Monday, July 21, 2008

Elegance and Romance - Valentino

Valentino is one restaurant that I've always meant to try, but circumstances have come up again and again to prevent me from a visit until recently. The fact that Valentino was awarded a Michelin Star last year, raised my curiosity and expectations even more.

Located in a simple stretch of Pico Boulevard with a partially enclosed courtyard for valet parking, we almost missed the restaurant, but luckily spotted a simple "V" sign and pulled in. From the moment we entered the driveway we could tell that there was an elegance about Valentino, with the beautiful, but simple lights and entrance design.

Upon entering, a smart entrance hall displayed some of the many awards Valentino and owner Piero Selvaggio have won over the years, and led into a charmingly lit Bar area that served as the hub for the various dining rooms within Valentino.

On our first visit, we were seated in what seemed to be their main dining room, which was a romantically lit medium-sized dining area, with tables lining the walls and larger round tables in the middle. Perusing the menu, I wanted to order a variety of their First Course Selections (Antipasti, Insalate e Zuppe), but the Special First Course offered that evening sounded too enticing so we began with that. (^_~)

The Special First Course offered was a Seasonal Crudo Selection, Ahi Tuna with Pineapple Compote, Yellowtail with Grapefruit, and Salmon with Orange. It was served with a small side of Ossetra Caviar and Salmon Caviar. It seems Crudo (Italian style raw fish with a simple dressing) is all the rage these days, and I was curious how it would turn out here.

The Ahi Tuna with Pineapple Compote was wonderful: Lightly seasoned, a nice cut of Ahi Tuna (with no tendon / gristle), it was fresh and combined nicely with the Pineapple. The Yellowtail with Grapefruit was slightly disappointing, with the Yellowtail not being as fresh as any of the top Sushi restaurants in L.A., and the bitterness of the Grapefruit really overpowering each bite of the Yellowtail. Finally, the Salmon with Orange was even better than the Ahi Tuna with the sweetness of the Orange combining perfectly with the inherent saltiness of the Salmon. The Ossetra Caviar was a nice touch and worked well with the Crudo as well.

At this time, we noticed that a table next to us (three bombastic business executive-types) were getting louder and louder (clearly inebriated), but we ignored them as best we could and focused on the otherwise, classy dining room.

We had another Special offered that night, served as a Primi: Black Summer Truffle Risotto. This was a beautiful dish, served simply with a perfectly cooked rice, with a light creaminess that really allowed the Black Summer Truffles to shine.

My main course arrived next: I paccheri, Gragnano Pasta with Shrimp, Clams, Cherry Tomatoes, Zucchini. The Gragnano Pasta was fun (wide ribbons), and perfectly cooked, with a nice bit of firmness, while still being tender. It was a nice break from the more ubiquitous types of pasta found in more mainstream restaurants. And the Clams and Shrimp while commonly found with a White Wine reduction really stood out here in the deftness of preparation and the delectable taste. The Spinach and Zucchini tasted very fresh and complemented the seafood. Even the Cherry Tomatoes (which can be so tart or clashing at times), added just the right touch of acidity and sweetness to this dish; it was very good!

We ended with two Desserts, starting with the Bianco mangiare, ciliegie e melone (Milk Almond Pannacotta, Cherry and Cantaloupe Soup). We both felt this was OK, nothing special, but not bad. The Pannacotta was competently made, but the Cherry Sauce was just too sharp and overpowering. The Cantaloupe "Soup" were balls of Cantaloupe Puree frozen, a clever presentation, and that tasted fine.

The second dessert was the Gianduiotto alle nocciole, banana e polvere di liquirizia (Hazelnut Chocolat Ice Cream, Caramelized Banana, Strega Liquor, and Liquorice). This was *so* delicious! The Hazelnut Chocolat Ice Cream, Caramelized Banana and the Liquor combined for a really amazing finish for our dinner that evening! :)

The main dining room got louder and louder as the evening progressed, mainly due to two offending parties (the three drunk execs next to us, and one birthday party occupying the middle of the room). But despite those two parties, even with a full dining room, it never got as loud as Osteria Mozza or Comme Ca (to use a couple of notoriously loud restaurants as an example :). I still enjoyed my experience, but I could feel that there was something else I was "missing" and yearning for at Valentino, so I returned a few days later.

This time, we were seated in a side dining room, and it was near capacity, so we inquired if we could be seated in a quieter area. Our host immediately obliged, being really courteous and understanding, and showed us into a cute dining room, with only four tables, giving us the corner table. The lighting was perfect, and beautifully *quiet* (^_^). This time, we ordered Valentino's Chef Tasting Menu, along with their optional Wine Pairing. Chef de Cuisine Giacomo Pettinari was overseeing the menu that evening, and the dishes he and his staff prepared that night were simply wonderful!

We began with their starter:
Bisol "Crede" Prosecco di Valdobbiadene
Lo Stuzzichino: Kumamoto Oyster, Horseradish Sauce

The Kumamoto Oyster was extremely fresh, lightly sweet and briny, with their house-made Horseradish Sauce adding just the right spiciness without overpowering the Kumamoto. The Prosecco was crisp, with hints of lemon and the effervescence was playful and enticing to the palate! (^_^)

By this time, we discovered that our server, Paul Sherman, seemed to be really knowledgeable about wines, giving us a little explanation about each wine that was being paired with our meal. His anecdotes throughout the evening about the wines we were being served were interesting and entertaining. :)

Our next course was introduced:
2007 Venica Collio Sauvignon
L'Aragosta (Lobster Salad with Heirloom Tomatoes and Burrata)

Valentino's Lobster Salad really should've just been called "Fresh Lobster with Tomatoes and Burrata," because instead of a possible abomination with the usual connotation of "Lobster Salad", we were presented with a huge piece of Lobster that was so fresh, and so *perfectly* cooked that the Lobster was very tender, moist and sweet. The Lobster meat by itself would've been fine, but the gorgeous Heirloom Tomatoes and soft, creamy goodness of the fresh Burrata Cheese and the Basil Oil really made this one of the best Lobster dishes I've had in quite some time! The 2007 Venica Collio Sauvignon Blanc had a beautiful note of grapefruit and was lightly tart. It paired really nicely with the Lobster course.

Our next course was:
2006 St. Francis Chardonnay, Sonoma County
Le Capesante: Sauteed Maine Scallops with Black Truffle Sauce

The Maine Scallop was perfectly seared, with a nice crust, while still being so supple. The Black Truffle Sauce provided the perfect earthiness to balance the Scallop's sweetness, and the Sun-Dried Tomato (normally an afterthought in many restaurants), was amazing in its richness (surprisingly so)! While it's a newer wine, the St. Francis was very smooth and had some pleasant fruity notes and paired really nicely with the Scallop.

The next course arrived:
2005 Gran Sasso: Montepulciano D'Abruzzo
I Ravioli: Ravioli Carbonara with Speck

This dish helped confirm just how wonderful Valentino was compared to many Italian restaurants that oversauce their pastas. The fresh-made Ravioli pasta was wonderfully cooked, just right, the filling of a quality Parmigiano-Reggiano Cheese with the Speck, Tomatoes and Italian Squash was probably the best Ravioli I've ever had in Southern California! It was sitting on a bit of Burrata Cheese as well, and the whole combination was without flaw. Excellent! (^_^)

The 2005 Gran Sasso was full-bodied with a really nice acidity that helped stimulate the taste buds. By itself, I felt it was nice, but it went so well with the Ravioli, the food and the wine pairing were spot-on!

The main meat course came next:
2003 Barolo Sori Boschetti
Le Guancioline Di Vitello: Braised Veal Cheeks, Slow Braised in Red Wine, on Fregola Sarda

Braised Beef of some sort seems to have made it to many of the popular local restaurants, such as Grace and Osteria Mozza, but for me, it has always been wonderful for a bite or two, but just too fatty after that. Valentino's Slow Braised Veal Cheeks, however, are just... stunning! This was probably the highlight dish of the evening, the Veal Cheeks were *so* soft and tender, yet without the overpowering amount of fat found in similar styles of Braised Meat dishes. The Fregola is a twice-cooked Couscous, and it complemented the Veal so well, flavorful from the broth it was stewed in, and the Brussel Sprouts were also cooked just right (not overcooked to cause its more ugly side to arise). Delicious! :)

Paul had mentioned that Barolo is known as the "king of wines, the wine of kings," using arguably some of the finest grapes in the country. He warned us that by itself, the Barolo had a high acidity and high tannin level, and drinking it straight, I would agree with him. It was a bit too powerful for my tastes. But when paired with a rich meat dish, the oils from the meat really helped to balance out the acidity, and it totally transformed the Barolo, leaving mainly the rich, deep pure wine taste (a bit of cherry and other notes). It was really surprising for me (being a wine newbie :), but, this was probably the most entertaining wine pairing of the evening.

We finished up the wine before the Veal, and our server Paul, was kind enough to let us sample a "bonus" wine he had just opened up: 1990 Cavallotto Barolo from Piedmont, Italy. This was much softer than the 2003 we had earlier, and I could enjoy it by itself, and when paired with the Veal Cheeks, it was so beautiful!

Our Cheese course came next:
2005 Zenato Ripassa Valpolicella Superiore
I Formaggi: Selection of Artisanal Cheese - Raschera Dop, Blu Del Monviso, Marzolino Rosso Del Chianti

The three different cheeses arrived beautifully arranged in a rustic manner, with Walnuts, Dried Apricots, Strawberries, Figs, Peanuts and Pistachios to pair the cheeses with. The Raschera Dop is a cow's milk cheese from Piemonte, firm, and pretty tangy and tasty. The Blu Del Monviso is a 60 day-aged cow's milk cheese, nice and soft, but still pungent. And finally the Marzolino Rosso Del Chianti was a sheep's milk cheese, firm and my favorite of the three.

The 2005 Zenato Ripasso was made from the dried grape skins being re-passed in the wine making process with a second fermentation, which helped give it a more concentrated taste and aroma, according to Paul. Tasting it, I definitely noted a really smooth, more complex flavor, and more importantly, it was another great pairing with the course we had. :)

Our next course was presented as our "Pre-Dessert" to help cleanse the palate before Dessert: Piccola Dolcezza - Pear Sorbet with Fresh Strawberries. This was a wonderfully light Sorbet with really fresh Pear Essence (it tasted almost like 100% Pureed Pear, frozen), and the Fresh Strawberries were a nice match.

Our Dessert Course arrived:
2006 Dante Rivetti 'Riveto' Moscato D'Asti
Il Dolce: Plum Chocolate Tart Ricotta Cream

The Blanc Chocolate Tart, with the Ricotta Mousse was topped with a decadent Raspberry Plum Sauce, with fresh chunks of Plums, and a scoop of Hazelnut Ice Cream for good measure! Unlike the Pannacotta I had last time, this was simply wonderful in every way: The fresh Plum and the Raspberry Plum Sauce were never too cloying or sweet, pairing so nicely with the Ricotta. And the Hazelnut Ice Cream was so interesting in its natural nutty flavors (not tasting like the artificial flavors of more commonly found "Peanut Butter" or "Almond" infused Ice Creams.

And the 2006 Riveto was a wonderful Dessert Wine: Soft, Sweet, Creamy and Bubbly, almost like a grown-up version of a Cream Soda with Alcohol in a way. It was really nice on its own and paired nicely with the dessert.

Service can really make or break a restaurant, and during my first visit to Valentino, our primary server was professional and the other servers and busboys were always helpful in fulfilling our needs. On our second visit, we were lucky enough to have Paul Sherman as our waiter, and he truly elevated our evening to another level! His extensive knowledge of wines allowed us to enjoy informative, interesting anecdotes about each wine we were having that night, and his level of professionalism and great demeanor made him one of the best waiters I've experienced since Ryugin. (On a side note, we found out Paul was teaching a wine class at the Le Cordon Bleu program in Pasadena.) Besides Paul, the rest of the waitstaff were equally attentive and spot-on with our needs throughout the evening, truly crisp and excellent service.

On our first visit, our total came out to be ~$75 per person (including tax and tip). With the amazing Chef's Tasting Menu and Wine Pairing on our second visit, the total was ~$200 per person (including tax and tip).

Thinking back on my visits with Valentino, I can only smile as I think of the wonderful pastas and meat dishes, the outstanding Chef's Tasting Menu and Wine Pairing, and the solid, attentive service; I can understand how it was awarded a Michelin Star. But beyond all of that, is just the atmosphere and ambiance exuding from the moment I stepped inside: Valentino has this "L.A. Elegance" (if such a thing exists), being classy but not snobby. It's a place for a special night on the town, sophisticated, sumptuous, and just so romantic. Highly recommended.

Rating: 9.0 (out of 10.0)

Valentino (Santa Monica)
3115 Pico Boulevard
Santa Monica, CA 90405
Tel: (310) 829-4313

Hours: ~Lunch~
Friday, 11:30 a.m. - 2:30 p.m.

Mon - Thurs, 5:00 p.m. - 10:00 p.m.
Fri - Sat, 5:00 p.m. - 10:30 p.m.
Closed Sunday.

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