"Smell this. It's from my latest batch. Want to see my ratchet setup out back?"
Chef Kevin Meehan's pupils are slightly dilated as he tells me this inside of his restaurant kitchen. He's not talking about a clandestine meth lab, but he is high as fuck on dank, freshly fermented black garlic cloves.
The jet-black, stinking bulbs that originated in Korea rule everything around Meehan at Kali, his newly opened restaurant on Melrose Boulevard. He incorporates it in three out of the 11 dishes on his menu: a beet tartare, a wheatberry risotto, a beef dish with burnt onion jam. He's currently experimenting with using it in an ice cream base, too.
"They taste like a combination of soy sauce and balsamic and have the texture of a gummy bear," Meehan tells me as he gives me a clove right out of one of the blackened bulbs, still warm from his Crock-Pot setup outside. He learned the technique from a friend, and now prepares batches of the bulbs every week. As I take my first bite and start to gingerly chew, I realize he's right. The little black pills even have a weird, honey-like sweetness to them.
Meehan offers some of his wheatberry risotto for me to try, along with that ice cream. "We make a black garlic tea and soak the wheatberries in it overnight; it soaks up black garlic's flavor profile really well." As he hands me a fork to try the risotto, which is garnished with a black garlic tuile, he adds, "I've always enjoyed black garlic, but when you buy it to use at a restaurant, it can get really expensive. It's like $20 a pound. So I just started making my own."
This isn't Meehan's first foray into fermentation, and certainly won't be his last. The chef also ferments gallons upon gallons of kombucha tea, which he serves at his restaurant's bar.
The risotto proves to be the perfect vehicle to showcase black garlic's unique flavor. Nonetheless, the real surprise comes when I taste the black garlic ice cream. If I didn't know better, I would have thought that it was flavored with black sesame, based on its greyish color and nutty, sweet flavor. "I'm telling you, it makes everything taste better," Meehan says. "Black garlic is a natural flavor-enhancer. It is almost like a natural form of MSG."
A native of Long Island, Meehan became known in LA while working with the Patina restaurant group, one of the oldest and most prolific hospitality groups in the city. He worked in several of Patina's biggest restaurants and under other great LA chefs, such as Ludovic Lefebvre and Alain Giraud. Thus, he has a pretty good sense of what Angelenos like to eat—and black garlic is one of these things.
Black garlic, he declares, is "the ultimate form of umami."
After our tasting, Meehan takes me out back to a small walkway between the restaurant and parking lot, where his makeshift black garlic incubator resides. It consists of two large Crock-Pots stacked on top of each other on a metal rack. The "ratchet setup" that Meehan warned me about looks all the more sketchy as rain falls down on it from above. "All you do is set the Crock-Pot to 'warm' and then check back in a month," Meehan says, swearing it's as easy as that. "The ones on the bottom of the pan get really petrified. Those are the best ones. They really pick up a smoky, deeply roasted flavor."'
As we walk back inside the restaurant, Meehan tells me about a time he made his own kimchi-esque pickles by wrapping discarded prawn shells with cabbage leaves. Another time, he tried his hand at bonito but failed miserably. "It tasted like fish food," he says, chuckling.
Still, minor setbacks like that haven't stopped him. "I'm all about that fermentation life," he says.