Before Melisse, the top restaurants in Santa Monica, in the good old days, were Michael’s, Chinois on Main and Valentino. These old-timers are still tops today.
Michael’s shines at lunchtime because of the beautiful patio. Chinois comes to mind for a special occasion when you want exotic Asian food and don’t mind ear-shattering noise over dinner. Valentino fills in nicely when you look for an old-world atmosphere where your dinner companion is refined and appreciates good food, a quiet ambiance, fine service and fine wines.
In recent times, with the proliferation of Italian restaurants, and with the owner, Piero Selvaggio, sometimes distracted by attending to various spin-offs over the years, Valentino was often forgotten. Everyone wants to go to the latest Italian restaurant, and that takes up a lot of time. And how many fine Italian meals can you handle?
But the tide has turned again. Piero refocused his attention on his flagship restaurant a few years ago, Santa Monica architect Cosimo Pizzuli did an outstanding renovation to update the interior, the wine cellar was restocked after a disastrous earthquake and the restaurant is back at the forefront.
I took some serious food people there a few weeks ago. The main dining room is quiet. There are little hidden booths if you want to sit apart — like in Paris in the 1890s when gentlemen wanted to take their mistresses out to dinner but not be too obvious about it. The tables in the center of the room are well separated from one another so you don’t feel that you have to make conversation with the folks at the next table.
One goes to Valentino for three reasons. First, I like the ambiance. Piero knows the customers and one feels good to be greeted so warmly. He is known for his outstanding memory of what you ate and drank the last time you were there. The service is impeccable: there are mature Italian waiters and the ma√Ætre d has been with Piero for many years. The waiters know which plate goes to which patron and do not stand in front of the table looking puzzled, saying, “Who’s the chicken?”
Next is the wine list. This is still perhaps the best wine list in the western United States. I certainly don’t know one as good in Los Angeles, especially for Italian wines. I called in advance of my last dinner and requested Piero open a good bottle of Barolo in the $100 to $150 range and decant it for a few hours before dinner. When we got there he produced a bottle of 2003 Vietti Barolo that had been properly decanted. Before we drank that, he suggested a bottle of 2003 Dolcetto di Alba from Conterno. Both wines were very enjoyable. Normally I like a younger Dolcetto with the purple ink color, but those are getting harder to find. This was a Dolcetto made to last for awhile.
To go with the Dolcetto, we were served a little fried mozzarella cheese in a tomato and basil sauce. This was unusual and perfect as a starter. Then, as a special treat, came a little plate of fish crudo, like sashimi in a Japanese restaurant. As a third little treat before ordering, we were served a grilled octopus on a Sardinian grain cooked in squid ink. I happen to be a big fan of grilled octopus and look for Greek restaurants mainly for that reason. And I find it often at Maison Giraud in the Palisades. But this one was superior, cooked to perfection and well paired with the black squid ink grain.
Meanwhile, the Barolo had softened so that it was the perfect companion to the dinner’s pastas, the third reason to choose this restaurant. That’s not to say that there are not a lot of other good items on the menu. One of my friends had a plate of delicious lamb chops in a wine sauce, among the best I’ve ever had. But I can get those in lots of restaurants and make them at home. I had a Dover sole. This was a bit dry, and not really as good as the sole at Sor Tino in Brentwood, and not nearly as good as the Dover sole at BLT on the Sunset Strip (if you don’t mind paying $50 for it).
But I don’t really go to Valentino for seafood either. The reason to go there is for the pasta. The lobster pappardelle was chock full of lobster and served over a tomato and squid ink pasta. Squid ink pasta, the regional specialty of Venice, Italy, is one of my favorite dishes. Lobster cannelloni were soft, full of lobster flavor and served in a mild tomato sauce. My friend, Jay Weston, was perhaps the smartest of all in ordering the veal ravioli with black truffles. These three pasta dishes were outstanding and out of the ordinary in both conception and execution.
We had a bit of the traditional tiramisu with coffee sauce and sorbet, but I don’t remember it. What I remember are the three things I mentioned above: how lovely the room was, how great the service was and, of course, the pasta.
If you go
3115 Pico Blvd.
Santa Monica, Calif.
Merv Hecht, the food and wine critic for the Santa Monica Daily Press, is a wine buyer and consultant to a number of national and international food and wine companies. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org