Friday, March 25, 2011
Scarpetta's Polenta with Truffled Mushrooms
Up until I dined at Scarpetta a couple weeks ago, I associated Chef Scott Conant’s big, bold Italian restaurant with one thing – $24 spaghetti.
It was impossible not to equate the Beverly Hills restaurant (the fourth or fifth location) with that acclaimed slurry of, apparently, perfectly sauced noodles. All the food literature I’d read about Conant’s latest grandiose venture had mentioned it in vivid, lusty detail. LA Weekly’s Jonathan Gold claimed that “even in the dreary weeks of late autumn, when great tomatoes are as rare in the supermarket as fresh peaches, Conant's spaghetti is first-rate.” Brad A. Johnson of Angeleno Magazine referred to the “towering beehive of carbs” as “the very definition of ‘al dente.’” Blogger EstarLA “found [herself] scarfing down the European-sized portion of noodles and sauce” on her visit to the restaurant this past November.
In my mind, Scarpetta was its $24 spaghetti.
But then I went to the restaurant. I sat in one of the straight-back, clothed chairs – seemingly present for the explicit purpose of conveying that this is a place for formal, serious dining – and my friend and I ordered it, along with a few other dishes that were, well, not the spaghetti.
When it arrived, coiled up in a tight knot of sauce and steam and basil, I twirled a dense, egg-y noodle around my fork. I took note of the satisfying chew of the pasta, the delicate balance of the tomato sauce – not too acidic, not too sweet, not too thickly applied. Just right.
And then I looked across the table at my friend and shrugged my shoulders.
“It’s spaghetti,” I thought.
Very good spaghetti.
But still… spaghetti.
Ultimately, the dish that most arrested me on our extravagant evening among the black-clad, aged industry set was the polenta with truffled mushrooms ($16) – one of our “not the spaghetti” plates.
I couldn’t get over the sultry texture of the polenta, which, like the spaghetti, is another humble food item that Conant has elevated with his astute respect for the ingredients. It’s sweet like freshly churned French butter, smooth like a finely groomed potato puree, and soft and luxurious on the tongue – the cashmere blanket of foods.
The mushrooms are no less compelling. They’re the yin to the polenta’s yang – authoritative where their accompaniment is yielding. Bathed in truffle oil and a rich, fleshy chicken stock-based gravy, the mushrooms collapse into the polenta, announcing their presence like a bone-in rib-eye steak.
It’s comfortable luxury – accessible luxury.
Which is why it was the dish I felt compelled to recreate for TasteSpotting’s Eating Rainbow series rather than the more famed spaghetti.
My version is, of course, nothing like Conant’s.
Some might even say it’s the healthy yin to his decadent yang.
But I think it’s just plain good.
And not $24.
225 North Canon Drive
Beverly Hills, CA 90210