Monday, February 1, 2010

Drago Centro (Los Angeles, CA)

Quick note: All photos were taken by Nick with his slamdickityslick camera.

My good friend Nick and I wanted to re-ignite the spark that was missing from our Bro-Mance after a month of working at our new jobs. What better way than to re-unite over food? So we planned to meet for dinner during DineLA. After perusing the menus over the course of a week, we settled on Drago Centro.. conveniently located 3 blocks away from my office :P

For those unfamiliar to the Downtown  area, one way streets, or the massive building park that Drago Centro is located in, you may get lost going to the restaurant. If you rely on your navigation you may get lost since it takes you down the wrong street. Not only is the restaurant hard to see at night, the underground parking is even harder.

The opening is no more than 2 car lengths wide and the signage is in small text/unlit at night.  For those that do go... the entrance is on 5th, right past Flower, immediately on your left... 3 hour free valet parking with validation, a rarity in Downtown nowadays.

After you've finally found Drago you're greeted by a sleek modern decor. What used to be adorned with blood red chairs and modern art in its first year of conception is now occupied by black paint, glass, and bright light spotlighting a few tables. My kind of restaurant! I'm a sucker for dark decor with white linen and bright lights shining on the tables but not the diners. Reminds me of the Staples Center during Laker games.
Now when we first entered the restaurant we were set on getting the DineLA menu. Drago was one of the few places where their DineLA menu actually matched their own menu. They weren't giving you a half assed attempt at a "prix fixe" menu to draw you in and feed you food they'd never serve on their own menu. I don't know how many times I've seen chicken dishes on DineLA.. ugh.. a real pity. I remember back 4-5 years ago when San Diego's Restaurant Week gave you 3-4 choices off of the restaurant's regular menu...

That's a rant for another day............... and we're back on topic.

BUT our plans were thrown array when the waitress told us one of the specials of the day, Fresh Shaved Black Truffles over Ricotta stuffed Agnolotti. I'll be damned if I wasn't ordering that as one of the dishes. After huddling for a quick audible, Nick and I decided to individually get an appetizer and a pasta and split the black truffle dish.

We discussed our intentions with our server and she happily offered to have it put in as our "second" course.

After our menus were whisked away, we were promptly served with the Amuse. 

Fresh Mozzarella with a basil puree and micro parsley

A light yet flavorful beginning to the meal. The creamy texture of the basil mixed with the cheese combined into a sea of soft milky goodness. Lickin my lips from the get go.

Shortly after the Amuse we were given a bread basket of pipping hot bread.

Really, who can say no to hot crunchy crusted ciabatta and french loaf? Certainly not I and if you do.. I'm pretty sure you also hate puppies and sunshine.

And what after destroying the bread basket we started on the appetizers.

First up to bat is the
La Burrata

Burrata, tomatoes, olive oil, crostino

There are few dishes out there that I almost have to order when I see it. Anything with Burrata and tomatoes is on that short list. It's that almost marshmallow like pull to the cheese that makes me do the happy dance in my mouth. Didn't hurt that this plate came with three generous pieces of God's gift to cheese.

We had to get one of their most popular appetizers...

l’insalata di polipo

 baby octopus salad, blood orange, wild greens

I felt the octopus was a little chewy but I really enjoy the bitterness that comes from wild greens. They add an oompf to the dish that mixes really well with the bold citrus of blood orange. 
We quickly dispensed with the appetizers and moved onto the second course. I could smell the second course coming from a mile away. The rich aroma of funk is so distinct that you can't forget it.

Yum. Black truffles.

Even yummier, black truffles over my pasta. 

Ricotta Agnolotti, olive oil, black truffle from Norcia

A simple dish. Egg based Agnolotti made in house, a light fresh olive oil, stuffed with creamy ricotta. Simply put together to allow the black truffle to shine.  Nick's first experience with black truffle and I could tell I've ruined his wallet for life. There's just something about the earthy richness that truffle imparts to a dish that just makes every taste bud in your mouth sing for joy. 

Oh by the way, what you see above is a half portion. O_O! Imagine eating two plates of that. Drago is certainly generous with the truffles!

Our tastebuds had to rest after such a treat our "main" courses arrived. 

 le pappardelle al fagiano

pappardelle, roasted pheasant, morel mushrooms

I would be hard pressed to find more perfectly cooked pappardelle. The thickness of the noodle was perfect and the creme they added to the sauce gave it excellent structure. One of the best cooked pastas I've had the pleasure of eating. 

The pheasant is prepared two ways. The pheasant leg is confit and the breast is sous vide. After they are cooked separately they are then sauteed together with a creme reduction. 

i paccheri

paccheri, spot prawns, puttanesca sauce

Puttanesca is a hearty but salty sauce that's far more tangy than rich like your normal tomato based sauces. They fill this sauce with capers and herbs to give it that savory taste. It's accompanied by two expertly cooked spot prawns. Unlike most spot prawns that have a very dense meaty characteristic to it, these were incredibly soft. Both styles have their place for my palate but I really enjoyed this preparation.

After talking to the GM Matteo and Chef Drago over the course of dinner, they knew I had a passion for food...or as my lovely girlfriend would say aka I am a fatty. So they offered us a surprise after we finished our pasta. Normally when I think surprise from the chef I expect a dessert or a taste of something.. not a full blown entree for each of us.

The waitress set in front of both of us
la trota salmonata

arctic char, swiss chard, beet puree

To be honest, I had looked at this dish before we ordered our pasta and I considered ordering it. What pulled me away was my constant bad experiences with seafood at Italian restaurants. Fortunately my luck had changed. I LOVE LOVE LOVE when fish is left rare in the center. Not raw like seared Ahi, but a medium rare piece of fish. It adds so much to the complexity of the fish and really shows the quality of the fish as well. This dish was a perfect example of that. A crisp peppered skin on the top and a beautiful piece of artic Char on the bottom.

The beet sauce was subtle and did not overwhelm the delicate flavors of the artic char. It all worked wonderfully together and I'm glad I've finally had a good piece of fish at an Italian restaurant.

Our waitress came by after we finished the seafood course and asked if we wanted to partake in any desserts. She offered us her two favorites, the spumoni and Meyer lemon squares, as suggestions. The way she described the spumoni sounded scrumptious so we had to order it to share.

lo spumone

pistachio semifreddo, cherry gelato, chocolate, meringue

The dish requires you to split it open to get into the multiple layers. What a delightful play on an old Italian dessert classic. Marshmallow meringue holding in the layers of pistachio creme with a center of cherry gelato and a base of chocolate cake. I really enjoyed the meringue, it added a candied flavor to the dessert that brought all the flavors together nicely. 

Once we started to get into the dessert a new plate landed in front of us once again compliments of the house.

 la crostata di limone

  meye lemon tart, thyme meringue, vanilla shortbread, mascarpone gelato

I was not as enamored with this dessert as the previous. I'm just not a giant fan of heavy lemon based items. I don't like key lime pie and I'm don't like lemon sorbet. If you were a lemon fanatic you can taste the fresh tart lemon over a nice vanilla shortbread. But the lemon was just too much for me, especially since I just finished something very sweet. 
What I did like were those little candy bars along the tarts. They melt away in your mouth in a mascarpone goodness.

All in all an excellent meal. One of the best Italian restaurants I've had in Los Angeles. Hopefully you trust my opinion enough to know that I was not swayed by the lure of free food in giving this restaurant a good review. I really enjoyed it and I enjoyed the personal level of service at the restaurant. The wait staff was professional and they were very accommodating with Nick taking pictures. They even set a small table on the side for him to put his bag. 
Matteo runs a tight ship and the dedication and passion was obvious whenever he came to talk to us about the food we were eating. I'm glad I tried this restaurant and I'm glad I finally found a good Italian restaurant in LA.

I'll leave you with a picture of Nick, Hostess, Chef Drago, and I!

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

a thousand apologies

Once again I ask you to excuse my lack of posting. The holiday seasons rushed upon me and I just started my new job downtown on monday.. got plenty of food to post about.. but not enough time to make it happen.

Once I settle down I'll try and upload more vacation photos and local restaurants. Thanks for bearing with me faithful readers =)

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

The Dining Room at The Langham Hotel (Pasadena, CA)

My twenty-sixth year of life passed last month and to celebrate that momentous occasion, as well as Kathy and I passing the California Bar (yah! more attorneys!), Kathy treated me to the Chef's Tasting menu at The Dining Room at the Langham Hotel in Pasadena. More famously known as the restaurant in which the the newest winner of Top Chef, Michael Voltaggio, resides as the Executive Chef. After watching Michael's creations on Top Chef and realizing the restaurant he works at isn't too far from me, I had dreams of going there to have dinner.  As luck would have it, my girlfriend is generous and treated me as a birthday gift/surprise.

The restaurant is located in the Langham Hotel in South Pasadena. Tucked into the back hallways of the hotel, it occupies a small space in the overall property. The restaurant itself is going to be closing Q1 2010 for a remodeling. It's currently in a more.. "old school" setting that doesn't really match the imagination of the cuisine.

Kathy asked me what I wanted to eat.. and I said Seven Course Chef's Tasting please! They have three options at the restaurant. You can order 4 courses or 5 courses off the menu.. there is no ala carte option. The final option is the previously mentioned Chef's tasting.

The tasting started off with three breads from the bread basket for our first bread tasting.

Bacon bread, Country-style sourdough, and Black Olive bread.

According to the waitress, the black olive is the most popular.. but it was the only one I didn't get.. since I hate olives.

The bacon bread (left) was filled with smoked bacon goodness. The bread itself was light and airy and I thought it was a bit overpowered by the bacon. It's not that I don't like bacon bread, the bacon bread at Providence was incredible.. but I just wish.. there was more of a dough flavor on this one.

The Country Style was a nice loaf of bread. Didn't stick out to me as anything special.. other than it was warm, went great with butter, but still lacked that dough-ness I like in bread.

We were promptly served the amuse bouche

White Chocolate topped with passion fruit foam and cavier

This dish was the start of what I believe is one of the more whimsical dinners I've had in a long while. The dishes are playful and carefree, as if you were served a joke and once you ate it, it'd put a big smile on your face.

Rich white chocolate is matched by the citrus zest of the passion fruit. The fruit flavors bring out the sweetness from the chocolate but make it more streamlined so that it doesn't over power the brine of the cavier. The cavier flavor was also subtle and gave the dish a very clean, refreshing taste.

Served once again a bit quick.. was our first appetizer of the evening.

Japanese Shima Aji

Japanese Shima Aji served below Sea Sponge and complimented with a seasoned Bonito flake and Pickled Japanese Pear

The Aji was served raw with a light ponzu style dressing and a small dab of fresh wasabi. First, I love Aji. Without a doubt, my favorite fish for sushi... so to have a nice piece like this was a boon indeed. Aji is oily and meaty, the meat isn't soft like tuna/salmon but has a sturdier texture but it is incredibly rich in flavor.. the sea sponge that accompanies it, to the best of my knowledge was intended for texture and not as a flavor component. It was soft and nearly melted in your mouth.

The accompanying Bonito flake was prepared in a way to make it taste like bacon.. which I found entertaining. And the pit-less pear added a nice compliment of sour to the dish.
After our first appetizer we were served our second bread course.

Black Truffle Brioche

Served with Goat Cheese butter. 

This is hands down. HANDS DOWN the best bread I have had at a restaurant in a long long time. The brioche was SO moist , it was like biting into a cloud. On top of that there was truffle all up in its heezy so you got that rich buttery texture to go with the brioche ... I was in cloud nine. Then you add in a delicious goat cheese butter? man.. life doesn't get much better when it comes to eating bread.

After God's gift to bread was served, we were given the next appetizer,


Langoustine served on top of a Lobster Mushroom Lasagna with young fennel and a porcini mushroom sauce.

Langoustine is a "Norway Lobster", but for all intent and purposes .. taste like a lobster, has the texture of a lobster but the size of a large fresh water shrimp. The Langoustine is served on top of a "lasagna", which for all intent and purposes is mushroom mash with one piece of noodle. Do not let that description fool you, this was Kathy's favorite dish and I also enjoyed it. The pasta was just the perfect thickness and was cooked just right... one of the finest "piece"(s) of pasta I have ever had the pleasure of tasting. The mushroom "mash" was so creamy and rich I thought it was Foie Gras.. you mix that in with the porcini sauce and you have a very hearty Fall dish.

Our next appetizer was served up after we sopped up the porcini sauce.

Foie Gras

Aerated Brioche, concord grape jam, and sunchoke

Another playful interpretation of a classic dish, the peanut butter and jelly sandwich. The piece of Foie is lightly frozen and has a surprise waiting in the center.

Concord grape jam! gooey and sweet, it goes perfectly with the nutty flavor of the foie. That combination worked great for me. The component that I didn't like was the brioche. The concept was cool... light pillowy bread but one of the pieces tasted like Windex and it tainted it for me. Odd experience. A+ for creativity, B- for execution.

Our first entree of the night was seafood


served with a madras curry and pumpkin seed granola with a side of butternut squash and yogurt. 

I've never had Turbot so this was a surprise to me. It looked like halibut but it had a steakier and less flaky texture.  I guess it would need to be a meaty type of fish to hold up to the dark flavors of the butternut squash and granola. Surprisingly, my favorite part of the dish was the granola. It was sweet and crunchy and paired really well with the oil content in the fish. It was the type of dish where if you ate it without the granola it would have been okay, but eating it with all the parts really made it a few notches better.

Our first meat course of the day was

Pastrami Pigeon

served with Swiss Cheese, Pureed Sauerkraut, and whipped rye

Pigeon. I know.. Pigeon. The flying rat. When we first got it I wasn't sure if I heard it right. But man oh man that is one fine piece of Pastrami. There was this really savory hickory flavor to it and it almost tasted like smoked ham. The meat was fatty like duck breast but not quite as meaty. Some of the best pastrami I've had, even though it was probably carrying someone's mail a few days ago :P

Our final entree was

Jameson Farm Lamb

served with Vadouvan, Pickled Tongue, Celery, Raisin, Tempura Peanut Butter. 

Vadouvan is a curry spice, a combination of onions, shallots, garlic, and Indian spices.. the lamb is seasoned with it and sliced in a large chunk. A fantastic piece of lamb, with no gameness, just big bold flavor and cooked a perfect medium rare. The PB tempura really hits the spot. The outside shell is a fluffy coating of crust and inside is a nice piece of nutty peanut butter. You mix that natural sweetness with the pickled tongue and you have a nice blend of flavors to match with the depth of the vadouvan spice. This was my favorite dish of the night by far and it really impressed me how such a small piece of each item could pack such a powerful combination of flavors. 

In between our entrees and the dessert, we had the dessert appertif.

Raspberry and creme ice cream

 or as I normally call them.. Dip and Dots. :P. The creme really strikes me in the dish, it presents it self far clearer than the raspberry does. The sweetness of the raspberry is there fighting side by side for dominance with the creme but it has that kick of sour that these berries normally have on the finish that is really refreshing with the ice cold dots. I'd like a large one to go!

our dessert for the night was their signature

Fools Gold

Chocolate, salty Hazelnut Praline, Milk Sorbet, cookie reef.

This dessert was breathtaking. A play on the ocean floor, it's almost like a child's drawing put onto a plate. When we first heard the dish they said Chocolate Ganache I thought "Oh I hope Michael did this dish better than his brother Bryan did!". Fortunately, he did and for all the crap he gave his brother about it on Top Chef he was able to deliver it on his end. The ganache was so rich and chocolaty and when you have it with the hazelnut praline, it almost tastes like an Almond Roca. When you toss in the surprisingly decadent milk ice cream and salt it tastes like the Haagen Dazs Reserve Fleur De Lis Caramel ice cream. This is not an insult. I love that ice cream. I love the way sea salt brings out the richness in a dessert dish and it was applied excellently here.

One of the best desserts I've had the pleasure of having in a long while.

Finally we had some candies to end the night

The only thing that was really special was the chocolate lollipops. When you bite into them you suddenly feel a crackle and pop in your mouth. They had made the lollipops with pop rocks. So every bite you get POP POP POP POP. Really fun and an entertaining end to the meal.

The meal was excellent, from top to bottom one of the best meals I've had in Los Angeles (and I've been fortunate to go to a chunk of the top restaurants). Like I said before, I really enjoyed the forethought that was put into the creation of these dishes. They weren't just dishes that tasted good, they were dishes that gave you an emotional reaction. You felt when you ate the Turbot and Langoustine that you were eating in November, it was fall and the leaves were falling outside. When you had the lollipop you felt like a kid again... and I think that was the intention.

As well, the service was mostly excellent. The manager walked me to the restroom when I asked him for directions (inside the hotel, outside the restaurant) and we chit chatted for a bit. We had multiple servers who were always ready to help us with our questions/requests. The ONLY problem I had was.. all this took 2 hours to eat. That's a REALLY fast paced meal. I even asked them to slow it down. We probably had 3-5 minutes between each plate removal to the new plate... that definitely needs to be worked on.

Either way, I highly suggest trying this restaurant. Either before the year ends or when they come back with the remodeling. Hopefully by then, the drab OLD interior will be gone and there will be something more modern and fresh to match the delightful cuisine.