.
I can arrive not terribly hungry, glance at the menu and feel ravenous, the dishes all sound so appealing. Bread arrives, thick, airy slices of La Brea Bakery's table white (which you can buy only at the store next door to Campanile) with a lump of good butter on a board. Actually, you don't really glance at the menu. Handwritten in a tiny, eccentric scribble each day, it needs careful deciphering in the dark room with a candle held up to the page. Each half-page menu folder is stenciled with a number: the number of days since the Tasting Kitchen rolled out and the number of the menu.
Held together with a metal clip, the small menu has a strict format. The words oysters, fritto, pork sausage, shellfish, romaine, heirloom and more run down the left side of the page with the ingredients in the day's specific preparation listed to the side. This seems like the ideal compromise between familiarity and innovation. And as Americans and Angelenos, we like to have both.
For example, "fritto" (Italian for fry) might be asparagus and fennel in a crisp lacy batter with aioli one day, or, memorably, a single perfectly fried soft shell crab with white beans and torpedo onion. "Sausage" might be a spicy North African merguez with grilled okra and harissa, a dynamite combination. Oysters on the half shell could come with a nuanced Banyuls vinegar mignonette one time, with a splash of Champagne or Beaujolais another.
Even the categories change from time to time. Rillettes appears, then disappears. Catch it while you can, especially if it's the luscious pork version, rich with porky goodness, the shredded meat piled onto a small wooden board with a spoonful of spicy brown whole-grain mustard, house-made pickles and some toasts (never enough) to slather it on.
I'm in love with the chicken wings that seem to be a regular. Glazed with apple cider, the wings are dark brown, sticky and delicious. And why not, with all that tender meat so close to the bone? A version slicked with a maple Dijon is just as addictive. They're great with a beer -- a Peroni, say, from Italy.
Add an order of beans too. In this case, yellow and green pole beans showered with crushed hazelnuts and piled like pickup sticks over the top of a scoop of creamy burrata-wrapped prosciutto. They're beautiful flavors together, each distinct, soothing, comforting.
Mostly, though, I've ended up preferring a simple butter lettuce salad, maybe with lemon cream and tarragon dressing over more ornate salads that can get into too many ingredients and fall flat. But pricing a butter lettuce salad at $10 doesn't quite make sense, while other items seem underpriced.
Take heart. The menu is not all small plates. There are bigger ones too, more on the order of main courses. How can you tell? Look at the price. Those over $20 are more substantial, which isn't to say you can't share them too. It's all very free-form.
Another thing I appreciate about the kitchen is that no one seems to be excessively afraid of fat. My roast leg of lamb comes with a chop with a ruffle of charred fat -- it's not to be eaten, but it gives the meat a wonderful flavor, balanced by a feta salsa verde and a zucchini gratin topped with breadcrumbs. The prosciutto that comes with a slice of ripe juicy melon has more than an inch of sweet white fat on the top.
Halibut might come with cranberry beans, or, my favorite, grouper with fresh corn, lardons and basil. Steak of various cuts could arrive with fingerling potatoes, sweet roasted peppers and a bright-tasting chimichurri sauce. Even better is the pork loin roast that carries the sweet tang of apple cider and comes with rustic polenta and apple wedges cooked down almost to applesauce.
OK, so what's the downside? The noise, which I hope they'll address in the remodeling. Oddly enough, it seems easier to hear if you're sitting at one of the two communal tables in the bar, though maybe it's because you're seated closer together.
Desserts aren't always a big success either. Maybe it's because right now there isn't a dedicated pastry chef: They're looking for one. Bread pudding one night is oddly tough. But who's complaining when that same night a sugar-dusted doughnut is served warm with a pot of dark Mexican hot cocoa for dipping? And the semifreddo is rich, creamy dulce de leche scattered with peanuts.
The fact that some things won't work perfectly is inevitable with a menu that changes every day. But the trade-off, I'm thinking, is worth it.
The wine menu may be one of the shortest in town -- a dozen wines by the glass, mostly Italian, and we're not talking Santa Margarita but Primitivo and Nero d'Avola and Gaglioppo. And just nine wines by the bottle. (But all wines by the glass are also available by the bottle.) That's right, nine. Sometimes less, with the same theory as the rest of the menu: Grapes are listed on the left -- Cataratto, Cococciola, Zibibbo -- and provenance, but no producers, on the right, something sure to drive wine aficionados nuts. On the other hand, why not try something you don't already know is good? Should you want to know something about the wines, mostly from small producers, resident Italian wine geek and manager Maxwell Leer is ready to talk.
Where else would you find a beautiful woman in a Pucci print dress delivering your dish and trilling "Bon appetit" as she races back to the kitchen?
Sometimes the Tasting Kitchen can seem more performance art than restaurant as usual. But that's part of its charm.