Some years ago a friend and I spent eight days driving around Italy on a delightful vacation. While I was eating my way through feasts of offal and exotic delicacies, my companion, never a very adventurous eater, ate the same dish every night for dinner... pasta... specifically pasta with basil and oregano. Yes, it's true, a lovely woman... but as I said, not a very adventurous eater.
Scarpettaa's signature dish of pasta with tomatoes and basil!
So when I learned that Manhattan's celebrity Chef Scott Conant was bringing his much-acclaimed Scarpetta Restaurant to Montage Beverly Hills (225 N. Canon Drive, BevHills (310) 860-7970), I knew that his signature dish was pasta with tomato and basil... and that I must have my friend from the Italian trip with me when I ventured in to the newly-renovated premises for my first meal there. I waited with bated breath as she dipped her fork into the neatly twirled cone of spaghetti... and then smiled approval of her signature dish. "This is the best version I have ever eaten; the spaghetti is just al dente enough, the tomato sauce made with Roma tomatoes is fresh and light, and the torn basil is bright with flavor. Love it!" Though, at a staggering $24, it should be superb.
My favorite pasta was Sorrento-style with sea urchin and Dungeness crab.
My favorite pasta of the evening was the Scialatielli ($27), Sorrento-style pasta with Dungeness crab and sea urchin. Anything with the latter (also called uni or oursin) is among my favorites, although it is an acquired taste. Another signature dish is the creamy polenta with fricassee of truffled mushrooms ($16), an absolute favorite of me and my tablemates. I remember that Frank Bruni of the New York Times wrote of it, "One of the best, most decadent things ever to happen to cornmeal." The folks at the next table were enjoying their duck and foie gras ravioli ($26), which they allowed me to sample, quite good. With truffle season upon us, any of the pasta dishes can be supplemented with black truffles ($45) and white Alba truffles ($90), a rather costly affectation.
Scarpetta interior, featuring new lighting and a more open feeling.
As we all know, Montage Beverly Hills has not been very fortunate with its food-and-beverage service. The main floor dining spot, Parq, never caught on with the local crowd. Their exclusive mezzanine-level fine dining room, Muse, earned a rave review from me, but it too never caught on with L.A.'s culinary mafia. Last year, both Wolfgang Puck and I suggested to their management that they do whatever it took to bring Joel Robuchon and his Paris-style dining to the city, since we knew he was interested in coming here. Montage CEO and founder Alan Fuerstman didn't pick up on that suggestion... but he did have something close in mind. Scott Conant had earned glowing three star reviews from the New York Times restaurant critic for his Tudor City spot, L'Impero, followed by the midtown hot spot, Alto. But in those cases, his uncompromising manner caused problems with partners so, in 2008 he opened a restaurant which would be 100% his own creation. Scarpetta means "little shoe" (although I also was told it is what you call the pieces of shaped bread with which you wipe your plate). If you are a fan of the Food Network (who isn't?), you recognize Scott from his two popular shows, 24 Hour Restaurant Battle and Chopped.
Our first dish was 'crudo' of yellowtail and tuna with vegetables.
In July 2008, the new critic of The New York Times as well as the food editor of New York gave him three stars for his refined, rustic Italian dishes. In November of that year, he opened a Scarpetta in Miami Beach at the posh Fontainebleau, receiving four stars from the Miami Herald. He then opened a third venue in Toronto, the fourth being here in L.A., with a new one coming next month to the Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas, one of several exciting eateries for that new hotel. Which means that the chef will be mighty busy and spreading himself thin for awhile. Hopefully, he has skilled, knowledgeable help to meet his many obligations.
Fried, stuffed olives were one of the amuse bouches we received. like crispy meatballs.
The somewhat dreary Parq dining room has been smartly redone. Designed by Studio Gaia (responsible for the stunning Tao in Las Vegas), they have opened it up so the bar area, main dining room and al fresco courtyard flow into one another. The hotel's press people keep telling me that the hotel's decor represents Old Hollywood. But I keep telling them, partly in jest, that old Hollywood is now just... old. (I know, I was part of it.) They kept the double-height windows framed by dramatic curtains, the unfinished dark wood floor, pulling the booths forward and adding custom wine cabinetry to emphasize the existing arches. The bar area can seat 44, the main room 80, and about 45 more in the courtyard area. I strongly suggest that you consider dining on the patio bright with flaming torches, so romantic, overlooking the garden. My favorite spot, however, is the chef's 12-seat table in the kitchen, which should be reserved in advance. (There are also five counter seats at the back of the kitchen overlooking the work area, which is where I will eat when dropping in alone.) They kept the two fabulous (and expensive) massive French Molteni stoves in the cooking area, although Scott showed me where engineers cut a hole into one cook-top surface for a pasta cooker. Sacrilegious, but it works for him.
One of my favorite fish, escolar, is featured on the menu.
One reviewing dinner saw me hosting a unique group of experienced food people, from Homeira and Arnold Goldstein, the sophisticated couple with the famed Manhattan Beach art gallery house (featured this week in Angelina Magazine) to superb chef Patty Eisenberg, capable of dissecting any dish to its components. A few amuse bouches began one dining adventure, a bowl of olives all 'Ascolana, olives stuffed with pork, beef and veal and then deep fried. The bread basket was filled with interesting items, foccaccio and a Stromboli bread stuffed with prosciutto and smoked mozzarella cheese. A trio of small dishes was offered with it: eggplant caponata (which Homeira just loved), citrus-infused olive oil, and mascarpone butter. Crudo began our main meal, raw yellowtail ($16) drizzled with ginger oil and pickled red onions, then runa 'susci' ($16), tuna with marinated veggies and preserved truffles. I had a few spoonfuls of the puree of pumpkin soup ($14), with its farro, almonds, croutons and pumpkin oil, not my cup of tea, but Patty did like it more. Yet to be tried is a poached octopus ($14) and braised short ribs ($15).
Escolar is one of my favorite fish, along with black cod and Chilean sea bass. The grilled escolar ($26) was superb, served with brussel sprouts, baby tomatoes and watercress gremolata. I admit I did brush off the accompaniments and concentrated on the succulent, fatty fish. I had spotted duck on the menu, and was not disappointed. Roasted duck breast ($27) was serve with heirloom parsnips, raisin mostarda and lentils. Still pink, a deep and delicious smoky, savory flavor. Our final course was the Aged sirloin of beef ($36), a hefty portion of superb 21-day dry-aged beef, with too few roasted potatoes, porcini mushrooms, all drizzled with a Barolo reduction. Next visit will see me trying the black cod ($28) and the venison loin ($35). I asked Scott if he would be serving another signature dish from New York, the roast capretto, baby goat, but he said he could not find a source of goat here which satisfied him. I noted that there was no chicken on the menu; he said he would have it on the lunch menu now in operation... and I touted him on the virtues of Jidori chicken, the remarkable natural fowl from Dennis Mao's company. Over the course of several meals, if I had any complaint with the food it would be that the kitchen is a little heavy on the salt shaker, easily corrected. Service was superb, with knowledgeable server Brittany knowing when to refill glasses and pace the service of the dishes.
The desserts were delightful, including a Rum-soaked cake with morsels of charred, sweet pineapple and vanilla flan, followed by a Marsala Zabaglione Gelato. The 700-bottle wine list from Montage sommelier Mark Hefter is deep, rich with boutique Italian and California selections at high prices; however, there is a nice selection of bottles in the $40-80 range. No Laetitia, but it may be coming. During the meal, the maitre d' brought a bottle of red wine to the table and said it was from an old friend at another table. It was a bottle of Kelly Fleming Cabernet from Napa, a wine I did not know. I mentioned to my guests that the only Fleming I knew was a fellow named Paul Fleming, from the first local Ruth's Chris Steakhouse many years ago on South Beverly Drive. At which point Paul Fleming himself came to the table to say hello. We reminisced about the time, 25 years ago, when I wrote the first rave review that his steakhouse received. Paul went on to an amazing journey with Fleming Steak Houses, P.F. Chang Restaurants, Pei Wei, and other venues. Now retired to Calistoga, where his wife Kelly is producing her amazing vintages, he has made his mark by giving his fortune to worthy charitable causes. A great man, and it made my evening perfect.
Bringing Scarpetta to Montage Beverly Hills was a brilliant, imaginative move on the part of management, and it is a welcome addition to our local dining scene. I trust that Chef Conant will not neglect this venue for his new Las Vegas venture, and look forward to his taking his refined rustic Italian menu to even greater heights in the months ahead.
Scarpetta is open from 5:30 pm to 11 pm Sunday through Thursday, and will stay open to midnight on Friday and Saturday. Lunch should be served by the time you read this.
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