Proposition No. 1: The name Giorgio Armani is above reproach in the world of fashion. Proposition No. 2: The food world, where his newest venture lies, is a world apart.
Walk through the spiffy Emporio Armani in South Coast Plaza and you'll see that the first proposition is obvious. These latest Armani creations are beautiful to behold--elegant cotton shirts; colorful, oddly cut dresses; wonderfully luxurious sweaters. This kind of luxury doesn't come cheap. Bath salts at $75. Men's briefs at $40, roughly the price of a good dinner in Milan.
Dinner at Emporio Armani Express is rarely that steep, even though the restaurant uses the fabled Armani name. The Emporio's new restaurant is clearly aiming at a diversified market. Translation: Prices here are surprisingly competitive.
The dining room is sort of joined at the hip to the fashion emporium. Enter through the store and you come out on the restaurant's mezzanine. Enter through the mall and you can't miss the chichi espresso bar.
Milan, Armani's home base, is indisputably one of the world's great design centers. It's also a city tourists commonly dismiss as cold and aloof. The same thing could easily be said about this restaurant. The dining room is a deconstructionist rectangle of blond wood, with a high-set drop ceiling enlivened by a row of chic hanging lamps. The high-gloss wooden floor--it looks as if it has been given a double coat of polyurethane--is better suited to a ballet studio than to a shopping mall restaurant. On more than one occasion, I have seen fashionably dressed women in heels lose their balance and actually fall.
You wouldn't call it a comfy room, either. The lucky few get to relax on cushy blue banquettes, but almost everyone else has to be content sitting on stiff, albeit conceptual, double-backed wooden chairs, emblazoned with the Armani seal. Service is performed by a graceful team of male and female servers, but they too look uncomfortable. They glide around in tight-fitting Orwellian straitjackets, looking like the world's hippest prison guards.
Armani Express is managed by Italatin Inc., the same people who bring you the very fine Antonello, Trattoria Spiga and L'Opera in Long Beach. The personable Enzo Di Muro manages the front, and proven chef Antonio Mattina runs the kitchen. The puzzle, then, is why so many of these dishes seem to lack warmth. Could it be the Milan connection?
Pizzas, \o7 bruschettas \f7 and various salads are spotted on every table during the busy lunch period, when the restaurant fills with suits and well-dressed shoppers. The pizzas, in particular, are fashion statements in themselves: minimalist, thin-crusted pies with toppings that look like errant brush strokes. Pizza Adriatica, topped with tomato, tuna, capers and onion, strikes just the right balance between salt and sour. Pizza \o7 pecorara, \f7 my least favorite, is pure oil-rich excess, topped with a fatty \o7 pancetta \f7 and clumps of ricotta and feta.
You can make a fine light lunch from any of the salads and some of the good house \o7 focaccia \f7 bread. The salad called \o7 puntarelle \f7 is made with fresh chicory and an unctuous dressing made from extra virgin olive oil, pureed anchovies and crushed garlic. \o7 Del pecoraro \f7 is more classical: crunchy celery, cucumbers and carrots countered by a simple vinaigrette and garnished with black olives nicely arranged around pieces of romaine and endive.
Notice the three glass jars on top of the antipasto cart and the marinated olives inside them. It's easy to ignore them in favor of the antipasti, which are mainly grilled vegetable numbers such as eggplant \o7 rollatini, \f7 braised leeks and shiitake mushrooms. The olives are great, though--huge, tasty ones, and each jar contains a different sort of briny infusion. The waiter will bring you a plateful on demand.
The pastas are made fresh daily on the premises but don't always come through. The spinach \o7 gnocchi \f7 I fancied so much at lunch (light, airy green dumplings sauced with a delicious duck \o7 ragu) \f7 did not hold up nearly as well during an evening meal, when the magic lightness appeared to fade. A dish called \o7 tortellini alla piacentina \f7 has a different sort of problem. These nicely textured noodle boats are stuffed with nothing but ricotta and fresh spinach--they cry out for a little embellishment, but the kitchen merely submerges them in melted butter for serving.
Such old standbys as \o7 fettuccine alla checca \f7 or chicken ravioli are better bets. Both should come up \o7 al dente \f7 and with the perfect amount of sauce.
In the evenings only, there is a selection of grilled and roasted meats from which to choose. \o7 Galetto arrosto \f7 is a rather nondescript free-range baby chicken, rubbed with rosemary and roasted whole. \o7 Scottadito \f7 here means baby lamb chops cooked on a grill with extra-virgin olive oil. These tender chops, three to an order, are skillfully prepared--and strangely flavorless.