An Evening with Paulo Scavino

A couple months ago my stepmom asked me to help her find something special for my dad’s sixty-fifth birthday celebration.  We going to have a “once in lifetime” sort of dinner at The Lodge at Torrey Pines in San Diego and we wanted to do something really unique.  After a good amount of research and with a bit of a budget in mind, we decided to surprise Dad with a mini-vertical of Paulo Scavino’s Bric dël Fiasc Barolo.

A colleague who’s been collecting for a couple decades generously sold me an ’88 and ’89 from his cellar.  I packed them very carefully and sent them off in my luggage, with a wave and a furrowed brow.  Several times throughout the flight I worried not for my own life, but for the fate of those priceless bottles.  I imagined myself on the shoreline, with the cast members from Lost, frantic over two bottles of Italian wine.  When I arrived in reality in CA I eagerly found them still snuggled in their stryofoam amongst my t-shirts.  I unpacked them and set them down carefully on my brother’s kitchen counter with strict instructions that sounded something like “Don’t touch these or I’ll kick your @$#%ing ass.”

The next day, observing all speed limits and taking each turn with extreme caution, I drove from Lemon Grove to La Jolla like this:

Buckle up, Paulo!

I arrived at Torrey Pines a little before sunset and took in the view.  La Jolla is without question among my top three favorite places in the world.  Then I very, very gingerly took the bottles from the backseat and walked through the lot.  I fought back the anxiety of dropping one or both of them and tried to apply football’s four points of pressure technique. I made it safely inside and I gleefully handed off the bottles to my curious father.  A round of hugs ensued, followed by a chorus of “I need a glass of wine” and we went into the restaurant.

The Lodge at Torrey Pines is certainly an experience.  We arrived just in time to see the grandeur of the last rays of light shining on the fairway below, with the roaring Pacific just in the distance.  The dining room was smaller than I expected, quaint and even a bit old fashioned, but extremely comfortable.

Our attentive server opened and decanted our Barolos for us while we sipped a superb demi-sec Champagne.  The plan was to save some to accompany dessert.  Yeah, right.  We enjoyed our amuse bouche and ordered extravagantly.  Sweet corn and crab soup for me, followed by an elegant seared duck breast with cous cous.  Incredible! My parents shared something delicious I don’t quite remember and Steve had fish that wasn’t, thankfully, the salmon he almost ordered accidentally.  The food overall was very good, although not wonderfully original or memorable.

The desserts however, were simply spectacular.  To be fair, the pastry chef is the daughter of a friend of my parents, and was responsible for our royal treatment that evening.  But what she sent us for dessert exceeded anyone’s wildest imagination.  I remember figs, and apricots, a custard, and chocolate, and home made sugar plums…. plates and plates of creative gluttony that would put Willy Wonka to shame.  I tasted each blissfully and flirted with both the remainder of the demi-sec and a fantastic 20 year tawny.  If I were to re-visit this restaurant I would simply take in the exquisite dessert course.

Bric dël Fiasc

As for the main event.  The wines were extraordinary, although the ’88 took longer to open up.  Once it did, it showed violet, truffle and hints of rustic raspberry.  It was soft and refined, although not extremely substantial.  The feeling was that while delicious, this wine was teetering on the end of its long, illustrious life.  The ’89, on the other hand, was truly remarkable right out of the gate.  It still possessed all the power of a great Barolo, but had softened and evolved into a beautiful, elegant masterpiece.  It still tasted of ripe, exotic berries, plums, red and purple flowers and something rich and stewy.  1989 was a stellar vintage in Piedmont and this was an eye-opening experience in what a difference a year makes.

We had an amazing evening at Torrey Pines, thanks to good food, great service and incredible (albeit too many) desserts compliments of the lovely Jennifer Costa.  But mostly this night was all about Paulo Scavino… and my pops.

Happy birthday Daddy!

Dinner at Torrey Pines

Cucina Paradiso

Cucina Paradiso

An old friend and colleague of mine mentioned this Italian restaurant in Oak Park.  I’m in the neighborhood once a week, so last week I thought I’d check it out.

Here are my general impressions:

  • Food: 7/10
  • Wine: 5/10
  • Service: 4/10
  • Ambience: 4/10
  • Value: 8/10
  • Overall: 6/10

Food: Apparently I lucked out and stopped in on $3 appetizer night.  Sweet.  So I ordered the baked goat cheese and the crabcake.  Perhaps not the best choices for an Italian joint, but both sounded good at the time.  The crabcake was average.  Both the flavor and consistency were good, and the dijon sauce that accompanied was quite tasty; but there was nothing spectacular.  The baked goat cheese, on the other hand, was fabulous.  It was served in a spicy tomato sauce with basil coated crostini.  Really delicious, and the serving was large and filling.  There were several more things on the menu that sounded delicious, but I was on a budget and a bit of a time constraint.  If I revisit this café in the future I will update accordingly.

Wine: I was confounded that there was no Prosecco on the menu.  This is a regrettable oversight and brings my rating down considerably.  Prosecco is the aperitif throughout Italy and certainly should be in an Italian café.  Instead I started with the only sparkling wine the bar offered: Veuve de Vernay.  I thought it fitting that it’s supplied by the friend that had referred me.  (You’re welcome.) Unfortunately I could tell the bottle had been open for a day or two and was a little disappointed.  However, it was a decent price and a good pairing with the crabcake.  To accompany the goat cheese with tomato, I ordered the lone Southern Italy representative: Luccarelli primitivo.  It was really tasty, and an exceptional pairing.  Later, disovering Paradiso offered no dessert wine options, I went for the traditional limoncello.  Yum.  Overall I thought their wine program, while sufficient, was predictable and unimpressive.

Service: Having been a server and bartender for years, I tend to cut restaurant professionals an awful lot of slack.  I know how hard it is.  I know how dull the job can be on a Tuesday.  And I know it’s easy to misjudge a patron.  However.  I still don’t like being on the receiving end of it.  As soon as I sat down I felt I was merely an annoyance for this guy.  It took him five minutes to even acknowledge me, then another five to get me a glass of wine.  He didn’t explain the special bar prices that evening nor took any initiative to help me navigate the wine list.  Instead he chatted it up with the two broads next to me who probably would leave him a shitty tip, and doted on some other chick I discovered later was an off-duty employee.  Huge mistake.  He spent far too much time and energy fraternizing with servers (see below.)  My champagne glass was empty for several minutes before he asked nonchalantly “Did you want something else?” Later, when I asked him who supplied the primitivo I enjoyed, he responded “I don’t know, we have a lot of different distributors.”  Gee, thanks buddy.  I also discovered throughout my stay he was a Sox fan.  Yuck.  But generally he was sufficient and accurate, and I can only fault him so much for not being wonderfully attentive to a weird single diner at the bar on a Tuesday.

Ambience: I will not sit in the bar at this place again.  It was horrible.  I sat near enough the service well that I was in firing range of every single conversation between the bartender and other employees, professional and otherwise.  One server actually mocked another customer right in front of me.  I can’t stress how much this kind of thing bothers me.  So freaking unprofessional.  I found the wastebasket in the ladies’ room overflowing and water all over the sink and on the floor.  Not dirty, but not exactly tidy.  The other bothersome detail in this building was there was absolutely no cell signal.  geeky I know, but it’s 2010 and that’s annoying.

Value: I happened to stop in and sit in the bar when appetizers were cheap, so my view may be distorted.  But prices for regular menu items looked fair, and the portions I received and saw at tables were substantial.  The volume of carry-out orders I saw come and go says a lot considering the fairly affluent neighborhood.

Overall: I will give Cucina Paradiso another chance but, as I stated, would not dine at the bar.  If given the opportunity I would like to see what the dining room experience is like.  Or, I may order and take home some pasta or perhaps a Margherita pizza for Jeff.