Barbershop Ristorante Italiano. Yes that’s right- the Italians have officially embraced the “pop up” concept. And who better to utilize this kind of underground, grass-roots campaign than Italian Wine Guru Mario Vollera and the inimitable Chef Walter el Nagar?
These two would succeed in producing a high-quality restaurant experience if you gave them a bucket of hot water and a park bench to work with.
As you might imagine (especially given the title of this posting), the results of their recent project, Barbershop Ristorante Italiano were simply outstanding. If this is what Los Angeles has in store for 2013, we all had better fasten our seatbelts!
*Warning* The following will inspire a ravenous hunger, and may make you drool.
The evening started off with a bubbly glass of Prosecco, and the charming conversational skills of host and consummate wine professional, Mario Vollera. This guy is the Real Deal Italian. I met Mario awhile back in a course on Italian Wine, where I remember him kicking a soccer ball around the parking lot with the rest of the Italian Contingent before class began. Grande!
As soon as we were seated the Chef presented a plate of gorgeous little bites. A classic oyster-on-the-half-shell, a beautiful chicken terrine and piece of fried pasta, made to resemble a crispy strip of pork skin. This was the beginning of the night’s playful, post-modern journey through modern Cal-Italian cuisine. Also accompanying these three savory bites was a sphere-ified Aperol Spritz, which at first glance seemed a lone egg yolk quivering in its tasting spoon.
The “amuse Bouche” was followed by a Quintet of Crudo, each piece paired with its own luxuriously emulsified sauce. Mario presented the dish and let us guess which flavors were infused in each taste: beet, kiwi and cilantro were all stand-outs.
The crudo was followed by a Mushroom Salad. This dish was a perfect distillation of mushroom. Umami in its finest moment. Seared mushrooms and soft pillows of bone marrow were showered in mushroom powder and truffles. Has any other dish combined both elegance and earthiness into the same dish so perfectly?
The next course had most of us giddy as school children: Risotto. Many Italian food-lovers’ favorite as it is equally simple as it is difficult to execute perfectly. The flavors were punctuated and precise- rich Gorgonzola melted with a perfectly ripe pear, and everything was dusted with some kind of pulverized licorice powder. More an aromatic than a flavor, the anise component was a perfect finale to the richness of the risotto, lifting it perfectly on the finish every time I swallowed a bite.
The pasta course that followed was also a twist on a classic- Spaghetti with Bottarga, reinforced with tender mussels and soft, melting cannellini beans. I love that solty, mineral tang from the bottarga as it clings to spaghetti. The dish was a perfect match with Pietracupa’s Greco di Tufo– saline, shimmering with acidity and absolutely stunning next to the rich sea-water notes of the bottarga.
Another lovely pairing with the Greco di Tufo: Monkfish. Otherwise known as Rana Pescatrice in Italian (Frog Fisherwoman). This shockingly ugly fish was transformed by Chef Walter el Nagar into something truly special. The prized Monkfish liver had the texture and dissolvingly oily weight of a classic foie gras terrine, while his delicate monkfish tail was smothered in the airiest zabaglione sauce ever. Exquisite.
This course was followed by a whimsical presentation of a table-side-whisked sorbet. Two ingredients: Trappist Beer, and liquid nitrogen. The perfect palate-cleanser and a welcome opportunity to watch the Chef at work.
After the sorbetto we enjoyed the final savory course- an “Amatriciana senza Pasta”. Amatriciana is typically a Roman pasta dish made with guanciale, tomatoes and Pecorino cheese. Chef Walter removed the pasta element and inserted a luxurious piece of pork jowl, surrounded by a Pecorino foam and a perky-sweet tomato sauce.
It was Genius: a Mondrian painting on the plate.
The deserts that followed were no less re-contructed and delightful. My favorite was a lovely Torrone “mousse” (for lack of a better word). Chef Walter took the basic flavor of Torrone, distilled it down into a perfectly gooey mouthful, and garnished it with compressed persimmon and some kind of magical powdered Torrone dust. Heaven.
Evenings like this give me so much hope for the future of American cuisine. People like Mario Vollera and Walter el Nagar are doing something important by creating these experiences for people. They are telling stories about food and wine. They are helping to build a culture for American fine dining that centers around the food, its ingredients, and the philosophy of the people who create and serve it. Food and wine are important because they remind us to slow down, to enjoy the people around us, and to celebrate life. It’s just that simple.
Although this run of Barbershop Ristorante Italiano is now closed, Mario and Walter will be re-opening another pop-up in Venice Beach, California soon. Stay tuned… follow them on Facebook… and by all means, go and enjoy yourself!