Sunday, May 11, 2014

Il Grano - 05/10/2014

11359 Santa Monica Blvd
West Los Angeles, CA 90025
(310) 477-7886

The first time I visited Il Grano for a private dinner, I was thoroughly impressed. The restaurant has long been among LA's top spots for Italian thanks to Salvatore Marino. The second generation chef believes in sourcing top quality ingredients and letting them speak for themselves and the results were pretty spectacular.

For this meal, Sal teamed up with his long-time friend Morihiro Onodera, the former owner and head chef at Sushi Mori. The two struck up a friendship 15 years ago when Sal started visiting the LA fish markets. At the time high quality fish was the exclusive purview of Japanese chefs and none of the sellers took the young upstart Italian chef seriously. Perhaps moved by his persistence Mori took Sal under his wing and showed him the ropes. Apparently the two chefs have cooked together before and tonight we see the culmination of their long friendship and mutual passion for food. Given the star power behind the dish, seats at this event were extremely limited and largely given to long time patrons and friends of either chef.

Evoluzione: sake, aperol, shishito pepper powder
The meal began with a plate of crudo that demonstrate a seamless blend of Italian and Japanese sensibilities. The quartet came with a light pink cocktail laden with refreshing citrus verve and a twinge of vegetal savor from the shishito.

I started off with the nambanzuke, a cuboid of halibut marinated in vinegar. The dense meaty fish has an even temper of sweet soy laced with a nuanced smoky-sweetness. The pickled carrot and onion provided a mix of both textural levity and bracing acidity to moderate the heft of the meat.

Japanese Snapper Burrata
I was afraid the mixture of snapper and burrata would be too bland but the duo are suitably enlivened by the application of basil and fresh tangy tomato. Against this austere backdrop, the fish demonstrates a keen fleshiness while the burrata takes on an almost buttery flavor.

Halibut Crudo Pea Shiso
Next up was a piece of pristine halibut. The fish itself is faultless, but I found the mix of pea and olive oil a bit heavy and disconcerting.

Tofu Caprese
The final of the initial welcoming dishes was something Mori used to serve at his restaurant. Mori makes the tofu himself and the resulting cube has a pillowy creaminess and a mild nutty flavor. The shredded herbs provide soothing herbal flourish while the balsamic adds a much needed jolt of bold sweetness.

Sushi & Susci on mori rice
Simon Bize Bourgogne Blanc Les Perrieres 2011
Next up we were presented with another quartet, this time a hybrid Italian-Japanese sushi. The accomplishing wine was surprisingly complex for a mere Bourgogne, with a touch of sweet oxidative depth atop the classic lemon and mineral notes.

As much as I enjoy tomato I thought the combination of tomato and rice was going to be a bit boring. The tomato packed a surprising amount of flavor, deep rich sweetness touched with olive and a bit of zesty herbs very reminiscent of a pizza sauce.

Next up was a gunkan style roll topped with crab. Apparently Sal made a special version of this mid-service mixing the crab with a kani-miso, a sauce made from crab guts. The creamy mixture displays the sweetness of crab meat as well as the dark earthy saline of the innards.

The chickpea susci worked a lot better than I expected. The Garbanzos themselves don't show much but the rosemary lends the morsel a sense of comforting homey warmth.

Grilled Tuna
The smoky flair of the tuna was evident the moment our server set the plate in front of me. The flavor proved to be equally expressive with a BBQ like savor over the clean iron-laced tang of the meat..

hokkaido scallop - crysanthemum pesto
Simon Bize Bourgongne Blanc Les Perrieres 2011
The Hokkaido Scallop itself was flawless. The texture starts off a bit dry and tacky but quickly morphs into a supple creaminess dripping with classic shellfish sweetness. Like the pea pesto, the chrysanthemum is subtle yet weighty but just didn't work for me.

wild big eye tuna tartar - black truffle
Vouvray Huet Le Mont Sec 2012
Tuna and truffle? Yes, please! Made from a base of marinated tuna, the tartare exudes lusciousness with a bold piercing soy-savor on top of the fish's inherent clean steely flavor. The ground fish is mixed with onion, arugula, and olive oil which adds verdant counterpoint to the potency of the tartare. Last but not least, the black truffle punctuates the mixture with emphatic bursts of earthy musk.

cherry gazpacho - dungeness crab, lemon verbena
Vouvray Huet Le Mont Sec 2012
The cherry gazpacho starts off with a demonstrative jammy sweetness that gradually develops countervailing herbal and peppery overtones. A bit on the sweet side for my liking but still a very enjoyable course.

pea soup - kinmedai, marinated japanese heirloom tomato
Blanc des Rosis Schioppetto 2010
I was a bit surprised to see two soups back to back but aside from their textures, the two couldn't have been more different. Unabashedly savory where the gazpacho was sweet. The pea soup has a deep nutty verdance interlaced with a touch of fishy umami savor from the Kinmedai.

yuwan marinated crispy skate wing - sunchoke puree, ramps
Palaverga Piccolo Basadone Castello di Verduno 2012
This was easily one of the most impressive skate wings that I've ever tasted. Skate can sometimes have a gelatinous almost fatty mouth feel and while there is a sense of tenderness here, the meat is actually made up of supple well defined fibers. I'm not sure what went into the marinade but the meat gives off a very striking savory-sweetness coupled with a hint of char. The combination is intoxicating on its own but even more impressive with the fresh springtime relish of the ramps.

mori rice risotto aglio olio - peperoncino and calamari
Emrich Schonleber Sp├Ątlese Monzingen Fruhlingsplatzchen 2009
This was far and away my favorite course of the night and indeed the dish that provided the impetus for the entire meal. Our server mentioned that Mori frequently gets together with Sal and they often make this dish. The risotto is exceptionally textured as one would expect from a restaurant of Il Grano's caliber. The rice is imbued with a persistent salinity from the calamari augmented by the sliver of cool decadent uni. A vigorous spice brings an unexpected but very welcome sense of dynamism to the plate.

spaghetti funghi - morels, pancetta, english peas and favas
Etna Rosso Lu Veru Piaciri Al Cantara 2012
Combining morels, peas, favas, and pancetta; this course isn't particularly groundbreaking but it is utterly delicious. The noodles are dense and plump while the toppings bring a multifaceted blend of earth, savor and herbaceousness.

rabbit milanese - rabbit reduction, shallot-stanwick apricot confit
Barbera d'Alba Burlotto 2012
I've never been a fan of milanesa, so it stands to reason that this was the weakest course of the night for me. The thinly sliced rabbit was dry and bland which made the apricot confit even more jarring.

A5 wagyu beef - shitake, olio nuovo
Aglianico del Vulture Titolo Elena Fucci 2008
The final savory was a sliver of stupendously marbled wagyu beef. The meat easily would have stood on its own but the robust woody flavor of the shitake and bitter greens bring much-needed contrast to the fat saturated beef.

dolce riso mori
Passito di Pantelleria Donnafugata Ben Rye 2010
Dessert was a bread pudding made from Mori's vaunted sushi rice. The pudding is a bit bland but the accompanying apricot jam more than made up for the lack of flavor.

Indeed the meal was everything I could have hoped for and more. Both Mori and Sal showed off some of their individual signatures but the best dishes harmoniously combined elements from both culinary traditions.

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