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Valentino the other night... An ODYSSEY of food & wine (VERY long - really)

woo! | Jan 3, 200407:08 PM

Well… better late than never.

The wife and I shipped the toddlers off to grandma and grandpa and decided to go out with a whole gang of serious food/wine nuts on Dec. 31. The locale we chose was none other than Mr. Piero Selvaggio’s venerable church of Italian food and great wine… Valentino in Santa Monica.

We were a group of 15 fun loving, high spirited food crazies and serious wine collectors. The anticipation for a great evening was palpable.

Valentino’s wine list was assiduously examined by professionals, and accordingly the wine assignments were handed out to our intrepid group of oenophiles. By the way, this was no easy task, given the 150,000+ bottles of wine in Mr. Selvaggio’s collection, finding top notch bottles which weren’t already there was a formidable task to say the least… but as you will see, dear reader, this bedraggled group of trusty winos rose to the challenge.

Our group wandered in to Valentino just shy of our 7pm appointment, and were heartened to be greeted by Piero himself as we were escorted to our delightful private room in their upstairs wine cellar (isn’t that an oxymoron?)… probably wanted to hide this raucous group from their most respectable clientele.

A word about the wine storage area… OH MY GOD. The amount of monumental bottles of wine surrounding us was truly magnificent. You name it, he had it. Old, perfectly aged Burgs from the 20’s… all the best houses, walls and walls of first growth and top shelf Bordeaux from every admirable vintage and then some, not to mention probably one of the most comprehensive Italian wine collections in North America… pretty cool to say the least. The one room we were in most definitely had a retail value of well into the 7 digits.

Enough with the snappy prose (or not!)… on to the chow and wine!

Once we were all ensconced in this very private dining room with our own dedicated sommelier for the evening we started to tuck in to some truly amazing chow. Here is a list with some thoughts on what we ate that memorable evening:

Amuse Bouche
Three Tastes – Quail Egg with Caviar, Foie Gras Torchon, Rabbit
- Gotta love it! Usually an Amuse Bouche is just a little taste of something that the kitchen sends out for us to be “amused”, and rarely does it contain high end ingredients like Foie or Caviar. But tonight we got THREE small portions of really great flavors. The creaminess of the quail egg with the salt of the caviar shows why this is one of those new classics. The torchon was just right, and rabbit showed just the right amount of texture to have the combination work.

Course 1
Seared Nantucket Bay Scallops with Potato, Asparagus and Black Truffles
Cooking an ingredient like Scallops for 15 people on NYE has got to be a challenge for a kitchen… I mean the margin for error in over or under cooking is very high. But this kitchen performed perfectly… the scallops were fresh and perfect, the potato offered a great earthy contrast to the scallops and the asparagus added a color component as well as flavor to this dish. All of this highlighted by the earthiness of the truffles. Great dish.

Course 2
Capon Galantina with Foie Gras Puree and Mosto Cotto (balsamic vinegar)
I’m a huge fan of Foie Gras, and generally prefer a seared preparation to a puree or torchon, but I must say, the quality of this torchon was terrific. Well formed with perfect consistency. How can you go wrong?

Course 3
Triglia (Red Fish) with Ricotta Cream and Sea Urchin
Don’t you love it when fish comes out just right? Slightly crisp on the outside with tender moist flesh inside? How much better is it when you’ve got a sauce that doesn’t overpower, but enhances. That is what this dish delivered. Outstanding. The Uni added a perfect texture and “taste of the sea” element that rounded out this great dish.

Course 4
Cotechino (garlicky Italian sausage) with Lentils
The classic Italian “New Year’s” dish for good luck was served in the traditional style with lentils. The coarse and hearty sausage was presented on a bed of lentils. Great execution on this classic dish. The only improvement I could have imagined would be to have added a little quail egg on top of the sausage, as I think it would have added a fascinating creamy rich contrast to the coarseness of the other ingredients. But then again, with that addition, this would not have been the classic dish that I’m sure we were to be presented with.

Course 5
Tortella alla Carbonara
My wife’s favorite course of the evening. All I can say is wow. Valentino has a way of making the simplest pasta preparations sing. This is really just a fancy way of saying ravioli in a carbonara sauce, but it was so much more than that. Their execution of a normally simple pasta dish made it truly one of the highlights of the evening.

Course 6
Hand Rolled Garganelli with Quail Ragu
Another example of a perfectly executed pasta dish. A layman would have said penne in red sauce with some quail… and it would not be an inaccurate description. So how does this kitchen take simple pasta and make it something you remember for days if not weeks afterwards? Truly amazing.

Course 7
Duck Crespella with Mostarda Di Cremona
Ahhhh…. My choice for favorite dish of the night. This duck crepe was SUBLIME. Perfectly balanced flavors of sweet and tart in the sauce that covered a crepe that was stuffed with duck. The heartiness of the duck, surrounded by the lightness of the crepe covered by a tangy yet sweet sauce. I could have eaten 5 of these. Really great. My choice for dish of the evening.

Course 8
Bread Encrusted Lamb Loin with Eggplant Parmigiana and Marsala
Had to have some red meat. Several of the diners thought this was the weak point of the night due to some presentation issues, but I really liked the plate I was served. Also, let’s face it… by this time, we’ve already had 8 dishes of food… some people (not me) were getting a bit full. The highlight of this dish was (in my opinion) the Eggplant…. It was fantastic. Not overdone, just the right amount of sauce and a great complement to the lamb.

I apologize dear reader… the wine was getting to me… I forgot to write down which cheeses we had. Mea culpa. I do remember there were 3. Sorry about that.

Panettone Sformato with Spumante Sorbetto
A perfect blend of soft, sweet and cold without being too heavy at the end of a glorious meal. This was a great custard like dessert that capped an amazing evening.

Normally in these write ups I note the wine pairings with the courses served. WE HAD A LOT OF WINE that night, and the pairings are fairly obvious so I will just submit to you a list of the wines we drank. I have indicated those wines which were purchased from Valentino’s wine list and it is safe to assume that our group of collectors brought the rest with them.

I must note that the wine service was absolutely perfect with appropriate stems, proper decanting and as I mentioned before, a dedicated sommelier to service us throughout the evening. This young lady, Marianna, was superb, and served as the perfect hostess throughout the night. As one should, we asked her to taste each of our wines, and I’m sure she enjoyed that as well. We expended a great deal of effort to ensure that the wines we brought were not on Valentino’s wine list, and did purchase some wines from them as well, and this bit of wine/corkage etiquette did end up in the house comping all corkage charges… clearly unexpected and greatly appreciated.

So the wines of the evening were:

1997 Gravner Bianco Breg Collio (Purchased from Valentino)
1999 Marcassin Chardonnay – Three Sisters Vineyard
1988 Krug Brut
2001 Hartford Court Chardonnay – Stone Court Vineyard
1983 Chateau d’Yquem
1996 Arnaldo Caprai Sagrantino di Montefalco 25th Anniv. (Purchased from Valentino - mag)
1982 Cheval Blanc
1990 Chateau Latour
1985 Domaine de la Romanee Conti Grands Echezeaux
1985 Domaine de la Romanee Conti Grands Echezeaux – Leroy Version
2000 Hundred Acre Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon
2001 Hundred Acre Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon
1955 Remoissenet Pere et Fils Richebourg
2001 Switchback Ridge Petite Syrah
2001 Paloma Merlot – Spring Mountain
1937 Porto Rocha

I am pretty certain that there were also one or two other bottles that were opened but didn’t make to my notes. Sorry about that. In many of the above cases, we had multiple bottles, so there were healthy pours for everyone. For two or three of us (myself included), the wives’ capacity for wine wasn’t as great, so some of us guys ended up getting additional portions… not that we’re complaining… at least not until the next morning (which wasn’t too bad considering).

I’ll refrain from posting a detailed review on each wine as I’m sure they are easily looked up on winespectator.com or elsewhere. I’ll just say that these were magnificent bottles and we were very fortunate to drink them and equally fortunate that none were corked.

One final word about Valentino… I can’t say enough about how wonderful they made this evening. The service was literally IMPECCABLE. The person who LED our TEAM definitely did do a lot of “pre-work” to set this meal up and we did spend a fair amount of $$ (but not as much as you’d expect < $300pp inc t&t), but the establishment literally made our evening. It was FANTASTIC and indicative of the kind of food and service we normally get there. This is a class act place and highly recommended.

All in all this was a night to remember. We started at just before 7pm and the cabs picked us up somewhere around 1:30am. Great food, perfectly served, amazing wines and most of all a tremendously fun and wonderful group of people made it an immensely enjoyable evening for all.

I hope you enjoyed reading this as much as we enjoyed making it happen!

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