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'Top Chef' Voltaggio's High-Voltage Food Delivers a Jolt to the Langham's Dining Room

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There might be models of ships ensconced in the walls of the Langham's Dining Room restaurant that reflect a bygone era, but there's a young tattooed man on the cutting edge of cuisine in the kitchen. His name is Michael Voltaggio, and he arrived at the beautiful historic hotel in Pasadena just this July, following a year working as Executive Chef of The Bazaar by Jose Andres in Beverly Hills. Tonight, he'll be in your living room (or bedroom, perhaps)--no, he's not making house calls, he happens to be (along with his older brother, Bryan) a contestant on Bravo's 6th season of Top Chef.

Right between the debut of Voltaggio's innovative and out-with-the-old menu at the Dining Room and the premiere of Top Chef, the Langham hosted media dinners to showcase the food that they hope will brighten the already impressive star-quality of the restaurant. And by star-quality we mean that the Langham can boast not only a 30-year-old "cheftestant" dynamo, but also the only hotel-operated restaurant in L.A. with a coveted Michelin star among its accolades.

The tasting menu presented by the Dining Room on the occasion of our visit was a sampling of what diners can expect--although everyone ought to play by the rule of expect-the-unexpected when sitting down to dinner at the Langham. The food, along with the wine (and beer) pairings orchestrated by sommelier Matthew Lathan, was a melange of whimsy meets science and traditional with "what the...?" and overall made for a dinner that could better be categorized as a true "dining experience."

The plates are small and crafted with an artisan's touch; the edible edifices that arrived one after the other were like architect's models bearing the promise of big things to come. The bigness, so to speak, was delivered in the concentration--and innovation--of the flavors. For example the Pacific Yellowtail served sashimi-style with soy-watermelon, sea sponge, and smoked egg yolk. Tiny bites packing a whallop of eyebrow-raising flavor. "Was that...?" you wonder. Yes, sea sponge, bearing the tang of the salty sea, meshing with the buttery smooth flesh of the yellowtail and the watery-sweet zing of the soy-watermelon. Did you just take a mouthful of the Pacific? Indeed, you did.

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It was a similar nod to cohesion and comforting flavor profiles getting the Voltaggio spin for the rest of the meal, particularly as Latham arrived tableside to explain how best to match the wine with the dish. Sip the wine alone, he explained, and consider the beverage, then try the food, then try them together. For the octopus course a 2005 Peter Howland Maxwell Vineyard Chardonnay from the Hunter Valley was the foil, selected for its own complexity of flavors, but mostly because it had hints of popcorn meant to spotlight the buttered popcorn "paste" upon which the octopus rested. We sipped the wine alone (those without a recent mouthful of bread-and-butter could more readily discern the popcorn) as instructed, tasted the dish alone, as instructed, then sip-tasted as instructed. Pop! There was the popcorn flavor, but--look around--we weren't in a movie theatre. No, definitely not.

Because Voltaggio's plates are small, the experience of one to the next means that your mind gets slowly blown in short intervals. The journey is orchestrated, as most high-quality meals are, to take you from lightest to heaviest, which allowed us to experience the brightness of the first two seafood plates, followed by the moderate (but not staid, don't misunderstand) tastes of a pastrami pigeon (squab with rye-infused jus, brussels-kraut and a gruyere puff) paired with a mischievous Unibroue dark ale and a beautifully cooked piece of turbot adorned with tomato granola. At the end of the spectrum were the pork with an orange juice sauce and pistachios and onions (the pistachios meant to be a recall of the more pedantic beans one might pair with pork, the flavors all familiar but re-tooled, re-thought) and a lamb confit with pickled lamb's tongue and the rich spiced notes of vadouvan (curry) and eggplant-raisin.

Once we savored the savory it came time for the sweet, but this is no point to derail and eat a brownie or a slice of pie. First, to prep the palate a pre-dessert of jasmine rice cream with a sake gelee to invigorate and cool your tastebuds. Then a not-your-knitting-circle's coffee cake--a light but intense wedge of cake nestled in a drizzle of lemon curd topped with espresso mousse and with a lean-to in the form of a piece of baked honey.

It's not time to rest, though--the wine pairing for this was a sparkling shiraz, all maroon and bubbly. Imagine the sommelier winking--he may have, in fact, and well should have--as he explains that this pairing is to make your mouth go--well, it needs acting out. Hold you hands up to your head, open you mouth and eyes wide, then shake from the neck up. Yeah, that's it. "Like grape soda with a kick?" I asked. Precisely. Open wide and shake it up. Now that was fun!

(For more fun, don't forget to eat a piece of the passionfruit gel candy, but keep the wrapper on and pop the whole thing in your mouth. Yup, the wrapper dissolves. And then pop that bite of chocolate in your mouth, chew, and sshhhh...wait for it... Pop Rocks.)

It's easy to look out the windows of the Dining Room and imagine the moneyed greats who resort-ed on the lawn a century ago. The Langham is certainly one way to slip back into another era of the Los Angeles era. It doesn't feel stodgy if you're sipping a strong drink in the hotel's bar, indulging at the spa, or having high tea in the afternoon. It does feel stodgy in the restaurant right now, and the Langham knows it. The food has been the first to evolve, and soon the decor and design of the eatery will follow, with a full renovation slated for early 2010 that will have Voltaggio's input and help make this be less the "Langham's restaurant" and more Voltaggio's "restaurant at the Langham."

It's hard to imagine the model ships coming down, and the elderly wallpaper replaced with something more contemporary, but until our meal it was hard to imagine a tender twirl of octopus cozy on a bed of buttered popcorn-flavored "paste." A meal at the Dining Room is surely not for everyone, and not for everyday. But it's not out of reach--save a special occasion, or keep your eyes open for opportunities Voltaggio and the hotel are hoping to create to get you in and tasting affordably and more often than you are now (which is, we're guessing, never).

The Dining Room at the Langham Huntington Hotel & Spa
1401 South Oak Knoll Avenue, Pasadena
Dinner served Tuesday-Saturday seating 6:30-9:30 p.m.
Reservations: (626) 568-3900