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Chef Michael Voltaggio: Playing With Food is Serious Business

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"To your right you have an assortment of baby carrots and radishes, 'planted' in a 'soil' of coffee and cardamom, with nori butter and smoked salt on the side," said the server, as we gazed, bemused, at a small slate bearing a fist-sized terra cotta pot full of lanky stems sunk into fluffy dirt.

"Oh, and Chef wants you to play with your food. Have fun."

It would make a better story to say that this was the exact point during my dinner at the Langham's Dining Room--in what is Chef Michael Voltaggio's last week heading up the kitchen--when we got the giggles. But, as far as storytelling goes, I can't take that poetic license. First, our table's delighted laughter began as early as when our servers arrived at the table with tongs poised above the bread basket, when the scent alone of the bacon bread made my eyes go wide in anticipation. And second, this isn't exactly my story to tell.

Still gulping in bouquets of porcine air, a set of three perfect circles of butter were set down: Vermont Salted, goat, unsalted. Three butters! Something about that tickles. Who needs three butters? You do. It's sort of simple. The whole table will pause to contemplate if bacon bread is better with salty butter from a Vermont cow. (Yes, it is.)

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The amuse bouche, however, is where our flight of fancy really took off. A bite halving a puffy gourgere released the flood of sea-sweet caviar in cream into our mouths. I'm pretty sure I gasped. After this rich, evocative taste, a firm, cool, perfect square of tomato gelee on a stick. Yes...a chewy tomato candy lollipop.

The Dining Room has been Voltaggio's playground for the last year, and during his tenure in Pasadena's grande old dame of a hotel he became television's reigning Top Chef, and built a following among local foodies. Luckily, with that following, he should by rights have a legion of admirers at the ready to make a reservation wherever he goes next.

Which brings me to an important caveat: I can't tell you to book a table at the Dining Room to try the dishes that I had, because they're basically booked up until the doors close on Saturday. And the doors are closing for some time--the restaurant will undergo a significant renovation and update, and when it re-emerges from its transformation, there will be a new chef in charge.

And what of Chef Voltaggio? He's on the precipice of a new adventure, and luckily, it will be in Los Angeles.

The temptation could be high for Voltaggio, sommelier Josh Goldman, and the Dining Room staff to phone it in and indulge in that "last week of school" attitude. But this week the Chef and his team were absolutely on point, surpassing the wow factor of my first meal there last year when Voltaggio had just revamped the more traditional menu.

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If someone were to have been logging down all the vocal outbursts from our table, they'd have a notebook page packed with giddy exclamations: "Ohmigod! This is soooooo gooooooood!" and "What IS this? It's amazing!" and "I can't believe this!"

Voltaggio doesn't merely deconstruct dishes, and it's not fair to say he reinterprets them. What he does is achieve a clever combination of brave new territory and sensory familiarity. This is no better explained than by example of the Veal Sweetbreads Tempura. Golden fried orbs wear a sensuous snow cap blanket of buttermilk dusted with red powder, and nestled against it is a delicate piece of crispy kale, and a pace away on the plate is what looks like a tiny piece of brownish-yellow tile, perfect and square with a tiny gleam. The dish is described using the vernacular of the menu: Tempura fried sweetbreads with buttermilk foam, potato puree, kale chips, and dijon mustard. This would be a great time for the server to wink, though, because he tells us: "But really, it's a Chicken Nugget in Ranch dressing." And it is, remarkably, curiously, unbelievably like that, from the almost-fluff of the inside texture to the sweet and cooling cream.

Behind the kitchen doors, Voltaggio runs a kitchen that uses the contemporary culinary tools that are turning dining out into a fantasy realm of science and whimsy. Not a single dish, though, is posturing or effete. The pigeon dish may be a play on a Reuben, and the pork belly plate sprinkled with peanut butter powder, but while you are smiling and playing and feeding your mind and stomach, the food's irreverence is, if you think about it, the absolute apex of reverence for flavor, ingredient, and invention.

There's an intensity to Voltaggio's food, a result that surely stems from the combination of technique, imagination, and his own focused demeanor. There is, as evidenced by the pot full of planted veggies, the colorful Wonka-like railroad-car arrangements of food snaking across plains of white plate, and cubes of fried Bearnaise sauce, room for pure, absolute fun, however.

As someone who has photographed her food long before the word "blog" was in my vocabulary, part of the pleasure of the meal is taking a photo. I went to The Dining Room a clear slate, not looking for a story, but being open to feeling compelled to write one. When the first dishes emerged, so did my camera, part out of habit, part out of that fervent wish to make this meal something more long-lasting through photography, and part because my dining companions were so taken by the visual power of the food that they asked me to pass them my camera. Goldman arrived at our table and made the "give it here" gesture. I passed him my tiny, serviceable Canon. "Chef will take your pictures. In the kitchen."

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There was one last course delivered to our table, after we surrendered ourselves to The Dining Room and shared one of every single dish on the menu. (For the numbers people, that's 21 dishes, not counting amuse bouche, pre-dessert, or petit fours. For the dollars-and-cents minded, Voltaggio at the Dining Room serves a 4-course your choice for $79, or a Chef's menu of $110. How he'll price things out at his new venture remains to be seen.) After biting into chocolate lollipops filled with Pop Rocks, spooning a futuristic Carrot Cake out of a jar, and using my fingers to draw the last salty-sweet scraps of the Chocolate Caramel Ganache from the plate, a lidded bowl was set next to me. Inside: My camera.

And suddenly, there was the story, told on the plate and now in the pictures, by Voltaggio himself. His food is his word. Now, on to the next chapter.