Monday, December 22, 2008

Aiming to Please - La Botte Ristorante

The Westside has been blessed with quite a few Italian eateries that have gotten a fair amount of praise over the years. While most of them are conveniently located, I've just never gotten around to visiting them for one reason or another. One such place has been La Botte in Santa Monica.

La Botte occupies an understated corner space along Santa Monica Boulevard. It has been said that the ambiance of a restaurant can be palpable at times; that for some places you can pick up a certain idiosyncratic vibe from the moment you walk in. For La Botte, the moment we walked in, I could feel a down-to-earth, relaxed atmosphere, even with their Michelin 1 Star Award hanging in the entrance. :) We were greeted warmly by the maitre 'd, and shown to a nice table with a window view of Santa Monica.
La Botte uses the staves of actual oak wine barrels(!) to create most of the decor of the restaurant, from our table, to the floor, and portions of the wall. It is at once disarming and charming, and helps to establish a certain humility to the classic Italian dining at La Botte.

As we were perusing our menu, co-owner Stefano De Lorenzo came out to greet us and welcome us to the restaurant (and proceeded to check in on all the tables as they arrived); a nice gesture. We opted for their Seasonal Tasting Menu and while we awaited the creations of Chef Luigi Fineo (a native of Puglia, Italy and formerly Sous Chef at Enoteca Drago), we were offered a nice selection of their in-house baked breads.

Of the three types of breads offered, their Fig Bread was the standout, with nice meaty chunks of fresh Figs embedded throughout each slice. The Fig Bread was at once moist, soft and infused with subtle, lightly sweet Fig essence. Their Pistachio, Rosemary and Caramelized Onion Bread was a solid second, also surprisingly well-done and quite tasty with the Olive Oil provided. The weakest was definitely their Ciabatta: It wasn't bad, but there was nothing standout.

Our first course began with Tasmanian Ocean Trout Carpaccio, Pomegranate, Extra Virgin Olive Oil and Chives.

When the dish first arrived, my guest and I both thought it looked strikingly similar to Salmon, but our server assured us that it was indeed Tasmanian Ocean Trout. Chef Luigi seasons the excellent cuts of fresh fish with Volcanic Salt, and the Pomegranate and Extra Virgin Olive Oil dressing lightly bathed each bite of the Tasmanian Ocean Trout with a touch of sweetness, while still maintaining a slightly sour, acidic edge. Excellent.

Our second course was Blue-Leg King Prawn, Leek Puree, Celery Root and Celery Leaves.

The dish was surprisingly spring-like and herbal, which was nice, and the Leek Puree and Celery aspects provided a great balance with the Blue-Leg King Prawn, which tasted fresh, but after having Live Giant Prawns at various Hong Kong eateries in the San Gabriel Valley, it's hard to go back at times. (^_~) Still, a very good dish.

Our third course was simply outstanding: Duck & Foie Gras Ravioli, Truffle Butter, Black Winter Truffle. Owner De Lorenzo mentioned that they just sourced some fresh Black Winter Truffles from Molise, Italy, and they arrived earlier that day. While not as ridiculously fragrant as White Truffles, as Stefano was freshly shaving the Black Winter Truffles over the Ravioli, it still exuded this wonderfully hypnotic aroma. :)

The reasons for success are many, but starting with the foundation, it's all about the soft and tender Duck meat, melding with the Foie Gras, which was *so* creamy and wonderfully rich. Combined with the freshly made Ravioli pasta, and the excellent Molise Black Winter Truffle shavings, the dish is pure, seductive lusciousness. My favorite of the evening. (^_^)

Their Homemade Beet Tagliolini with Quail Sausage on a bed of Parmesan Fondue arrived soon after.

Like the fresh Ravioli, the freshly-made Tagliolini pasta noodles exuded a beautiful texture with just a slight bite; firm, yet maintaining a good suppleness. The Red Beet infused pasta exhibited a nice, striking reddish hue, and the pieces of Quail were very fragrant, but just a bit too salty.

The next course was Elysian Fields Farm Lamb Chop, Roasted Butternut Squash, Chanterelle Mushrooms.

Their Elysian Fields Farm Lamb Chop was impressive in its size: A big, meaty chop cooked to a nice Medium-Rare-to-Medium level of doneness. The Balsamic Reduction was thankfully a milder version, with a touch of tart to complement the fresh, lamb gaminess. And the Lamb Chop itself was extremely tender, but nicely offset with the textural contrast of the Roasted Butternut Squash (which was even more tender, with a fragrant nuttiness).

The next course was personally served by owner De Lorenzo as he stated this was one of his favorites and he hoped we would enjoy it as well: Seared Hawaiian Ahi Tuna, King Edward Potatoes, Organic Tomato & Basil.

The Ahi Tuna was prepared with a simple salt and pepper coating before being quickly pan-seared. The quality of the Tuna was very good, but the problem was the level of sodium: It was a salt-bomb and really took away from the dish.

However, when eaten with a bit of the King Edward Potatoes (a very nice, more delicate flavor than the usual mashed potato dish), and the Organic Tomatoes and Basil, it provided a better balance but was still too salty.

The dessert portion of the Tasting Menu commenced at this point, starting with Apple Strudel, Vanilla Ice Cream. This was a pretty straightforward version of the classic Apple Strudel dessert, lightly sweet with a really pure, fresh Apple flavor shining through. It was good, but nothing outstanding.

The final course of the evening ended the dinner on a high note: Amaretto Disaronno Semifreddo, Fresh Berries.

Chef Luigi's Semifreddo would have to be one of the best renditions of this dessert I've ever had. It was slightly chilled, but still had a good, soft creaminess to it, with chunks of real Almonds along with the infusion of Amaretto. The result was a bold Almond aroma and taste that arrested the tastebuds. Outstanding. :)

Overall, we had a wonderful time (especially with our excellent waiter, Antonio), and I couldn't wait to come back and try more of their creations.

On my second visit, I arrived just as the restaurant was opening. Being the first party in the establishment, even with no one else there, the inherent feeling I felt from the first visit was still present: La Botte was just as relaxing as before. :)

On this visit, the first course began with Pesce Spada Rosa (Pink Swordfish) Tartare, Wild Arugula, Organic Hearts of Palm, Mandarin Oranges, Extra Virgin Olive Oil.

Swordfish can sometimes have an unpleasant brininess / aftertaste, but this Pesce Spada Rosa from Hawaii was *so* fresh and clean. Texturally, it's similar to a good Aji, but without the oiliness.

In addition, the crispness of the Hearts of Palm, pepperiness of the Wild Arugula, and the lightly fragrant citrus notes from the Mandarin Oranges came together to create an amazing starter! I was afraid the Mandarin Oranges would overpower the dish, but it was subtle and perfectly accented the Swordfish Tartare.

The second course was Opakapaka (Pink Snapper from Hawaii), Blue-Leg King Prawn, and Tasmanian Crab Fennel Tomato Soup.

The Soup arrived with the seafood separately plated, and then the Fennel Tomato Soup poured on top of it. The Fennel Tomato Soup was actually a distillation of the Opakapaka and Tasmanian Crab along with the fresh Tomatoes and Fennel. The result was a very fresh briny and peppery soup, with a bold garlic background, but unfortunately just a bit too salty for my tastes.

The Opakapaka was a bit overcooked, tasting more like the long-stewed "background fish" for a seafood broth, than one of the stars of the dish. The Tasmanian Crab fared better, having a nice firm texture, more than the common Dungeness Crab found locally. Finally, the Blue-Leg King Prawn was spot-on, tender and not overcooked. The best part of this dish, however, was just how *warming* it was on this brisk Winter day: The peppery, garlicky, light spiciness really helped to make this meal a great respite from the cold.

The next course was Fontina Cheese Raviolini, Black Winter Truffles (from the Abruzzo-Umbria region of Italy).

As before with the previous visit's Truffle dish, the shaving of the Black Winter Truffles at the table is a wonderful way to pique the appetite; so uniquely fragrant and enticing. :) The freshly-made, in-house Raviolini were a touch too soft (overcooked), but only a little bit over. The Fontina Cheese was a great match for the Truffles, being just mild enough to complement and not overwhelm. The only downside was that it was a touch too salty, which took away from the enjoyment of the Truffles and Raviolini. While it was using White Truffles, I found the White Truffle, Fontina & Wild Mushroom Raviolo at Craft (Los Angeles) to be much better executed.

The Homemade Pistachio Pappardelle with Braised Lamb Ragout, Crushed Pistachios arrived next.

They sauteed chunks of Leg of Lamb in the Ragout, with a touch of fresh Tomatoes, and while the Lamb was overcooked (well-done, slightly chunky), it was an amazing "palate cleanser" in some ways. The house-made, Pistachio-infused Pappardelle pasta had an extremely appealing lightness and nuttiness that was so airy that it imparted an almost perceptible sweetness with each bite.

The secret is probably their Sicilian Extra Virgin Olive Oil. This Olive Oil was probably the most fragrant, mesmerizing Olive Oil I've had in So Cal. It didn't overpower any of the ingredients, yet it imparted this beautiful, sweet, fresh note with each bite. The chef was surprised that I asked about it, and they were proud of this particular Sicilian Olive Oil that they selected for this dish (the server mentioned that they use about 4-5 different Olive Oils depending on the dish and what matches better). Overall, you would think that a Lamb Ragout could be rather heavy, but the back of the house really created a surprising delight, even with the Lamb itself being overcooked.

The final savory course today was their Beef Filet Mignon with Barolo Wine Sauce, Red Corn, Parsley-Chive Pesto.

Being spoiled by Grade A5 Wagyu, I wasn't sure how the Filet Mignon would hold up, but La Botte had an excellent preparation: Soft, Supple, but without the excessive marbling of A5 Wagyu, it was the best Filet Mignon I've had this year.

The beefiness of the Filet Mignon was complemented nicely by the chunks of fresh Red Corn and the Chanterelle Mushrooms. Finally, the Barolo Reduction was a classic match and supported the Beef perfectly.

The final course was their Pastiera Napoletana, an Italian Cheesecake made with Corn, Rose Water and fresh Ricotta Cheese.

La Botte's version turned out to be a very clean, aromatic dessert, with strong notes of fresh Corn and Rose Water dominating. The Ricotta was a good base (very fresh), and the Raspberry Sauce and fresh Raspberries were a nice touch, but it was just a bit too much Corn flavor for my tastes.

Our server for both visits was Antonio, an outstanding human being and very jovial and amicable. From the owner, Stefano De Lorenzo, to our server Antonio, to the other staff members, there was a genuine effort to watch out for the customer and attend to their needs. Antonio seemed a bit too energetic at first, but then you realize it's his personality and inherent characteristic, and he, along with the rest of the front of the house really made both visits special. Their prices range from $12 - $39 for standalone dishes. For the Seasonal Tasting Menu, we averaged about $140 per person (including tax and tip), with the increase in price due to the optional Truffle supplement.

While L.A. has quite a few "neighborhood Italian eateries," La Botte stands out as the best I've had so far for that category: From the disarming, relaxed ambiance from the moment you step inside, to the excellence of execution in most dishes from Chef Luigi Fineo and Sous Chefs Collin Crannel and Guido Chenette, and especially the genial attitude from the front of the house, La Botte is the quintessential "great, neighborhood Italian restaurant" that you find yourself visiting again and again. If only every neighborhood in L.A. were so lucky to have a La Botte.

Rating: 8.2 (out of 10.0)

La Botte Ristorante
620 Santa Monica Blvd.
Santa Monica, CA 90401
Tel: (310) 576-3072

Hours: [Lunch] Friday, 11:30 a.m. - 2:00 p.m.
[Dinner] 7 Days A Week, 5:30 p.m. - 10:30 p.m.


Glennis said...

Looks marvelous. The filet with red corn - I've seen red corn in Latino markets before, but so far this is the first I've seen it served in high-end restaurans. Looks great.

Is La Botte at Santa Monica & 6th?

Exile Kiss said...

Hi g,

Thanks. It was the first time I saw Red Corn at an Italian eatery as well. :)

Yes, La Botte is on the corner of Santa Monica Blvd. and 6th. If you end up going, let me know how your dinner turns out. :)

Right Way to Eat said...

Hi Exile Kiss,

Two visits on one review? Wow! I guess you really like this place that much for a repeat visit.

I can see why they increase the price because of the black truffle. This place was on my list for a while. I guess I will have to visit here, Valentino, and All' Angelo.

Thanks for the write up!

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Pepsi Monster,

Thanks. :) Actually, I try to visit restaurants at least 2-3 times before reviewing them, unless it's an opening night / grand opening situation (or other factors are preventing me (e.g., limited by time / location in Tokyo or Kyoto, or Urasawa, etc. :).

If you get a chance, definitely try all three you listed, but of the three, try Valentino first. (^_~) (Be sure to ask for Paul Sherman to take care of you (see my review for more details / pics if you want).) Enjoy~ :)

kevinEats said...

I've been thinking about trying this place ever since it received it's 1-star Michelin rating. It looks good, though not necessarily at the level of a Valentino. Do you think the place merits the star?

Exile Kiss said...

Hi kevinEats,

Good question. Although Valentino only got 1 Michelin Star as well, I think Valentino provided a much more enjoyable Tasting Menu and overall feeling of a "special occasion" type of restaurant over La Botte.

There were quite a few dishes I felt were well done, but some misses as well (more than the usual Michelin 1 Stars I've been to). So, does it deserve the star? It's a tough question: I think it's borderline. If viewed as a "great neighborhood Italian eatery" (with lower expectations and not a destination), it's a nice meal, but nothing mind-blowing.

Unknown said...

La Botte reminded me of what Piccolo Cipriani (now Piccolo Ristorane) in Venice used to be. I'm pretty sure the chefs/owners were the same. Wonderful atmosphere, creative dishes, and nearly flawless execution. It may be the case that I'm more tolerant of salt than a lot of people because I've never really had that problem at La Botte. Great review.

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Michael,

I never made it out to Piccolo in Venice; thanks for the insight.

Yah, I'm really happy to now have La Botte as a good fall-back / go-to Italian eatery. Pleasant atmosphere, relaxing, solid food.

Blog Widget by LinkWithin