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Valentino - Never Again

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VALENTINO: “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again”

Over the last ten years I have eaten at Posto probably 15 times and I’ve always been impressed by the excellent food, warm service and friendly atmosphere. I also used to eat at Primi in the 90’s and I always enjoyed it very much. I had one unmemorable meal at Valentino in the early 90’s and hadn’t been back. Recently my wife mentioned that we had never been to Valentino together and suggested we give it a try, so last night we did.

It’s not a pretty story.

We arrived on-time for our 7:30 reservation and were seated right away. A waiter approached and asked us if we would like something to drink. I asked for a campari and soda and my wife ordered a juice. The waiter then turned back to me again and asked if I would like a drink. Once again I asked for a campari and soda. Our waiter’s accent was very heavy and I don’t think he understood our English very well. I noticed that the next table had the same problem.

The captain, a jolly and gregarious older man, brought menus and we studied them for several moments and decided to have the tasting menu for $85 per person. When our waiter returned, I told him that we’d decided to have the tasting menu and asked if it was possible to also have a matching flight of wines to accompany each course.

He said “Yes, what would you like, red or white?”

Hmmm… apparently we were not communicating very well. I again explained what I wanted and when it was clear that I wasn’t communicating, I asked for the wine list so I could select something myself.

The wine list came and I realized that I had no idea what was on the tasting menu so I called the waiter over and asked him to tell me what was on the menu so I could choose appropriate wines.

His response was “something cold, some pasta, some fish and some meat” and then he dashed off before we could ask any more questions. Uh, ok. Thanks for your help.

I ordered a half bottle of Greco di Tufo white and a half bottle of a 1993 Amarone. The sommelier, another very charming gentlemen brought the wine and decanted it quickly and professionally.

We began the five course meal. The first course was a smoked swordfish salad, sliced very thin and served with a bit of butter lettuce and some cherry tomatoes. It was okay. The second course was John Dory served with a chiffonade of spinach in a parmesan cheese sauce. The fish was nice but unfortunately the reduced cheese sauce was extremely salty and it overwhelmed the fish. The third course was a pasta course, in this case little green shells filled with peas in a cream sauce. The fourth course was a risotto with pumpkin and Italian sausage. The final course was a lamb osso buco.

After the osso buco, another waiter brought us dessert menus, which we studied for about ten minutes until we were interrupted by our original waiter who brought us a banana tart. Hmm… what was the point of the menus? The tart was, like everything else, just okay.

How was the food? It was fine. It reminded me of a place that a rich aunt might take you to – in other words, Italian country club food. I would say that it was equivalent to Le Dome – serviceable but never interesting or especially creative – and twice the price. It did not compare favorably to the food at Drago or Ca’ Brea and pales considerably in comparison to its sister restaurant, Posto.

It was also outrageously expensive in terms of value received. The only more expensive meal that I’ve had in L.A. was at Melisse, which is leagues above Valentino on every level. We recently returned from New York and we couldn’t help but compare our Valentino experience very unfavorably to Babbo, which was half the price and much more interesting or to Grammercy Tavern, where we also had a tasting menu, which was the same price but brilliant in design, spectacular in execution and flawlessly served by an incredibly well-trained staff.

I also think it’s somewhat offensive to offer a tasting menu at $85 and then to send out run-of-the-mill food with no luxury ingredients whatsoever. Pasta with peas and cream sauce? The dish was fine but it was extremely ordinary and it had no focus. It’s the sort of food that any competent home cook could whip out. I would imagine that the food cost on the tasting menu was under 10% -- and it shows. The point of a tasting menu is to showcase the talents and range of a chef and when it’s done right (Charlie Trotter’s, Le Bernardin, Napa, La Folie, Terra, etc.) it’s a revelation.

What it’s not supposed to be is five starchy courses of Italian comfort food dished up at room temperature in a desultory manner by an uninterested wait staff.

And the service was unfortunately sub-par for a restaurant of this caliber. At no point during our meal did anyone – waiter, captain, manager - ask if we were enjoying the food or if we needed anything. During our 2 ½ hour meal, the waiter refilled my wine glass exactly one time. We were completely underwhelmed by the service.

Although I was pleased with my Italian wine choices, I was perplexed by the selections of half-bottles on the menu. Of the roughly 40 white wines offered by the half-bottle, 2/3 were chardonnays. Why on earth would you offer this many chardonnays and only one sauvignon blanc? This is pandering to the lowest common denominator, wine-wise.

When we paid the bill (over $300 with tip) no one said thank you and no one said goodnight. We won’t be going back.

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  1. Just curious if you will be writing a letter to the manager to tell him/her of your disappointing experience?

    1. It is for thoughtful, informative posts like yours that I continue to frequent this board. Thanks.

      1. i've been to valentino 1/2 dozen times over the past 6 years and never have i had a "great" experience. sometimes the service is good (never great), some dishes are good (again, never great). in fact, everytime i've gone they serve me this revolting ravioli with veal & tomato sauce that tastes like chef boyardee.

        i don't think valentino would crack the top 40 restaurants in nyc...in fact, it reminds me of some tired, over-the-hill restaurant in midtown thats been coasting since the 70's.

        its funny...after my first experience (which was dismal) i wrote a letter and piero (the owner) wrote me back inviting me to return. when we returned, it took us 20 minutes to get a drink. in fact, if i hadn't gotten up and threatened to leave, we might still be sitting there.

        i agree with you on babbo&gramercy tavern - now that's dining.

        the closest, service wise, i've come to nyc dining is patina recently. however, it has zero atmosphere and the food is not great (excellent cheese, however).

        try drago - its much better.

        gordon

        3 Replies
        1. re: GT

          Every time you go you order the same thing - which you've never liked.

          Why?

          1. re: ironmom

            at valentino, one usually orders the "menu extravaganza", commonly known as a tasting menu. in most restaurants, the changes quite often (ie. chez panisse etc...), but at valentino it usually is the same, or very similar.

            also, the last 4 times i've gone its been on someone else's tab - and they wanted to order the tasting menu.

            the first time i went, i ordered off the menu and was similarly unimpressed.

            gordon

          2. re: GT

            The cheese at Patina, in MYHO, is NOT excellent and is also way too expensive. Try Trader Joe's or Dit Fromage (Silver Lake) for the real thing.

          3. Excellent, descriptive review -- you painted a vivid picture, one which remarkably resembles my first impression. In fact, I was so turned off, having felt the same vibe of an old restaurant milking the existing business, devoid of any inspiration... sad.... so I left before being seated.

            Thank you for the very thorough report.

            1. FYI - I had basically the same experience at Piero's offshoot at The Venetian in Vegas - nothing terrible, really, but nothing even remotely superb, espcially for the money. Thanks for the great post... I was leaning toward trying it, thinking "Well maybe the LA original is much better."