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Monday, April 01, 2013

L.A.'s Lucky Not To Have Lost Michael Voltaggio To Mumbai

Ink's the best restaurant in L.A. By that I mean, they serve the most unique and delicious food in town... and in a friendly, comfortable atmosphere. I eat there a lot and always try to sit in the same seat at the counter. Eventually I got to meet a lot of the people who work there. And one of them was 34 year old chef/owner Michael Voltaggio, who had his moment of Top Chef glory before I had started watching the show or even knew I could get Bravo on my TV.

I could tell immediately that Voltaggio is on fire for food. He obsesses over every dish-- and this is the kind of restaurant where nothing on the menu is in a recipe book or available at any other restaurant. It's all his creation-- like a song or a painting. I worked as a chef in Amsterdam for four years and I grokked the compulsion from the first conversation almost a year ago. But that's not why I go there so often. I go there because the food is so good and so unique; nothing like it anywhere, not even Bazaar, the other "molecular gastronomy" place in town where I used to eat all the time, never knowing Michael was Chef de Cuisine.

One day I told Michael and Cole, the other chef, that I was going to India for a month and I'd see them when I got back. Michael mentioned he had been to India not long ago, starting a restaurant. I found that fascinating of course, especially because I had been to Mumbai so many times over the years-- since it's where the Indian music business is and Warners had a subsidiary there-- and it was in the Colaba neighborhood, down the street from the Taj Hotel, that Michael and his brother Bryan were working on opening an American food restaurant.

If you ever googled Voltaggio you were overwhelmed with information. Everything about his life and his work is online-- except India. There's almost nothing about his time in India available. A couple tweets and two or three mentions in a local Mumbai city guide type paper, Mumbai Boss. Mumbai "foodies went into salivation overdrive," according to a local restaurant reviewer when word leaked out that the Voltaggios were coming to town. “It’s better to keep expectations low,” said the 27 year old partners who took over the space, a former Italian restaurant, Ranbir Batra and Rohan Talwar, in March of 2010. Eventually I figured out that the restaurant, Ellipsis, opened but that neither Michael nor Bryan was there. In fact, Michael had just opened Ink when he was flying over to Mumbai to help Batra and Talwar figure out how to start a restaurant from scratch in India. I started asking Michael about it. He's an incredibly friendly, polite guy and he always said he'd be happy to talk about it so... several months later we finally sat down and did.

Someone asked Michael, who grew up in Maryland and worked in at the Greenbriar in West Virginia, the Ritz in Naples, Florida, Dry Creek in Healdsberg and at the Langham in Pasadena, how he likes L.A. He said all he ever sees is the inside of his kitchen. That may be an exaggeration-- as you can see from the video down at the bottom-- but pretty much everything revolves around being a chef. Same with travel. He loves it. But whether it was a trip to Mexico, to Spain, to Singapore, or his excellent adveture in Mumbai, all the stuff normal travelers and tourists do took backseat to chef stuff. In fact, he's been all over the world but he's never been anywhere for a vacation. In Mexico he was looking for fresh seafood that isn't available in L.A.-- and visiting Valle de Guadalupe, the Mexican wine country in Baja California. In Spain he was learning about how they make ceramic plates. and in India... the restaurant. He'd fly over for a couple weeks at a time, sometimes he'd be there, some times Bryan would be there. I guess you could call them hands-on consultants or hands-off-chefs.

By the time Ellipsis opened Michael was working full time back at Ink (plus all the other stuff that seems to take him on the road half the time). He's never seen Ellipsis in action. I couldn't get much out of him about his experience there, beyond how excited he was to work with fresh Indian spices and how tough it was to get imported ingredients in a free-standing restaurant (India's weird that way) but I read something about Talwar and Batra enthusing about “modern American cuisine, and how the Voltaggios were helping develope the menu and were instrumental in training the staff, including chef de cuisine Rupam Bhagat (a Mumbai native who had worked with the Voltaggios in the U.S.).

He was excited, of course, to experience another culture-- and India's is about as "other" as you're going to find-- but "when you go someplace," he explained, "you have a plan and the plan changes and you're not in control of the situation... Reality was the difficulty of going into a foreign country and doing a good job."

I haven't eaten there. My last trip to India was to Cochin and Delhi and those links are about the restaurants in each, although the Delhi one is from a trip there in 2007. The reviews of Ellipis at Trip Advisor are great: "the food was absolutely amazing, the cocktails were great, the place is decked out brilliantly, the service attentive and we would highly recommend this place to anyone," came from a Brit. And American tourist was as enthusiastic: "All I can say is that my meal was fantastic, cooked exactly as I ordered and was delicious. The exact same sentiments were echoed by everyone at the table. However, the biggest surprise was awaiting us all. We decided on the Rocky Road Ice Cream for dessert. What we got seemed to be a hand-made concoction of chocolate ice cream with nuts, marshmallows and more, glazed over with chocolate that seemed to have been frozen with liquid nitrogen, a fog covering the plate. Though hard as a rock we started picking it to death with our spoons and we were all delighted with the presentation and the dessert itself. I do have to admit I was the one that finished off this huge mound of ice cream. Impressions completed and they were high. Overall, the whole experience of Ellipsis was excellent. The biggest drawback is perhaps the price, which was close to $400 USD for four, but we did have 2-3 drinks apiece which inflated the bill considerably. However, I don't care how much it was, it made for us another memory of our first trip to India and Mumbai and for the beginning of a new year. I highly recommend Ellipsis..."

If you're closer to L.A., try Ink. There's nothing like it. Best Hamachi dish I ever tasted; best black cod I ever tasted. Best corn dish I ever tasted. Best cuttlefish I ever tasted.