Saturday, December 25, 2010

Bouchon Bistro (4) and Jean Philippe at Aria, Las Vegas NV

There are very few restaurants I feel compelled to return to again and again – the ones I do are genuinely mind blowing (Alinea,) cheap and kitschy (Griddle Café,) or…well, Bouchon Las Vegas. Open for breakfast, brunch, and dinner I’d been to Chef Keller’s Vegas Bistro on each of my previous three visits to Las Vegas and the opportunity to eat Christmas Brunch there with the three most important people in my life was simply too perfect and obvious a choice to pass up. Having contacted the restaurant to be sure they’d be open on Christmas I was informed that they were indeed open but not taking reservations as is their Saturday Brunch policy – I was also told there would be “holiday themed” specials available.

Waking early to be sure we’d arrive plenty early I have to admit I was a tad surprised when we were the first people in line at 7:45am, though we’d quickly be joined by twenty or so others before the doors opened with a pleasant Merry Christmas from the staff at exactly 8am. Checking in at the hostess stand we were quickly whisked away to a great four-top near the windows overlooking the pools at the center of the Venezia tower and presented with menus. With water poured the next person to visit our table would be our server, a pleasant young woman named Arlene who would live up to Bouchon’s customary service – interested and forthcoming, knowledgable and efficient. Describing the chalkboard specials (no “holiday themed” options to be found) and taking drink orders we were left to ponder our choices.

With the same menu as my previous visit plus the chalkboard specials I decided to venture onto the chalkboard while my family opted for Chef Keller and team’s more traditional breakfast/brunch fare on this seminal visit. With two coffees, a tea, and orange juice served and refilled consistently (save for the orange juice) by the ever circling bussers we sat for mere moments before the ever-welcomed epi-baguette would arrive, this time with that same lovely butter and apricot preserves.

Starting the meal proper and finally dining at Bouchon’s brunch with a group I was this time able to order the pastry basket I’d previously held off on for fear that it would go to waste. With four options to the basket plus one included with my aunt’s Breakfast Americane the basket would actually be a silver platter with a blue cloth. Featuring a cream cheese Danish, Pecan Sticky Bun, Orange Currant Scone, Chocolate Almond Croissant, and two Raspberry Beignets each taste was everything I’ve come to expect from Bouchon bakery and both the Cheese Danish and Orange Currant Scone were truly remarkable given the fact that I generally would not have ordered them at other restaurants. Rumor has it that Keller is working on a Bouchon Bakery cookbook and this experience once again made me hope the rumors are true.

Having already mentioned my aunt’s selection I’ll note it was certainly the bargain of the menu – two eggs buttery and medium scrambled, two slices of bacon, two pieces of impeccable sage accented sausage, toasted sourdough, the previously mentioned Danish, coffee, and orange juice for $22.

For my mother the choice would be a dish familiar to myself from two years prior; the bread pudding style French toast. This time using D’anjou pears as opposed to the Bartletts from my visit but again with lovely layers of custard interspersed with cinnamon spiked compote of fruit between each layer there really isn’t much that can be said about this dish that hasn’t been praised before – a touch of maple syrup, a dust of confectioner’s sugar to finish a truly decadent breakfast. To temper the sweetness she also ordered a side of bacon – 7 thick strips of apple wood smoked Kurobuta pork for a mere $5.

For my sister, still feeling the effects of the gluttony at Picasso the night before, something light was desired and the decision was made to sample Keller’s Waffle recipe. Spiked with vanilla and so crispy on the exterior that I’d not be surprised if cornmeal was involved, the interior of the waffle was supple and spongy – textbook. Topped with fresh bananas and chopped walnuts at a cost of $12 I can’t say this was a cheap waffle, but all things considering it was light, tasty, and unfaultable.

My breakfast selection would be from the chalkboard – it would also be the most expensive option of the day but also thankfully the best. Described merely as Oeuf du jour with Crab and Macaroni Gratin the dish itself would be served in a steaming hot low-ramekin. Featuring tender macaroni intermingling with plump chunks of crab, gruyere, breadcrumbs, and butter at its base the dish was subsequently topped with two medium scrambled eggs and sauce Mornay with paprika and chives. Creamy yet textural, slightly briny but sweet, and buttery beyond anything I’ve had in recent memory the dish was perhaps the best savory I’ve ever had for breakfast and the golden brioche served alongside harkened memories of Per Se and The French Laundry, even if the Apricot Jam wasn’t quite as good as the Foie Gras I was spreading in those settings.

With plates cleaned our bussers would clear the table rapidly and Arlene would return with the check – no offer of dessert, just a “No Rush – Merry Christmas and thanks for having brunch with us today” as she handed us the check in a glass cup. A tad annoyed at the lack of promised “holiday themed” specials we settled the tab and made our way to the door by 9:05 – a mere hour after we entered. With the lounge full and a growing line outside we made our way down the hall, out of the Venezia Tower, and back to our room. While certainly a good meal with great company this visit to Bouchon was a letdown largely due to heightened expectations. While there is no doubt in my mind that I’ll find my way back to Keller’s growing list of tables frequently over the coming years I now realize that on a day like Christmas there simply is no place as special as home, even if you are with all the people you love.

Exchanging our humorous Christmas gag-gifts and packing our bags for the Christmas flight home we next checked out of our hotel and left our bags in the rental car while we decided to finish our vacation with some gaming, coffee, and dessert in the early afternoon at Aria. Having already browsed the newest Jean-Philippe boutique multiple times during our visit and having tried the original at Bellagio in the past we were thrilled to note that as opposed to Bouchon, Jean Philippe was fully embracing the holiday theme.

Having experienced the Nutella gelato and Tiramisu on past visits to Jean Philippe at the Bellagio I personally was wowed by the vastness of the new shop’s selection – from cookies to candies to confections and ice cream everything looked excellent and given the length of the line we were given plenty of time to decide. With the space at Aria including a dining area in addition to the vast shop my mother and sister made their suggestions and went to wait out a table – a successful bid that would land us a four-top overlooking the gaming floor only moments before we paid our bill.

Browsing the selection and deciding on a dessert each, plus an enormous chocolate covered strawberry and a coffee the items were plated on clear plastic trays with the Chef’s signature logo – a nice touch softening the blow of a $38 tab. Splitting each item into fourths in order to design a miniature dessert tasting our selections would be a “gift wrapped” Carrot cake, a Nutella Brioche, a Snowman Tiramisu, and a Chocolate Bouche de Noel.

With each item a stunning example of Jean Philippe and team’s handiwork I still think this is one of the best Tiramisu dishes to ever grace my palate and the Bouche was vastly superior to that at Bouchon Bakery just days before. With the Carrot Cake loaded with a citrus toned cream cheese, raisins, and plenty of texture and the Nutella Brioche featuring the texture of a Croissant with easily two tablespoons of the Hazelnut filling within everything was divine, especially when paired with the subtly chocolate toned coffee. A sweet ending to a wonderful trip – and my first Merry Christmas outside of the Buckeye State.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Picasso, Las Vegas NV

In 2002 my parents offered to take me to Los Angeles via way of Las Vegas to see the Los Angeles Kings for the first time at Staples Center – it would serve as my present for graduating college. A memorable trip paid for entirely by people of humble means I still have great memories from that trip – and one strange memory of the absolute sticker shock pertaining to a restaurant called Picasso, at that time the best in town, and a place we’d considered eating for my celebratory meal until we saw the prices. With only a hint of interest in the World’s finest tables at that time we’d settle for a meal elsewhere, though I cannot recall where.

Flash forward eight years, countless memorable dining experiences, and five visits to Las Vegas since that trip I will note that the restaurant had long been on my radar, but it had always been put on the backburner because of a promise I’d made to my sister – an artist and admirer of Picasso – that if I went she’d be coming with me. Having returned from Los Angeles (having seen the Kings at home now for the fifth time) earlier that day I maintained that Picasso would prove a more experience than the one days prior at Julian Serrano and with my sister in tow the opportunity was there – on Christmas Eve next to the Bellagio fountains, to boot.

Established in 1998 to accompany the opening of The Bellagio, Picasso still holds its reputation as one of the five best dining spots in Las Vegas and has garnered Two Stars from Michelin in both guide books. While some suggest that the restaurant is overrated, its price-tag is significantly less abrasive than other contenders for “Best of” Las Vegas (Robuchon, Savoy, Twist, Alex) and the room, studded with thirteen priceless pieces of art is perhaps the most opulent. Arriving moments early for our 7:30 reservation we were told it would be a short while before our table was readied and we were welcomed to browse the art, sit at the bar, or watch the fountains from the Patio while we waited. Watching a number of walk-ins be turned away I was glad we’d made reservations – the restaurant was packed.

Mere moments would pass before our table was readied and walking through the expanse of the restaurant, past many lovely floral arrangements and million dollar works of art. Close to the window, as requested, and with excellent lighting we arrived to our two top where chairs were pulled out, a purse hook was offered, and menus were presented. Greeted by our server, a lovely man with a strong French accent named Robert, the Prix Fixe vs. Degustation choice was discussed and a drink menu provided. With chargers and serving plates (and purse hook) all whimsically designed with Picasso’s infamous brush strokes the “theme” reminded me of Le Cirque in its degree of continuity, yet it never seemed over the top or gaudy.

Opting first for cocktails and subsequently placing our orders I will simply say Robert was a perfect server – interested and interesting, there but never obtrusive, ever giving and never hovering – especially since he was also responsible for water refills, bread service, and everything but bussing the tables. For our cocktails, at $14 each, the decisions would be the Picasso Pom with Hangar One Raspberry, Lemoncello, Pomegranate Juice, Spiral of Lemon and the Emilio Cocktail with Lustau Rare Cream Sherry, Level Vodka, Nocello, Tuaca, Spiral of Orange. Refreshing and smooth after a long day of driving both drinks were quite heavy handed with the alcohol, but nicely balanced by the fruity tones.

Arriving as we sipped our drinks the nightly amuse would be Cold Smoked Scottish Salmon, Caviar, Cucumber, Quail Egg, Crème Fraiche, and Potato Leek Soup. Served curled around the crème fraiche the salmon was excellent – more firm than a sashimi prep, but similar in taste. With the caviar somewhat less briny than others I’ve tasted it worked well with the somewhat sour crème while the egg added its characteristic creamy flavor. The Potato soup was a commendable potage – the creamy texture balanced nicely with the onions and chives.

Finishing our soup and salmon, the first of many rounds of bread would begin. With different varieties appearing over the course of our 170 minute meal the options of which we were able to partake included Cherry Manchego, Green Olive, Traditional Baguette, Bacon Onion Brioche, and Cherry Walnut Wheat. While each was delicious and nicely complimented by the sweet “Picasso” stamped butter I must say I particularly appreciated the Cherry Manchego with the nutty and savory cheese balanced marvelously by the sweet dried cherries. The Bacon Onion Brioche too was quite extravagant and tasty, though it didn’t particularly pair well with any of the courses.

With myself ordering the 5-course degustation, largely unchanged over many years at Picasso, and Erika opting to go Prix Fixe for more choices our first courses would arrive simultaneously. For my first dish, Maine Lobster Salad - Apple-Champagne Vinaigrette was ample in portion, elegant in presentation, and lovely on the palate. With thick chunks of chilled lobster in a light cream sauce serving as the base, the “salad” was essentially microgreens tossed with apple-cider accented vinaigrette atop. Flanked by melon balls and tomatoes of varying colors the dish was quite light, a wonderful opening volley even if it was much more “lobster” than “salad.”

My sister’s first course was not the one I’d have selected on a menu with quail and oysters, but honestly it was lovely, perhaps better than my lobster. Titled Crème of Butternut Squash Soup the dish featured an absolutely satin smooth veloute of creamy squash in a large shallow bowl. Complimented with Homemade Amaretto-Nutmeg Marshmallows and Duxelle of Wild Mushrooms the dish was simply a perfect balance of sweet and earthy, creamy and fibrous. One of the five best soups I’ve ever had the chance to enjoy.

Course two of our meal would present me with my only disappointing course of the meal – and my sister with her favorite dish of the trip. Part of the degustation, my plate was a Pan Seared U-10 Day Boat Scallop with Potato Mousseline and Jus de Veau. Served with a potato crisp standing playfully behind the single monstrous scallop the dish looked beautiful and the tastes were lovely, albeit predictable with the savory veal reduction balancing the sweet scallop. With the creamy potato puree loaded with butter the place where this dish missed was in the centerpiece – gorgeously caramelized to the point of a near brulee on the exterior the scallop was simply a bit too well done at its center. While certainly a competent and lovely preparation the fact remains that perhaps twenty less seconds on the pan could have elevated it to a whole different level.

With my sister gushing across the table I was fortunately able to steal (or beg for) a bite of her dish without being assaulted. Titled simply as Sauteed Filet of Black Bass with Cauliflower Mousseline and Saffron Sauce I have to admit this was her second dish in a row that left me jealous. Flawless fish – supple and moist with the skin seared to crispy was just the start. Resting in a delicate pool of buttery saffron sauce and surrounded by a troika of quenelles of Cauliflower Mousseline – the very essence of cauliflower, butter, and cream – everything was refined, mild, and lovely. No culinary trickery, just top quality product prepared with a gifted hand.

The next course would provide my sister with an empty charger while I would receive the Sautéed “A” Steak of Foie Gras with Poached Pears, Huckleberries, Crushed Pistachios, Lemon Zest, and Rhubarb. A large steak of 3-4 ounces of high quality and perfectly cleaned Foie Gras, the liver itself was everything you would expect. Placed atop a “cake” of compressed pistachio and topped with roasted crunchy pistachios kissed with lemon the textures were a nice contrast and exceptionally complimentary. Swirled with rhubarb reduction and plated alongside a poached pear with huckleberries this dish did not attempt to reinvent the wheel, but much like the bass it was quite memorable for its classic approach.

Watching the water show outside through the window it would be a fair amount of time before our main courses arrived – a tad inconvenient for Erika but welcomed for me given the richness of the proceeding dishes and my inability to stop picking at the bread selection. When the mains arrived they would definitely prove to be worth the wait. For myself, Roasted Lamb Chops with Sweet Bell Pepper Farci turned out to be quite the substantial portion – easily 7-8oz including the bone. Prepared rare and extremely juicy yet easily cut with the side of the fork this was without a doubt a top-5 all time lamb preparation. Presented simply with rosemary, a stack of buttery potatoes, and a mélange of sweet bell peppers this would prove my favorite dish of the evening, regardless of how good the Foie Gras was.

My sister’s main course was a surprise to me – I didn’t know she fancied Pigeon. Titled simply as Roasted Pigeon with Wild Rice Risotto the dish was rustic French in every way. Brined and then roasted the whole split pigeon was an impressive portion with lovely golden skin and juicy flesh. Presented alongside equally well roasted carrots and asparagus plus a mélange of toothsome rice and fibrous mushrooms with corn and tomatoes I will note my sister did not love the rice as she felt it tasted a bit acidic, but to my taste it was actually quite pleasant in balancing the bird.

With our server checking in to see how everything was going we were next offered coffee – at $4 a person it was a pleasant but unmemorable blend served in clever Picasso cups with lips and an abstract nose on its side. Along with the coffee would arrive dessert, a la carte for each of us and surprisingly without a palate cleanser. Beginning first with my selection, strongly recommended by Robert, Hazelnut and Coffee Opera with Coffee Hazelnut Ice Cream and Brown Sugar Filberts was quite impressive in presentation. With a thin wedge of moist cake served on edge with a “shadow” of Hazelnut dust the flavor and texture of the cake was somewhere between almond dacquoise and tiramisu. Resting happily next to the tall and proud cake, a small ball of similarly flavored ice cream atop candied nuts – creamy and crunchy, a nice cake and ice cream combination but certainly nothing to write home about.

My sister’s dessert, billed as the restaurant’s signature sweet, would be Warm Chocolate Fondant with Caramel Candy Cashew Ice Cream and Chocolate covered Cashews. Essentially a warm chocolate lava cake that gushed forth liquid fudge when pierced the presentation of this dish was quite attractive and the cake tasty, but the true star of the show was invariably the ice cream which took the idea of salty caramel ice cream and instead made it salty cashew – lovely, and absolutely stunning when paired with the cake and some of the crunchy cashews semi-circling the plate.

Sated and happy the check would come next – a relative bargain compared to the other Michelin 2-Stars in Las Vegas to be sure. Along with the check a small tray of mignardises including an airy vanilla meringue, an apricot pate de fruit, a few fruit and nut cookies, and a goat cheese lollipop with a crisp of apple – all tasty, none overly impressive save for a rich chocolate ganache with four layers of texture and chocolate tones.

Settling the bill Robert asked us if we would like a photograph by one of the many Picasso’s or by the lake – “both” was the only logical response. With a requested copy of the menu in hand I will note that Robert got sidetracked by multiple persons asking for photos, but eventually ours was taken and we bid him farewell before making our way to the door where my sister (not I) would be presented with a box of crispy cinnamon butter cookies in a lovely magnetic jewelry box bearing the Artist’s signature.

Making our way from Picasso I must say I left with mixed emotions – not because anything was bad – as a matter of fact, everything was quite good. The issue was that aside from a lovely Christmas Eve with my little sister at a restaurant that seemed unattainable a mere 8 years ago, nothing was “great” aside from the décor and art. In the end I think Picasso has maintained its place in the Vegas culinary scene – it is just that many other restaurants, and my own personal dining preferences, have perhaps grown to be something more.

Julienne Cafe, San Marino CA

A Kings win, the first I’d seen live in nearly 6 years, ended December 23, 2010 on a very happy note and waking up early on Christmas Eve we’d be departing Los Angeles en route for Las Vegas bright and early. Staying east of the city and having been made aware of a unique spot in San Marino, essentially a five minute detour to our morning, we checkout out and made our way through the quaint little city arriving at Julienne shortly after 7:30am – the patio would already be full and the inside bustling with patrons to both the restaurant and the attached gourmet restaurant. With folks clad in everything from Rudolph sweaters to USC Trojans athletic wear the crowd was a mixed group but everyone was smiling and happy as Christmas tunes piped in overhead.

Seated without delay, our server Herbert would show up rather quickly with menus and drink orders were placed. Browsing the menu – eclectic but delicious sounding – we waited for a rather long time before drinks would arrive, however water was filled quite rapidly by an ancillary server. When drinks arrived – two coffees and two teas – they were in pretty glass mugs…mugs that would sit empty for substantial periods of time despite repeated requests for refills throughout the meal. While I cannot comment as to how many tables he was serving, I will note that all in all Herbert was quite sub-par and his interaction with our table was essentially the same as a runner – dropping off plates, collecting empty plates, but never checking in or offering refills unless prompted.
With orders placed we were told it would be approximately twenty minutes before plates would arrive and took the opportunity to browse the store – a unique collection of artisan goods and house made items to go. Clearly catering to the Christmas crowd there were innumerable cookies and confections being picked up from the counter and all in all everything looked excellent. Returning to our table it would be only a few moments before our first item would arrive – well before our drink refills.
For our appetizer the decision was made to split a scone because the hostess who sat us specifically noted “if they have any scones left you have to try them – so good.” With my mom skeptical of scones and my experiences mixed I will have to tip my hat – this was the best scone I’ve ever tasted. Slightly dry but punctuated with pockets of lemon butter, the Lemon Crème Brulee Scone clocked in at $5 and likely a full pound of weight. Easily half the size of a football the scone was more than enough to share and as good as it was on its own the addition of a crackling lemon cream and dried currants only made the dish better. This is absolutely a must order to anyone who takes the opportunity to visit Julienne – it is worth the trip from Los Angeles.
With such an excellent start it would admittedly be difficult for our entrees to keep pace with the scone, but the effort was valiant. Beginning first with my mother’s seasonal pancakes - Pumpkin Pancakes with candied quince, crystallized ginger Butter, Pure Maple Syrup, dried currants – the pancakes were a tad heavy due to the ample amount of pumpkin within, but the lovely tender quince and ample notes of ginger worked to add some spice and levity to the dish. Almost savory on their own, the maple syrup was certainly necessary to this dish and served warm it accomplished its purpose admirably.
My sister’s selection, Bittersweet Chocolate Chip Waffles with Honey Vanilla Crème Fraiche, Shaved Chocolate, Fruit was a disappointment in my opinion, though I’ll note she enjoyed it. With small and largely bland waffles – literally Eggo size, and not much more nuanced in flavor – serving as the base the best aspect of this dish was the impressive fresh fruit. Topped with grated milk chocolate and ripe strawberries, blackberries, and raspberries that balanced nicely with the mildly sweet crème fraiche it is a shame that the waffle itself didn’t hold up its end of the bargain.
My aunt’s selection would prove to be the best option of the breakfast by a long distance – it was Griddle Café quality and perhaps better. Titled Baked Crème Brulee French Toast with Fresh Strawberry Sauce and Creme Anglaise the French toast itself was a large wedge of brioche, clearly premade given its level of custardization. Subsequently baked in the oven and then bruleed on each side to form a crackling sugar shell the toast was then doused in rich crème Anglaise, light maple syrup, and warm Strawberry compote. Dazzling in texture and taste, this dish along with the scone indicates that perhaps Julienne should brulee everything.
My choice, obvious to anyone who knows me, was the Bread Pudding French Toast with Fresh Peach Sauce, dried currants. While I still cannot distinguish what made the “Bread Pudding” different from the “Baked” version of French Toast at Julienne, that isn’t a bad thing since my dish featured the same lovely custard toast baked to a golden crisp, but instead topped with the very essence of pureed peach and currants. While I must say I was a tad disappointed that my strawberries were less ripe and tasty than those provided to the others, they certainly weren’t bad – just a bit bitter. Left with one choice I’d go with the Crème Brulee French Toast, but that is largely represents my love of Crème Anglaise moreso than anything being wrong with my dish.
Sitting and waiting with dirty plates on the table for some time before our waiter would finally return we watched a small line grow outside Julienne – clearly they are not hurting for business. Figuring that if we paid a dollar for every word uttered by our waiter the tip would only be about 7%, we settled for slightly more than that and made our way to the street having spent approximately $20 each on breakfast. Driving back through the quaint town and seeing all the Latin inspired architecture I can’t say I’d rush back to Julienne as a tourist across the country, but if I lived in Los Angeles I’d make the trek…but I’d avoid Herbert’s section at all costs.

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.