My feelings about Italian cuisine are well known both in and outside of my family. It isn't that I dislike Italian cuisine. I actually eat it quite often. It's just that it doesn't contain the element of excitement I am looking for when I go out for a special dinner. When I go out to I want fireworks, and fireworks is typically caused by a chef who possesses unique culinary talent. And it isn't that Italian chefs are incapable of possessing unique culinary talent. But in more than 25 years of serious dining, I can count the number of Italian chefs who created culinary fireworks on one hand. In fact, rather than go to a restaurant and pay top dollar for a perfectly sauteed piece of veal, I'd rather take a walk over to Lobel's and pick out a nice hunk of meat and cook it myself.
So you can imagine how shocked Mrs. P. was when I told her we were having dinner at Il Grano. "Where are we having dinner" she asked a second time? Usually when people ask a question for a second time, it's because they didn't hear you the first time. But on this occassion she was asking because she heard the answer loud and clear. "Il Grano, it's an Italian restaurant in Santa Monica.' I went on to tell her how it was different than your typical Italian restaurant and how Chef Sal Marino...... But it was going in one ear and out the other. "Italian" she murmered, and I figured that I would leave it at that until we got to the restaurant.
Located on the eastern fringes of Santa Monica, Il Grano lacks the sparkle and glitter that you might find at your typical L.A. establishment. In fact I think it's fair to say that the place is absolutely sedate. Diners who are looking to eat at a restaurant where the chef is blowing air kisses at movie stars you should book elsewhere. But if you are looking for an Italian cuisine that is heavily dominated by top market ingredients, with a heavy emphasis on seafood, especially crudos, and which is updated with a bit of contemporary culinary technique, all one has to do is to book a table and sit back and tell Chef Sal Marino to cook for them.
We started with a tasty Kumamoto oyster topped with 24 karat gold caviar which was made out of agar agar and gold leaf. Then tai, wild Japanese snapper with Mandarin orange, spring garlic and basil oil which was refreshing and delicious. Then bluefin tuna cut from the loin and served with blood orange and a slaw made out of daikon and celery root, followed by Kampachi served with horseradish, quail eggs, chives and pan brioche.
The raw fish portion of the meal ended with a Bluefin tuna tartar served with toasted pine nuts and colatura (anchovy drippings,) along with a slice of toro. It was quite a start and Sal truly lived up to his reputation for serving fish at a level normally reserved for the top sushi restaurants in town. In fact I'm sure they must know him quite well at the local Japanese fish market. Then a trio of three superb middle courses. Grilled diver scallops with a sea urchin sauce, perriwinke soup in guazetta (olive oil, garlic, tomatoes and parsely,) and a stunning porcini risotto with Santa Barbara prawns and an English pea foam which was one of the best dishes I had all year.
More mushrooms and peas served with a small piece of perfectly cooked fatty salmon. Hard to get good salmon these days as most of it is farmed but this was wild and streaked with lovely ribbons of melt-in-your mouth fat. Then seared duck breast served over pea sprouts sauteed with spring garlic served with a pancetta-mustard sauce, red wine reduction and preserved cherries. At this point we were exploding but Sal was not to be deterred and after a one act play starring a hunk of Kobe (not Wagyu, Kobe)which was so marbled you could hardly see any meat, he sent us each a few succulent slices with rutabega puree, Brussel sprouts and black truffle sauce.
Sal wasn't done yet. A delicious prepared cheese course of pea flan with a leej and fontina fondue, followed by Japanese cheery blossom tea and a lavender creme brulee. We drank a very nice 1990 Marquis D'Angerville Volnay Champans but we also had the good fortune of running into assorted OA members and other online wine personalities who were having a blowout dinner in the small private dining room at the front of the restaurant, so we got to taste a bunch of different wines.
A lovely experience and not the red checkered table cloth Italian Mrs. P was expecting. Sal is certainly dedicated to serving quality ingredients, and his cuisine, while complex, always remains on the simple side of the line. In fact I understand that Sal grows his own heirloom tomatoes and I am looking forward to going back this September at the height of the season in L.A. The thing is, the restaurant isn't popular comensurate with the quality of the food. While restaurants like Babbo and Esca get all the attention, I'd choose Il Grano in a heartbeat. B+