12 years ago, when I first moved to L.A. and Zagat still played a part in my decision making process, Valentino was a restaurant to aspire to, consistently topping the red book’s ratings. Piero Selvaggio’s refined Italian restaurant always seemed too expensive, and there never seemed to be the right occasion to eat at Valentino, which dates to 1972. Unfortunately for Selvaggio (but fortunately for diners), when the economy dipped, he expanded beyond fine dining. In 2007, Selvaggio opened Vin Bar, a casual wine bar adjacent to the dining rooms with an approachable menu, limited seating, a flat screen TV and display cases for memorable wine bottles and awards.
The latest Valentino chef is Nicola Chessa, who previously worked for Selvaggio at Giorgio Ristorante in Las Vegas. He oversees a small but focused menu of Antipasti, Aperitivi and Secondi, no dish exceeding $18 in the Vin Bar. We instantly doubled down on the three-course, $35 menu, with a choice of appetizer, entrée and dessert.
Chessa clearly has a way with “Italian sashimi.” His Pesce Crudo e Colatura di Alici ($16) featured a trio of pristine fish, in this case wild Tasmanian salmon, yellowtail and ahi. Silky salmon was accented with citrus segments that helped cut the fish’s richness. Bright red ahi came with sweet minced pineapple, bursting trout roe and cucumber slices. Finally, the yellowtail appeared with a drizzle of cream sauce and tiny (and briny) black roe. In case you were wondering, colatura di alici is anchovy oil, and it was hardly noticeable.
There was nothing wrong with the creamy mozzarella di bufala, spicy tomato sauce or ribbons of prosciutto di Parma, but the Grilled Flat Bread Pizza ($12) couldn’t overcome the dry, cracker-like crust.
Fiori di Zucca al Gorgonzola was a supplement to our three-course tastings, and they probably weren’t worth the extra $6. Pungent Gorgonzola overpowered the delicate but crispy zucchini blossoms. Acidity from the chunky tomato sauce helped matters, but not enough.
Pappardelle al Cioccolato ($16) was a dish that definitely raised the hazard flags. Chocolate with lobster? That kind of dish takes a bold (or accomplished) chef, and Chessa was up to the task. Bittersweet sheets of al dente chocolate pasta were piled with chunks of sweet Maine lobster ragu and brightly flavored cherry tomato sauce. The dish offered a near textbook balance of bitterness, sweetness and acidity.
Pesce del Giorno ($18) – fish of the day – consisted of sweet butterflied prawns wrapped with char-grilled swordfish, which added a smoky element. The flavor was mild compared to the lobster-strewn chocolate pasta and the accompaniments were a little boring considering the venue. Simple vegetables and rosemary potatoes are fine at most Italian restaurants, but at Valentino, that’s just not good enough.
Pastry chef Davide Giova deftly handled dessert ($10 apiece), beginning with our Budino alla vaniglia e croccante. Our cup of creamy vanilla had great texture from the dense praline cap, which was studded with crunchy bits of candied pecan. The creamy vanilla pudding base wasn’t overly sweet, and the cup came with miniature biscotti that offered gritty textural contrast.
I cannoli Siciliani was a remarkable representation of the signature Sicilian dessert. No wonder it’s “Piero’s favorite dessert classic.” The crisp shell was fresh-pipe with creamy ricotta and dipped in crushed pistachios at each end, adding texture and sweetness. We were given a choice of gelato, and the scoop of creamy mascarpone didn’t disappoint.
In the future, it would be interesting to finally delve into the main dining room for comparison’s sake. It would also be good to crack open the Carta dei Veini, a 106-page wine list that’s as deep as the Mariana Trench. Unfortunately, Selvaggio was out of town, tending to one of his other restaurants, so the motivation to indulge without his legendary guidance wasn’t there. Still, whether Selvaggio is in the house or not, it’s clear that dining in the Vin Bar is a high-value Italian option in a city that isn’t exactly known for reasonably priced Italian food.