Thursday, December 23, 2010

Drago Centro, Los Angeles CA

While Valentino may be Southern California's most vaunted Italian dining space and Osteria Mozza the "hottest," it would be hard to say that there is a bigger name in SoCal Italian than "Drago" with the family's multiple restaurants throughout the area. With my frequent trips to the city it surprised me that I'd never been to any of Celestino Drago's spaces and for this trip I made it a point to remedy that - a task made especially easy by the relatively new Drago Centro just down the street from Staples Center.

The Sicilian native's first downtown venture - and at $7 million his most expensive by far - Drago Centro sits in the heart of downtown and its focus is clearly the business sector with its clean and sexy design, notable cocktail list and bar menu, and relatively modernistic approach to rustic Italian food. Helmed by Ian Gresik, a man with considerable talents and training all over the globe, I was told by multiple folks that the secondi were "good," but the pasta was where the money was at. Arriving early for our 5:00pm seating we actually saw Chef Gresik in the elevator coming up from the parking lot - and again when we were leaving and he was taking house made pizza's to the valet crew.

Having wandered the business sector, my first time walking in downtown LA, for a bit before returning to the restaurant we sat at the bar for a few moments and nibbled on crispy breadsticks before we were seated. A very large restaurant, apparently a former bank according to the hostess, I have to say the designers did an excellent job with the conversion. Enormous windows, arched ceilings, and lots of black, silver, and glass left the space feeling contemporary while the Italian inspired modern to post-modernist art gave the restaurant a bit of a Eurocentric feel without screaming "Italian."

Seated and presented menus our waters were filled and cocktails were offered - an excellent but pricey list which we declined instead opting for iced teas and diet cokes, plus my standard of water. Greeted by our waiter, a pleasant gentleman whose name I forget, the menu and daily specials were explained and questions about portion sizes and half orders were answered. Left to decide it took a while to decide which pastas sounded best and I have to admit I was a little off-put by the number of staffers clearly eyeing our table since we were the only people in the restaurant.

With orders placed our first bite of Drago Centro would be the daily amuse of Porcini Mozzarella with Apple Caponata. A tasty bite and slightly more than a mouthful the texture here was creamy and light while the flavors were largely that of the earthy mushrooms melding with the heavily reduced salted apples. House made I was quickly glad my sister had opted for the burrata appetizer as the only problem with this dish was that it was only a bite and a half.

Following the amuse we'd be visited by the bread attendant who provided a basket with two relatively unmemorable types - wheat sourdough and olive. Pairing the bread with a clean and slightly citrus olive oil certainly helped, but overall the bread's purpose seemed solely to assist with sopping up sauce from the courses that would follow.

Having mentioned the Burrata above, the first proper dish of the menu to arrive was indeed “la burrata,” an absolutely wonderful dish with creamy house made burrata, sliced endive, basil pesto, and crispy crostini. Paired simply, not overly sweetened or salted like some preparations, everything about the dish was spot on – creamy and crunchy, slightly bitter with the endive , and the burrata was perhaps the best I’ve ever tasted.

Not tremendously hungry my mother’s meal would be that of a salad and a small pasta. For the salad her decision was the l’insalata di mele with pink lady apples, bacon, candied walnuts, spinach, and arugula. Tasty and fresh with just a touch of vinaigrette there really was not much you could fault about this salad given its ample portion for $9.

For my appetizer I opted to start off with a half-portion of perhaps Drago’s most famous pasta – le pappardelle al fagiano. Featuring hand torn pappardelle topped with a ragout of roasted pheasant, morel mushrooms, and game stock I’m sure anyone who has tasted each of these ingredients can imagine the dish was very rich. With the pasta perfect and al dente the mildly gamey bird was perfumed nicely by the earthy mushrooms, yet while each bite was delicious I must say it was largely homogenous. Perfect flavor pairing I was glad I opted for a half order because even for a person with an appetite like mine a full order would have bordered on “too heavy.”

With appetizer plates removed around 5:30 it would be only a short while before the second courses would arrive, yet by this time Drago was beginning to fill up nicely. With myself opting for two more half-orders of pasta for my main course, the first to garner my attention was the lo gnocco alla romana with semolina gnocchi, oxtail ragout, gorgonzola creme. Certainly not your Italian Grandma’s traditional gnocchi these pockets of potato and semolia were nearly 2.5x1.5x1.5 inches in size and slightly crisp inside with a buttery molten interior. Topped with sweet and savory ragout of oxtail in balsamic and a lightly creamy chees sauce I will note that this certainly wasn’t what I expected when I ordered it, but I was very pleasantly surprised.

My other selection would be a rather standard one and a good but not stunning example. A dish I first tasted on a wonderful trip to New York with my mother and sister when we lucked into a last minute table at Babbo, i ravioli di zucca with butternut squash ravioli, amaretti crumble, brown butter was quite tasty with the creamy sweet filling a lovely pairing with the butter and crumbled cookie. The unfortunate aspect of the dish was actually the pasta – simply too thick, it detracted from the texture of it’scontents.

For my aunt’s main course the choice was obvious the moment we saw the menu - gli spaghetti alla chitarra con pesto alla trapanese. Featuring perfectly cooked house-made basil spaghetti lightly tossed in almond pesto and drizzled with intense and sweet tomato sauce plus a shaving of Pecorino the dish was simply presented yet quite complicated in its breadth of flavors.

My sister’s selection would be another filled pasta, but much more successful than the ravioli. Titled gli agnolotti and featuring rich ricotta agnolotti, blanched spinach, and crispy pancetta in a foamy butter and white wine reduction the flavors in this dish were perfectly balanced with smooth and creamy tempering crispy and savory, plus the spinach lending its vegetal textures to the melange. This was probably my favorite pasta of the evening and an impressive portion with over a dozen individual agnolotti on the plate.

The last of the main courses would be my mother’s il risotto di zucca with risotto, butternut squash, spinach, fontina crème. With nicely prepared risotto and a lovely cream sauce I was somewhat disappointed that the dish lacked much textural variability. Soft rice, cooked squash, cooked spinach – the flavors were all there, but after a couple of bites it was just more of the same.

With the meal moving along briskly there was plenty of time for dessert before we had to make our way towards Staples center and as such we browsed the menus and placed orders. With a daily special that sounded excellent I opted to pair dessert with coffee – “Drago Blend” by LAMill. Bold and dark with ample refills this was a stellar cup of coffee with honey tones most prominent, but also with what tasted a bit like cinnamon. Perhaps not an ideal choice for a fruit based dessert, but perfect with what I’d be ordering.

For my dessert, la souffle – an obvious choice when I saw it was to be prepared with amadei dark chocolate. Served in a cast iron pot this was not a traditional souffle, but rather somewhere between souffle cake and a proper souffle – parhaps a fallen souffle would be most appropriate. Dense and moist, lovely on its own the souffle was paired with warm amadei milk chocolate cream and a side of hazelnut gelato with caramelized hazelnut crumble. As good as the burrata and some of the pastas were, it was this dish (and actually all of the desserts) that still stand in my memory best.

My sister’s dessert selection was, according to our server, enjoying its last week on the menu due to the seasonal change. Titled la coppa d’autunno with pumpkin, persimmon, brown sugar caramel, brown butter gelato the dish was essentially cake and ice cream in a sundae glass. With the brown butter gelato certainly the most dominant flavor of the dish there was no lack of nuance found beneath the sweetness. Moist persimmon pudding cake, slightly gritty (in a good way) caramel, fibrous pumpkin – this was certainly an autumnal dish, but it works quite nicely in early winter as well and I imagine it could be adapted to any season quite well.

My mother’s choice for dessert was la panna cotta with vanilla bean panna cotta, candied kumquats, blood orange, and caramel sorbet. While a bit citrusy for my tastes, this was an obvious choice for my mother given her new found fancy for panna cotta. Creamy and rich the presentation of this dish was nice with crumbled butter cookies beneath. Paired with a smooth caramel sorbet – interesting in the fact that it was indeed more ice and less cream than the gelati – the mild bitters of the blood orange worked well with both components while the intensely sweet kumquats were best enjoyed with the panna cotta.

The final dessert of the evening was the most simple, for sure. i bomboloni with doughnuts, strawberries, and mascarpone gelato featured four large and yeasty sugar dusted doughnuts resting atop small mounds of house made vanilla cream. Accompanying the balls of pastry was an excellent and mildly sweet gelato that acted as an ample foil to the sugary doughnuts plus some rather average Strawberries. While I realize it is indeed winter, for the price I’d have preferred fruit the quality of Matsuhisa – perhaps something more fitting for the season.

With the time approaching 6:30 our bill would arrive – at approximately $60/person after tax and tip it certainly was not an exorbanant amount, but perhaps slightly overpriced for the quality of the pastas. Finishing another cup of coffee and settling the bill we were bid farewell by our server and made our way back to the elevators and down to the valet. A solid meal and obviously catering to the business sector I cannot say that Drago Centro impressed on the same level as Mozza or Valentino, but for the price and convenience I could certainly justify a return visit before an event at Staples or Nokia if I lived locally.

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