SOME CHEFS GROW and evolve in one location for years and years—morphing the menu as tastes and trends come and go—but still retaining a place in the local culinary songbook. Others simply close one door and open another, using the clean slate to fuse a new direction with an already well-honed philosophy. Michael Voltaggio falls into the latter camp, having shuttered his original ink. restaurant, which he opened fresh off of his Top Chef win in 2011, to debut ink.well a few blocks away. Although things are still very much Voltaggio—this is still cutting-edge California cuisine—the two concepts are wildly different.
Where the original ink. was dark and brooding, the name alluding to the charcoal walls as much as the tattoos down the kitchen crew’s arms, the new ink.well is a bright new beginning. Ask the chef why, and he’ll simply say it was time for a change.
The entire place is a stark contrast to the original. The dining rooms and bar are awash in white with the only pops of color coming from art on the walls—a series of Robert Rauschenberg prints titled L.A. Uncovered—and the dark leather banquettes have warm, woodsy accents. While it’s a nice room, I think I miss the open kitchen from the original and the energy it added to the space. Sometimes it seemed that’s why some fans went, just to spy the chef working away under the bright lights at the pass. Now, they’ll have to ask if he’s in that night.
Anyone who’s been in L.A. long enough might remember this building as the second iteration of the famed Spanish Kitchen, a hot spot that pulled in celebrities and bar-hoppers from the La Cienega scene for a good 10 years. Now, ink.well has that same draw with its sunken bar (the “well” part of the new name) lined with big booths. There’s plenty of room for cocktailers, scenesters and anyone popping in for a quick bite. Off to the side is the “library,” a private dining area with its own entrance. With CAA co-founder Michael Ovitz still a business partner, surely that room will get some play.
About a year ago, Voltaggio and his chef de cuisine, Brittany Valles—she’s been working at ink. almost since the beginning—changed the menu at ink., adding steakhouse-focused fare and big cuts of Holstein beef to the menu. Some of those steaks are still available, as are several signature classic ink. dishes, but things have moved in a new, less complicated direction.
Diners will still get the gem lettuces showered with torn herbs and topped with the surprising frozen green goddess “dressing,” and, of course, the charcoal potatoes with black vinegar and housemade sour cream. That yolk-filled gnocchi will never go anywhere—thankfully—because it’s too good. And the ode to street corn, basically a rich creamed corn dish with puffy, crunchy corn chips on top, is still a winner.
One delightful new turn is the chilled shrimp flavored like tangy dill pickles; it comes with addictive melt-in-your-mouth shrimp crackers that you’ll probably finish well before the shrimp disappears. Another more seasonal newcomer is Dungeness crab oozing from ink-black nori rigatoni, and pork cheeks resting atop banana grits with banana peppers and baby kale. The rib-eye is perfectly cooked and comes with potato puree, a classic seen through a new lens.
Then there’s that burger. Voltaggio never served one before, but it’s totally in line with his more everyday approach to the restaurant. Our server said it took the chef six months of research and development, and I can see why. It’s a doozy: dry-aged beef, housemade beef bacon, oozy whipped cheese, a house burger sauce and fermented cucumbers on a sesame seed bun. It’s rich and decadent, and sitting at the bar for that burger and a great beer, glass of grenache or a cocktail is a treat.
Desserts veer more toward the unusual than the classic, like giant market berries with malt pavlova, lemon curd and shaved buttermilk ice, or apples with creme caramel and burnt wood semifreddo.
A lot of fine dining chefs are switching gears to offer more approachable dining experiences, but I also think Voltaggio realized he’s in it for the love of cooking and hospitality—not just the spotlight. While fame did help put his restaurants on the map, the ego is stripped away here. This is a place anyone can check out any night of the week. With ink. Voltaggio was trying to prove a point—that he’s a great chef, creative and lives up to the TV hype. With ink.well, he’s looking for longevity. He’s certainly on the right track.
826 N. La Cienega Blvd., West Hollywood, 310.358.9058
Fruits, vegetables and grains, $11-$16; seafood, $14-$38; meat and poultry, $18-$62; sweets, $12
Sun.-Thu., 6-10pm; Fri.-Sat., 6-11pm
Where to Sit
The bar area is fun and full of energy. Sit in one of the big booths with a few friends. Dinner for two? A nice table in the corner up above.
What to Drink
The Spritz, made with rosé, pisco, Luxardo apertivo and grapefruit is so darn refreshing, you’ll be hard-pressed to stop at one. For a classic gin martini, try the citrusy Tanqueray Malacca.
Hopefully by the time you’re reading this, brunch will be in full swing, adding back a popular weekend stop on this busy strip.