Test Kitchen's Dining Room
Considering I live about a stone's throw from Red Medicine, I was very excited to taste Chef Jordan Khan's creations. Khan has previously described the restaurant's concept as "punk meets Vietnamese," while Test Kitchen website dubs it as "contemporary Vietnamese featuring local ingredients and modern cooking techniques." As a huge aficionado of Vietnamese cuisine, this thrilled me; I love the simple execution but bright, mind-blowing flavors in traditional Vietnamese dishes: homemade pork Banh Mi sandwiches with pickled carrots and cilantro, crisp green papaya salads, chicken meatballs in lettuce cups and glass noodle salads loaded with fragrant mint and basil, salty fish sauce, earthy peanuts and a spritz of tangy lime juice. For me, flavors just don't get better than that. Not to mention, anyone bold enough to describe their cuisine as punk is bound to have some serious rock star food.
My homemade Banh Mi Sandwich (recipe here)We arrived right on time at 6pm -- Test Kitchen is located in the Pico Boulevard space that previously housed Spark Woodfire Grill -- and were immediately escorted to the bar. Matthew Doerr, Red Medicine's Bar Manager, was mixing up five featured cocktails as well as bespoke/dealer's choice libations. I ordered a bespoke cocktail -- "anything with basil and vodka in it" were my only instructions. The basil turned out to be wonderfully fragrant, with a hint of citrus from grapefruit juice and tartness from the ginger beer. My guest ordered the #5 (Red Medicine doesn't name their cocktails), made with Plymouth Gin, Lemon, cherry heering, kambucha and sparkling. His reaction? It was ordinary. However, later in the evening he ordered the #3, which was anything but ordinary, made with Redemption Rye 2yr, Luksusowa, pickled peaches, lime, mint and ginger beer. It was fantastic. I am not a whiskey drinker and the combination of the whiskey with the pickled seasonal peaches, hint of mint and lime was great.
Bespoke "Basil" Cocktail | Basil, ginger beer, grapefruit, vodka
The #5: Plymouth Gin, Lemon, cherry heering, kambucha, sparkling
The #3: Redemption Rye 2yr, Luksusowa, Pickled Peaches, Lime, Mint, Ginger BeerWe sat down and the dishes just started coming. The whole idea behind Test Kitchen is that, aside from cocktails, you're not ordering anything. There are no substitutions, there are no vegetarian options. There is a wave of twelve prix fixe, family-style dishes that just start making their way to your tabletop, ready or not. You're there as a test subject, not as a decision-making diner; which was just fine with us.
Test Kitchen's Red Medicine Menu
The servers were incredibly enthusiastic, attentive and for the most part, quite knowledgeable about each of the dishes coming from the kitchen. As you can see from the menu above there was no shortage to the ingredients in each dish, which has the potential to cause problems for both the servers' memories as well as the execution of the dishes themselves. Which unfortunately ended up being the case; while there were truly some dishes we enjoyed very much -- the green papaya salad, chicken dumplings, crispy Brussels sprouts, skirt steak and coconut bavarois were excellent stand-outs -- at the end of the day we felt as though Red Medicine was trying a bit too hard to transform Vietnamese food into extremely upscale fare. Which made me sad; any reflection of "punk" in Khan's Vietnamese cuisine was sadly missing. There is certainly a time and a place for modernizing indigenous cuisine -- Rick Bayless has mastered it in his conception of Topolobampo and most recently, L.A.'s very own Red O -- but Red Medicine's menu seemed to sacrifice bold Vietnamese flavors in favor of creative textures and edible, tweezer-appointed flora and fauna. To quote the great Coco Chanel, "Always take off your last accessory you put on." In my opinion, the same rule should be applied to Red Medicine's menu: less it more. Use less dehydrated coconut milk, charred friseé and puffed tapioca and more expressions of the bold Vietnamese flavors true fans of the cuisine know and love.
Again, this is only my opinion and there were some lovely dishes. The whole point of Test Kitchen is to gauge the reception of dishes being considered for a future restaurant concept, so I certainly cannot fault them for experimenting. It was clear that the kitchen was full of seasoned professionals, the wait staff was well trained and the owners were very invested in the success of the menu, welcoming us both in and out of the restaurant. But my idea of a true "test" kitchen would be to solicit the feedback of the diners themselves, especially those invested enough to make a reservation for an extremely limited, four-night run. Maybe it's my marketing research background coming into place, but it's just a thought.
Cured amberjack | Lime leaf, french melon, nuoc cham, bird chili, mint
Brussels sprouts | Caramelized shallots, fish sauce, prawn crackers
Tomatoes | Marinated in an infusion of their vines, silky tofu, crunchy tofu, herbs
Saigon tartine | Pork belly, pate, coriander, carrot pickle, green chili
Green papaya | Crispy taro, rau ram, fried shallots, peanuts
Caramelized chicken dumplings | Lemongrass, scallion, bibb lettuce
Baby carrots | Fermented black bean, star anise, coconut, tarragon
Bay scallops | Pomelo, young ginger, tamarind syrup, puffed tapioca, charred friseé
BEEF bavette | Bacon X.O., chinese eggplant, chinese celery, lime, palm sugar, sesame
Peaches | Crème de cassis, raspberry, condensed milk, tonic water sorbet, violet
Coconut bavarois | Coffee ice cream, thai basil, peanut croquant, chicory