Including the chef's first burger.
Michael Voltaggio's new Ink.Well restaurant on L.A.'s La Cienega Boulevard includes a spacious bar. You can come by for a quick drink and try the first burger the famed chef has ever served at a restaurant. But as with everything Voltaggio does, there's more than meets the eye here.
Order barman Otello Tiano's mezcal cocktail and you'll get San Marzano tomatoes along with some pilsner, watermelon, Tabasco and lime. Order the burger and you'll get some dry-aged funk, a hollowed-out top bun, aerated cheese, fried shallots, beef bacon (because Voltaggio wants guests who don't eat pork to enjoy the experience of consuming a bacon cheeseburger), housemade sauce and fermented cucumbers with dill. It's got the elements of a classic burger, but Voltaggio sous-vides the patty before finishing it over fruitwood and mesquite charcoal.
"There's always an ellipsis at the end of every dish," Voltaggio says.
Voltaggio, who won season 6 of Top Chef in 2009 and was named a Food & Wine Best New Chef in 2013 for his work at Ink, is a master of avant-garde technique and one of the country's foremost practitioners of modernist cuisine. But he doesn't want to make a big deal of it.
The descriptions on the menu at Ink.Well don't explain the magic behind hits like his starchless egg-yolk gnocchi, one of the many dishes that came over from Ink, the restaurant he recently closed before opening Ink.Well. They don't tell you that the dairy-free avocado green goddess Voltaggio serves over gem lettuce is frozen, so you can take your time eating without worrying about your salad getting drenched. They don't explain that the popular apple dessert with a burnt-wood semifreddo involves liquid nitrogen.
"I want people to order things and be surprised," Voltaggio says.
A new Dungeness crab dish is a California-influenced riff on the crab dip he grew up eating in Maryland. It's served over nori rigatoni. Voltaggio burns seaweed in the oven. The charred nori becomes a puree that he combines with semolina to create house-extruded pasta. The warm crab dish also involves potato espuma (something Voltaggio learned how to prepare at The Bazaar by José Andrés), fish sauce and bottarga, among other savory and umami notes. There are layers and layers of big flavors in this dish.
"I'm hoping that encourages people to drink more," Voltaggio says.
Voltaggio is a high-profile celebrity chef who's partnered with Hollywood power broker Michael Ovitz on Ink.Well. But this restaurant is very much a DIY project. Voltaggio closed Ink after final service on July 30 and quickly opened the larger Ink.Well on August 11.
"I didn't have a choice," Voltaggio says. "It was go time."
Voltaggio had been looking for a space where he could have a big bar. Ink had a cramped bar that "created a bottleneck" in the front of the restaurant, and the chef wanted a much more relaxed space where patrons could come hang out and drink on the regular.
He ended up finding a space that could house a comfortable bar as well as his flagship restaurant. So Voltaggio asked Ovitz if it would be cool to relocate Ink and transform it into Ink.Well.
Ovitz agreed but encouraged Voltaggio to design everything himself. So Voltaggio signed a lease and opened Ink.Well about four weeks later. He spent a lot of time in the kitchen and created more than a dozen new dishes (twice as many as he originally intended).
Voltaggio, with some help from Restoration Hardware, also did indeed work on every aspect of the design: re-painting the exterior and interior of what was formerly Hutchinson Cocktails & Grill, re-facing the bar, changing the light fixtures, taking down all the room dividers, choosing the carpet, moving kitchen equipment from Ink, refinishing furniture that was brought over from Ink, finding some new furniture. There was a room with bookshelves in his new restaurant space, so Voltaggio put in books and named the area "the library."
Plus, "I found chandeliers from some guy who harvested the wood himself from the woods in Pennsylvania." Voltaggio says. "I looked for people who made things with their hands."
Voltaggio considered putting a mirror in the middle of the bar until a friend, designer Thomas Schoos, told him it would be bad feng shui to have a mirror facing the outside. Now, there's a projector that displays X-rays of flowers instead. Those who book private events at Ink.Well can project anything they want. Voltaggio, not surprisingly, likes the idea of a blank slate, a place that can evolve and purposefully be different things for different people. Or different things for the same people.
"I wanted the space to feel like you could be there anytime," he says. "You can come over and over again for different reasons."
He'd like Ink.Well to be both a serious restaurant, with the possibility of tasting menus in the future, and also a fun place where revelers pre-game before heading to nearby West Hollywood nightclubs.
Voltaggio recently went to Gramercy Tavern in New York for the first time. He wanted to see how the storied restaurant balanced elegant dining with a lively bar scene.
"That concept became more powerful than anybody who worked in the building," Voltaggio says of Gramercy Tavern. "I want that kind of experience. I don't want Ink.Well to be about me. I want it to be about the space."
The key to success at Ink.Well, Voltaggio understands, is being a total-package destination. Whether you come for a bar experience or drop by because you want to be dazzled by molecular gastronomy, "the experience has to be consistent from the first glass of water through dessert," Voltaggio says.
Voltaggio wants to engage with customers. He listens to them closely. An octopus dish that was popular at Ink, for example, has moved to Ink.Well, but it's been tweaked after feedback Voltaggio got about it being salty. The saltiness came from the octopus itself, so Voltaggio added more vegetable stock to the dish. He's also making each portion with whole tentacles after some regulars requested it that way.
Voltaggio understands that change is good, and that change can be necessary. When I ask about his reasons for opening Ink.Well, he points out that Ink was six years old. It was time for something different. And even a chef as famous as Voltaggio sometimes needs to remind L.A. that's he's still doing his thing in the kitchen.
"Opening this restaurant was a huge way to say, 'Hey, guys, we're still here,'" Voltaggio says.
Here with liquid nitrogen, but also here with a new burger.