Monday, March 23, 2009

Valentino, Santa Monica CA

Having already tasted much of the Los Angeles Italian fine dining scene with previous visits to All Angelo, La Botte, C&O Trattoria, and Osteria Mozza I finally decided to make my way to the venerable Valentino for a classy meal with an old friend who I hadn't seen in ages. Gracious for the company and expecting great things after reading Chef Tarantino's menu I even suggested the meal was my treat when I declined my friend's suggestion for the vastly more affordable Angelini Osteria. While I admit that high expectations aren't always ideal when going into a restaurant for the first time I figured Valentino's pedigree spoke for itself.

Arriving around 6:00pm and securing free parking only feet from the front door of Valentino's compound-like exterior I greeted my pal and we made our way through the front doors into the notably dark and romantic interior. Admittedly I was a little put off by the television in the bar and the cheesy Italian music playing over the speakers, but we were greeted warmly by our server and escorted immediately through to the main dining room and an elegant table in the corner. Wine was offered and declined and while I drank tap water my dining partner opted for an expensive, yet “excellent” Italian beer. Throughout the meal, I must say the service was good with my only major complaint being that water was not refilled as quickly as I would’ve hoped.

Menus were next presented and once we got past the notably high prices we decided to each get the same appetizer and a main. Orders taken, bread was next presented. Like Mozza and La Botte, bread was served without butter, but unlike the others there were multiple breads presented including an olive sourdough, crispy breadsticks, and a sesame seed white. Boring and cool I must say the bread was a great disappointment – I doubt butter or olive oil would have helped.

After a short while and a lot of excellent conversation our first course arrived – the Gli Gnocchi of Semolina-ricotta-saffron pillows with porcini, peas and prosciutto. My favorite dish and the standard by which I judge Italian food I must admit – I was floored. Despite the small portion, the gnocchi were flawlessly textured and perfectly soft, smooth, and “melt in the mouth.” Coated with a simple butter and Parmigianino sauce and contrasted beautifully with crispy prosciutto, earthy porcinis, and sweet peas my friend stated that this was the best gnocchi she had ever consumed and I would definitely place the dish amongst my top five – certainly the best in LA.

Dishes collected we sat and talked some more as the room began to fill with elderly couples in dark suits, many of whom carried bottles of pricey wines that were gladly served by the staff – Valentino is definitely the sort of place where the service improves with a significant wine bill. As the night went on the staff also notably lowered the lights to create more ambiance – I only wish they’d have lowered the music as well. It is interesting to me that so many complain of Mozza’s music when both La Botte and Valentino have a vastly inferior soundtrack that is just as loud.

For our mains I selected another pasta while my companion chose the Salmon with brussel sprouts and potatoes (not pictured.) Served on a long plate in an elegant manner, my Risotto Nero e Aragosta of Squid ink risotto with Maine lobster and cherry tomatoes was superb – albeit quite petite in portion. Flawless risotto blended with mascarpone that had been colored and accented with a generous amount of salty squid ink was served beneath a poached quarter-lobster and delectably sweet tomatoes that won’t be seen in Ohio for at least another 3 months – as delectable to the palate as the eye and a show stealing dish that nearly justified its price tag.

Enjoying the food and the company and certainly not yet full, dessert was ordered next and served quite quickly compared to the previous two courses. While my counterpart opted for a relatively standard chocolate lava cake with pear sorbet (loved the cake, not so much the sorbet) I selected the Bundino with Vanilla Praline Pudding and Almond-Orange Cantucci at the recommendation of our server. Small in size but relatively explosive in taste the dish consisted of a warm and buttery vanilla pound cake in a bowl buried beneath a cool and smooth pudding with hints of caramel, almond, and cinnamon. Good but not great, the dish was not helped by the bland and dry cantucci/biscotti.

All told I must say I have mixed feelings about Valentino. While the food was quite excellent, the prices were quite excessive and equally good food can be had at Osteria Mozza, La Botte, or All Angelo. While the service was good, we clearly did not warrant the same attention as those racking up an exorbitant wine/corkage fee and my water sat empty for 10+ minutes twice during the eighty minute meal. Finally, details such as the sub-par bread and excessively poor music simply weren’t conducive to a “great” experience. In the end I walked out of Valentino happy to have had the opportunity to treat my friend, but $150 lighter in the wallet and still a little bit hungry. While I’d likely come back to try the tasting at some point, I’d sooner check out Angelini or the Drago establishments first as I continue to look for a truly GREAT Italian experience in Los Angeles.


kevinEats said...

So of all the Italian places you were able to try in LA, which was your favorite? How would you rank them? It sounds like there wasn't a huge difference in food quality between them.

Drago Centro and Angelini Osteria should definitely be on your list next.

uhockey said...

Hey Kevin - love your site and actually read yours and Exileskiss' Valentino reviews before going.

Best based on pasta alone: Valentino > Mozza > All Angelo > La Botte > C&O
Best based on food (dessert, bread, meats, pastas:) Mozza > All Angelo > Valentino > La Botte > C&O
Best based on service: C&O > La Botte > All Angelo = Mozza = Valentino
Best Ambiance: C&O = All Angelo > Mozza > La Botte = Valentino
Best "Bang for your buck": C&O > Mozza > La Botte > All Angelo = Valentino