Scarpetta, Beverly Hills (May 2011)

After a morning filled with pre-departure errands, my mother suggested lunch at a chain restaurant that, according to Wikipedia, serves “American Chinese cuisine.” The idea was vetoed by my brother, who instead suggested going out for dinner. I had wanted to try Osteria Mozza–a partnership between Mario Batali, Joe Bastianich and Nancy Silverton–for some time, but they were booked until 9pm. So using Open Table’s primitive search on my phone, I came upon Scott Conant’s Scarpetta.

Since we would be eating at Tom Colicchio’s Craft the next night, the plan was to order à la carte. And that seemed to be the only option when no tasting menu appeared on the menus we were handed. Yet soon after being seated at a capacious four-top overlooking the Beverly Canon Gardens (see the photo below), Sophia, a server at Scarpetta whom we had met days earlier at Red Medicine, stopped by our table to say hello. Following a bit of small talk, I asked the all-important question, “is there a tasting menu?”, at which point she explained, the kitchen would be able to put one together. So when Nora, our tireless server for the evening, came to take our order, we went ahead and asked if we could go with the tasting menu. She said a five-course, reasonably priced option was available. What followed, though, was far more than five courses, and the only reason I can think of to explain it is that Sophia must have put in a good word with the kitchen.

Before the meal proper began, a busser dropped off a bread basket–the first of three during the three-hour dinner–with rosemary focaccia, ciabatta, and a sandwich-like stromboli with gooey mozzarella and salami. Accompanying the breads were caponata, marscapone butter and olive oil.

For the first course, we were served a duo of tuna with a single hon-shimiji mushroom. On the right sat a piece of yellowtail with chili oil and pink Hawaiian sea salt and on the left, a delicious commixture of preserved black truffle, brunoised carrots and micro greens encased by bigeye tuna. My first bite of the yellowtail, taken from the end closest to me, was worryingly bland. But as I moved closer to the center, where all of the pink sea salt rested, I was able to savor the fish’s flavor. Note to garde manger: season from on high.

Easily the earliest I’ve ever been served a braised meat, the second course consisted of a braised beef short rib served atop farro risotto and zucchini with nutty shavings of Parmigiano-Reggiano. As delicious as the short ribs were, I was spellbound by the course’s chaperone: a fricasse of truffled mushrooms on top of creamy polenta, which provided even more richness with its silken texture.

In lieu of the polenta, Nora brought my mother an heirloom tomato and arugula salad with basil oil.

On to the pasta courses, what I considered the meal’s apogee. When a restaurant charges $24 for spaghetti, one expects a damn good bowl of pasta. And with the first forkful, it became clear why this is what Scott Conant is known for. The signature dish’s dramatis personae include toothsome house-made noodles, a sweetish tomato sauce replete with all of its ecstasies of nuance and ribbons of basil. Indeed, in my mind, it effortlessly upstaged the duck and foie gras ravioli in a marsala-reduced sauce.

The fish course–a grilled fillet of branzino with charred onions and fennel and a celeriac purée–had the misfortune of being placed between two great plates of food, so aside from the crisp skin, there wasn’t anything particularly memorable about it.

That great plate of food to which I referred above, was a dry-aged sirloin of beef with each piece boasting a uniformly charred perimeter, a generous shaving of summer truffles, roasted baby potatoes, chanterelle mushrooms and a barolo reduction.

Dessert didn’t appear to be Scarpetta’s strong point, but of the three, the coconut panna cotta with coconut sorbet, a coconut tuile and grapefruit soup was my favorite, probably because it happened to be the lightest of the three.

Next out was a caramel budino topped with chocolate rice crisps and chantilly cream. I have no complaints with the budino; as for the gianduja caramel roll, it was rock solid, did-I-just-lose-a-tooth hard!

And to end, a molten chocolate cake, burnt orange-caramel gelato and espresso sauce. More than sated at this point, I tried two bites of the cake and thereafter cleansed my palate with a few spoonfuls of the creamy, if slightly muted, gelato.

As I reflect on this meal, I can say that not since my second visit to Acquerello in San Francisco back in May 2010 have I had such a good meal in an Italian restaurant. More broadly, I would group this dinner at Scarpetta–along with my first meals at Fleur de Lys in Las Vegas and at Melisse in Santa Monica–in the category of expectation-exceeders and look forward to dining there again.

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