21 June 2014
A trip for me to LA without a visit to Il Grano would be a wasted trip. I never pass up the chance to visit my favourite restaurant in the world and experience the genius cooking of Sal Marino. Perhaps the most underrated chef in California, if not America, Marino comes up with some of the most amazing tasting menus, often on the cuff.
After last night’s rather poor dinner at Piccolo, I was dying for a good meal. Of my more than half dozen meals at Il Grano, I’ve never had anything that wasn’t close to spectacular on the food front. You can see some of them in earlier reviews from January 2013 (review #1), August 2013 (review #2), and November 2013 (review #3). Ironically, some of my best meals there were ones I didn’t review — which just shows how bloody good this place is.
I arrived on a busy Saturday evening and was escorted to my “usual” table. I was a little shocked when the menu was left for me…and had trouble counting the dishes…
No, this is not a joke or a misprint. This was my menu, a 21-course tasting menu. Marino had designed this as a Summer Solstice tasting for the 21st of June, and I took a deep breath. This is gonna be a wild ride!
As I enjoyed a bubbly the first course arrived, a tomato tasting from Chef’s garden.
I need to apologise. After a few days of functioning well, the camera on the new phone went nutty again this evening, and this photo (alongside a few others) ended up with wee focus issues. But this was a cute start, reminding me of of last year’s heritage tomato fest here (review #2). More reminders of that meal came on the second course.
Chef loves to make small gazpacho tastings during the summer, which is extra refreshing in LA (despite it being a relatively cool summer day/evening). This version is made from black tartarian cherries, and it was just perfect. I’ve not been a big fan of fruit-based gazpachos but this was fantastic!
Happily I moved into course three, the tuna tartar, with a generous helping of truffles. Honestly, after several nights of fantastic sushi omakase, first at Kiriko and second at Nozawa Bar, I’ve had my fill of tuna. Nice, but overload for me this past few days.
The fourth course continued with crudo, this time with a beautiful piece of snapper. I’m sad the photo was focus-challenged, because this was a beautiful piece. Chef sliced me a wonder belly portion of the snapper — a rare opportunity to enjoy the rare cut. Wow, this was excellent. From someone who is not the world’s greatest snapper fan, this was stunning.
The crudo wave kept coming, as next up was a beautiful Hokkaido scallop. The shellfish was sweet, balanced by the interesting mascarpone and the devilish pickled green peppercorn crowning the dish. Very cool stuff. I enjoyed some fine whites as the seafood tour-de-force met with a timely interlude.
Chef Marino loves his caprese, and he often does unique takes on this Italian staple combination. This time, alongside a very creamy burrata, was a juicy grilled peach and home-grown arugula in between. Extremely tasty on their own, but utterly beautiful together. I am so sad this photo didn’t come out right, as this was such a wonderful visual item as well…
I kept trying to fix the camera during this meal…not the time to tinker with it mid-stream, but I had a feeling these photos were not coming out right (and sadly, I was right). It didn’t do several of these early dishes justice, especially where the light was not great…
We return to seafood after that interlude with a house-cured King salmon and fennel salad. Honestly this one was way too salty, which kind of took too much out of the fish. A rare miss, but when you have 21 courses…
At this point a friend of mine had sent over a glass of very fine bordeaux for me, just as the next dish was presented. Chef had two peppers stuffed with different cheeses and fire roasted them. Excellent, melt in your mouth stuff. Sorry for the picture again.
I went to thank my friend, sitting on the far side of the restaurant at a banquette. Turns out his wife (a well-known food blogger) wasn’t feeling well and had taken early leave, but asked him to stay to finish doing research on the entire tasting menu (he was also doing the 21-course special). He was many courses ahead, but we decided to merge and I moved to his table. This was a pleasant surprise as we kept each other company talking food for the next few hours as I caught up to him.
The next dish was one of the highlights of the night, grilled butterfish with porcini. I love butterfish, and this was a fantastic preparation. Rich but not overwhelming, it worked fantastic with the porcini and wee bit of truffle. Mmm, fantastic. And as you can see, this table was brighter, and that didn’t wreak havoc with my new phone’s idiotic auto-focus…
Following that wonderful fish was another fantastic fish, a beautiful piece of Japanese mackerel. Extremely rich, this piece presented a deep and unadulterated flavour, accented by the small bits of purslane. Another excellent dish!
We crossed the half-way mark with dish #11, Japanese kisu (whiting), encrusted with a rosemary-tinged breading. It brought out the neutral flavour of the whiting very nicely like from a fantasy English chippie. Tasty.
I was still going strong as we transition into the pasta segment, starting with a tasty spaghetti with octopus and pepper. Chef may be celebrated for his crudo, but his pasta is utterly amazing. Cooked perfectly, the pasta takes in the flavours of this dish so well — unlike last night’s disastrous pasta dish that tasted like 3 separate items plopped together at the last minute. The flavours here were symbiotic. Mmm…
We continue with the pasta segment with this wonderful risotto, made with the fabulous Acquerello carnaroli rice. The richness of the Maine lobster comes full force in this beautiful dish, bearing a creaminess and fullness that one desires during a risotto craving. Wow.
My dining companion was doing about 1 dish for my 3 until I catch up, and we continued to chat on while enjoying some of the amazing wine he had brought. He is a wine collector, and the wines he bring are always fantastic. Though I was on pasta and seafood, the unobtrusive reds worked very well. Fantastic to enjoy such a tasting menu with someone so knowledgeable about food and fine dining!
After the pasta interlude we return to fish, this time a brilliant halibut. One of Chef Marino’s ultimate abilities is to leave the flavourful strong fishes to its own devices, but to accentuate the lighter fishes to bring out its full essence. Halibut is usually not one of my favourites, but this piece was spectacular. Full flavoured, this piece retained a strong texture without compromising on the taste. Excellent!
We revisit the Alaskan King salmon next, a rich and beautiful serving of this excellent fish. Wonderfully rich, the slices of this vivid treat were specifically tailored for my love of oily fish it seemed…beyond tasty, mmm… But it was this dish when I started to feel I’m close to hitting a wall. It has been a lot of food, and my pace has slowed noticeably.
Just in time we move to the meats, which Chef always realise that in a tasting it should be done in appropriate portions and selections as to not overwhelm. The first of the meat dishes is a beautiful rabbit milanese. A perfectly sized portion for this tasting extravaganza, it brought out the delicate taste of the rabbit successfully. Excellent!
Finally we arrive at course #17, the last of the savoury dishes — and one that Chef outdid himself. A beautiful serving of duck breast, cooked perfectly and sliced to get the most out of each bite. I love duck, and this was a perfect way to end this amazing tasting meal!
My readers know I’m not the biggest dessert fan, and my friend was frankly fading as well — he began his tasting menu 2 hours before mine! So we decided to ask Chef to bring out all the desserts so we could just sample them.
I managed to get a photo of the first, the cheese course — a tangy dolceatte gorgonzola. Honestly it was a little too much at this point, the piece wee too big after 17 wonderful courses. Tasty, but I could not finish it at all.
Unfortunately, at this point I was spent and didn’t manage to take photos of the final dishes, which came out together — alongside Chef Marino. He joined us for some wine and we chatted about this amazing tasting menu. He so loves his craft it is a joy just to talk the dishes with him.
At this point our mutual friend had to leave, so we bid him a good night. Those wines of his were fantastic, an added treat to this tasting extravaganza. I chatted on with chef over some more wine and grappa into the night and closed a fantastic night of dining.
Why I love Il Grano is not just the talent of Chef Marino, his ability to bring out the best of each ingredient and to create masterpieces after masterpieces, but his utter love and devotion to his craft. He does not compromise, he does not self-promote at the expense of his craft. The ingredients he grows himself or acquires himself at dawn hours, fighting top sushi chefs for the same beautiful seafood as the best omakase sushi bars in town. He cooks everything himself, and often even serves. He brings the best of an Italian small family-owned trattoria together with a Michelin-level presentation.
Frankly, if I had the chance to pick my final meal, it would be at the hands of Sal Marino. And I wouldn’t even want to see the menu — or need to.
11359 Santa Monica Boulevard
West Los Angeles, California