Saturday, November 17, 2012

Valentino - 11/14/2012

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

In 1972 Piero Selvaggio took partnered with a friend to bring gourmet Italian food to Los Angeles. Over the following 40 years Selvaggio turned a miniscule initial investment of $4,500 into a multi-million dollar restaurant empire that helped define modern Italian cuisine in America.

When I first heard that Valentino would be offering a 40-course menu to celebrate their 40th anniversary, my first reaction was sheer disbelief especially when I learned the menu would feature Sicilian/Sardinian cuisine of Selvaggio's youth rather than the Northern fare the restaurant normally serves. A one-night only tasting menu is hard enough to pull off and one this extensive with unfamiliar dishes would be a logistical nightmare for any staff. If that wasn't enough, they were also offering an optional wine pairing featuring 2-ounce pours of 40+ Italian wines (roughly 3 bottles worth) that had me fearing for my life. Still, despite all my reservations, I couldn't pass up a meal this extravagant.

INVOLTINI DI MELANZANE - eggplant rolls with smoked provola and onions
The meal got off to a great start with delicate curls of tender eggplant filled with onions and cheese. The sweet savor of the caramelized onions provided a lovely contrast to the twang of the eggplant though the combination was a bit one-note texturally.

CRUDO DI PESCE - with trapani salt, olive and condiments
The meal had a number of service gaffes beginning with the presentation of the crudo. The tuna was completely unadorned which suggests it may not have been finished. The other spoon held a raw spot prawn which while tasty didn't fit the description above either.

PANALLE - chickpea fritters
FOCACCE - assortite
The panalle was definitely the more interesting of the duo, the dry crumbly texture and creeping savor was a bit odd at first but grew on me. The focacce had a more classically Italian flavor with fresh tomato and a pungent cheesiness.

SPIEDINO DI POLPO - octopus skewer
I was expecting something like a yakitori skewer and while the tender texture was quite enjoyable, the flavor was a touch bland.

STUFFED CALAMARI - with couscous, bronte pistachio and castelvetrano olives
The stuffed calamari was a huge step up from the octopus. The ring of squid gives the bite a dense textural base while the core provides a dark earthiness punctuated with the crunchy savor of the fried squid.

CROSTINO - with ricotta and sea urchin
I was a bit unsure about the combination of cheese and sea urchin, but the uni permeated the mild cheese which in turn tempered the rich brine of the roe.

SEPPIE - grilled cuttlefish with squid ink, orange zest and fennel pollen
MACCU - fava bean soup
The Seppie was the strongest of the three cephalopod dishes with its dense supple texture and beautifully nuanced brine. Though I'm not a huge fan of favas I quite enjoyed the intense smoky tang of this particular preparation.

CERVELLINI FRITTI - calf brain fritters with roasted mushrooms
The fritter was firmer than the previous preparations of brain that I'd tried, texturally reminiscent of sauteed sweetbreads. The deep earthines of the mushrooms intertwines beautifully tempering the metallic tang of the brain while heightening the offal's richness.

ZUPPA DI FREGULA E ARSELLE - couscous with saffron broth and baby clams
This soup was probably my favorite course of the evening. Lurking within the broth is imbued with an intense brine from the clams mixed with a light bitter herbaceousness from the saffron. Beneath the placid surface of the broth is a mound of couscous which gave the dish a toothsome weighty texture.

MAURO VINCENTE BUSIATE ALLA TRAPNESE - corkscrew pasta with almond pesto
BOMBA DI RISO AL RICCI DI MARE - rice pie with sea urchin and orange blossom
PENNETE ALLA NORMA - with eggplant, cherry tomatoes and ricotta salata
The trio of Sicilian pastas was a bit light for my tastes. Aside from a dollop of uni there was no meat on the plate. The busiate and penette both had a keen astringency though the almond in the former acted as a moderating effect. Like with the crostini, the urchin saturates the creamy rice; beautiful in conjunction with the delicate orange blossom.

ANZONE - braesaola-like cured lamb
SARTIZZA PICCANTE - cured spicy pork sausage
GUANCIALE - cured pork cheek
These three charcuterie courses constituted the main body of the Sardinian Antipasto. The Anzone had a robust rustic lambiness and smooth soft texture. The Sartizza was my favorite with a fierce spiciness to go along with its salty porcine sapor. The guanciale was almost like a gauzy veil of salted fat that oozed oil with each bite.

BOTTARGA - silver mullet roe with baby artichoke salad
Bottarga is definitely an acquired taste though the sweet fishiness is growing on me. The pungency was a nice addition to the mellowness of the artichokes.

FRITTATINA DI CICORIE - cast-iron baked flat omelet with bitter greens and potatoes
MIGGINE AFFUMICATO - smoked silver mullet with sheep ricotta and organic honey
I was expecting a bit more structure to the omelet, but the gritty texture reminded me of dry mashed potatoes than eggs. The greens and potatoes provided depth a pleasing if humble depth of flavor. The mullet was supposed to come with more ricotta but a mix-up in the kitchen left us with four thin slivers of the smoky ham-like fish sans adornment.

TIMBALLO DI RAGUSANO - grilled vegetables and Ragusano cheese tortino
I didn't think much of this course but it turned out to be much better than I expected. The grilled vegetables had a fairly weighty savor augmented by the sharp tang of the cheese.

RICCI DI MARE - sea urchin on a spoon
A comedy of errors surrounded this course with the kitchen bringing the crostino numerous times before finally bringing us the correct dish, which basically amounted to raw sea urchin roe in a spoon.

PUNZU AL SUGO DI GRANCHIO - thumb sized pasta with Dungeness crab meat
BUSA AL POMODORO E FIORE SARDO - homemade bucatini with tomato sauce and pecorino
MALLOREDDOS CON "PURPUZZA" - with homemade sausage and saffron
For the most part the Sicilian and Sardinian courses had been evenly matched but the Sardinian pastas were far superior. The busa was the least impressive though the dense noodles and bright acidity of the tomatoes made for an enjoyable contrast. The punzu had the verdant zest of the Sicilian Busiate but with an additional nuance from the crab. The Malloreddos was easily the best of the pastas thanks to the blend of rich porcine sapor and exotic saffron.

L'AGNELLO - lamb belly with Modica's spicy chocolate sauce and autumn caponata
INVOLTINI DI VITELLO - veal rolls with bread crumbs, raisins, peanuts, and cheese
The lamb belly was pretty much what you'd expect combining the fatty richness of belly with the gamy tang of lamb. The flavor on the veal roll was a bit more took a second to come develop but once it did the smoky meatiness came to the fore over the saccharine flavor of the raisins

AGNELLO AL FINOCCHIETTO - braised lamb with mirto-berry essence
MAIALINO AL FORNO - oven roasted suckling pig sprinkled with sea salt
So far the Sardinian dishes have been heavier than their Sicilian counterparts but their roles were reversed for the entrees. The suckling pig was lightly seasoned letting the natural flavor of the meat shine through, though I would have preferred a moister texture and perhaps more skin and fat. The braised lamb was much more robust, but tame when compared to the belly.

CONFETTURE - orange and mandarin jams by Caffe Sicilia, Noto
MIELI - organic eucalyptus and strawberry tree honey by Liccu Manias
The cheese selection didn't really do much for me. Personall I prefer richer softer varieties but these ran towards the firmer textures and milder flavors.

TORRONE ALLE MANDORLE - nougat with Noto's almond by Corrado Assenza
FRUTTA MARTORANA - marzipan sweet fruits
GELLO DI MELONE - melon jelly
CANNOLICCHI - mini cannoli filled with ricotta cream
SORBETTO AL FICHI D'INDIA - prickly pear sorbet
AMARETTI DI ORISTANO - little bitter macaroons-like cookies
PABASSINOS - raisins and almonds biscuits
TURTA DE ICOS - fresh figs pie
The meal ended with a bonanza of sweets. Unlike the rest of the meal which was evenly balanced, there were two more Sicilian offerings for the desserts. The standouts for me were the cannolicchi with its simple buttery crust and lightly sweet filling and the amaretti de oristano with its light almond flavor and dense chewy texture.

40 courses and 40 wines was a bit ambitious to say the least. The meal got off to a rocky start with the kitchen forgetting to serve us 9 courses. Only after we got to the pastas did we realize we hadn't had nearly half the stuzzichini and antipasti. Similarly the staff lost track of which wine we were on a couple of times, though I believe those mistakes always ended in our favor. Despite the service gaffes, Valentino shone where it counted: the food; clearly there is yet life left in these old bones.


sygyzy said...

The food shone? I thought this post was a joke at first. The meal looked and sounded terrible! I think you are being too kind.

Epicuryan said...

Service was pretty rocky and while the food might seem a bit tired it was tasty all around with a few particularly strong courses like the cuttlefish and calf brains.