"Basically I approached being a restaurant reviewer the way an actor approaches a role. I ran with the damn part for three years, and then I got tired of doing it."
Robert Hershfeld is so convincing as Leo, the "Hills Street Blues" khaki officer, that several people walking into Valentino do a double take when they see him sitting there. Leo, famous for the terrible poetry he wrote to his wife when she left him, would never go to Valentino. Hershfeld, on the other hand, sits suavely discussing the menu with owner Piero Selvaggio. Selvaggio says: "If I have to judge a good cook I will tell him, make a risotto. For me, one of the ultimate tests is how good the consistency of the risotto is--how creamy it is." "Of course," says Hershfeld. Leo would have said, "Hunh?"
Hershfeld, in fact, was every bit as convincing as a restaurant critic as he is as Leo. So convincing that during his three-year television tenure on San Francisco's Evening Magazine show he became one of the most influential critics in the Bay Area. "I had no background in food, but I was sent down to read by a casting agency," he says, biting into little deep-fried ricotta fritters that are light, fluffy and slightly salty, sort of like delicious clouds that someone has cried over. "Wonderful!" says Hershfeld, swallowing. "They were looking for someone articulate. They wanted me to do a regular feature on the show called 'The Best.' For the pilot they chose peanut butter, which was totally dumb. It was chewy and stuck to the roofs of our mouths, and it didn't look very good on tape. I was sure I'd blown it. I heard nothing for six months."
Hershfeld got the job. He had a way of being simultaneously authoritative and friendly, and his fans took his word as gospel. Restaurants he discovered became successful overnight, and Hershfeld became so popular that every meal was interrupted by eager fans who wanted to tell him about their favorite places, ask for his autograph, or simply sit and talk. Hershfeld was always gracious about it, but he is a man who takes his food seriously, and he is clearly happier now, when he can give his undivided attention to the antipasto plate. He slowly tastes carpaccio covered with shreds of pungent white truffle, savoring the combination of the soft meat and the fragrant truffle. He bites into wonderful little pillows of Japanese eggplant wrapped around goat cheese, then cuts into marinated red and yellow peppers stuffed with mozzarella. Clearly, however, his favorite is the vitello tonnato. "I love veal," he says, finishing off every morsel.
"I learned a lot about food doing the show," he says. Just then Selvaggio comes up with a bottle of Bonny Doone Chardonnay, and the two discuss Valentino's extraordinary wine list. "When I started out," Hershfeld says, "I'd always pass when I was invited to wine tastings. I was afraid of committing some egregious error that would betray me as a complete fraud--by the way I held the glass or something. Finally I gritted my teeth and went to a 'celebrity wine tasting'; I figured if they're all celebrities they're probably as ignorant as I am. But the celebrities in question were wine columnists and wealthy wine collectors.
"It wasn't so bad. I found that I was able to adopt protective coloration and pass. I would hear someone say, 'Why don't they have any bread sticks?' and a while later I would turn to someone on the other side and say, 'What kind of a wine tasting is this anyway? No bread sticks!' People would tell wine jokes that were absolutely incomprehensible, but when everybody laughed, I'd laugh too.
"But then the time came to actually taste the wines and list them in order and I couldn't crib off anybody else's sheet. What I discovered was that my three top wines were the same as the consensus three top wines. After that I had the courage to keep doing it."
Hershfeld tastes the next course--light little corn crepes, filled with an airy mousse of porcini and garnished with tenderly sauteed porcini, and an expression of extreme happiness crosses his face. "When I was reviewing restaurants, I learned that I have something of a palate. I have confidence in my own taste at this point." No wonder; Hershfeld did segments three or four times a week, which meant that he had to eat virtually all of his meals out. "I had to do things like go out and eat all the pasta in North Beach," he says mournfully, as the waiter places two kinds of pasta on the table. There are garganelli , little red squares that have been formed into tubes. "They look like salami," Hershfeld says, spearing one of the cheese-covered tubes, "and they taste delicious." Even more delicious are margharitte-- little rounds of pasta filled with saffron and radicchio and covered with poppy seeds; I've never eaten a more beguiling pasta. "Eating pasta in North Beach was not like this," Hershfeld says.
After three years of doing the show, Hershfeld found that he had increasing conflicts with the producers. "I would find some place that served really good food but it had a Formica counter and it was kind of blah to look at. Given a choice between something that had pizazz and a place that was plain--there was no question which way they would lean. They wanted places that had cute names for hamburgers and waitresses in cowgirl outfits. But I was afraid that when I made claims for a restaurant that I didn't really believe that it somehow would show, that my enthusiasm couldn't be manufactured."
Hershfeld is not having to manufacture his enthusiasm for the fabulous risotto nero , which is now on the table. Black from the squid ink with which it is cooked, the creamy rice is covered with little white rings of seppiolini , tiny squid. Each spoonful is so rich and so dark that when he smiles at me his teeth have turned a glistening black. I could happily eat this dish every night of my life.
"As good as the perks were in the part--and they were as good as the salary, it palled. And it was not good for my health. I began to put on a lot of weight; I was adding circumferential rings like a tree."
Hershfeld, in fact, has lost 50 pounds in the last year. "Losing weight is like going to the dentist," he says. "Everybody has his story." He tastes the spigola-- a simply cooked, firm-fleshed and delicious fish that has been flown in from Italy--and admits that his story is that he now lives almost exclusively on fish, chicken and veal. "Hamburgers are a thing of the past for me," he says without a trace of nostalgia. "I went to a nutritionist who designed a diet for me, and I totally changed the way I eat. It hasn't been hard. I find there's almost no restaurant where you can't get fish or poultry, prepared reasonably simply. I never recall an instance when a restaurant couldn't serve me."
He eats the next course--soft pink veal floating in a creamy Gorgonzola sauce--and his face lights up. "I like going out to eat to be a special occasion," he says. "And when I was reviewing restaurants, the thrill wore off. After a while I had saved enough money, and there was no longer any point in doing it."
When Hershfeld put restaurant reviewing behind him, he moved to Los Angeles and began looking for serious acting jobs. When his friend Joe Spano suggested that he read for a part in a television show, Hershfeld thought "Hill Street Blues" would be like all the others. "Then I saw the set. It wasn't antiseptic, and it occurred to me that the show might be different. Then I saw the script, realized my character was comic relief, and I thought maybe they'd bring me back to do more comic relief. In point of fact, that's a lot of what I did the first season. Funny little facial reactions, line reactions. About two episodes along I had a first name, and a couple of shows later I had a last name and that's when I realized I would probably be around for awhile."
He stops talking as dessert arrives; the sight of it would make anybody speechless. A cocoon of spun sugar encloses a whole pear that is stuffed with Gorgonzola and mascarpone, sitting in a pool of silky zabaglione sauce. It is a sort of symphony of golden colors, and the flavors--the salt of the cheese, the cool tartness of the fruit and the intense, brittle sweetness of the spun sugar--crash together in a way that provides a perfect ending to the meal.
"You know," Hershfeld says, "the first great meal I ever had was in France. At the end of the meal the owner came over and said, 'You ordered very well, but you must learn to overcome the prejudice of appetite.' I thought about that for years."
Valentino, 3115 Pico Boulevard, Santa Monica. 829-4313. Open for dinner Monday-Saturday, for lunch on Friday. All major cards. Valet parking. Dinner for 2, about $100, food only.