Here we are in a world littered with interactive video and scratch-and-sniff ads, and I still can't give you an actual taste of the sun-dried tomato pesto that has me out of my mind. So here's plan B: words, words, words and a street address.
The 15-month old Belmonte (the "Monte" part as in "Monty Python"), in affluent, bustling Belmont Shore, is one excellent place. The place bakes its own focaccia each day, prepares picnic suppers, has a full catering service and makes beautiful gift baskets, too. (Want to send someone an herb mustard from the Aran Islands in a basket that could double for a bird's nest? Done.) Besides an on-premises wine shop, a wide selection of cheeses and stacks of goor-may packaged foods, Belmonte has case after gleaming case filled with delectable salads, entrees and fine deli meats.
Many places throughout Los Angeles have fetching-looking foods, but few live up to that first glance. Belmonte, on the other hand, comes through rather consistently all the way into your mouth. Even if you live on the other side of the world from Long Beach, I think you should know about its sun-dried tomato pesto. (Maybe you'll get lost en route to the Queen Mary, maybe your car will overheat on the 405 and you'll have to be towed. . . .)
Imagine a field of tomatoes growing potent in the sun, vats of rich olive oil, vast amounts of garlic with bits of fresh basil kicked in. Then sense the whole mass pulverized, compressed like an eau de vie , imploding onto your tongue. Put it on pasta, on bread, on everything. The basil pesto, dense and well-balanced, isn't bad either.
Belmonte's six-page menu lists everything the place makes, more than 100 items; usually a third of them are in the case at any one time. The fare reads upscale eclectic (Asian noodles with toasted sesame oil, wood-roasted leg of lamb, roasted red pepper mousse tartlette, bay scallop ceviche . . .). Classics are crisply done and none of the inventions seem gratuitous.
Take, for example, a gleaming " paella " made with orzo pasta; against the sweet large shrimp, chunky tender chicken, thin anise-flavored sausage discs and ribbons of red and yellow peppers and leeks, the lozenge-shaped pasta works as a lovely, silky foil.
The large taupe-colored Ravioli Belmonte looks downright gluey in the case, but take it home, warm it up and it turns into lavish, earthy marscapone- swathed comfort food. Similarly, the corn salad visuals won't knock your socks off, but the taste might: fire-roasted corn tossed with scallions, bathed in a sweet, satisfying vinegar. Caribbean cole slaw, with its rough-cut green cabbage, slivers of yellow and red pepper, halved walnuts and raisins, looks like a carnival and tastes great. A couple of the mixed vegetable dishes--a summer salad, a ratatouille , a Greek salad sans salinity--are weak. Ask for tastes before you buy.
Most of Belmonte's food could march straight out the door to a picnic, but there are a number of dishes that should be heated to pull the flavors through. The spinach and feta pie in a filo crust is one of the highest, fluffiest, creamiest versions I've had--and it simply doesn't work cold. Boneless Parmesan chicken breasts, looking like batter-coated hand grenades, are also swell for at-home dining.
Full-course picnic-box dinners, available all year round, come in nine named varieties (number nine, with Norwegian smoked salmon and bagels, is actually called a Sunday brunch rather than a dinner) ranging in price from $16 to $28 per person. Plan on serendipity, though, or double-check your order. I have had a few surprises, although I was pleased on the whole.
I tried the China Beach dinner, which comes with a choice of Oriental chicken salad or Oriental shrimp salad followed by Asian noodle salad, asparagus with wasabi vinaigrette, grilled pineapple and dessert. We ordered the shrimp and inexplicably wound up with the gingery, creamy, grilled chicken tossed with a small clutch of papery rice noodles and crunchy pea pods. There was no Asian noodle salad to be found and the asparagus with a wasabi vinaigrette had been replaced with a pretty salad of yellow peppers, grilled squash, tomatoes, mushrooms, garbanzos and hearts of palm without much taste. Dessert was a commercially baked lemon cake and really ripe, really sensational grilled pineapple wedges steeped in vanilla and ginger.
Cold roasted chicken was supposed to be the plat in the Typical Picnic dinner, but instead a tender grilled chicken roulade arrived stuffed with sweet roasted red peppers. The new potato salad with fresh mint and chives was vibrant, the dessert a carrot cake of the baroque variety iced with white chocolate.
Belmonte makes two of its own desserts: a creamy, deeply fudgy brownie and a wonderful, eggy bread pudding. These are both better than any of the birthday type sweets they bring in from outsiders.
Belmonte, 5251 East 2nd St., Long Beach, (213) 433-9977 (FAX: 433-5877). Open 10 a.m.-8 p.m. Monday-Saturday, 10 a.m.-7 p.m. Sunday. Visa and MasterCard. Parking lots at 4847, 5251 and 5375 East 2nd St.; also 5240 Covina St. Place orders for picnic suppers by 8 a.m. the day before. Catering and picnic menus available. Deliveries available, fee varies depending on location.