As the Times reported last week, Valentino's longtime chef has left to open his own place in Sacremento. He left 6/20. I thought we'd go to see what, if anything, has changed. Last night we were seated immediately for our 7:00 reservation; by 7:20 the main dining room was full and a private party was working in the Gold Room. Service, as usual, was flawless and not an eye was batted when we requested "plain old Santa Monica water" instead of the bottled that was suggested. We were comped a plate of the Parmesan Frico, those great fried cheese crisps that come to the table somewhere between molten and crispy. Delicious but addictive. The menu has changed dramatically, with fewer items. The page of standards and the page of daily specials remain, as does the tasting menu ($85) and optional wine pairings ($30 addnl). Crispy sweetbreads, veal shank, mushroom timbales, osso buco, among others, also remain. We started with grilled Seppie ($16), wonderfully tender pieces of squid with a nice char, tender yet toothsome. It was plated with orange essence and the smallest baby veggies I've ever seen: halves of brussels sprouts the size of your little fingernail, carmalized shallots, carrot slices the size of pencil eraser, in a delicious butter sauce. Also the daily soup ($10), Minestra de Mima, explained as the chef's mother's soup. This was amazing, although it essentially was chicken soup. The broth was the richest I can recall tasting, with lots of chicken fat (but in a wonderful way). Parmesian and chicken meat (and other "secret ingredients") are tied together in cheesecloth and simmered in the broth, then removed and pressed, then diced and returned to the broth. The result is that great broth with nuggets of cheese/chicken that are very tender and flavorful.
For mains, we had the special risotto ($22): veal sweetbreads, radicchio di treviso, vialone nano and black truffles. This was one rich dish with a subtle and permeating flavor. Great. The sweetbread morsels were moist and tender, not overcooked. The sweetbreads and radicchio pairing is a match made in heaven. Also had the bucatini Carlo Latini in salsa di gamberi & pomodorini ($22). This basically was pasta in a tomato basil sauce with shrimp. The bucatini seemed to be the wrong pasta (too thick) for the sauce as the sauce didn't cling well. That sauce, however, was wonderful with tiny plum tomatoes and a truly bright and crisp flavor. Very delicate. This was a good value as it came with 15 large shrimp, tender, tasty and not tough.
Including $48 spent on martinis (6), the total was $124 before tax and tip. If this dinner is any indication, I don't see any decline in the quality or creativity of the cooking in the offing. The chef has worked in Selvaggio's other places for years and he was sent to Italy twice to learn. Now, I want to go to Sacremento to try the new place.