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Top Chef… Pasadena?

Sep 17, 2009
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Michael Voltaggio at work

Michael Voltaggio at work

I love Pasadena, I really do. But let’s be honest — it is not considered one of the country’s best food towns. (Now, San Gabriel, that’s another story.) We have plenty of good places to eat, but we don’t have destination restaurants.

But now we have a Top Chef, or at least one who’s climbing his way to the top on the cult-phenom TV show, Top Chef. Michael Voltaggio, he of the spiky hair, tattoos and swagger, is the new chef at the Dining Room at the once-stuffy Huntington Hotel (the Langham Huntington nowadays), and he’s looking like a mighty strong contender this season, with potential to go the whole way.

No thanks, I had that for breakfast: Pacific yellowtail, sashimi style, with soy-watermelon, sea sponge and smoked egg yolk.

No thanks, I had that for breakfast: Pacific yellowtail, sashimi style, with soy-watermelon, sea sponge and smoked egg yolk.

The former chef de cuisine at José Andrés’s Bazaar in West Hollywood, Voltaggio has a background in what has been dubbed molecular gastronomy — made most famous at Andrés’s former home, El Bullí in Spain, and at Grant Achatz’s Alinea in Chicago. Foods are broken down to essential elements and messed with; some jokingly call this “foam cuisine,” because of the prevalence of things like salmon-roe foam or chile foam.

Now forgive me for thinking of my adopted hometown as being not exactly on the cutting edge, but I don’t see molecular gastronomy catching on big at the Huntington, and many locals are pining for the deeply talented former chef, Craig Strong, who was recently lured away to Laguna’s Montage. So I was delighted to be invited to a dinner party in the Dining Room to check out the new chef’s work first hand.

Chef Voltaggio seems to have muted the extremes for his new home. So while the menu has such dishes as halibut cheeks with scrambled cauliflower and lemongrass-scallion froth, and Wagyu beef with “textures of broccoli, tamarind, horseradish styrofoam,” it’s not totally out there. Yes, it’s intellectual and precious. Yes, it’s daintily portioned and expensive. And yes, it might even be a bit pretentious. But he’s got some amazing flavors going on, and most of the dishes I tried that night were meticulously crafted, lovely to gaze upon, and actually delicious. No one else east of La Brea is cooking anything remotely like this, and if you’re a serious food lover, you’ve got to check it out for yourself. I can’t guarantee your reaction, but I’m pretty sure you won’t be bored.

The old-world Dining Room is closing for a major remodel in January, so the setting better suits the food.

The old-world Dining Room is closing for a major remodel in January, so the setting better suits the food.

The Dining Room, Langham Huntington Hotel, 401 S. Oak Knoll Ave., Pasadena, 626.568.3900, thediningroom-langham.com.




6 Responses for “Top Chef… Pasadena?”

  1. Unfortunately, i agree with your assessment of our restaurant town. Certainly nothing “essential” to visit Pasadena for eating, outside of little EuroPane.
    Good luck to this potential “Top Chef!”

  2. Gastronomer says:

    With birthdays and anniversaries already celebrated this year, it looks like I’ll have to wait until 2010 to visit The Dining Room. Dang! Hopefully the interior makeover will be good and done by then 😉

  3. Skylar says:

    It took me a few episodes to realize that’s where this guy works. Pasadena is so shunned that he feels he has to say The Dining Room is in “Los Angeles.” Lame. He totally cheated us out of some recognition. But he does seem to be doing excellent work.

  4. anything for the city of hope in latin “while i breathe i hope” is “dum spiro spero” the motto of the dillon clan in ireland and also my motto as a practicing physician, while you breathe there is hope…retired now and a winebottle artist, anything to give people hope i am very much in favor of helping…

  5. Lisa says:

    What a bunch of pretentious food.

  6. […] Here’s our most recent piece on the Dining Room at the Huntington. […]

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