Farm to Table Thrives at The Tasting Kitchen
by jen jones donatelli
The Tasting Kitchen has become one of Abbot Kinney’s most popular destinations.
Talk about culinary pioneers—it's somewhat fitting that two young trailblazers from Portland's Clarklewis restaurant are exploring new territory in Venice's dining scene. Enter Casey Lane, The Tasting Kitchen's executive chef and the driving force behind its authentic farm-to-table concept, and Justin Pike, a master mixologist who's at the pinnacle of LA's bartending scene. Their mission when they launched The Tasting Kitchen's in 2009: create a dining destination like no other in Los Angeles. Their method: spare no effort or expense in tracking down fresh, often obscure ingredients for an ever-evolving tasting menu.
"We came from the mentality of everything made by hand—mortar and pestle, [where you] mill your own flour, butcher your own animals, and cure your own items," says Lane. "When I moved to LA, there wasn't much of that going on, so I felt that niche could really be a hit."
His instincts proved spot-on. Named one of GQ's "10 Best New Restaurants in America" in 2011, stars including Reese Witherspoon and Helen Hunt now frequent The Tasting Kitchen, and reservations are hard to come by (save for the coveted first-come, first-serve communal tables). Under Lane's direction, the restaurant's calling cards have become its handcrafted pasta program and eclectic French-Italian dinner menu from which patrons order à la carte or tasting-menu style with multiple courses. (The "bill of fare" is typed daily on an antique typewriter.)
In December, Lane enlisted former Whist pastry chef Brooke Mosley to oversee the dessert menu, filled with creative confections such as sweet-potato doughnuts and tiramisu-inspired cheesecake. Her appointment follows another recent development: the restaurant's expansion into brunch hours. Lane calls the weekend brunch menu a "work in progress," with signature dishes including fried chicken and waffles (a longtime favorite of his), chilled seafood platters, tomato-braised egg polenta, and squash-blossom frittatas with roasted tomatoes and ricotta. "I wanted to do something that was distinctly different from anything we do at night," he says.
The common thread? A precise, unrelenting attention to quality and detail based on what Lane deems a "true farm-to-table mentality." Dishes are constantly added and eliminated based on ingredients' peak ripeness and other seasonal and sourcing factors. Case in point: Co-owner Bruce Horwitz says the reason the restaurant doesn't serve espresso is because Lane can't find a machine or coffee beans that meet his standards.
Frequent diner Marina Korzon says his stringency shows. "Casey takes such care with each menu item—you can taste the thought in every bite," says the associate broadcast producer at advertising firm Deutsch. "He does an exquisite job of knowing what's best and bringing it all out."
It was this penchant for perfection that inspired Abbot Kinney restaurateur Horwitz to hire Lane upon first meeting him several years ago, when Horwitz wanted to transform the former AK Restaurant & Bar space into a brand-new concept. "It had become clear AK wasn't the right fit for the street, and I knew Portland was a hotbed of young, cool chefs," says Horwitz, who also owns Wabi-Sabi on Abbot Kinney. The timing was right for both men to connect, as Lane had just learned a proposed project wouldn't be moving forward. "We got all the way down to signing the lease, and it fell through," recalls Lane. "I decided I still wanted to move to California—I got the bug."
Pike wasn't far behind. Once Lane was onboard at The Tasting Kitchen, he tapped his former Clarklewis coworker to helm the bar program at the then-fledgling eatery. Pike got to work designing hundreds of cocktails inspired by the pre-Prohibition era, including current favorites The Braveheart (a Scotch drink with lemon, ginger, honey, and bitters) and The Crazy Horse (a spicy tequila cocktail with lime, grapefruit, and yellow chartreuse). "The bartenders don't cut any corners," says co-owner Mark Meyuhas. "From making 25 to 30 homemade tonics to [crafting] their own bitters, they're extremely educated about the product."
Not surprisingly, the look of the restaurant also reflects its eclectic, detail-oriented approach. Ninety-year-old olive trees grace the entrance, and colorful chalkboard art adorns the walls. (One brainy patron once drew an intricate explanation of string theory.) The end result strikes a balance between modern and rustic, featuring exposed brick, towering glass windows, and wooden beams.
In light of the restaurant's success, the group is now venturing beyond Venice with two new concepts: Parish, a Downtown gastropub inhabiting the old Angelique Café building, and Itri, an intimate Italian trattoria on Melrose. Both are slated to open their doors in late April, with Lane acting as head chef. Each will also reflect key elements of The Tasting Kitchen, with Parish focusing on its bar program helmed by bartender John Coltharp, and Itri on handmade pasta. It's their hope that these combined efforts continue to establish momentum for LA's fine-dining movement. "It's all very youthful and idealistic," says Horwitz. "There is an energy that comes from wanting it to be amazing." 1633 Abbot Kinney Blvd., Venice, 310-392-6644
Photography by ULRICA WIHLBORG