Ink was probably L.A.’s most eagerly awaited new restaurant in back 2012. It didn’t fail to impress. Among its other accolades, influential American food critic Alan Richman placed it at the top of his list of the ten best new restaurants in America in 2012.
Those who were familiar with Michael Voltaggio – and there are many given his television gig on America’s hugely popular Top Chef – couldn’t wait. Given that the man has veritable sleeves of tattoos – as seen on TV– they couldn’t be blamed for assuming that the name refers to his penchant for that kind of ink. Upon actually seeing the menu, they altered their opinion: sepia, octopus and other forms of organic ink are all well represented. But, allegedly, the name actually alludes to permanence. Michael had his fingers crossed that his first signature restaurant on the swankier part of Melrose Avenue will end his days as a culinary rolling stone. Nearly five years down the road, it seems to have been a good call.
Inside it’s the West Hollywood version of boho chic; simple metal chairs and modest tables on a polished concrete floor and a design concept that places more emphasis on recycled materials and a lack of pretension than Tinsel Town glitz. It’s a local rendition of a fashionable lack of conspicuous consumption that became the default setting for L.A. cool in the wake of the Economic Crisis. Not that it’s hypocritical. Ink is an affordable place to eat extremely well.
As is the trend in many hip restaurants, the emphasis is placed on the multi-course tasting menu that offers a wider range of smaller dishes instead of traditional course structures. This focus is highlighted by the à la carte menu’s disinterest in directing diners towards prescriptive ways of eating. Dishes are simply presented as a long continuous list. How many dishes and in what order you choose to eat them is up to you in the increasingly familiar tapas-like format that operates in many lauded restaurants. If you feel the need for a little guidance –and they concomitant financial benefits– opt for the tasting menu offered at a fixed price with included selected wines.
Almost all of the dishes are on the adventurous side. Voltaggio is, after all, from that school of ‘molecular cooking’ that sometimes takes cuisine in the direction of a science fair; a chef who likes to play with liquid nitrogen or sees the challenge of working foie gras into candy floss as a suitable challenge to both chef and diner. Yet even the more tricksy moments are underpinned by homely cooking. Fish and seafood are wisely represented in this waistline-obsessed town, but there are plenty of meat dishes for those who do not wish to forgo fattier joys of the palette. Many of these have a strong traditional base to them. Chicken and waffles, for example, was once a social-leveller American classic. Voltaggio took this dish and reinvented it and it’s an idea that has continued to morph on his menu. One rendition sees it as duck rillette with waffle, mustard, griddled pear and banyuls vinegar.
In many ways this is a menu that cannot be approached in terms of courses, but rather in terms of flavours. If you want something light and zesty, look to the seafood; for example, the Japanese scallop with soy-cured papaya, fermented chili and basil or the octopus, ink. shells, young fennel and pimenton. The meatier delights could take the form of wagyu beef brisket, bbq baked barley and puffed tendon or flat iron steak, hearts of palm barigoule, shallots and seaweed potatoes. And even the sweet courses are not without their counterbalance: apple, caramel, shortbread as a burnt wood semifreddo or chocolate, crème fraiche, peanuts, malt and matcha.