Restaurant Review #143: Palomino, Westwood

Four cheese penne

Palomino is a big restaurant. I was raised on big restaurants--Macaroni Grill, Chili's, P.F. Changs, Cheesecake Factory, and the like. Unlike some food snobs (and by the way, "foodie" does not mean "food snob"), I don't have anything against these restaurants--I actually like a lot of their food (just don't get me started on how the buffalo chicken salad at Chili's tastes like it was grown in a test tube). To be honest, I'm not quite sure why so many people seem to detest big restaurants. Maybe one of you will enlighten me. Is it that they're the Barnes and Nobles of the restaurant world? Because I'll agree with you there. I like Barnes and Noble just fine, but I don't want them taking over the universe. If The Cheesecake Factory were to put Blue Marlin or Musha out of business, you can bet I'd be screaming. Another issue that comes to mind is that small towns across America have been pitifully homogenized by chains. But that's a diatribe for another blog.

As far as I can tell, Palomino is a big restaurant. The physical space is enormous (okay, enormous compared to all those holes in the wall on Sawtelle that I frequent), the ceilings are high, the windows are huge, the plates are a foot in diameter, and the same company that owns Palomino (Restaurants Unlimited) also owns a restaurant called Skates on the Bay in Berkeley (which I liked a lot) and a bunch of other restaurants that I've never heard of in major cities all across the country.

Grilled asparagus salad

I started with the grilled asparagus salad. All of the flavors of the salad worked together beautifully--except for the asparagus. The bits of diced tomato, crispy proscuitto, goat cheese, lettuce, and tangy dressing were excellent. The asparagus would have been better if it were served warm and had some sort of flavor aside from grill flavor. I like my asparagus with olive oil and kosher salt.

Asiago encrusted tilapia

I always get sort of annoyed when a restaurant serves tilapia, better known as "the cheap fish" (unless you're in the south, where catfish wins that distinction). Go to any grocery store, any week, and the cheapest fish is always tilapia. Meanwhile, any restaurant is going to charge you an arm and a leg for it because it's seafood ("seafood" and "steak" are secret code words for "expensive"). Add to that tilapia's essential flavorlessness, and that it requires virtually no skill to cook, and you'll see why I don't get very excited when I see tilapia on the menu.

On the other hand, tilapia is so mild that anyone can like it, and it can be more interesting than chicken (or at least much more moist, and theoretically healthier). It's easy to pick flavors that go well with it, too--it's as simple as trying to match a flavor to french bread. For all of these reasons, tilapia is a logical choice for any menu, from a restaurant's perspective (except that it's seafood, which doesn't stay fresh for long).

So if I have so many gripes about tilapia, why did I order it? I just wasn't in a pasta mood. Pasta has been the cheap filler in my grocery lists for as long as I can remember, so when I'm away from home, it's the last thing I want to order. And the fish was, in fact, good. Big restaurants tend to serve consistently good food--that's one reason they don't bother me.

The tilapia came with uninspired sides of sauteed spinach and mashed potatoes. The mashed potatoes were so buttery that they were actually yellow--I couldn't eat them. While potatoes themselves are not the waistline killers that many people think they are, eating an entire stick of butter in one sitting will kill more than just your figure. There was nothing exciting about the spinach, and I don't know anyone who wants to eat almost a cup of cooked spinach in one sitting.

Rigatoni bolognese

The rigatoni bolognese tasted like a pepperoni pizza--which was a good thing, though unexpected. I would have made the sauce more intense, but otherwise this dish was quite tasty. Palomino offers a lunch menu where you can order any combination of a half soup, half sandwich, half salad, or half pasta--including two half orders, which is what we did with the pasta. We also liked the four cheese penne, but it tasted like something I could have made at home (because I'm rather good in the kitchen).

Palomino is one of those places where your waitress will offer to grate fresh parmasean over your food--that's great, but I always wonder if restaurants have any idea how much cheese I actually put on top of my pasta when I'm at home. I can't bear the thought of my waitress grating cheese over my plate for 5 minutes straight--hell, even I wouldn't do that. That's what pre-grated cheese is for. Restaurants like Palomino and Macaroni Grill should abandon this ridiculous practice. It's all for show--no one ends up with more than a few silvers of cheese, which costs the restaurant almost nothing while trying to create the appearance of an upscale experience. If Palomino really cared about topping my pasta with grated parmasean, they'd give me a small bowl of it to add freely.

Offering fresh ground pepper, which Palomino also does, makes more sense--fresh ground pepper does taste better, and those huge grinders that the staff use give you a finer grind than a tabletop version would. And of course, no one wants five minutes' worth of ground pepper on their food. Does anyone else feel bad asking for both the cheese and the pepper though? I do. My waitress has enough things to worry about. The cooks should be the ones adding the pepper and cheese to my food--in the kitchen.

Our waitress was excellent--some of the best service I've had in a long time. She was geniunely friendly and smiled freely and often, and she refilled our strawberry lemonade before it was even gone. Another benefit of large chain restaurants like Palomino is that they tend to have well-trained, highly professional waitstaff. The host was friendly too, welcoming us warmly as we entered and thanking us as we left. Even though every other group in the restaurant probably had more money than we did, we weren't treated any differently. Most of Palomino's lunchtime patrons are from the Westwood business set, and the pace of the meal seemed to reflect that--it was neither too fast nor too slow, giving us ample time to talk.

If you've been to Palomino, how was your experience? Leave a comment!

10877 Wilshire Blvd (at Glendon)
Los Angeles, CA 90024
Dinner daily
Lunch weekdays
Palomino Menu (not quite accurate)
Coupon for $20 off your first dinner
(A helpful freebie I found. Foodie Universe is not affiliated with Palomino in any way. Do you really think they'd let me write all this stuff about them if I were?)


joanh said...

I've been to Palamino in Westwood twice (a long time ago), and had a good time. I actually went there because I had scallops at their DC branch which were amazing! I wasn't able to recapture that experience in LA, but you're right that their service is usually pretty friendly and top notch. It's pricey, so lunch is probably a better value.

joanh said...

PS your pictures look amazing!

I really liked Skates (in Berkeley) too!! And you're right, they both kind of have the same vibe.