Frank and Dino, meet George and Brad
The Rat Pack era has legs that just won’t quit. We’ve packed theaters for “Ocean’s Eleven,” and now “Ocean’s Twelve.” Sinatra’s albums sell like hotcakes year in and year out. Pencil skirts and skinny suits are back. A martini and a steak charred rare is a night out for a generation too young to have experienced that die-hard glamour even second-hand. Their parents were into brown rice and tofu, or the leafy obsessions of California cuisine.
And now, Dominick’s is in again.
And stuffed mushrooms. I mean, really. I might as well be ordering clams casino, except that they’re not on the menu. The look -- brown and crusty -- isn’t promising, but these mushroom caps stuffed with breadcrumbs, garlic, parsley and pine nuts are flat-out delicious. My hand is reaching for the next one before I’ve even finished the first. Rice balls are dense packets the size of a golf ball and laced with molten cheese and mushrooms. Are they unusually good, or am I just hungry?
Dominick’s debuted in West Hollywood in 1948 as a clubby Rat Pack hangout where reputedly, like Rao’s In New York, you had to know somebody to get a table. In the last decade, the place has changed hands again and again as yet another eager young entrepreneur stepped forward and attempted to make it a compelling destination for the young Hollywood set. Nobody was ever really serious, until this year when Warner Ebbink and his chef-partner Brandon Boudet bought the place. The two also own 101 Coffee Shop on Franklin Avenue.
These guys have it pitch perfect. They’ve ripped away the overlay of nautical-themed decor, porthole and all, and left the look clean and spare. They’ve brought back the vintage octagon-tiled floor and dark wood wainscoting, adding only a quirky collection of old bottles and framed black and white family photos packed tightly on the walls. A terrific soundtrack of torch singers, vintage jazz, funk and R&B; wraps the room in nostalgia.
Dominick’s feels like the West Village when it was more boho neighborhood than tourist trap.
It keeps late hours (the kitchen stays open till 12:45 every night). The vibe is relaxed and definitely urban. The crowd a mix of the scruffy and the studiedly scruffy, all connoisseurs of atmosphere. Ebbink has all the details right, from the lighting to the Manhattans and Cosmopolitans. On a slow weekday night, settled in at a table with friends, Dominick’s can be heaven.
On the weekend, though, or if a large party is seated next to you, it can as easily feel like purgatory. The noise level ratchets up, and it’s virtually impossible to hear anything anybody, even the person right next to you, is saying. That’s when it may be provident to retreat to the back garden, a brick-walled space with olive trees and a massive outdoor fireplace.
If you’re new to Dominick’s, the waiter may feel he should explain that they’re a traditional Italian restaurant. The idea is to order a lot of plates and share, like they do in Italy. It’s actually more new world Italian than old world, but here that’s a good thing. Italian American classics are cooked with unusual respect and skill.
Baked ricotta is a great dish to share -- a small crock of ricotta dotted with herbs and served warm, with strips of deep red roasted peppers and a generous portion of sliced prosciutto. Where’s the bread? In that white paper bag folded over at the top.
A meaty globe artichoke is first steamed, then halved and charred on the grill to give it an irresistible smoky edge. With a little grilled lemon squeezed over it, it’s one of the best artichokes ever.
Italian wedding soup is another heartbreaker, a rich chicken broth with swatches of spinach and Swiss chard, marble-sized meatballs and, at the last moment, an egg broken and swirled into the broth. It’s a fancier version of stracciatella, or Italian egg drop soup.
Familiar, but fresh
This is a surprising place. Study the handsome one-page menu, printed on heavy ivory paper in an old-fashioned typeface. Every dish sounds so familiar -- “fried calamari,” “mushroom ravioli,” “sauteed spinach,” “arugula & Parmesan salad” -- it’s hard to get excited.
But that arugula salad -- like everything else -- is delightful. A sharp arugula, the kind scalloped at the edges, is tossed in green-gold olive oil and lemon, shaving a little good Parmigiano over the top. The taste is fresh and sparkling. So that’s arugula salad.
The kitchen doesn’t make a big deal of the pastas, but the handful they have are excellent. Homemade fettuccine with carbonara sauce is richer than an Italian would ever make it. Saucy and larded with smoky bacon, it’s a perfectly valid version, especially on a rainy night. Mushroom ravioli could be a touch more supple, but the filling carries the essence of mushroom.
Please don’t be a snob and pass up the spaghetti and meatballs here. One night a friend saw the dish listed and announced to his Italian wife that he was ordering spaghetti and meatballs. She looked at him, raised an eyebrow and stated that she had never seen spaghetti and meatballs on a menu anywhere in Italy, not even in the south. Polpettone, yes, a plate of little meatballs in tomato sauce. She rested her case.
These meatballs, two big ones sitting on spaghetti cooked al dente in a light tomato sauce, just may have won her over. Neither too dense nor too fluffy, they’re beautifully seasoned and muster a long-lingering spark of heat. I’d come back just for this dish. I don’t know about her.
I couldn’t say the same about that night’s special, ricotta gnocchi with house-made fennel sausage. The sausage is plenty gutsy, but the delicacy of the gnocchi get lost in the onslaught of tomato sauce, roasted peppers and sausage.
Another night, the special is shell pasta stuffed with Maryland blue crab, a tribute to Boudet’s New Orleans background, the waiter tells us. When they come, there are just three giant shells, stuffed to bursting with crab and gratineed with cheese and breadcrumbs. These are really retro, and really good.
Dominick’s is a hit with a young Hollywood crowd for its laid-back, truly hip (as opposed to trendy) vibe, but also for its prices.
The most expensive item on the main course menu is Delmonico steak, but most entrees are less than $20. The real deal is the grilled hanger steak at $18. Ordered medium rare, it came out charred and truly medium rare -- red, warm center. Chewy and flavorful, this is the cut that butchers prize and that appears most often as steak frites in Paris bistros. Here, it comes with a little arugula salad. Any potatoes, you order on the side. Curiously, they don’t do French fries. But they do have incredibly delicious little potatoes fried to a crunchy deep gold and served on a torn piece of brown paper bag with lemon wedges. Great, and sometimes greasy, but still great. Otherwise, you can get stewed green beans. Nothing al dente about these babies, a very old-fashioned taste, with some bits of potato and pork belly or bacon.
The whole grilled carrots that came beneath my chicken breast Marsala were a bit on the rare side, though. But the chicken breast is terrific, juicy and moist, and the classic Marsala sauce adds a little glam. Whitefish piccata turns out to be wonderful too, a pristine piece of fish sauteed to a crisp gold, tasting of lemon and capers.
Desserts are homey and easygoing, but not as impressive as the rest of the menu. The one exception is the fluffy ricotta fritters served warm in a drift of powdered sugar. Ditch the cloyingly sweet Nutella dipping sauce, though. They don’t need it.
In lieu of dessert, or as an excuse to hang into the wee hours, the bar offers a nice selection of grappas, ranging from some rustic firewater at $8 a glass to Jacobo Poli’s suave spirits and, at $45 a glass, Nonino Picolit distilled from the vinaccia or grape pressings of the fabled dessert wine from Friuli.
This time around, when every other restaurant is peddling nostalgia, Dominick’s has actually managed to capture the past.
Rating: ** 1/2
Location: 8715 Beverly Blvd., West Hollywood; (310) 652-2335.
Ambience: This is 1940s Los Angeles, evoked with vintage black and white photos, dark wood wainscoting and cozy booths. The vibe is low-key and hip.
Service: Laid-back and friendly; they know how to pour wine too.
Price: Appetizers, $7 to $15; main courses, $13 to $25; desserts, $5 to $6.
Best dishes: Baked ricotta, Italian wedding soup, stuffed mushrooms, grilled artichoke, arugula and Parmesan salad, spaghetti and meatballs, fettuccine alla carbonara, grilled hanger steak, whitefish piccata, wood-grilled chicken breast Marsala, fried potatoes, stewed green beans.
Wine list: Good, small collection of Italian whites and reds. Corkage, $15.
Best table: A corner table inside.
Special features: Walled patio garden with an outdoor fireplace.
Details: Open 6 p.m. to 2 a.m. daily. Full bar. Valet parking, $3.50.
Rating is based on food, service and ambience, with price taken into account in relation to quality. ****: Outstanding on every level. ***: Excellent. **: Very good. *: Good. No star: Poor to satisfactory.