Scarpetta delights Beverly Hills

Flaming three-foot-tall Italian “Lava Heat” pyramids welcomed us to the newly opened Scarpetta at the Montage Hotel.  One of New York’s most beloved chefs, Scott Conant is now enticing Southern Californians to Beverly Hills with his Southern Italian cooking.

Conant was too busy in his kitchen to come out and meet his patrons one Friday night in November. It’s a shame, because he probably would have been received with applause and a few standing ovations.

Sitting near the front door, we spied Ashton Kutcher and Demi Moore gazing lovingly into each other’s eyes near our table.  For a restaurant to have only been open a few weeks, this one is already on the Los Angeles map. 

I was on a mission to see if Conant’s signature dish – spaghetti with tomato and basil was worth $24.  I’ve heard that this dish is sold so often in his New York and Miami Beach restaurants that it has already paid for a college tuition. 

We ordered one spaghetti dish to try. Our server Alex spilt the pasta into two adorable white bowls with matching lids. He lifted the lid to reveal a large scoop of spaghetti shaped into a ball. Maybe he thought if he just served one bowl, there might be a mutiny at our table? He was very perceptive. This simple, yet extraordinary pasta with simmered Roma tomatoes and distinctive basil sauce is magical in flavors. The pasta is homemade and thicker than the traditional American spaghetti. It’s a comfort food. Thank goodness there was a basket filled with six different types of Italian breads. The word Scarpetta means a hunk of bread to use to sop up a lingering sauce.  We did that often with every dish.

Oenophiles will appreciate the extensive wine list filled with Spanish, Italian, French, Austrian, German and American wines with a sprinkling of Greek, Swiss and Argentinean. Our server was very pleasant and patient with my Italian white wine order. When I didn’t like the taste of my first glass, he came out with another one until I was satisfied.

Alex also split our pumpkin soup order into two bowls to create harmony.  The bowls were filled with farro, (an Italian wheat similar to a barley), almonds, spiced croutons and pumpkin oil. Then a burnt orange pumpkin liquid was poured into the bowl allowing the solid ingredients to float up to the top. The farro gives the smooth soup an exciting crunch.

Another comforting appetizer was the creamy polenta with fricassee truffled mushrooms. I could sit by a roaring fire and just lap this dish up. The pale yellow corn pudding is cooked for three hours with corn, milk, and heavy cream. Then folded with butter and Parmesan cheese and served in a small white bowl. Next to the polenta was a small silver pot filled with stewed wild mushrooms.  When united the dish induces a glow of pleasure in one’s palate.

For our entrees, the black Cod with caramelized fennel and concentrated tomatoes was dreamy.  Conant peels the tomatoes, then marinates them in a barrel aged white wine vinegar and slow dries them to produce such a burst of brilliant flavors.  Served with the cod, they are ruby red and chewy in a delightful way. The fennel was cooked to perfection and easy to cut.  It offered a subtle licorice zing that enhanced the cod dish.

 Our beautifully presented duck appeared next to heirloom carrots and parsnips and on top of golden raisins and lentils with a small dollop of greens on top.  They complement the unique duck flavor.

Since we split a few items, I still had a little room for a dessert and ordered the Coconut panna cotta with guava soup and caramelized pineapple with a scoop of coconut sorbet.  After one spoonful I immediately thought of Hawaii.  It’s a refreshing and cleansing treat that reminded me of a tasty pina coloda I sipped during a magnificent sunset in Maui.

Was the spaghetti worth $24? Yes, for a special occasion. Scott Conant offers soulful and inspiring food, in an approachable and not overly stuffy environment.  One December 15th he is scheduled to open a Scarpetta in Las Vegas at the new Cosmopolitan Resort and Casino. $$$ 225 N. Canon Drive, (310)860-7970

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