Gone is the jungle of shrubbery spilling out of faded wooden planters along the sidewalks of Santa Monica Blvd. Gone is the rusted lettering and symbolic blade of wheat on the side of the building above the door. Gone for that matter is the original door! A bright new coat of paint and modern lettering (but without the wheat) are the first signs of the many changes that Sal Marino has made to his Westside restaurant.
Closed before the holidays, Il Grano finally reopened quietly about two weeks ago, just before Valentine's day. During that time, the restaurant underwent quite a transformation. The new space is smaller, more intimate. It is a study of minimalist chic: white walls with black wainscoting, a black plank floor and buttery leather banquettes and chairs adorn the room. Tiny pink blossoms cascade from within the glass panels of the new front door, a permanent ode to spring. A small bar sits right inside the doorway, with a giant vase of real pink blossoms decorating one corner. Guests are greeted by Stefano, the energetic and commanding manager (ex. Valentino, Enoteca Drago), who leads them triumphantly through the new contemporary room. A brilliant fuchsia orchid decorates the bar and small arrangements of lavender hyacinths bring a splash of color to the tables. Loud techno music adds to the modern vibe.
The new decor is all very nice but the main attraction for any fishhound remains Sal's cuisine, as delicious as always. His "fantasia di crudo" platters are the essence of the freshest seafood available. Sal trolls the fish market downtown every morning while most of LA is still fast asleep. His dishes feature the best the seas have to offer that day. Best is to let this talented chef orchestrate a meal for you: a five course "degustazione menu" is $55 and eight courses are $79 (a five course vegetarian menu is also available for $49).
We sampled what we think are the city's best calamari fritti, light, crunchy and full of flavor, with a splash of meyer lemon. A little lemon mayonnaise would have made this dish absolutely perfect. We tried the zuppa di pesce Mediterraneo ($18) a delicious fish soup with skate, red mullet, clams, mussels, anchovies, tiny octopus and shrimp in a rich tomato broth. We also tried the bigoli al nero di seppia, seppioline, riccio di mare ($19), a squid ink pasta, with baby cuttlefish and a sea urchin sauce. Where else in LA could you find such a dish? Service was attentive and professional as always.
Sal seems delighted with the new look; buzzing from table to table in his white chef jacket, greeting old friends and new customers alike in his usual animated way, feet hardly touching the ground. Stefano keeps the front of the house running efficiently and Sal certainly has things simmering nicely in the kitchen. Sometimes a little change can be a good thing.