"It's not much but it's ours"

Saturday, November 06, 2010


Mmmm, pop up restaurants?

I have railed against them for as long as this blog has been up and running.  I have yet to have anything more than a mediocre experience at any I have visited and, I am afraid to say after Thursday night’s visit to The Test Kitchen, that sorry record remains very much intact.

The Test Kitchen is predicated on an interesting if fundamentally flawed concept.  Its kitchens are watched over by a series of regarded chefs who are either between jobs or working towards the opening of a new restaurant. It is, if you will, a restaurant that operates within a Groundhog Day like loop of permanent soft opening.

Except that is, for one fact, the prices at The Test Kitchen are really not terribly soft at all.  They are easily the equivalent of most mid level restaurants in L.A and, once wine and the 18% service charge are added to the tab, $100 per person becomes a distant sight in the rear view mirror.  Most normal restaurants on the other hand, well those in London at least, do offer reduced prices in the first weeks as they find their feet.  If they don’t then, as here, they must perish in the first burst of fire.  If you charge me full whack, then you must deliver the full experience, no excuses.  It’s quite simple.

Even if you would not expect to be dazzled at such a price, you should at the very least expect to be satisfied.  However, when faced with a series of chefs not given enough time to get used to a kitchen or hone their menu, what you inevitably experience is a procession of adequate to poor dishes, which rarely reach the lower rung of the expectation ladder.

What you also get is the sort of cooking you might be pleasantly surprised to receive at a wedding, but leaves you very less than whelmed in a restaurant.  Lots of pre-prepared and composed dishes that require little or no cooking to order and leave you wondering if any chefs have been harmed in the preparation of your supper.

Thursday’s meal, a birthday celebration for a friend, could and should have been so much better.  The Chef in charge, Frenchman, Alain Giraud, has an excellent provenance having cooked previously at Citrus, Bastide and at the recently closed Anisette. He is also, I was told, in the midst of preparation for the opening of a new place in Pacific Palisades.  That such an accomplished chef could then serve up such a lacklustre meal makes the experience all the more disappointing.

It began well enough.  The bar at The Test Kitchen was manned by Julian Cox and Brian Summers and the well executed drinks they made for our party of seven marked them down as some of the best I have found in LA.  The positive vibes kept coming when we sat down and were presented with a basket of excellent breads including a warm and crumbly brioche.

The amuse very much set the scene for what was to follow.  A small sliver of “fennel cured” salmon with thin slices of apple and a smear of fennel cream.  A light and pleasant enough beginning but one that required little thought or attention to plate and even less as it passed from there to the stomach.

The next dish was not badly prepared.  Well, half of it wasn’t, which I guess makes it a real curate’s egg of a dish.  A “Duo of Farm Eggs” (FFS) comprised two cut shells (good to see that fancy Japanese egg shell cutting machine getting a run out) one filled with a terrific truffled egg mousse and the other with a herbed scrambled egg that had been cooked until it became grainy and slightly unpleasant.

Next up a straight up flop of a dish.  A tepid broth poured on top of over cooked pre-prepared vegetables and an basil and Almond Pistou, which was remarkable in that it both overpowered the whole dish yet still left everyone at the table asking for salt. Think about it, it’s quite an achievement. 

Coquilles Saint-Jacques is one of those rich, indulgent dishes that remind me, with one taste, of month long Summer holidays spent on the coast of Brittany.  I would always order it at every opportunity and still recall the pleasure I felt when it was brought to the table, the sauce of wine and cream bubbling out from beneath a topping of potato and Gruyere.  While there was none of that pleasure with this dish, it did at least show that the kitchen could cook when they turned their mind to it.  The scallops were a perfect medium and the juices lightened suitably with a touch of Meyer lemon juice. Hardly epiphanal, but in the context of a largely disappointing meal, a welcome high point.

Unfortunately, more lows followed all too rapidly with the meat course. If you are doing relatively little cooking to order during a meal, then you need to be sure that what you do is spot on, especially if that includes the main protein of the evening. Add that to the undeniable truth that a dish of veal with mushrooms and a truffle sauce is not the most taxing of dishes for a chef of this level and it makes the fact that we all thought the meat was “dry” and “tough” and “stringy” all the more annoying.

Dessert was a pleasant enough diversion of strawberries, malt ice cream and vanilla cream, but again smacked of pre-preparation and did little to lift my opinion of the experience. Nor too did the gourmandises, which included quite the worst Madeleines I have tasted since I last tried to make them myself.

With drinks and a service charge, the tab reached a slightly gasp inducing $120 a head (£75 to the folks back home) for which I think we could all, quite rightly have anticipated a meal better than one where I expected someone to cut a cake and give a speech at the end of it.

As we left, one of my companions said “Well, at least the cocktails and bread were good” which reminded me of the infamous Variety review of a poor musical “the audience left whistling the scenery”

Well, I left Alain Giraud @ The Test Kitchen whistling the bread and cocktails, which only goes to reinforce my view that pop up restaurants are always lousy.


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Anonymous London Chow said...

Sorry to hear that you had a bad experience.

Haven't been to that many pop up restaurants myself, I guess the price premium can be attribute to the 'limited period' nature of the experience. Also, the chefs will usually mingle with customers in those that I've been to. I understand that there are instances in London where it cost nearly 100 quid per head for similar experiences.

Sunday, November 07, 2010 8:09:00 am  
Anonymous Catherine said...

What about Koffmann's pop-up at Selfridges for last year's London Restaurant Festival? The venue, buzz and, most importantly, the food were fantastic.

Sunday, November 07, 2010 1:48:00 pm  
Blogger Hermano 2 said...

I am not convinced bout the Koffman pop up. I didn't go for the reasons I outlined above and because I doubted it could be better than the food I tasted of his when he was in his pomp.

The reports I heard were very mixed. Those who had never eaten his food before or were too young to have tried his restaurants liked it, those who had eaten his food before told me it was a pale reflection of him at his best

I remain unconvinced


Sunday, November 07, 2010 2:27:00 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Though you make fair points about the pricing, the prices are set by proprietors who are funding the rebuild of the restaurant upstairs from the profits at Test Kitchen. The chefs have no say in this.

As far as your comments about the cooking, I know some of the chefs cooking here and everything was shopped, prepped and made for these dinners. As I read your description of early scallop experiences, I think you bring preconceived notions to many dishes.

As with fashion, the concept is to say, "what haven't I seen for while and how can I update it to today's tastes?" The chef may not be looking to reinvent the wheel or develop a new dish. As with any developmental stage, they are trying things out to see if they are keepers and some things will inevitably fall by the wayside.

Lastly, a restauranteur once said to me that you cannot judge a restaurant or chef until you visit three times so in this setting it is difficult to meet that standard.

Sunday, November 07, 2010 7:16:00 pm  
Blogger Hermano 2 said...

Thanks for your comments.

I think they support my points. My argument is that the meal did not justify that pricing. I am not blaming the chef particularly, just making an observation.

I don't doubt that the chefs prepared the dishes in the Test Kitchen facilities, but do think the menu was constructed so little cooking had to be done to order, hence the composed appetizers, amuse and dessert. Where cooking was required, it was generally found wanting.

The last point is an interesting one as it means that meals at The Test Kitchen are almost always going to be found wanting.

I can definitely understand the appeal of The Test Kitchen, but can also say that I am unlikely to revist

All best


Sunday, November 07, 2010 9:52:00 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dont' mind anonymous #1. Test Kitchen would be a great idea.....if the chefs were talented. But most of them work at mediocre restaurants that someone who eats outside of Los Angeles on a regular basis would go to (with a few exceptions including Plascentia, Voltaggio, Manzke)

Also the automatic 18% gratuity doesn't encourage good service. I also know chefs who were working these dinners and were told to cut back on their portion sizes, and were encouraged to make family style dinners so that they could charge more and cut back on costs.

Now that it's coming to a close (or becoming a tv show, according to eater?), I'm looking forward to the new pizza/italian restaurant. They made good pizzas in Orange County and it will be nice to have some decent pizza.

Sunday, December 12, 2010 9:30:00 pm  

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