The Bottle Inn: Everything old is new again

Matthew Leon with the Bottle Inn's rigatoni. Photo by Brad Jacobsen.

Matthew Leon with the Bottle Inn’s rigatoni. Photo by Brad Jacobsen.

The Bottle Inn opened in Hermosa in 1976 and while the menu changed over the years, the decor didn’t. The cozy space was from another time, the walls festooned with a display case of mini airline liquor bottles and distressed boards with paintings. Wooden chairs, some on the rickety side, flanked tables beneath hanging plants and iron chandeliers that looked like something out of a pirate’s tavern. The retro charm was undeniable, but it had started to look a bit tired.

When a consortium headed by Hilary Condren bought the restaurant early this year it caused commotion among loyalists who feared the character and menu of their beloved hangout would change. Six months down the road regulars are relieved to see that while details are different the character has changed only modestly. A small wine bar welcomes guests, and on a recent evening it was actually in use rather than just being a waiting area. The main room has a sleeker, cleaner look with booths along one wall, tables the other. The paintings are still there but without the clutter and plants. The space is more elegant but not to the level that makes you feel underdressed if you arrive in casual wear.

The menu has changed, too – by which I mean the actual menu that they bring to your table. The old one had all the charm of a telephone directory and was notoriously hard to read, while the new one is nicely designed in a clean, modern style. The food offerings are almost identical, a selection of favorites from Southern and Central Italy with few modern touches.

It therefore comes down to whether the current culinary team executes the classic menu with the same skill as was done in the past. Based on a recent meal they do. The fried calamari tossed with arugula leaves had the same perfect crispness, the pomodoro sauce served with it the same fruity richness. I was about to order another of my go-to dishes as a starter, the fried artichokes, but decided to try the mozzarella in carozza, which I hadn’t tried before. The name means “cheese in a carriage,” and the flavor balance has a strong similarity to a favorite American combination. Think of the best grilled cheese sandwich you ever had alongside homemade tomato soup. Now make that sandwich with Italian bread and fresh mozzarella and top it with a thick sundried tomato cream sauce and a dollop of basil pesto. It’s everything you like, just done with an Italian twist. Four of us happily shared it as an appetizer, and two of us said, almost at the same time, “I could make a meal of one of these.”

We continued with a Caesar salad with anchovy, which had the classic balance of egg, garlic, and plenty of fresh Parmesan. I have rarely seen any attempt to improve on Caesars that didn’t do the opposite, so was happy to enjoy this one. We paired the starters and salad with a bottle of Italian Verdicchio from the wine list. The wine list is smaller than it used to be, with many of the higher priced, library bottles gone, but the selection is still ample, both by the glass and bottle. The Verdicchio was a bargain at $36, floral with a bit more body than a Pinot Grigio but every bit as versatile.

For main courses we selected chicken polenta lasagna, risotto with beef and onions, salmon alla vodka, and chicken stuffed with prosciutto and mozzarella in mushroom sauce. All were solid, but the lasagna was the standout. The delicate corn flavor and silky texture of polenta added a dimension that is lacking in noodles, working well with the tomato sauce, cheese, and herbed chicken. The pink marinara was more delicate than the sauce usually used in a sausage lasagna, entirely appropriate for the chicken stuffing. I’ll note in passing that during our dinner we tried four different tomato based sauces, and they make at least two others. This shows the ambition of the kitchen, given that many Italian restaurants make just one sauce and use it for everything.

The vodka sauce was another tomato based sauce, and for those who think that the vodka just adds alcohol let me explain. The alcohol actually cooks off, but before it does it extracts extra flavor from the herbs and tomato. Here that sauce finished a lightly seasoned and perfectly grilled salmon filet topped with artichokes, onion, and mushroom, with sprinkles of goat cheese and microgreens as edible adornment.

The Pollo Imbottito, which means “padded chicken” also hit the spot, though the salty prosciutto adds a tang that may have you reaching for your water glass at least once during the meal. That salt is an important element in balancing the creamy mushroom sauce, so anyone not watching their sodium should consider ordering this. Like some of the other non-pasta entrees this comes with angel hair with garlic and oil and a side of braised spinach, making a full, balanced meal.

The risotto was the only item that was slightly different from what I expected. The Arborio rice simmered in chicken broth is often served as a platform for proteins and vegetables, but here it tasted like it had been cooked down with the filet mignon, onions, garlic, mushrooms, and cream to integrate the flavors. It came across as a combination stew and risotto and worked on its own merits.

We paired the main courses with a bottle of Punto 20 Nero d’Avola, a full, fruity wine that compares to a medium body California Pinot Noir. This is a marvelous wine with meats and tomato sauces and a deal at $33.

We had to finish with their housemade tiramisu and limoncello cake, the latter enlivened with a grating of lemon zest that cut the sweetness and richness of the cake. The desserts were the right finish for the meal, two classics made with finesse and style. Like everything else we had, those showed that the Bottle Inn Hermosa is as fine as it has ever been. Whisper it, but it might be even better than you remember.

The Bottle Inn is at 26 22nd Street in Hermosa. 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sun-Wed; 9:30 p.m. Thur; 10 p.m. Fri-Sat. Street parking, patio dining, beer and wine, corkage $20, wheelchair access okay. No online menu. (310) 376-9595. ER  


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