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Valentino - Never Again

  • j

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."

              1. The Grubs had not eaten at Valentino for more than 10 years because of the unbridled arrogance of both the staff and, especially, the owner. While the food was uniformly excellent, the overt disdain in which this restaurant held we commoners simply could not be overcome by the fine chow.

                Tempted by some hounds' laudatory posts however we tried it again recently & were amazed to find that disdain had been replaced by abject indifference. No one seemed to care that we -- or anyone else -- was there. The food IS still excellent, but at Valentino prices, it would be nice to feel just a tiny bit welcome.

                1. d
                  Dylan Yolles

                  I recently went to Valentino (after checking in with Chowhound) and I would point out a few things.

                  First, the real highlight of this place - and where the true value is - is the wine list. If you are interested in wine, you will find many many great bottles here a) that you won't find in any store but b) for LOWER prices than you would pay in a store if you were lucky enough to find them. If for the wine list alone, Valentino is a find. (I cannot vouch for their "half bottle" selection but I would point out that most restaurants don't even have half bottles.)

                  Second, I think that the food is perfectly good. It is not complex, pretentious cooking, but for a perfectly prepared plate of basic pasta (which is not all that easy to find), it is excellent. I agree it's not that cheap, but you can make up for it by value on the wine side (see above). The menu you had sounds good to me, admittedly it wasn't filled with the fava been souffle over a bed of black and white truffle risotti gilded with gold leaf and a four thousand year old balsamic reduction, but it sounds like it would have tasted good..

                  Third, I am less critical than others of the service. I found the place friendly and unpretentious (I went the night after I had gone to Patina, and I can tell you that I would take Valentino over those people with sticks up their you know what's at Patina...)

                  Dylan

                  6 Replies
                  1. re: Dylan Yolles

                    yes, the wine list is excellent. however, in california "corkage" is commonplace - for $0-15, one can bring a bottle from their cellar that will be cheaper than virtually any wine on the list. harlan for $500, whitehall lane reserve 97 for $90 is no bargain. yes, there are bargains in the italian section, but you have to be a wine nut to find them. i'm a wine nut, but most people are not.

                    in addition, the wine by the glass list is disgraceful. they even serve the wines by the glass in crappy stemware.

                    is the food perfectly good? yes, its edible, in somes cases good. but this is considered "the best italian restaurant in america" and "los angeles' finest". it's funny, i just met a wine broker (he only imports italian wines), and he had nothing but negative things to say about valentino as well. if valentino had a reputation like, say, peppone, than i don't think as many people would be disappointed.

                    now veritas in nyc has a great wine program.

                    gordon

                    ps. maybe i am overlooking some of the wine "bargains" - can you name some???

                    1. re: GT

                      I found a 1991 Amarone that was pure heaven for $60.00. It would have been about that much at Wine Expo if you could find one that old. Of course you know it has been perfectly cellared.

                      Not everything at Valentino is a hit but I am actually physically addicted to their gnocci. I recall a tuna carpaccio appetizer that made my toes curl, it may have been tartare can't recall. They also have the freshest tomatoes and bufalla mozarella with the most aromatic olive oil. Not every dish has to have the kick of the chili on a Tommy Burger to be considered tasty. Some things are complex in their simplicity. Just my opinion. Request Paul Sherman to be your server. He is a true professional. I have followed him since the Le Toque days.

                      1. re: Larry
                        m
                        Mike Kilgore

                        I have problem when one has to "know" which waiter to ask for in order to get good service. I don't think that one of the very best restaurants in LA should have that as an added requirement to be given good service. I too had a perfectly adequate meal here. But for the price and the reputation preceding the place, it was a one time visit.

                      2. re: GT
                        d
                        Dylan Yolles

                        Unfortunately I can't remember specifics on the cheap wines, I just remember seeing a lot that looked reasonable (one other poster mentioned the '91 Amarone for $60 - that strikes me as a great deal and I know there were other Amarone's that were similarly great deal).

                        But, in terms of where the bargains are, I found that they were concentrated among the older bottles that the restaurant had likely stored for a while but not marked up over time. So the 1997 example you cite is probably not where you'd find the best deal.

                        Dylan

                      3. re: Dylan Yolles

                        A wine list does not a restaurant make, especially if you don't drink. Shoddy service is inexcusable in this day and age when there are so many choices.

                        1. re: Dylan Yolles

                          I am a wine nut and I am also in the wine business. In my opinion, Valentino's wine list is just okay.

                          This is the point I was trying to get at in my original post about the overwhelming number of chardonnays on the half-bottle list.

                          Of the roughly forty half-bottles of white wine offered, approximately thirty were chardonnays, with one sauvignon blanc, one pinot blanc, and two german or alsatian wines offered. This is neither creative nor food friendly. There are many other white wines that are much more food friendly - not to mention just much more interesting - than California chardonnay. If it was the neighborhood bistro, I wouldn't mention it but for a place with Valentino's reputation, I thought it was really lame.

                          Campanille, Drago, Spago - all have much more interesting wine lists.

                          In regards to the food being "perfectly good" I didn't say it was bad, I said it was "just okay" and I stand by that statement. I am not searching for pretentious food but neither am I interested in paying $85 per person for something that is merely serviceable. (Paying $85 for something that's worth $30 is as good a definition of pretentious as I know.)

                          Il Pastiao in Beverly Hills is a good example of an unpretentious pasta joint. Dinner for two with wine might run you $75-80 and while the menu is small, the food is quite serviceable.

                          Somewhere in the thread someone mentioned Peppone in Brentwood. After years of meaning to eat there (despite hearing comments about how tired the food was) I finally did eat there last year and was very pleasantly surprised. The food was great - albeit old-fashioned New York Italian - the service was excellent and the wine list was spectacular. We had a bottle of 1979 Mayacamas Cabernet that was being offered on a cellar close-out special for $20 - that's right, twenty bucks. Every other table in the room was (happily) drinking a bottle.

                          Their wine list was deep and broad, with many interesting vintages, quite reasonably priced and in my opinion much more interesting than Valentino's. Dinner for three there was $150 and much more fun than dinner at Valentino.

                          My definition of a good dining experience is an equation composed of food, service and atmosphere, adjusted by price.

                          By that standard, both Melisse and Phillipe's offer great dining experiences. Valentino does not.

                          By the way, I agree with you about Patina. I do not enjoy eating there and also find it over-rated. As with Valentino/Posto, I much prefer the valley sibling, Pinot.

                        2. What happened to Primi? I would think it would have done quite well considering it's proxemity to Fox and the lack of decent places in that immediate area.