On Friday, 16 'Hounds converged upon Valentino in Santa Monica to enjoy the Primi Tasting Menu for lunch. Actually, calling this occasion "lunch" would be a bit like calling the Grand Canyon "a hole in the ground". This was an occasion rather than a meal, and one that was most enjoyable.
Note: There were two tables. The diners at my table for six had the wine pairings along with the tasting menu. In each case, the pairing involved a wine from the same region of Italy as the style of the dishes with which it was paired. The diners at the table for ten brought their own wines which (according to those more knowledgeable than your humble scrivener) were quite wonderful.
Another note: We arrived at 11:30 a.m. and left at 5:00 pm. The time flew and the company only added to the experience. (Well, it only added to MY experience. You'll have to ask my companions whether my company added to THEIR experience. [grin]) But from the little "fricos" (fried parmesan crisps we nibbled while waiting for the party to assemble) to the final sips of coffee, it was a really, really lovely experience.
* Tortila with herbs and anchovies
* Prosciutto stuffed with vegetable confit, garnished with melon and balsamic dressing
* Mozzarella in carozza: lightly breaded, fried mozzarella, with tomato cream sauce
The above three items were served on a lovely, rectangular plate with three depressions. Each was bite-sized and, indeed, amused our palates, preparing us for the good things to come.
+++ Wine pairing: 2002 Colterenzio Pinot Grigio (Alto Adice)
* Polenta with baccala and tomato braise.
I'm prejudiced since I LOVE Polenta. This polenta bespoke a generous hand in the kitchen with both butter and parmesano. The baccala (dried cod) braised with herbs and fresh tomato provided a robust, slightly tart counterpoint to the rich polenta.
+++ Wine pairing: Cascina Val del Prete Luèt Roero Arneis (Piedmont)
* Santa Barbara spot prawn with brioche and white beans
The white beans were used in two ways in this presentation. They were used ON the brioche creating a delicate sort of bruschetta, and they were pureed for a subtle, textural sauce. The prawns were very large. They were butterflied, grilled, and basted with an herb butter. They were so delicious that a couple of the people at our table ate the shells. The plate was delightfully garnished with a fine dice of parti-colored bell peppers that looked like confetti, and a dash of tomato confit.
* Australian Spider Crab with summer black truffle, white asparagus, morels, fava beans and buratta
This amazing course had several things going on and each was wonderful. The crab meat was Platonic in its perfection. It was cooked very lightly -- almost slightly underdone. It was sweet, fresh and delicious. There were several generous shavings of truffle. The morels, asparagus and fava beans added some earthy "bottom" to the presentation and the melted buratta cheese (mozzarella injected with mascarpone) added an additional, luxurious note. Marvelous!
+++ Wine pairing: Bastya Chardonnay 1999
FIRST MEAT COURSE:
* Tuscan Spare Ribs
This was a very nice presentation of pork spare ribs braised in milk, reposing on a bed of fresh Tuscan kale, garnished with the milk curds. My only (very slight) issue with this tasty course was that, due to the richness of the pork, it might have been served slightly later in the progression of dishes.
+++ Wine pairing: Brolio Chianti Classico 2001
* Duck Crespelle
This is a popular and controversial signature dish at Valentino. It comprises a crepe filled with a ground duck mixture, napped with a tomato sauce and baked to heat it through and meld the flavors. Finally the whole is garnished with glaced chutney dice which adds a whimsical sweet note and interesting texture to this rich dish. Some comments on Chowhound have been posted along the lines of, "I don't see what the fuss over the duck crepes is about." We enjoyed it thoroughly.
* Risotto with fresh Porcini
This is the risotto by which all other risottos may be judged. Like the polenta, a generous hand with butter and parmesano was evident, showing that quality ingredients, carefully prepared are the foundation of any great dish. The rice was perfectly cooked, just SLIGHTLY al dente, providing a modicum of texture to the creamy, unctuous mélange.
+++ Wine pairing: Beluguardo Morellino di Scansano 1998
* Garganelli with ricotta and squab ragu
This was a great marriage of pasta shape with sauce. Garganelli begin as 2" squares of pasta dough that are rolled diagonally into a tube with an inner diameter about the size of a pencil. The outside is ribbed horizontally so the delicious ragu clung to each tube. The sauced pasta was served on a small pool of very soft ricotta cheese. Delicious!
+++ Wine pairing: Barbaresco 1998
SECOND MEAT COURSE:
* Olive crusted Angus tenderloin with Italian rapini and cauliflower/tomato timballo
The tenderloin was cut approximately 3" think and grilled to just-slightly medium rare. The meat was wonderfully tender, and the finely-chopped olive relish provided a piquant balance to the richness of the meat. The rapini added a note of bitter/vegetable, and the timballo, a custardy, eggy just faintly sweet note. What great balance -- especially appreciated so late in the progression.
* Pecorino with truffles
* Grana Padano
The first thing that struck one on this course was the playful presentation. Two-bite size portions of the cheeses were each paired with a fruit to serve as a foil: The Pecorino with dried fig, the Manchego with a date/walnut torte and the Grana Padano with fresh raspberries. The plate was dressed with a drizzle of chestnut honey (strongly flavored and quite nice) and a drizzle of a confiture that provided a tart note.
Sicilian Cassatta with marzipan and Lemon granita
Again, this was a lovely presentation. The richness of the Cassata was boosted by its collar of bright-green marzipan, and offset by a strongly-flavored lemon granita.
PETIT FOURS and COFFEE
If I were forced to choose favorites they would be the courses that included seafood. But it's hard to single out dishes from the menu. Instead, the whole was greater than the sum of its parts.
Molto Grazie to Russ and Woo for arranging this event. What a wonderful way to spend the afternoon!