by David Ke
I like to think that a talented up-and-coming restaurant team, intending to open a contemporary Italian eatery along the Venetian coast, fallaciously purchased tickets to the wrong Venice. California-bound, they had no choice but to forge forward and pioneer their cuisine within the context of the farm-to-table philosophy Californians so love to celebrate and to which Chef Travis Passerotti is a proud protagonist. The clashing of the free spirit of Venice Beach with the traditionalism and heritage of Italy isn’t a mix you expect to see every day. While the bohemian excitement of California and the traditional worldliness of Veneto may seem at odds, they are as much complements as they are foils.
And yet good restauranteurs never seem to shy away when faced with staunch traditionalism or a narrow guide of expectations – to a good cook, those expectations further sharpen their fangs.
Thus, the Tasting Kitchen was born. The atmosphere is one carefully assembled to create a mirage of an evening in Italy, celebrating a dinner of plenty, as Italians do daily. Low lighting, olive-like plants entangling a fence nearby, spindly chairs – the restaurant built quite an aesthetic… But who am I fooling? I know nothing about interior design; everything looked Italian and quaint and nice, but let’s discuss the food!
We started with some house pickles – deep red peppers, dark seaweed-green cucumbers, vibrantly yellow and green zucchini - giardinara. This plate was served alongside another dish of whole green olives and almonds, along with a third dish of an apple and persimmon salad, dressed with olive oil and fennel pollen.
I loved this course not for the explosively aggressive flavour, but simply because of the idea. Although each dish was a common Italian tabletop snackish food, each was playfully modified and shook off any prior notion one might have about just eating ‘basic’ Italian food. Whether through flavour, appearance, or idea, the first course of a meal should serve to heighten the anticipation of the meal for the diner – and this course did exactly that, the olives and fruits especially. Olives with almonds – who does that? The olives were meaty and fresh, rather than the nuggets of concentrated, earthy brine that I was used to; especially with the almonds, they ate really well, the subtle nuttiness enhanced by both the pit in the olive and the accompanying nuts. Even the simple plate of apple and persimmon wedges stood out to me – the fruit was so seasonally autumnal. The fennel pollen added a vegetal and subdued quality to the otherwise fresh dish - I have to say that it’s impressive for a plate of apples and persimmons sprinkled with fennel pollen to make me gush so much.
As a last little poetic interpretation, almonds with the olives, and fennel pollen with the fruits – those are very heavily California-forward produce twists to add to a dish, and I love that clever embrace for locality. If this course was any indication for how the rest of the meal is, it’s going to be a solid dinner – I think if you’re able to plant that idea into your diners’ heads, you’ve successfully piqued their interest for the next course. In this case, that course had an iteration of dinner roll I was floored by.
Enough with the flowery writing for a second – picture, for a second, the humble dinner roll. Buttery, lightly crusty, with a tenderness that begs to be paired with anything that could benefit from toasty bread (that is to say, everything). Truly, it is a near-perfect course accompaniment, and I ache to stack every possible dish element permutation possible on every single piece of dinner roll possible. Let me be clear – that’s not a complete compliment. That ache to pile foods atop irregular chunks of bread is not one easily satisfied, and seeing the perfect arrangement of sauce and garnish roll off a dinner roll and onto a shirt is quite the heartbreaker. Luckily, the gnocco fritto recognises this crippling weakness and covers for it. Entirely forgetting about leavening and the skilful cooking this bread demands, all I could think about was the fun of eating using a bread balloon. Truly it felt like any course could be crammed into that gnocco and enhanced, but consider this – what if that course was an overflowing abundance of antipastos?
While the gnocco were brought out nestled on top of flowing ribbons of prosciutto, it seemed every dish in the second course was one that, to me, eagerly waited to be paired with bread. Mussels, steamed simply with fennel and white wine, create a rich, briny broth. Mushrooms and burrata, humbly yet earnestly displaying the deep savouriness achievable even without meat were plated incredibly beautifully, with speckles of red pepper and sprigs of micro parsley adorning the elegant arrangement. If there was a course to write home (or to a luxury lifestyle magazine) about, it was this.
Every flavour, texture, colour, aroma, and idea was explosively different, yet came together in a satisfyingly pleasant way, like a picnic on a cliff by the sea. Truly, none of those things belong together – a checkered blanket, a woven basket, grass rustling against a buffet of wind, waves crashing against rocks – and yet, there’s something cohesive about that assembly of things so foreign to each other. That colourful, free aesthetic in having so many different things together is reflected so well in this course – blossoms of red prosciutto; the glossy, black ovals of mussel shells jutting boldly out, protecting the plump meat within; pristinely white burrata, holding up masterfully handled mushrooms. The plating, aromas, and ingredients were so incredibly different – it seems like the foods have to at least speak the same language to be eaten together, let alone be nestled together into a pocket of gnocco. Luckily, some foods seem to speak a ubiquitous language – balanced deliciousness. The dishes were so carefully and thoughtfully assembled with their seasoning, garnish, and preparation, that plump mussels with ribbons of prosciutto just somehow made sense. Whatever permutation of dish elements I put together was uniquely and mind-bogglingly delicious.
To follow immediately after such an impactful course is almost an impossible ask, and I believe the course choice was one that was as much strategy as much as it was tradition. If it’s any testament to how much the antipasto course rocked me, I was surprised when a pasta was brought out as the next course. Surprised. By a pasta course. Brought out after an antipasto. As it happens, this was a bucatini all’amatriciana – a thick, long pasta with a tiny hollow centre, served coated with a simmered tomato and guanciale (pork jowl – smoky, fatty, incredibly meaty) sauce. If that description sounds a little straightforward, so was the course. Don’t get me wrong, it was a deeply rich pasta with many avenues of savouriness (aka delicious). But following that previous course, isn’t this a little plain? For that, I have a theory. Unless the previous course was followed by some ground-breaking, earth-shakingly delicious course filled to the brim with abundance and decadence, it would fall short by comparison. By convention, pasta should be served after antipasto anyway. Why not confidently serve a smoky, rich pasta, whose quality and is not easily influenced by the food that comes before or after? The concentrated sauce, flavoured with both the intense meatiness of the guanciale and wide breadth of complex flavours in the pecorino romano for garnish did not, at the same time, shy away from providing a tasty plate, nor did it compete with the previous course. If there was a way to stay warmed-up leading up to the main course, this was it.
For our main course we chose the short rib which were braised to perfection and succulent. They were accompanied by a complementary celeriac puree, and plancha-cooked eggplant served with healthy dollops of ricotta.
To end the evening, we tried two dishes that were immediate visual opposites – a pristinely light-coloured semi freddo with honey whipped cream, and an incredibly dark chocolate cake with berry compote. They were both extremely well-balanced, avoiding the pitfall of sugar-laced dessert less creative and talented restaurants often find themselves serving.
The Tasting Kitchen proves that you can have a slice of Italy or indeed Venice in California and we eagerly anticipate returning to try many of the other dishes on the menu that sounded so appetising but we sadly did not taste.
1633 Abbot Kinney Blvd, Venice, CA 90291, United States