What the experts recommend: Restaurants with new chefs

New chefs have brought the luster back to the reputation of these old restaurants. 


Santa Monica, Calif.

I kept hearing that the cooking at Valentino was “good again,” but I had a hard time believing it, said S. Irene Virbila in the Los Angeles Times. Southern California’s “once-undisputedly” ruling Italian restaurant has been around for 38 years, but for many of those it coasted on name recognition alone. No longer. New chef Nicola Chessa cooks “some of the best food I’ve had at Valentino in years,” bringing refreshingly rustic touches from his native Sardinia to the menu. You can taste the sea in bottarga (dried, pressed mullet roe), which Chessa obsessively sprinkles over many dishes, while in a tuna salad appetizer, tiny balls of fregula (Sardinian couscous) provide “a wonderful textural contrast with the plush raw tuna, sparked with a Tarocco blood orange dressing that has just a hint of ginger.” Still, pasta may be Chessa’s strongest suit. Fettuccine with chocolate, from Modica in Sicily, comes with “luscious” Santa Barbara prawns, while a spaghetti cipollato—with onions, guanciale bacon, Romanesco broccoli, and pecorino cheese—is “something I could eat every day.” 3115 Pico Blvd., (310) 829-4313

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The Grill Room

New Orleans

For years this well-appointed restaurant in the Windsor Court Hotel “has been running on the fumes of a reputation established in another millennium,” said Brett Anderson in the New Orleans Times-Picayune. After bottoming out a few years ago, the Grill Room was saved from extinction by new management and has been revitalized by chef Drew Dzejak. Still an “emphatically elegant restaurant” with excellent service, the Grill Room these days has a more relaxed atmosphere. For the entrées, the kitchen never gets too ambitious: A perfectly sautéed redfish dish isn’t much more than a refined bouillabaisse. But the menu does include a few flights of fancy: Dzejak’s “undeniably delicious” Caesar salad could double as a piece of contemporary art, “with its streaks of black cracked pepper and creamy dressing pointing toward a molded sphere of julienned romaine.” Most important, even relatively simple dishes such as beet salad and onion soup taste “startlingly ungeneric”—a sign of a confident chef under whose direction the Grill Room is finally “starting to resemble the restaurant it has for so long struggled to be.”

300 Gravier St., (504) 522-1992

Black Pearl


When I first reviewed Black Pearl, the menu wasn’t working and the kitchen seemed to lack “quality control,” said Tucker Shaw in The Denver Post. “What a difference four years of refinement and reinvention makes.” Today, Black Pearl is as “much a gem as its name suggests.” Most of the credit goes to chef Kate Horton, who signed on last December and has jump-started the kitchen with an emphasis on precision. This comes across most noticeably in the “succulent, well-seasoned” pork porterhouse, paired with creamed apples. Most pork steaks in town come out overcooked and dry, but Horton is “not afraid to serve this steak medium-rare, which is as it should be.” Not every dish here matches that high standard, and the prices are a little steeper than at similar restaurants on Denver’s happening South Pearl Street, but for me Black Pearl has finally “proven its worth.” 1529 S. Pearl St., (303) 777-0500

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