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At Test Kitchen, the menu is in constant flux

One day, it can feature modernist cuisine. The next, tapas and international fusion. The only fixture at the pop-up restaurant is change. Big-name chefs line up for a turn.

October 14, 2010|By Krista Simmons, Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • Former "Top Chef" contestant Betty Fraser at Test Kitchen.
Former "Top Chef" contestant Betty Fraser at Test Kitchen. (Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles…)

The dimly lighted dining room pulses with gritty hip-hop and clanking silverware as diners eagerly await what's being constructed in a kitchen filled with tattooed chefs, steam and sharp focus. A bartender wearing blinged-out earrings swaggers over to a table to drop off a 40-ounce bottle of Olde English swaddled in a brown paper bag. Another trails closely behind with a carafe of fresh-squeezed orange juice to top off the concoction, an urban mimosa named after the Beastie Boys tune "Brass Monkey."

Welcome to Test Kitchen, where just 24 hours earlier, the same restaurant that is home to Michael Voltaggio's edgy aesthetic and modernist cuisine had been a tapas and international fusion restaurant under the helm of Walter Manzke, most recently noted for his traditional French bistro fare at Church & State. Several weeks later, former "Top Chef" contestants Betty Fraser, Alex Reznik and C.J. Jacobsen would collaborate on an "As seen on TV" -themed dinner, which ended with a warm butternut squash pie topped with bourbon ice cream and a shard of fried chicken skin.

At this temporary restaurant concept on Pico Boulevard south of Beverly Hills, the chef changes every day or two or three. Each meal brings a unique tone set by a new menu, a fresh bar staff and a different playlist. When Nancy Silverton and Amy Pressman took over the space, they created a playful meatball tasting menu set to an eclectic set of songs chosen by Pressman's son Joshua, a music editor for LAist who's been working at Test Kitchen as an expediter — mediating between the front and back of the house — since the restaurant's inception in mid-August.

Test Kitchen could be dubbed the Woodstock of L.A.'s dining scene. It's a chaotic and creative hodgepodge of big-name chefs and mixologists converging for an abbreviated stint in front of the stove or at the bar to test new concepts or simply experiment with different styles of cooking.

The building blocks for a solid restaurant have always been consistency, reliability and predictability. But today, when avid eaters visit the latest road-stove or pop-up restaurants at the drop of a tweet, Test Kitchen's fleeting concept somehow makes sense.

For those running the show, it's a bit of a logistical nightmare.

"It's like living 'Groundhog Day,'" says Brian Saltsburg, curator of Test Kitchen's pop-up program. "You have to be nuts to do this. Opening day is the worst night of any restaurant, and we do it four times a week."

Saltsburg, a virgin to the restaurant business before Test Kitchen, cooked up the concept with fellow native Angeleno and 25-year veteran restaurateur Bill Chait, who serves as the managing partner at the restaurant.

Chait worked on several local restaurant projects before capitalizing on the zeitgeist of pop-up dining. He founded Louise's Trattoria and serves as managing partner of Spark Woodfire Grill and the upcoming Picca in L.A., as well as John Sedlar's Rivera and soon-to-open Playa restaurant on Beverly Boulevard. He also will have an active role in Silverton and Pressman's Short Order, a burger stand that will open at the Original Farmer's Market this year.

The two originally sought to use the pop-up as a way to pay rent while waiting for an incoming tenant at the three-story Pico Boulevard building that also will house chef Ricardo Zarate's Picca when it opens this year. Zarate's restaurant will be located above the basement-level Test Kitchen, and the third level will house a cocktail lounge.

Blind reservations

What started as a casual conversation between Chait and Saltsburg about finding a single chef to occupy the space evolved into a multi-month chef-apalooza.

Test Kitchen residencies never last more than a few days, so there's a definite sense of urgency for food fanatics eager to experience the restaurant. To add to the business' less-than-conventional concept, reservations often must be made online without knowing who will be preparing the meal or what will be on the plate. The night's guest chef often gets publicized via hints on Twitter, announcements on the restaurant's website or rumor posts on food blogs.

Some chefs, such as Jordan Kahn of the much-anticipated restaurant Red Medicine in Beverly Hills, look at Test Kitchen as a chance to preview future business concepts, while others see it as a playground to work free from the constraints of the cuisine they prepare on a daily basis at their respective establishments. Saltsburg says that the response from chefs wanting to give up their day off to cook unbridled cuisine at Test Kitchen has been overwhelming.

Saltsburg has organized nights in which sous chefs have been given free reign at the stoves, as well as evenings in which those who've had underground supper clubs of their own, such as Chicks With Knives and Starry Kitchen, work in the kitchen.

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