The Greatest Wine Cellar of them all
There are great restaurateurs, and then there is Piero Selvaggio, the consummate host with the uncanny ability to know exactly what you want to have for dinner even before you do. He can make the most harried guests relax and feel as if they are sharing his own table. And he has an ace up his sleeve -- the greatest wine cellar in the United States, painstakingly assembled throughout the 25 years the restaurant has been open.
Few cellars in the world can match Valentino for Italian wine, and they're all in Italy. But this list could justify a Wine Spectator Grand Award on its California and French selections alone. Those who are fascinated with wine will be tempted by something on every page.
The California choices touch upon some of the hardest-to-find wines, often in several vintages. From Araujo to Whitehall Lane, the more than 500 Cabernet Sauvignons include Grace Family back to 1980, Dunn to 1984 and Stag's Leap Cask 23 to 1979. On the Bordeaux side, the roll call of first-growths extends back to such great vintages as 1959, 1953, 1949, 1945, 1934 and even a few 19th century bottlings. The second-growth roster is almost as staggering. Burgundy has page after page of big names, many from the 1980s and 1970s.
The glory of the list is the almost 900 wines in the Italian section. Selvaggio seems to know every exceptional wine in his native country, and he has managed to acquire at least one vintage and often several for the cellar. It's mind-blowing.
You can drive yourself nuts trying to figure out what to order. In the end, the best course might be to close the wine list, set aside the menu, tell Selvaggio how much you want to spend, and just settle back.
Chef Angelo Auriana, who has been producing sublime Italian food at Valentino for more than a decade now, hasn't missed a step. On a recent visit, the kitchen was flawless, from a simple salad of perfect fresh porcini with vibrant greens to a tour de force such as silken, sensuous cauliflower mousse draped with fresh white truffle shavings and accompanied by baby vegetables.
The best dishes here, as in Italy, are often the simplest. Ingredients are everything, as in seared Mediterranean red mullet in a simple pan jus on a bed of Brussels sprout leaves or sauted quail with a cherry sauce that deftly balances herb, fruit and quail flavors. Cheeses are always a revelation, as Selvaggio seeks out some of the rarest and most unusual in the Italian style, both from Italy and the United States. Pastry chef Michelle Robie's desserts include panna cotta, as good as any version in Italy, and a rich pyramid of chocolate and hazelnut with Baci ice cream.
Valentino is relaxed enough for patrons at some tables to zip through a plate of pasta, a glass of wine and a little salad or dessert and head out less than an hour after they've arrived. It's also sophisticated enough to accommodate the couple at the next table who celebrate their every anniversary at the restaurant. They were savoring a bottle of Forman Cabernet Sauvignon 1985 in honor of their 14th.
Selvaggio's success has spawned the more casual restaurants Primi and Posto in the Los Angeles area and a new Valentino in Las Vegas. Thus, he is not always at the helm here, but classic service functions smoothly. Captains, waiters and bussers seem to know just how friendly to be without stepping over the line.
Late on a busy evening, diners too comfortable to leave can cause a backup of patrons at the door and the bar. But once you're seated, Valentino has a way of making a food-and-wine experience something more than the delights of a chef showing off his abilities or a wine cellar yielding up its treasures. It's about creating a moment in time when all seems right with the world.
Address 3115 Pico Blvd., Santa Monica, Calif. 90405
Telephone (310) 829-4313
Fax (310) 315-2791
Open Lunch, Friday; dinner, Monday to Saturday
Cost Very expensive
Credit cards Visa, MasterCard, American Express, Diners Club
Wine Spectator Award Grand Award since 1981