VENETIAN CLASS : Guinea Hen. Goose-Breast Prosciutto. Black Risotto. Not Your Everyday Italian Menu.
At one end of Santa Monica’s Third Street Promenade, heavy terra-cotta pots and canvas market umbrellas mark off the tiny sidewalk terrace of Remi, an oasis of good taste in the midst of flashy fast-food outlets and tired trendy venues.
It’s not exactly new--it opened in 1990--but Remi is one of the most consistent and truly pleasant Italian restaurants in L.A. It’s not too loud. The lighting gives everyone a Scavullo-like glow. And the blue-and white-striped canvas banquettes and the dainty chairs with bowed legs are actually comfortable. Designer Adam Tihany has an eye for subtly beautiful details: watery handblown glass chandeliers, smart yellow-and-red glass sconces from Murano, a polished hardwood floor striped in lighter wood.
The menu, too, takes its inspiration from the Veneto. You can begin with a definitive version of carpaccio (the dish of finely sliced raw beef that was virtually invented at Harry’s Bar in Venice), then order the dark risotto with squid ink or a classic fegato alla veneziana (calves’ liver with caramelized onions and grilled polenta); and for dessert, a straightforward tiramisu or a plate of delicate little Venetian cookies.
The chef is Josie Le Balch, who has been cooking here since the beginning. She was trained by the original chef-owner, Francesco Antinucci, a Venetian, who left after a few months to reopen the original New York Remi in a larger space. (There are also Remis in Mexico City and Tel Aviv.) Le Balch has a fine, restrained hand and an instinctive understanding of the simplicity and clean, focused flavors of northern Italian cooking. While she’s true to its spirit, her menu doesn’t read like that of every other restaurant on the canal.
To start, there’s a sumptuous smoked goose-breast prosciutto luxuriously perfumed with truffle oil. One night, you could also order bresaola , a ruddy, cured, air-dried beef from the mountains that is usually garnished with a thread of olive oil. The sharp and peppery arugula salad, with its pounded walnut-olive sauce, shaved Parmesan and soft, caramelized, slightly sweet-and-sour shallots, was excellent. The “grappalox” is another sterling starter: gorgeous and satiny, with the faint taste of grappa and crushed pink peppercorns. The lightly breaded scallops with a delicious, earthy salad of cannellini and borlotti beans is also delicious.
The kitchen will make half orders of pasta dishes (but not risotto) or split an order for a slight charge. I could have happily eaten an entire order of the pasta special one night, penne with speck (smoked, raw-cured ham) and baby artichokes in a light tomato sauce. What’s puzzling is how penne piccanti on another occasion could have come from the same kitchen. The overcooked pasta was cloaked in a terribly over-reduced tomato sauce. It’s back to Pasta 101 for this one.
Le Balch’s heart seems to be more in the specials, like the exemplary handmade agnolotti with a classic filling of ricotta and fresh spinach, tossed in browned butter and frizzled sage leaves. Ravioli Marco Polo, filled with fresh tuna in a shrimp-tomato sauce and topped with shreds of ginger, sounds intriguing, but in the end, this melding of East and West just doesn’t work.
Risotto is notoriously difficult to make in a restaurant. Remi comes through with an outstanding risotto al nero di seppie , rice cooked with squid and its rich, sea-scented ink. A risotto special one night of shrimp and radicchio was in the same league. The spinach gnocchi? Well, I found them just a bit gummy, the tomato sauce again too thick.
Among the eight secondi , the Chilean sea bass is an appealing update on the Venetian sweet and sour pesce en saor . Here the flaky filets are presented with rosy vinegar-marinated onions and sultanas. Rolled in cracked pepper, the rare ahi tuna with a dice of tomatoes and grilled bitter endive is about as good a version as I’ve had. The guinea hen is another excellent choice, the flavorful bird simply grilled and served with soft polenta, carrots and pancetta. But the big Florentine-style steak is no match for the fiorentina served at Campanile.
For dessert, consider the rustic apple tart or the budino , a round of barely sweetened, extravagantly rich mascarpone set on a layer of fresh berries. Or the starfish-shaped zabaglione , browned in the oven and served with a scoop of crema gelato.
Ordering wine from Remi’s list can be frustrating; the best bottles are overpriced, and when you do find an affordable Italian wine, it often turns out to be a mediocre vintage. The 1991 Anselmi Soave Classico “Capitel Croce” ($25) and the 1990 Frescobaldi Chianti Rufina “Nipozzano” riserva ($35) are among the best choices from this uninspired list.
Remi is one of the few cigar-friendly restaurants in town. There’s no smoking in the restaurant proper, though it is allowed at the bar, but after dinner, you can purchase a Davidoff cigar and retire either to the terrace or to the wine room (if it’s not booked) for a smoke and a glass of spirits. It does have an enticing array of cognacs, armagnacs and, especially, grappas, more than 45, including several outstanding examples from the reigning queen of grappa, Giannola Nonino ($25 a shot), and from the top Veneto producer, Jacopo Poli ($15 to $20 a shot).
Prices like these may be one reason why the grappa craze seems to have peaked. (In all fairness, Remi does have a number of less distinguished Italian grappas in the $8 to $10 range.) Still, there’s no more Italian way to end a meal at this dependable Santa Monica spot than with a few drops of the fiery spirit.
Remi Restaurant, 1451 Third Street Promenade, Santa Monica; (310) 393-6545. Smoking in bar and wine room. Valet parking on Broadway. Dinner for two, food only, $49-$95. Corkage, $10.