Restaurant: Il Grano [1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6]
Location: 11359 Santa Monica Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90025. 310.477.7886
Date: June 11, 2012
Rating: One of the best Italian meals I’ve had outside Italy
This year, when my birthday rolled around, I spent some time searching for a dining destination worthy of a full Foodie Club outing and finally settled on Westside Italian Il Grano. I’d been a couple years ago, but a tasting menu post by fellow food blogger KevinEats.com had recently drawn my attention. Kevin covers the history of the restaurant and it’s chef/owner Sal Marino and Chef de Cuisine Water el Nagar better than I can.
I called up Sal and arranged for a custom menu for the night. He was incredibly nice and accommodating. I asked if I could bring wine and he suggested I send him a list of bottles and he would stage the food to match. I love putting my Sommelier skills to work, and given my recent certification in Italian wine I went for an all Italian slate.
We began the evening with the 1996 Dom Perignon. Parker 98 points! “The nose gives intense toasty, biscuity notes with an underlying fruit character of warm strawberries, golden delicious apple slices, oyster shells and chalk dust. Very crisp, fine, youthful and fresh in the mouth, the finish provides layers of minerals, citrus fruits and a pleasant creaminess in texture and flavour.”
Il Benvenuto. A trio of amuse. Sal may be a Neapolitan Italian American, but Il Grano is anything but old fashioned. It features a very Californian (and Italian) emphasis on first rate fresh ingredients, coastal Italian cooking, filtered through modernist techniques.
“Liquid Spinach Salad.” This is perfectly illustrated by this amuse. Spinach puree that has been spherized along with a dollop of goat cheese, olive oil, and a bit of fruit gel. The flavors of this deconstructed dish hit your mouth all at once.
“Maine fluke tartar, boysenberry, green almonds.” Three simple ingredients, but quite a flavor punch. The sweet berry paired perfectly with the subtle bit of sashimi.
“Pistachio soup, exotic fruits.” And my favorite of the trio. A bit of candied, or at least caramelized, fruits…
And then the addition of this wonderful “soup” of ground pistachio (and I suspect cream). There’s also a bit of chili oil at the bottom. Intensely pistachio — in a good way.
Our second wine was the 2010 Castello Ducale Falanghina Sannio. This is a simple, classic, Italian coastal white from Campania. Crisp acidity, bright fruit, and a good bit of sapidity.
“Gamberone: Tomato gazpacho, santa Barbara prawn crudo, GGL cherries, sal’s 1st of season heirloom cherry tomatoes, yellow corn.”
To this already appealing pile of ingredients is added a bit of classic Andalusian tomato gazpacho. The soup itself tasted pretty much like the version we make at home, adapted from Jose Andres’ recipe. Some of us sucked the head dry.
Charred red snapper instead of the prawn for the non shellfish cadre at the table.
2010 Nugnes Falerno Del Massico Bianco Vite Aminea. Another white from Campania, this was quite different, with far less acid and a much more aromatic quality. Very, very interesting bouquet.
“Wild big eye tuna & cucumber caviar.” This lovely bit of tuna is graced with cucumber in the modernist form. The caviar is a bunch of tiny balls of puree coated in calcium alginate. Pretty wonderful.
“Japanese snapper & blood orange caviar.” And so was this Tai, with a bit of fruit.
“Hokkaido scallop caprese.” But best of all was this scallop, drizzled in olive oil and with a bit of burrata and heirloom tomato. Incredible fusion of Japanese and Italian flavors.
The scallop is substituted with salmon in this variant.
2007 Montenidoli “Carato” Vernaccia di San Gimignano. The current release is, yes, five years old from the first Vernaccia to be aged in Barrique from a fine selection of free run grape musts, one can taste and feel the Leroy influence here. Deep minerality floated in creamy clouds. Grandiose, wild, and important. Here’s a pic of where this wine comes from. I discovered it last summer while Eating Italy.
“Zuppa di Porcini: Porcini soup, seared porcini, spuma al gorgonzola.”
The soup itself had a pronounced vanilla bean sweetness which made an extraordinary match with the mushroom and gorgonzola. The strongly aromatic Vernaccia only added to the mix.
“2008 Nugnes ‘Caleno’ Falerno del Massico Riserva.” The Caleno Riserva is a flagship rosso from Nugnes and, once again, it over delivers. This meaty, full-bodied red is produced from Aglianico and Piedirosso, two historic grape varietals that are thought to have originally been planted by the ancient Greeks. The nose opens with dark fruits with layers of coffee, cigar box, and roast meats with hints of earth. The palate has sweet blackberries, plum, tobacco and a note of pepper. This is a wonderfully earthy Campanian red.
“Calmaro con caponata: Monterey Bay calamari, summer caponata, apricot-saffron emulsion.” The caponata had a bit of veal in it. The calamari itself was wonderfully tender.
“Vongole e piselli: boston steamer clams, English peas, green air.”
Tuna is substituted for the clam in this variant.
2004 San Giusto a Rentennano Percarlo IGT. Parker 96! “The estate’s 2004 Percarlo (100% Sangiovese) explodes from the glass with a stunning array of aromatics that meld seamlessly onto the palate, where endless layers of fruit burst forth in a composition of exquisite balance and sensuality. Packed with sublime, expressive notes of black cherries, minerals, menthol and licorice, it is an utterly captivating wine in every way. The 2004 Percarlo is without question one of the vintage’s finest wines and shows the heights Sangiovese is capable of reaching. Though irresistible today, readers who want to experience this wine’s fullest potential may want to wait a few years.”
“Prosciutto di Quaglia: House made quail prosciutto, Murray Farms summer berries, taleggio.” Not your everyday Turkey Bacon! The combo of quail, fruit, and sharp cheese was a wonderful reinterpretation of classic carpaccio.
The no meat crew received asparagus.
2004 Le Potazzine Gorelli Brunello di Montalcino Riserva. Parker 93. “The 2004 Brunello di Montalcino Riserva, from vines in Castelnuovo dell’Abate, is gorgeous, layered and elegant in its violets, tar, licorice and cherries. The finish is long and impeccable, but this is a somewhat ethereal style, with aromas and flavors that are already a touch forward relative to most 2004 Riservas. Ideally the wine is best enjoyed within the next decade.”
“Spaghetti con funghi, piselli e fave: Fresh egg pasta with our pancetta, chanterelle, pom poms, english peas and fava beans.” This wonderful pasta is in the “ham and pea pasta” family. A classic Italian variant can be seen at this restaurant in Modena. Of course everything is better with bacon, but Sal and crew add a smokey mushroom note and tone down the heavy cream / parmesan vibe. Really first rate.
The vegetarians, sadly, miss out on the bacon.
2003 Conti Boca, a new favorite of mine. “Shimmers on the palate with layers of fruit, mineral, and herbs. Stylistically the 2004 is a much more expansive, generous wine than the 2005, with layers of fruit that radiate with notable energy through to the mineral-laced finish. This fresh, vibrant and impeccably pure wine is a jewel.”
“Risotto alle Spungnole e fegato grasso d’oca: Acquarello organic carnaroli risotto, morels, shaved foie gras.” The “forest floor” and mushroom notes of the wine sung perfectly with this incredible risotto. Certainly it was one of the best risotto’s I’ve had in recent memory, up there with Roberto Cortez’s stunning coffee/Syrah version. The bits on top. Not truffles, but foie gras!
1997 Barolo Bartolo Mascarello. A stunning showing from this mature barolo. Parker gives it 94 points and says “I underestimated this wine from barrel, but now that the great old man of the village of Barolo, Bartolo Mascarello, has gotten it in bottle, it is an impressive, old style, heavyweight effort that will age for three decades. A dark plum/garnet color is accompanied by a striking bouquet of cinnamon, balsam wood, roses, tar, minerals, and cherry liqueur. There is good acidity, a broad, full-bodied, super-concentrated palate, and tell-tale truffle, leather, and dried herb notes. Powerful and long, this well-delineated, gorgeously pure, structured Barolo is a classic from the old school of Piedmontese winemaking.”
“Pappardelle al cacao con sugo di coniglio: Homemade cocoa pasta with hand cut rabbit ragout, apricots.” Sweet and savory!
Purple potato gnocchi with squash blossoms and butter sauce.
“Salmone: Copper River salmon sous vide, baby purple artichokes, suchoke puree.” This had that awesomely smooth sous vide texture. Medium rare, but even, and incredibly soft. Sal couldn’t stomach the idea of us pairing the salmon with my next wine (the Amarone) and threw in a round of pinot noir to match!
2008 Latium Campo Leon Amarone. I thought a rich Amarone would pair nicely with the cheese, they are after all a bit port-like, the grapes being pressed after drawing on straw mats in the sun (into raisons).
Apricot sorbetto for pre-dessert!
“Il Formaggio: Rinconada Dairy sheep’s milk cheeses, black truffle soft pecorino, asiago stagionato, Carol’s dry fruit cake.” A very nice little cheese plate. I liked the peppery “jelly” in the middle.
2006 Terre di Pantelleria Khareb Muscat Passito di Pantelleria. This famous passito is from an island off the coast of Sicily and is like apricot nectar.
Fresh summer fruit: Apricots, berries, strawberry. I have to say these were some of the best fresh fruit I’ve had in a long while!
“Panna cotta alle cilege: Cherry pannacotta, cherry crumble, cherry spherification.” Wow. This wasn’t a super showy dessert in the usual sense, but instead a really nice showcase of the in season cherry. Really delightful.
I was really blown away by this meal at Il Grano. It was everything I like: showcasing bright ingredient driven flavors, with numerous standout dishes, impeccable and surprising combinations, and just plain tasty. Combined with the epic twelve bottle tasting flight (you’ve never seen so many glasses on a table), it was a fantastic meal and birthday. Really, on par with the top 2-star Italian restaurants I enjoyed last year in Italy like Osteria Francescana, La Frasca, or Arnolfo. Il Grano is less formal, but the food was just as innovative, and perhaps more reliably delicious. Sal and staff were impeccable hosts too. They really pulled out all the stops, even recovering deftly from some minor goofs (involving which special needs diner got what). I find the kind of grace under pressure and flexibility they demonstrated to be hallmarks of really great restaurant experiences.
We’ll be back soon. I’m sure Il Grano knocks a normal dinner for two out of the park as well, but if you can, go tasting!
For more LA dining reviews click here.
Or experience my gluttonous month-long journey through Northern Italy.