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