Is Scott Conant the chef of record at the Ponte? Then the pasta al pomodoro is the elephant in the room, a plate of spaghetti in tomato sauce with which the chef has always been identified. The spaghetti has been praised on television by Anthony Bourdain and Ted Allen, among others; its recipe has been discussed in almost every publication and website that includes recipes; its cost — $22 at the Ponte, although it has been $24 at his other restaurants — tends to inspire shock and awe.
When Conant's first Scarpetta opened in New York in 2008, New York Times critic Frank Bruni called the pasta "pure Mediterranean bliss.'' When it appeared on the menu at the late Beverly Hills location of Scarpetta, former L.A. Times critic S. Irene Virbila praised its elegance. I thought I'd described it as "Botticelli on a plate'' when I reviewed his New York restaurant L'Impero for Gourmet in 2002, but I turned out to have been talking about his mushrooms with polenta instead.
Does it mean anything in particular when a chef is identified with the most basic dish in the Italian repertoire? It is awfully good spaghetti, made with fresh plum tomatoes cooked down for 45 minutes, and tossed with grated Parmesan cheese and a slug of good butter right at the end. It is swirled into a column and served in a modest-sized bowl. It is a little soft for some tastes, but it does that magical thing where it is impossible to tell where the pasta ends and the sauce begins. There are strong, clear hints of chile, garlic and fresh basil, which apparently come from a splash of infused olive oil, and a subtle touch of creaminess from the butter.
The Ponte isn't going to blow your mind, but the grilled octopus, the meatballs and the mussels and clams with tomato are pretty much a guaranteed good time. And while Conant has restaurants to tend in Las Vegas, New York, Arizona and elsewhere, the chef at Ponte, Freddy Vargas, was also the chef at Scarpetta.
You may have been to the location that is now the Ponte in its days as Pane e Vino, Sirena, or the meat-oriented Terrine, the last of which was also run by Stephane Bombet. As a proprietor, Bombet is brilliant at setting a nice table; constructing bright, fun environments that encourage lingering.
In a Bombet restaurant, be it Faith & Flower or Hanjip, you go from cocktails to wine and back again, order a bit of this and a plate of that, until you are tired and blissful, ready to be poured into an Uber, and not quite aware that you have perhaps spent twice as much as you had intended to — those small plates and lemon drops tend to add up. You will probably have some yellowfin tartare, two slices of squash blossom pizza and most of a citrus and fennel salad to eat at your desk tomorrow afternoon. You will have flashes of culinary epiphany: The gnudi with morels and asparagus! The preserved cherries with the chicken liver pâté! But mostly you will remember a pleasant wash of sensation, and maybe the improbably '70s music — Grand Funk Railroad! — blasting out of the speakers overhead.
You are shown to your table, maybe in the bar room, maybe in the splendid, leafy patio at the rear. You are given bread and a bit of eggplant caponata to smear on it. You will probably be nudged into a cocktail. Bombet's drinks guy, Ryan Wainwright, is excellent, and a flight of tiny Negronis — traditional, white and mescal-based, all served in the kind of gold-rimmed glasses in which your grandmother may have served liqueurs — is not a bad way to start here. Later will come the Verdicchio, the Valpolicella, or an unusual Piedmontese sparkling wine made from the grape usually associated with Barolo.
Is the chicory salad kind of a take on a Caesar? Sure, why not – the shower of cheese and the anchovy vinaigrette kind of read that way. Do you want the mushroom boscaiola on polenta? Of course you do; it's salty, creamy and funky in all the right ways. Will the spicy, slightly over-roasted prawns school you in the mysteries of the sea? Not likely, although the chewy, ink-black farro it is served with is briny and not half-bad. Are you killing time until the pasta shows up? Most likely. The shishito peppers glazed with a fishy, glorious bottarga sludge will help with that.
So there is cheesy rigatoni with a light Bolognese sauce, fusilli in a meaty sauce with fresh fava beans and mint, and maybe stodgy agnolotti stuffed with duck and finished with a livery foie gras emulsion and peas. Those nuggets of ricotta gnudi with morels and asparagus can be splendid when the sauce isn't watery. And while perfectly nice sea trout, sliced rib-eye and roast chicken may await, you have undoubtedly ordered the famous pasta al pomodoro, or you'd be in a different restaurant.
You may yearn for the roast goat and complex fricassees Conant used to make at the original L'Impero, his intricate Alpine Italian cooking at New York's Alto or even the luxurious fish and hand-rolled pici with lobster at Scarpetta, but the spaghetti can also be read as a statement of principles: good ingredients, familiar flavors, careful execution and a subtle punch of heat.
Chef Scott Conant's latest restaurant, and yes, there's that bowl of spaghetti
8265 Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles, (323) 746-5130, thepontela.com.
Antipasti $14-$21 (more with truffles); charcuterie and salads $11-$20; pastas $21-$26; pizza $18-$19; entrees $26-$65; vegetables $9-$11.
Dinner 6 to 10 p.m. Sundays to Thursdays and 6 to 11:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; brunch 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Credit cards accepted. Full bar. Valet parking.
Mushroom boscaiola with polenta; chicken liver pâté; pasta al pomodoro; gnudi with morels and asparagus; shishito peppers with bottarga.
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