A venture to this state park is on the must-do list for many, the park being the only spot in North America where you can dig for diamonds and other gemstones and keep your finds.
Here’s what you really need to know about Bill Valentine’s Ballpark Restaurant: You can’t get a hot dog, but you can choose from half a dozen bottles of Brunello di Montalcino, a Tuscan red wine.
The food at Valentine’s is great, pretty much across the board, and the night we went, the service was fantastic, with a personal touch we hope they maintain after the first few weeks.
Valentine himself is a wine lover, and it shows. You may go for the food, but you’ll go back for the wine. There are 90 choices on the list, most of them red, and a good number of them from Tuscany or other regions of Italy, where Valentine and his wife travel every year.
The restaurant is owned by the Travelers organization, but it’s Valentine’s baby. He’s brought in top chefs to take care of the food: Executive chef Scott McGehee, owner of Boulevard Bread, developed the menu, and chef de cuisine Jason Neidhart, also a veteran, is handling the day-to-day operations. Both are graduates of the California Culinary Academy.
The restaurant itself is small, with an entrance off Broadway. There’s a single room, with a beautiful wooden bar at one end and a wall of windows overlooking the third-base side of the ballpark. The cuisine is Northern Italian — less tomato sauce, more butter and cream. The menu isn’t extensive, but it has enough choices to please a variety of moods.
First, our wine choice: a bottle of Cecchi Vino Nobile de Montepulciano ($40), a Tuscan red made primarily from the sangiovese grape. It was easy to drink, but had plenty of body and character.
On to the food. Our group of four sampled more than half the “small plates” side of the menu: appetizers, soup and salad. The antipasto plate ($10) came stacked with meats and chesses, including pecorino Toscano and prosciutto di Parma, plus a thin slice of focaccia bread. It was plenty for the four of us, even if we hadn’t all ordered our own starters as well.
Our choice was the tomato and eggplant soup ($5), a rich, chunky concoction served with large croutons that somehow stayed crispy even after they’d soaked in the soup for awhile. It was delicious.
Others at our table tried the Valentine Caesar salad ($7), the Caprese salad ($9) and the beef Carpaccio ($15). The Caprese, a simple version featuring Arkansas tomatoes and a drizzle of balsamic vinegar, drew good reviews. So did the Carpaccio, which also could have fed all four of us. Valentine’s version is served on arugula with fried capers, lemon, white truffle oil and shaved Parmesan.
When it came time to order entrees, our waiter and another person we’re assuming was a manager both pushed the linguine with mussels ($19) — served with saffron cream, San Marzano tomatoes, capers, lemon, basil and grilled focaccia — but we smiled politely and didn’t take them up on it. Maybe next time.
Instead, we ordered the grilled steak Florentine ($24), a 12-ounce New York strip served with rosemary sauce and sides of fried polenta and sauteed spinach. The steak was tender, full of flavor and perfectly cooked — we enjoyed it so much that we were almost finished before we remembered the menu had said something about rosemary, and we hadn’t tasted any. Just then, our waiter came to apologize on behalf of the chef for the missing sauce, and offered us a dessert on the house to make up for it. We’re sorry we missed out, because we love rosemary, but the steak held up just fine on its own.
Another in our group ordered the Chicken Gorgonzola ($17), served over penne in a gorgonzola cream sauce with rosemary and pancetta. Only under duress would he admit that the chicken was a little dry — the rest of the evening’s experience more than made up for that small fault, he said.
No such problems with our other entrees, Nona Gabriella’s Lasagna ($15) and the Alla Toscana veal chop ($29). The lasagna was incredibly rich, with less tomato sauce and more cheese than what’s usually served at Italian restaurants. The veal chop was cooked perfectly, served over basil linguine with Parmesan cheese, and all of it disappeared.
There’s plenty on the dessert menu to tempt even the fullest diner, and we split the tiramisu and something called a Chocolate Bomb. The tiramisu was unusual — shaped more like a scoop of ice cream than a piece of cake, and lighter than we’re used to. No complaints. But the clear winner was the Chocolate Bomb, a scoop of dark chocolate gelato with hazelnuts and some kind of cheese/cream center. Don’t miss it.
Now about the service. Other than having the mussels urged on us a little too strongly — which actually was kind of amusing — we couldn’t have been happier. Our waiter was attentive and knowledgeable, although he admitted that French wine, not Italian, was his expertise. The manager stayed and chatted for several minutes. And late in our meal, Bill Valentine himself joined us for a few minutes to share some limoncello and his thoughts about Italy — good food and good wine.
Bill Valentine’s Ballpark Restaurant
400 W. Broadway, NLR
We racked up a tab of $200 for four (before tip), but you can dine for much less.
5:30 p.m.-close Tuesday through Saturday; also open Mondays when the Travelers are playing at home.
Reservations recommended. Expensive prices. Full bar. Credit cards accepted.