Wednesday, April 7, 2010

A Return to Elegance - Valentino

Valentino has been one of my favorite Italian restaurants in L.A. for special occasions. With their elegant and romantic decor, enjoyable Tasting Menus and Pastas, and the outstanding Wine Pairings with Sommelier Paul Sherman, it's something I look forward to whenever I get the chance. With the recent discussions on Valentino by westsidegal, RicRios and others, and the promotion with BBE, it was too good of an opportunity to pass up, so I wrangled mi amigo Street Gourmet LA to join me in trying their new menu.

Since my last visit, Valentino has gained a new Chef de Cuisine, Nicola Chessa, a native of Sardinia, Italy, who has revamped parts of the menu with some new seasonal dishes, and streamlined their Tasting Menu selections with some great choices at much more affordable prices (3 Course Tasting for $55, or a 4 Course Tasting for $70). Unfortunately, their excellent Sommelier Paul Sherman wasn't in during our visit, but we were assured our Wine Pairings would be well-managed with Giuseppe Mollica. We opted for a Chef's Tasting Menu and Wine Pairing, leaving it in the hands of Chef Chessa.

Chef Chessa starts us off with an amuse bouche, and Giuseppe brings out our first pairing:

N.V. Zardetto Prosecco (Veneto, Italy)
Arancino + Smoked Salmon, Quail Egg, Mascarpone

The Zardetto Prosecco is very dry, clean, with good effervescence, but a bit more tart than I'd like with my Proseccos.

The Arancino (Fried Rice Ball with Mozzarella) is crunchy, with a nice golden crust, but surprisingly underseasoned; you taste Rice, but almost no Mozzarella.

The Smoked Salmon, on the other hand, is much more successful: There's a playful layering of textures and mouthfeel, fluctuating from soft to creamy and ending with a quick, clean finish. The Smoked Salmon is fine (nothing amazing), but when combined with the Quail Egg and Mascarpone, the end result is an excellent silky starter that pleases the mouth and palate. :)

Sadly, the Prosecco pairing falls short with both starters; they clash (not in a good way), but are fine on their own.

I'm reminded of the good service at Valentino as one of our waiters unobtrusively clears out our plates before our next course arrives:

2008 Angelo Accadia Verdicchio Dei Castelli Di Jesi Classico (Marche, Italy)
Seasonal Crudo Selection, Ahi Tuna with Pineapple Compote, Yellowtail with Grapefruit, and Salmon with Orange

It seems this Crudo plate is becoming a signature item at Valentino (our waiter notes its popularity and the staff's general appreciation for this dish). Each piece of fish is dressed with Sea Salt, Olive Oil and Colatura D'Alici (Essence of Anchovies), and it's served with a small side of Ossetra Caviar.

The Yellowtail with Grapefruit is slightly more briny than I prefer, but otherwise good, being tender and silky. It sadly falls apart when paired with the Verdicchio, tasting really disparate.

In terms of flavors, the Salmon with Orange works just fine, with the bright citrus notes complementing the Fish. In terms of wine pairings, the Salmon works better with the Verdicchio than the Yellowtail, but it still feels off.

Finally, the Ahi Tuna with Pineapple Compote stands out the most, with a balanced, even taste, and a nice touch of tropical sweetness from the Pineapple Compote. Both of those combined really sing with the Verdicchio's flowery and fruity aspects.

Continuing on, our next course is:

2008 Falanghina Sannio Dei Feudi Di San Gregorio (Campania, Italy)
Pan Seared Sea Scallop, Zuppa di Piselli

Chef Chessa produces a great sear on the Scallop, but if there's one small negative, the Scallop itself, while tasting pretty fresh, is a touch too gummy for my tastes. But besides that, the flavors are excellent, with a bit of sea breeze meeting a subtle, clean Sweet Pea Puree.

Finally, in terms of wine and food, this is another decent pairing, with the fattiness and meatiness of the Scallop softening the intensity and mineral aspects of the Falanghina (which is a bit too acidic to drink straight without food). But overall, the pairing just doesn't sing like the outstanding pairings that Paul Sherman has created for me in the past.

Our primi course arrives at this point:

2006 Valle Reale Montepulciano D'Abruzzo (Abruzzo, Italy)
Bucatini with Guanciale, Romanesco Broccoli, Cipollotto

I've generally been impressed with Valentino's Pasta dishes, and their Bucatini only reinforces that: Bucatini is almost like a thicker Spaghetti, and it's cooked just to al dente, with a wonderful chew and texture. But Chef Chessa uses the excellent Pasta as a background to highlight their House-Cured Guanciale (Pork Cheek), which has such an amazing, fragrant, intense, but focused Pork essence in every bite. Add to this, the slight crunchiness of the Romanesco Broccoli, Cipolloto Spring Onions, fresh Tomatoes, and just a touch of pungency from the Pecorino and Parmigianno-Reggiano Cheeses, and it's one of the best Pasta dishes I've had in the past half-year or so. Excellent! (^_^)

And thankfully, this turns out to be Giuseppe's best pairing of the evening - an outstanding pairing - with the powerful, tart, cherry notes in the Montepulciano being completely tamed and transformed with each bite of the Bucatini and Guanciale.

Our final savory course arrives soon after:

2006 Michele Chiarlo Barbera D'Asti Superiore "Le Orme" (Piedmont, Italy)
Roasted Lamb Loin, Red Wine Reduction, Braised Fennel, Olives

The Lamb Loin is cooked to a perfect medium-rare, a beautiful cut of Lamb for being lean, yet tender, lightly gamy but not as pungent as some Lamb Loin dishes around town. But what really makes this dish standout is the Barbera Red Wine Sauce, which is concentrated and savory, elevating the great Lamb itself. The Braised Fennel, notes of always-welcome Rosemary, and the wonderful Pan-Seared Potatoes add the final pieces to a great Lamb dish. :)

The 2006 Barbera however, is a bit of a disappointment. It's a decent wine to drink straight, with some fruitiness and medium acidity, but as a pairing, it falters: It doesn't clash with the Lamb, but at the same time, it doesn't really complement it either.

Our dessert course is composed of 2 selections, which thankfully includes the much-talked about Cannoli that westsidegal's been recommending :) -

N.V. Marchesi Di Barolo Moscato D'Asti Zagara (Piedmont, Italy)
Homemade Cannoli

The Homemade Cannoli is excellent. A great crunchy shell, with this gorgeous, lightly creamy, airy filling made with Ricotta Cheese. It's also thankfully not too sweet, either. :)

The Moscato D'Asti is just a sweet, floral, easy-to-drink dessert wine. :) I could drink this Moscato by itself and be perfectly happy. Lovely.

The second dessert selection is their Hazelnut Semifreddo, Banana Flambe.

The Hazelnut Semifreddo is enjoyable, lightly chilled, but still quite soft. The crunch of Hazelnuts throughout the Semifreddo is a nice counterpoint to the creamy, cool dessert. But it's the Banana Flambe that turns out to be the best part of this dish: Really intense Banana flavors and a good, natural sweetness from the cooking of the fruit.

The pairing of either dessert with the Moscato, though, is surprisingly uneven: The Moscato has a certain floral sweetness that just doesn't work with either the Cannoli or the Semifreddo.

Service at Valentino is very good as usual. It's nice to have a staff of waiters that can clear out plates and silverware between courses at a comfortable pace - long enough after all the guests have finished one course not to feel rushed, and yet fast enough that it doesn't feel uncomfortable that everyone has empty, finished plates in front of them lingering too long. Drinks are refilled without a word or glance, and even if the wine pairings were off, Giuseppe was an excellent guide for the evening. Prices range from $12 - $44 for individual dishes, with a Three Course Tasting Menu for $55 per person, and a Four Course Tasting for $70. They can also create a custom Chef's Menu with however many courses as you'd like, upon request. We would normally average ~$160 - $170 per person (including tax and tip) for the Tasting Menu with Wine Pairing, but with the BBE promotion it turned out to be ~$120 per person (for the Tasting Menu and Wine Pairing).

Valentino (Santa Monica) continues to deliver some good-to-great Italian creations under the watch of new Chef de Cuisine Nicola Chessa, wrapped up in a beautiful, romantic setting. I'm hoping to see more regional Sardinian dishes make it to the menu (reflecting Chef Chessa's background), as well as a better backup Sommelier when Paul Sherman isn't in. They have an outstanding wine list, but for those wanting to try wine pairings, I'd recommend going only on days that Paul is in (call ahead of time to confirm). Other than the wine pairing hiccup on this visit, the Tasting Menus and setting continue to make Valentino an enjoyable night on the town.

Rating: 8.3 (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 Sundays.


weezermonkey said...

This looks awesome!

Exile Kiss said...

Hi weezermonkey,

You haven't been yet? If you get a chance to try them, let me know whatcha think! :)

Banana Wonder said...

I'm going to have to try their tasting menu - this looks and sounds delicious.

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Anna,

You must! :) Even if you don't try their Tasting Menu (which you should :), at least try some of their great Pastas. Let me know how it turns out. :)

Cookie Chomper said...

would you say Valentino would be the best Italian in LA? Which would you recommendd?

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Cookie Chomper,

It's too early to tell for me. :) Despite me trying so many places, there are even more Italian restaurants than I can count that I still haven't been to yet. (~_~) Heh. I need to try at least another 25+ restaurants that've been recommended to me from friends, guests, etc. before I can say if it's the "best". Is it one of my favorites for a special occasion Italian restaurant? Yes. :)

And then it depends what you're looking for (let me know). A casual, neighborhood eatery? An everyday place for Pastas? Or a fine-dining Italian restaurant? There are many angles to view the subject from. :)

When I get to explore more of the recommended places I'll be sure to post about them. Thanks. :)

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