Took a friend here last night who's a very tough critic. Chose this place over 310 based on the reviews here and a desire for some peace and quiet.
"Jordy," she said to me as we walked in at eight, "the place is empty." Well, not quite empty, but almost. They've obviously spent some money and some effort making the place look nice; in fact, it almost seemed too nice for the neighborhood. They've only been open since August 13, but isn't 8 o'clock prime time? Did we have cause for concern?
I'd made a reservation, so they gave us a four-top at the window with a view of...the Trader Joe's across the street. I saw a little dish of sea salt and wondered where the bread was to go with it. Finally, maybe fifteen minutes in, it arrived, very hot and fresh from the oven, delicious with butter or with three or four infinitesimal grains of the salt.
Surprisingly deep, round water glasses were filled with L.A.'s finest and somehow it tasted better and colder here than usual. A nice glass of Pinot Grigio -- well priced at $5.50 -- also went down smoothly. The wine list offered a few dozen choices, a nice selection for a restaurant that seats maybe fifty or sixty.
We looked at the menu, which consists of maybe eight appetizers, half a dozen salads, three pastas including a daily special, four or five fish, and half a dozen meats. A few of the descriptions, such as beets with smoked eel, sounded less than appetizing. But most striking are the prices: they're unusually reasonable.
My friend asked the waiter whether the soup du jour, butternut squash, was very creamy. "If it is," she warned, "I'm sending it back." After consulting with the chef, Jared Simons, the waiter brought her a little cup of it, which she pronounced delicious but "almost white" with cream.
So she made do with one of the three crispy shrimp wontons in the appetizer I'd ordered, which came with a yummy semi-sweet dipping sauce. These too were piping hot (which can be said of the food at way too few restaurants these days) and delicious, filled with real shrimp and vegetables, fried well.
We then split three dishes, the first of which was a chopped salad ($9; you can add chicken or rock shrimp for a few bucks extra). We hadn't seen a salad so chock full of different, colorful and delicious fresh vegetables since the Roy-G.-Biv summer vegetable salad at Josie down the street. Great dressing, too.
Next came macaroni baked with serrano ham, leeks and grueyere cheese. Out of this world, and a huge portion for seven or eight bucks. Tiny little macaroni shells, dripping with melted gruyere, really good ham, and somehow even the leeks, never one of my favorites, worked well too. An instant classic.
Finally, grilled salmon almost obscured by heapings of dill, with "Israeli couscous" underneath. This was the only dish we didn't love. The salmon needed to be grilled a bit longer, and neither the dill nor the couscous added much to the dish. As usual, we wished we'd ordered another appetizer instead of an entree. When will we learn?
We eschewed dessert as I was set on introducing my friend to the joys of Il Cono. Jared came over and introduced himself -- woof! What a hottie! But he's taken; the adorable hostess is his girlfriend.
"Cheap labor," he joked. They both have the right idea, going out and talking to the surprisingly many people who walked or jogged by, all of whom seemed to stop to peer at the menu. And lo and behold, by 9 o'clock, the place was mostly full. We were a bit surprised at the idea of a neighborhood place where the only thing behind the restaurant is the 10 freeway, but I suppose the homes are south of Pico.
We almost felt sorry for the valet, as there is so much ample street parking that he has almost nothing to do. He could probably complete a correspondence course a week if he brought some reading material. Then we felt sorry for the waiter, who did such a nice job that he deserves bigger tips than he can get on the checks here. After all this, ours was $46.
After dinner, we walked over to 310, which was also hopping. It looked nice and the menu looked interesting, and my friend told the manager she wished she'd known about its private room in front when she needed to book a party for 25 last week. Now she wants to try 310 too.
I really liked Violet and, more impressively, so did my friend. Who'd've thunk it? The 3200-3300 block of Pico, a dining destination.