Sunday, November 9, 2008

The Neighborhood Italian Restaurant - Drago Ristorante (Santa Monica)

Drago is one of those long-standing L.A. Italian eateries that I've heard some mention of, but have never had a chance to try. Opened in Santa Monica in 1991 by Chef Celestino Drago, the fact that it's been around this long must mean something.

When we arrived in front of Drago on our first visit, I realized I must've passed by Drago countless times in the past, while driving through the neighborhood for other destinations. It's located on a quieter stretch of Wilshire Boulevard, and upon entering, it revealed a clean, quiet Dining Room and a Bar along the right side (with a private Dining Room beyond that). For a restaurant that's almost 18 years old, it's held up admirably, maintaining a generous decor without feeling antiquated. But sadly, it was mostly empty (only about 30% capacity), and felt a bit too quiet at times.

Drago's menu features 3 basic sections: Antipasti (Appetizers), Pasta e Risotti, and Carne e Pesce (Meat and Fish). Their Wine List looked particularly impressive with a good selection of bottles under $50 in addition to some rarer wines priced well into the triple digits and beyond. Drago is currently being helmed by Chef Juan Carlos Miranda, who's studied under Chef Celestino Drago for the last 13+ years.

We began with the Burratini (Layers of Diced Heirloom Tomato, Avocado and Burrata Cheese in a Martini glass with Micro Purple Basil, Balsamic Jelly and Olive Oil).

Fundamentally, this is a classic combination of ingredients (a Tomato Burrata Salad), and it held up just as well in this interpretation. The diced Heirloom Tomato pieces were fresh and sweet, and the Burrata Cheese was very fresh and creamy. It didn't reach the level of the wonderful Burrata Basilicata at Osteria Mozza, but it was fine. The quality of the Olive Oil was decent, but a better version would've elevated this dish.

Our waiter then brought out an Amuse Bouche: Bruschetta and Rice Cone with Puree of Peas. The Bruschetta was spot-on: Sweet, diced Tomatoes and Olive Oil. The Rice Cone was interesting and odd-shaped, with an outer crust of Deep-Fried Rice and a Puree of Peas inside. The texture was the best part of this Amuse Bouche, light and crunchy, but the stuffing was rather bland.

Our other appetizer arrived soon after: Insalatina Estiva di Vegetali Organici e Formaggio di Capra (Medley of Organic Baby Vegetables, Micro Greens and Goat Cheese).

This was a nice twist on the usual Goat Cheese salad, using cooked Organic Vegetables as the foundation. And while ostensibly a disorganized mess of vegetables, they came together with great success: The White and Green Asparagus, Haricots Verts, Yellow Cherry Tomatoes, Brussel Sprouts and Micro Greens provided a good earthy, yet refreshing flavor combination, but the highlight was the Porcini Mushrooms which really bridged the individual vegetables together with the Goat Cheese.

Our first pasta dish arrived a few minutes later, a special pasta dish for the evening: Garganelli Pasta with Zucchini Flowers, Poached Shrimp in Lobster Sauce.

The Garganelli Pasta was the only pasta that evening that wasn't made in-house, unfortunately, and it was noticeable. While the Garganelli was cooked al dente, with a good firm texture, it tasted like store-bought, dried pasta. The Poached Shrimp was cooked just right, but the Lobster Sauce was really salty. The herbal notes from the Parsley helped break things up, but the saltiness from the Lobster Sauce really overpowered everything. Disappointing.

Next up was their most popular pasta dish, according to our server: Pappardelle al Sugo di Fagiano e Morelle (Wide Noodle in a Pheasant and Morel Mushrooms Sauce).

Unlike the special pasta of the evening, the Pappardelle pasta was made fresh, in-house, and the difference was night-and-day, as expected. The Pappardelle was cooked just right, having a great texture, and just the right chew. And the pairing with the Pheasant meat was very nice. The unmistakable earthiness from the Morel Mushrooms bound everything together. Excellent!

Drago features a good variety of Main Entrees, and while we were trying to decide, our server suggested the Rabbit, which is what we settled on. Their Coniglio all' Agrodolce (Pan Roasted Rabbit in a Sweet and Sour Sauce) thankfully turned out to have a sauce that was a Red Wine Reduction rather than an Asian-inspired Sweet and Sour. :)

Served on a bed of Black Olives, the Rabbit was served with two sections, the Leg and Thigh, and the Breast portion. The Rabbit Breast portion was sadly everything that's commonly found with most Rabbit around town: Dry, and really dense, it was a very lean cut of meat, and just not very tasty. The Rabbit Leg portion was much better: Surprisingly moist and juicy, this was one of the better preparations of Rabbit I've had this year. The Balsamic Red Wine Reduction was strong enough to match well with the gaminess of the Rabbit. So half the entree was a miss, while the other half was decent.

We were too full to try any Desserts and stopped at this point. I wanted to get a better impression and explore more of the menu, so I returned for another visit a week later. On this second visit, the main Dining Room was packed (a good thing), the ambiance was much more lively.

One nice thing at Drago is that they can prepare a Primi portion for any of their Pastas or Risottos, and for this evening I decided to try out two more of their pastas. I began with their Cavatelli Fatti in Casa al Ragu di Capriolo e Porcini (Home-made Cavatelli Pasta with Venison Ragout).

The Cavatelli Pasta was house-made fresh that day, infused with Spinach for coloring and flavor. They were tender, but still retained a good texture to them, reminding me of a Gnocchi. But it was the Venison Ragout that really made this dish: Fragrant without too much gaminess, the sauce had a real, satisfying meaty facet and clung to each bite of the pasta.

Next was their special pasta of the evening, Paccheri Amatricciana (Ring-Shaped Pasta with Pancetta, Tomato and Onions). The Paccheri Pasta was another fresh, house-made pasta that served as a good complement to the Pancetta, Tomatoes and Onions. It was just on the border of being a typical "red sauce pasta dish," but the porky aroma of the Pancetta, fresh Tomato and Onion sauce really helped save this dish.

I decided to try their special entree of the day: Black Sea Bass, Lentil Ragout, Crisped Potatoes. Their Black Sea Bass was from Australia and served broiled. Surprisingly the Black Sea Bass was only a touch overcooked: It was mostly very tender, moist and buttery, with only a few sections of it being slightly dried out.

Unfortunately, it lacked in seasoning and execution: It tasted of Sea Salt and nothing more. The Lentil Ragout was excellent, however, with a good nuttiness matching the soft texture of the Lentils. But even with the Lentil Ragout and the Basil Olive Oil, the Black Cod's plain salt preparation really dominated the dish, making it disappointing at best.

Service for both visits was crisp and observant: Whenever we finished a dish, the waiter or busboy would clear out our plates within a minute or two at most. And someone was always nearby if we needed anything. We averaged about ~$60 per person (including tax and tip), which at those prices is bordering into upper echelon Italian restaurants around town.

From the decor to the food, Drago Ristorante in Santa Monica, feels like a well-worn jacket: Comfortable, familiar and not necessarily your best attire, but good enough. There's a good selection of Antipasti, and their house-made Pastas and extensive Wine List are reasons to drop in from time-to-time, but not as a destination restaurant. Their Entrees were disappointing, however, and ultimately, there's an intangible negative, but it's almost palpable: A restaurant that was once "fine dining" that's lost its luster. Drago in Santa Monica certainly isn't "run down" or anything of that level, but there's a lack of energy about the place (although that may be just fine if you're in the area and in the mood for a quiet dinner). Ultimately, Drago Ristorante feels like the "good, neighborhood Italian eatery" (albeit on the pricey side) that's a good fall back place when you don't feel like venturing out too far, but nothing more.

Rating: 7.0 (out of 10.0)

Drago Ristorante
2628 Wilshire Boulevard
Santa Monica, CA 90403
Tel: (310) 828-1585

Hours: [Lunch] Mon - Fri, 11:30 a.m. - 3:00 p.m.
[Dinner] Mon - Sat, 5:30 p.m. - 11:00 p.m.
Sunday, 5:30 p.m. - 10:00 p.m.

No comments:

Blog Widget by LinkWithin