Just the fact that Valanni, 1229 Spruce St. , has been able to endure the city’s fickle restaurant scene for 10 years is enough to warrant some form of merit. And now, the slickly decorated eatery with new executive chef John Strain taking the reigns and a revamped menu — not to mention an attentive waitstaff — is making a case for another decade.
Don’t get too distracted by Valanni’s dazzling selection of mojitos, margaritas and specialty drinks. While they are impressive (we highly recommend the sangria), there are plenty of pleasant surprises on the Mediterranean and Latin-themed tapas menu.
Just the mention of Brussels sprouts triggers flashbacks to childhood, when what seemed like a large pile of the vegetable was the only thing standing between you and dessert. But Valanni recasts the normally boring veggie into something you can’t stop eating with its crispy Brussels sprouts ($8), an expertly fried delight given added texture and flavor thanks to almonds, apples and aged balsamic vinegar.
The short-rib flatbread ($10) was tender and tasty, but the least memorable of the dishes we sampled. Others packed a bigger punch on a smaller plate, such as the seared halibut ($10), a perfectly cooked and crispy piece of fish perched on a delicious bed of smoked bacon, white-bean ragout and Swiss chard. The crispy pork belly ($12), accompanied by roasted beets and crème fraîche, was also a winning combination. The duck ravioli was a rich and savory delight accompanied with foie gras and a red-wine pomegranate sauce. The lamb shoulder ($12) has a secret weapon in the amazing foccacia dumplings that accompanied it. We would have gladly sacrificed some of the lamb for more dumplings.
Aside from the small plates, diners with deeper stomachs (and pockets) can dive into more substantial dishes like Valanni’s paella, which is available in portions for one or two. The meat and seafood paella ($33/$56) was overflowing with healthy portions of lobster, shrimp, calamari, clams, scallops, mussels, chicken and chorizo. The seasoning was a bit on the conservative side, but the overall quality of the dish was amazing. Valanni also offers seafood ($32/$55) and vegetarian ($18/$29) options, the latter of which was loaded with roasted peppers, carrots, onions, asparagus, shiitake mushrooms and plum tomatoes.
Dessert is definitely a must at Valanni for two reasons. First, the portions are reasonable: just enough, but not too much where you have to make friends on the spot to help you finish. Secondly and more importantly, the desserts are amazing. If you have to do without one of the earlier plates to make room, do it, do it, do it!
The Oreo beignets ($8) are so addictive, they might as well serve them in a giant crack pipe. The crispy pastries are stuffed with crumbled Oreo cookies and served with vanilla bean ice cream and warm caramel. If you want to play it safer, the crème brûlée four ways ($10) is less bombastic but still delicious, featuring flavors such as cinnamon mocha, Tahitian vanilla, lemon thyme and peach ginger tea.
Valanni has definitely earned its place in the city’s restaurant scene.
For more information, visit www.valanni.com or call (215) 790-9494.