Top Chef restaurant falls short

If it had been opened by any other young, ambitious chef, ink.sack (sic) probably would not have generated nearly as much attention as it did.

Design by Deborah Ho | Daily Trojan

The little take-out sandwich shack with a low-key hole-in-the-wall feel on Melrose Avenue is hardly a neighborhood secret. Ever since word got out that Top Chef season six winner Michael Voltaggio would be opening a sit-down restaurant called ink. on Melrose Avenue, the Los Angeles culinary world has been abuzz with anticipation; however, the buzz is unwarranted. ink.sack falls short of a true Top Chef experience.  The food, albeit tasty, is not worthy of the buzz and cult following it has generated.

ink.sack is a sneak preview of ink. — located just a few steps away from Voltaggio’s restaurant — which is set to open sometime in September. ink.sack, a prototype for Voltaggio’s future culinary ventures.

It has been more than a week since ink.sack opened and the line out the door has yet to dwindle. Voltaggio can be seen popping out of the kitchen from time to time, directing his staff, rapidly packing up sandwiches or, if you’re lucky, serving you food himself.

The interior is as dark and sketchy as a back alley, with splotches of random decor (a Mickey Mouse sandwich press) and a slinky black chain wall that separates kitchen from counter.

The menu, scrawled in colored chalk on a huge blackboard, tries to be fresh and innovative; items from sandwiches down to desserts are a blend of the classic and the gourmet. The tired turkey sandwich, for example, is now maple pepper turkey — a three-inch turkey sub with Camembert cheese, arugula and sweet mortada, which is a compote of sorts made from candied fruits and maple syrup.

The classic Reuben is transformed into something more adventurous with slices of beef tongue instead of the traditional corned beef and is paired with mild Appenzaller cheese, though the other two ingredients, sauerkraut and Russian dressing, remain traditional. The beef tongue is tender enough, but for someone who has never had tongue, the striped, bumpy, offal texture might be disconcerting.

A better choice is the spicy tuna sandwich, an Asian remix of tuna salad and the lobster roll. Fresh chunks of miso-cured albacore tuna are generously mixed with sriracha mayonnaise and topped with slivers of pickles and toasted nori strips before they are squeezed into the bread.

Another pleasing option is the Banh Mi, a Vietnamese-influenced sandwich with a Latino twist. Instead of Vietnamese grilled pork, the sandwich is stuffed with slivers of double-layered pork cheeks (meat and gelatin) that are paired with crunchy chicharrones and refreshing pickled carrots, onions and jalapeño. The pork cheeks are tender and chewy, similar to pork belly.

The bread used for all of the sandwiches is the same, crusty French bread; though the bread is good — albeit a bit too thick — the redundancy of an ingredient that makes up half the sandwich can get boring.

The “snack” menu isn’t too exciting, either.

The pork rinds, though well seasoned and enjoyable, are hardly worth the $3 they cost. The rinds didn’t taste much different than the 99-cent package you can get at a local Latino grocery store.

The street fruit is a premade, vacuum-packed plastic bag of chopped pineapple, jicama, mango and melon marinated in a chile and lemon dressing. Though the zing and tang from the chile powder and lemon juice are pleasant, this little bag is also hardly worth the $3 — considering you can get a big bag of the same thing for less from the Mexican fruit carts that dot Los Angeles’ streets.

Dessert is limited to two cookies: Mexican chocolate chip or peanut butter and sea salt. They are good, but unspectacular; the “Mexican” part really just means a hint of cinnamon-like spice, and the latter is very much like your regular peanut butter cookie — though the sprinkle of sea salt in the batter makes for a lovely sweet and savory contrast.

The sandwiches range from $4 to $6, but don’t be fooled: You need to order at least two to be satisfied. Add to that a side, a drink and a dessert, and you’re looking at a take-out meal costing over $20 — a hefty price for a place that has no where to sit.

However, as somewhat of a plus, the sandwiches are wrapped tightly with paper and then packed into a paper lunch bag with your name on it, just the way your mom might have done for your school lunch.

Perhaps it’s because the restaurant is still in its grand opening stage, but ink.sack falls just short of delivering. Nothing is truly bad about its food, but nothing is truly great, either.