Thursday, April 29, 2010
If there's one place that warms both Jeni's and my soul, it's a place called Portland, Oregon. I love New York City for its fast-paced, aggressive culinary scene and multi-faceted culinary offerings due in part to large populations of ethnic minorities. I love Chicago for its hearty, savory food that strikes the chords and memories for many Americans. But there's something about Portland that has created waves for us. If you have not been to Portland, I'm sure you have visions of the Jailblazers, flannel-wearing lumberjacks and genius, marijuana-smoking pupils of Reed College. Sure you are correct but you don't know Portland until you step foot there. In a quadrant-divided city tucked neatly inside a lush green patch of land, progression is happening very fast. When we were there, we encountered the nicest people. Most were locals but many were transplants from Los Angeles, San Francisco, Phoenix and Austin. Whether it is for the music or art scene, a lot can be said about the food and cocktails that, in my book, put Portland on the map. Coupled with some perfect strangers named Ron, Kevin and Matt, they welcomed us to their quaint little city and began to engorge us with some of PDX's best.
A lot of the food we ate was braised meat and farm fresh vegetables – nothing any different from the Los Angeles fare, but there was a difference. The food was bold, but never showy. It was daring, yet modest. It was soulful, but never heavy. No dish really cost over $20 and no cocktail was over $9, which is the price for a cocktail served at one of Portland's most expensive, Ten 01 Lounge. Portland to me was everything I looked for in food – simple, warm and modest. And a lot can be said about the cocktails stirred and shaken there as well. There's Ten 01, an attempt at feeling very West Hollywood, but not at all tacky. There's Clyde Common, the restaurant right next door to the Ace Hotel that serves lovely $5 cocktails during happy hour that should really be $10. And my favorite, The Secret Society – a one room hidden gem above the town-favorite Toro Bravo. It was there that Jeni and I began an appreciation for ginger-based drinks and copper and tin julep cups. I still remember the taste of my first Kentucky Mule – Bourbon, muddled lime and Bundaburg Ginger Beer. Fantastic.
A year later, we still have the stretch marks to prove our thumbs up for Portland. Ron, after 2 years of exploring Portland, moved back down to Los Angeles with an even bigger passion for food and drink. One night, he told us to meet him up at a place called The Tasting Kitchen on Abbot Kinney. Abbot Kinney? The Westside hipster's boulevard of boutique shops, dispensaries, bookstores, cafes and random eateries. Back in the day, this was my old ad agency's weekly happy hour hangout. We'd get pizza at Abbot's, which by the way, is still one of my faves (try the wild mushroom & olive pesto - god). Then we'd head over to the Other Room for some beer and finish off the night at The Brig. Those were good times but besides the 1-Star Michelin awarded Joe's, I wasn't familiar with the Abbot Kinney restaurant scene.
But had I known that The Tasting Kitchen was the brainchild of a bunch of Portlanders, I would've been here on day one. The captain of the ship is Casey Lane, of ClarkLewis, and offers basically a portal into Portland. But according to Ron, his main reason for coming to TTK is for the cocktails. After an engagement shoot right in the Abbot Kinney area, a drink would suit us right.
We walked into the dimly-lit room that screamed out Dwell magazine more than Portland. Large windows, wooden tables and Mid-Century-esque furniture filled the candle-lit room. We saw Ron at the bar of course and took a seat.
We took a seat at the bar and were greeted by a friendly gentleman that would at the end of the night, would remind us of the good times in Portland. Bartender Justin Pike hails from Clyde Common and most recently, Chef Lane's ClarkLewis. Dressed in modern "vintage" bartender gear, he passed out menus and clapped his hands together: "What kind of drink can I make for you?" We already knew where this was headed. Behind him was a beautiful artillery of spirits. I asked him how fun it must have been to create your dream bar wish list. I took a look at the cocktail menu with drinks named "Fanny Pack", "Sophisticated" and "United Nations". If you're heavily into the cocktail scene, you'll immediately sense a difference in style. There seemed to be heavy emphasis on making a cocktail that relied on the natural taste of a spirit, flavoring liquer and super fresh herbs – not so much simple syrup which can be a little much after a while. For me, looking at the menu was like looking at Russian writing – the ingredients were obscure to me and I really had no idea what was going on. It looked like this: bourbon, sajdfjkl;ajsdkl & sjkljklsdfasl. And whether or not you recognize those ingredients, you're in for some clever chemistry.
But the best part of the menu was not the one we were holding, but a secondary, almost secret menu that Justin Pike offered to you if you knew what you were talking about. Hint: aviator sunglasses, a silver chain, freshly dry-cleaned Ed Hardy silk shirt and sequined, white jeans will win you an Apple Martini. But if you're dressed like that, that's probably what you want anyway. He told us that for the first few months, his top cocktail seller was a Cosmopolitan. I'd imagine Pike was pretty frustrated with that. We chose a few drinks off the regular menu but I think the real fun was on the "secret menu" which had even more Russian writing.
Does a cocktail with Zaya 12, Luli Chinato and Nocino make you thirsty?
Or how about a cocktail made from Lairds, Fernet and Hubertus?
Why not finish the night with Noilly Pratt, Torani and Maraschino?
Dizzying right? I can assure you that Pike's cocktails are outstanding. I learned from cocktail guru, Daniel Djang of Thirsty in LA, that Pike's craftsmanship has won the approval from some of Los Angeles's best bartenders – Julian Cox of Rivera and Las Perlas and Eric Alperin of The Varnish and New York's Milk & Honey. I need to get in the habit of writing down the names of cocktails because literally, things do become blurry. In a delicious way.
My god these were delicious drinks. At about the third drink, we remembered that there was actually food on the menu. Yeah, really. I had no idea that TTK was even an "Italian" restaurant. Or at least a Portland take on pasta which seemed like an usual pairing to begin with. Here's what we had.
The bread served here is from La Brea bakery and it is served nice and hot. What would taste better than paper-thin slices of Prosciutto that seem to dissolve over the hot bread and butter. I usually find Prosciutto salty and boring, but this was pleasant.
Tesa Tagliatelle and Hedgehog Mushrooms
In this dish were two things I had never eaten. Tesa is a style of un-smoked pancetta. Hedgehog mushrooms have a sweet and nutty taste to it. One stab of the fork into this freshly-made tagliatelle pasta, and I knew that there was something different. The tagliatelle I usually have is quite thin but this was thick and the texture was awesome. The morsels of pancetta and mushrooms went so well with the pasta and light sprinkling of shaved cheese. I still cannot stop thinking about this pasta and I am putting this up there with Osteria Mozza's pasta. Until I try Osteria Mamma's pasta, I'm writing creepy love letters to TTK.
Bucatini Alla Amatriciana
To stop Jeni and I from fighting over the last few bites of the awesome tesa tagliatelle, we made peace and ordered another pasta. I'm not familiar with the 7,418 shapes of pasta, but this one looked to me like long, rubbery drinking straws. Think straight macaroni that has not been cut. These "laces" of pasta caught the sauce nicely. I forgot to mention that this was actually the spiciest pasta I've ever eaten. It was heavier on the sauce but nonetheless addicting.
Pork Steak with Polenta & Green Garlic
You don't usually hear the word "steak" associated with pork, but this was really treated like a steak. Seared off in a pan and thrown in the oven, this is a trans-specie thing going on. A pig that really wants to be a cow. For that reason, you'll find yourself really enjoying this juicy piece of meat. I liked it, but would stick with what Chef Lane is known for, the pastas.
After 3 hours of food and cocktails, Jeni and I went home talking about it still. What I liked about the food was that it didn't try to be authentic Italian. It was Portland food with an Italian accent. The pasta acted as a bonding for ingredients you would normally see in Portland-style cuisine. I really can't explain what it is about the pasta that makes me want to go back already. For me, this restaurant is the cool kid that does his own thing. Confident, yet cordial and humble. He's definitely not the trend-follower. For whatever reason, this place may be something not to be analyzed but an experience that is to be absorbed. If you've never been to Portland, then may the food of Chef Lane and cocktails by Justin Pike convince you that there is more to where they came from. Thanks for reading.
The Tasting Kitchen
1633 Abbot Kinney Blvd.
Venice, CA 90291