Sunday, December 7, 2008

Downtown's Beautiful, New Italian Restaurant - Drago Centro

In the City of Angels, new restaurant openings seem to happen every few weeks. This past year alone has seen quite a few "big name" projects open, ranging from wine bars to brasseries to molecular cuisine amongst many other projects. While I was just about inundated with big, new openings, the one last, new restaurant for 2008 that has caught my eye for a while has finally opened up this past week: Drago Centro in Downtown L.A.

Thanks to the excellent coverage on Eater LA, I've been curious about what Chef-Owner Celestino Drago would create with this new Downtown L.A. location, a $7 million project converting the former Bank of America space. We arrived on a quiet weeknight, and after stepping off the elevator we were treated to a simply gorgeous entrance area and stunning view of the 15-foot tall, glass wine tower (which the GM was happy to show us - it's temperature controlled, and nicely sealed (all the outside music and noise from the restaurant went nearly silent when the door was closed)). Drago Centro is a beautiful restaurant, with vaulted ceilings, and a splendid marble bar area, yet it never feels stuffy or fussy.

The main dining room is classy, with clean lines and good lighting, and thankfully has some noise dampening added, as it's nowhere near as loud as places like Comme Ca or Osteria Mozza.

We ordered their Chef's Tasting Menu, which is not listed on the printed menu, but rather, By Request, with Chef Drago and Chef di Cucina Ian Gresik (formerly of Patina) happily obliging to accommodate however many courses you're interested in. After placing our order, bread service began with a choice of three types of bread (Olive Bread, Focaccia, Baguette) (currently baked off-site, but they're hoping to begin baking their own bread on-site soon), with some nice Extra Virgin Olive Oil from the Italian Riviera. The bread was serviceable, but nothing noteworthy; hopefully they'll start baking their bread on-site to have something to match the Olive Oil.

The Tasting Menu started off with an amuse-bouche of Asparagus Bruschetta.

This was an interesting amuse that surprised me: Chef Gresik takes delicate slices of Asparagus mixed with Olives, Golden Raisins and sets it atop a house-made Balsamic Vinaigrette Jam. The result is a lightly sweet, crisp crunch with notes of olives that are never too overpowering, softened by the Balsamic Jam, Asparagus and Golden Raisins.

Our first course was Il Carpaccio Di Langostino (Langoustine Carpaccio, Pomegranate, Micro Herbs, Citrus Dressing).

Drago Centro uses fresh Scottish Langoustines, flattened on the plate, and on this evening a surprise with a Yuzu Vinaigrette and fresh Yuzu zest. The result is outstanding: The Scottish Langoustines are *so* fresh and naturally sweet, and when combined with the slight tartness from the Pomegranate seeds, the herbally bite from the Micro Greens, and then the wonderfully fragrant Yuzu Citrus, this makes for a beautiful first course.

The second course turned out to be a signature dish from Chef Drago's eponymous restaurant in Santa Monica: Le Pappardelle Al Fagiano (Pappardelle, Roasted Pheasant, Morel Mushrooms).

Everything about this dish is outstanding: Chef Drago takes sous-vide Pheasant Breast and confit Pheasant Leg Meat and then shreds both types of meat together, combines them with Morel Mushrooms and creates the perfect ragout for the fresh, in-house made Pappardelle Pasta.

Nothing beats fresh-made pasta, and the Pappardelle is just a touch beyond al dente (which I prefer), supple, but with a great chew and texture. The Morel's idiosyncratic aroma and extremely tender Pheasant all combine to make pasta perfection. (^_^)

There's only one word to describe the next dish as it was brought out: Stunning. Il Risotto "Vialone Nano" Con Barbabietole Rosse e Gamberi (Risotto, Red Beet Puree, Spot Prawns).

The dish is insanely, but naturally, pink-red in color! It's so visually intense, that it almost looks synthetic or artificial, but the striking color actually comes from the use of the Red Beet Puree and chunks of fresh Beets added into the Risotto. It's probably one of the most visually arresting dishes I've seen in years.

Chef Drago also uses Vialone Nano Risotto, a Northern Italian grain rice that when cooked through, will still give off a nice little crunch in the center of the grain, while still having a soft exterior. It's topped off with a fresh Santa Barbara Spot Prawn that's wonderfully sweet. The end result is a luscious Risotto dish, both visually and taste-wise, with a decadence with the Shellfish Reduction mixed in with the Red Beet Risotto and a good creaminess, while still having a great lightness to it all due to Vialone Nano rice and Red Beet Puree. Excellent.

The next course arrives soon after: La Razza (Crispy Skate, Caponata Siciliana, Aged Balsamic).

I don't have Skate very often, so I was interested to see how Drago Centro's version would turn out. Chef Gresnik lightly pan sears the Skate before finishing it off in the oven, and the result is a nicely crisped, yet still tender Skate. It was just a touch overcooked (a little dry around the edges), but otherwise fine. For those new to Skate, its texture is almost akin to a cross between Crab and Scallop at times.

The Caponata Siciliana was an interesting accompaniment, perhaps a bit too disparate at times (my guest felt it was wildly different) with the Eggplant, Bell Peppers and Pine Nuts, fighting with the Golden Raisins and Anchovies atop the Aged Balsamic Vinaigrette.

The next course was something I requested specifically, since I saw it on their regular menu: L'Osso Buco D'Agnello (Lamb Ossobuco, Fontina Gnocchi, Pumpkin, Lamb Jus).

I love Lamb, and I don't see Lamb Osso Buco very often, so I was really excited to try it at Drago Centro. Breaking it apart and taking a bite, the Lamb tasted... old. It had the taste of a dish made yesterday or the day before, and then reheated (or just some old lamb). The Red Wine Reduction was nice, giving it a good foundation, but unfortunately, the Lamb itself was very disappointing. :(

Thankfully the fresh-made Fontina Gnocchi provided some highlights in the otherwise disappointing dish, being absolutely *airy* and so light and delicate, these were some of the best Gnocchi I've had in the past year.

Our final course of the evening was: Il Semifreddo Alle Nocci (Walnut Semifreddo, Roasted Figs, Port Gastrique, Prosecco Sorbet). I've been disappointed with Desserts at many local restaurants recently, but the Il Semifreddo Alle Nocci (a Semi-Frozen Custard) at Drago Centro is amazing! (^_^)

Imagine the most delicate, semi-frozen Walnut-infused Custard, with Roasted Black Mission Figs, Candied Walnuts and a wonderfully thought-provoking Port Gastrique, all combining together with the Prosecco Sorbet to make a Dessert that is never too sweet, fragrant, nutty, and just soul-moving in the amount of happiness it brought with each bite. Absolutely wonderful!

They provided some complementary Petit Fours at the end of the dinner: House-made Spice Chocolate. This was a Dark Chocolate Square infused with Cardamom, Nutmeg, Cloves, Cinammon amongst other spices with a creamy center. This was very aromatic, with each bite giving way to multiple spices. Very nice.

After dinner, Chef Celestino Drago was kind enough to show us around the kitchen and show off his prized antique Slicer that he found recently and happily brought to the restaurant.

I was so impressed with the service and overall experience that I couldn't wait to come back for another visit, and to see more of Drago Centro's creations. :)

For my second visit, I started off with one of their Nuovi Classici (New Classics) Cocktails: Dolce Vita (Altesino Brunello Grappa, Monin Pomegranate, Black Grapes, Fresh Lemon Juice). This had a nice kick to the drink from the Grappa, but it wasn't overwhelming from a pure alcohol perspective, with the Monin Pomegranate and Lemon Juice helping to bring things into focus.

For the second night's Chef's Tasting Menu, Chef Drago started off with an amuse-bouche of: Il Fegato D'Anatra (Foie Gras Creme Caramel, Fig Puree).

I wish I could capture the lighter-than-air texture of the Foie Gras Creme Caramel. I wish I could bottle the feeling that came over me from eating something that exceeded the best flan I've ever had in my life (but strangely, yet very satisfyingly infused with the lushness of excellent Foie Gras). Instead, I'll have to simply say that this was one of the best individual dishes I've ever had. :)

The first course was their: I Carciofi (Grilled Artichoke, Belgian Endive, Bronte Pistachios, EVOO Sabayon).

This was another excellent dish, with a beautiful presentation. The Artichokes were prepared Barigoule-style first, before grilling, which gave each bite a light taste of Garlic, Thyme and Parsley layered amongst the Artichoke. There was just the right interplay between the bitterness and bite of the Radicchio with the Artichoke and the nutty sweetness of the Candied Pistachios. Excellent!

Prior to the start of this Tasting Menu, Chef Drago came out to ask me if I wanted to try a few dishes showcasing some beautiful White Truffles he had just received that morning from Alba. I consented and looked forward to what he might be preparing.

The first of the White Truffle dishes was: Uovo In Camicia (literally "Egg in a Shirt"), made up of Wild Asparagus, Poached Egg, Pan-Seared Foie Gras, Diced Grilled Potatoes, topped with Alban White Truffles.

As General Manager Matteo Ferdinandi was shaving slices of the White Truffle onto the dish, the aroma was incredible (as expected) and mesmerizing. Breaking the Poached Egg and mixing the Egg Yolk with all the ingredients before taking a bite, the result was like a ridiculously aromatic power breakast. The Poached Egg Yolk mixing with the crisped Foie Gras and bits of Grilled Potatoes, along with the slices of White Truffles was absurdly good. :)

The next course arrived soon after: Home-made Fettuccine, White Truffle-Parmesan Fondue, White Truffles.

As before, the fresh-shaving of the White Truffle was wonderful, as was the fresh-made Fettuccine Pasta. With all the variations on Italian Pastas around town, I realized that it had been more than a year since I last had the simple Fettuccine noodle at a restaurant (which was one of my favorites growing up :). The fresh Fettuccine didn't disappoint: The outstanding texture that only comes from fresh-made pasta came shining through with a nice bite and yet was still tender.

And while the Fresh White Truffles were delicious, unfortunately the White Truffle-Parmesan Fondue was just too heavy and too salty. The overly thick sauce dominated the dish at times, and covered up the White Truffle's aroma and flavors. In showcasing the White Truffle, I preferred the previous White Truffle Uovo dish, as well as Craft's Raviolo presentation over this one.

Continuing on, Il Caciucco (Seafood Ragout, Vegetables, Tomato Broth) arrived next. Chef Drago's version included a Scottish Langoustine, Branzino, Carlsbad Mussel, Manila Clams, and Small Bay Scallops.

Each of the seafood items tasted fresh and succulent, with the standouts being the Carlsbad Mussel - so tender, moist and sweet, and just-cooked-through - and the Scottish Langoustine. The Pattypan Squash was a nice complement as were the Micro Chervil dotted throughout, both helping to balance out the spicy, Tomato Seafood flavors.

The final savory course arrived next: Il Piccione Arrosto (Roasted Squab, Forest Mushroom Risotto).

Sadly, the Squab turned out to be overcooked. Many parts of the Squab were dried out, and the overall seasonings tasted rather mundane. The Chanterelle, King Trumpet and Hedgehog Mushrooms in the Risotto were very nice, giving a good, earthy, aromatic flavor with the Risotto.

The dessert course this evening was: La Coppa D'Agrumi (Layered Citrus Segments, Zabaglione, Mascarpone Gelato). This dessert included Sponge Cake in Marsala Wine, which lent some beautiful, complex sweet notes and contrasted the acidic, tart Ruby Red Oranges and Grapefruit slices. Ultimately, this was an interesting dessert, but just a bit too separated for its own good, with each of its elements being tasty, but not combining well at all.

For a restaurant that has only been open for a few days, Drago Centro's service was outstanding! Part of it may be good timing and eagerness-to-please with a new restaurant, but it's nice to visit a new restaurant and not have the service be one of the problems. Dishes were quickly removed when finished, drinks were refilled when low without asking (and covered to prevent any splashing), and only once did a server have to reach across my guest, followed by a quick, "Forgive the reach" apology, otherwise, it was really pleasant, outstanding service. Chef Drago and GM Matteo Ferdinandi were always greeting the guests and coming around to see how things were from time-to-time; a nice gesture.

Dishes range from $9 - $75 (Porterhouse for Two), with most dishes in the ~$15 - $20 range. The Chef's Tasting Menu on the first evening was $85 (before tax and tip), and the White Truffle supplemented Tasting Menu was $140 (before tax and tip).

After dinner, Chef Drago showed off the Vault Dining Room, a section of the restaurant that used to be the Vault for Bank of America. While not yet completed, Chef Drago mentions that he hopes to have Private Cooking Classes and other events, and there are cameras set up that overlook the cooking area, with 2 HDTVs set up to display the close-ups to all the tables in the room.

He finished by showing off the newly-installed Enomatic Wine System.

Drago Centro is an excellent Italian restaurant, that shows signs of the growing pains of a new business: While they have a few disappointing menu items (such as their Lamb Osso Buco), there are many outstanding offerings as well (like their Roasted Pheasant Pappardelle, and Red Beet Risotto with Spot Prawns). Combined with the outstanding service, gorgeous decor and classy, but disarming ambiance, Drago Centro is off to a good start. And while they've only been open for a few days, there's a lot to be excited about already.

Rating: 8.1 (out of 10.0)

Drago Centro
525 South Flower Street, Suite #120
Los Angeles, CA 90071
Tel: (213) 228-8998

(Note: During Dinner, Free 3-Hour Parking (w/ Validation) in their secured, underground Parking Structure beneath Drago Centro, with private elevator directly to the restaurant.)

Hours: Mon - Fri, 11:00 a.m. - 10:30 p.m.
Saturday, 5:00 p.m. - 10:30 p.m.
Closed Sundays.


Anonymous said...

Great review! It's nice to see Celestino starting to elevate some of his dishes that have been pretty much the same since what seems like the late 90s. Of course, now I can't afford to go there, but that's fairly irrelevant.

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Noah,

Thank you. :) I never made it out to Drago's original restaurant during the 90's, so it's good to know how it was back then.

You have to prepare yourself for Man Bites World Japan Day Part 2 one of these days. :)

Right Way to Eat said...

Woo, you got nice photos there! Downtown is getting more exciting and I'm glad to hear that there is another fine dining option up there.

I'm glad Chef Drago was very cool about you taking those photos and showing you around the wine room. The place look spectacular!

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Pepsi Monster,

Thanks. There's definitely some exciting venues in Downtown L.A. now (to balance the touristy stuff like Nokia Live :P).

If you end up going, please report back. :)

Right Way to Eat said...

Let me get back to you on Izakaya Bincho first. That is my more immediate goal. LOL

BTW, thanks for the lowdown on Honda Ya on downtown. I tried some of their stuff, but was on the fence about it. Your breakdown between that location and the OC's location helped me a bit on understanding about that place. Thanks again!

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Pepsi Monster,

Definitely! I hope you like your visit to Izakaya Bincho. :)

And np on the Honda-Ya info. Have you tried all 3 locations before?

Anonymous said...

I love all of Celestino's restaurants and frequent Drago and enoteca. I am very excited to try Drago Centro.
This was a great review and beautiful photos. I can't wait to try it.

Exile Kiss said...

Hi mamabites,

Thanks. It's good to know Enoteca is good as well.

I hope you enjoy your visit to Drago Centro and please report back if you end up going. :)

Anonymous said...

Nice photos. Looks delicious, and the space is lovely. I used to eat at the original all the time.

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Grubtrotters,

Thanks. It's definitely a beautiful location and nicely appointed. I had an enjoyable time and the GM and Chef Drago made the experience even better.

Right Way to Eat said...

Hi Exile Kiss,

I haven't all three yet. I have only been to Honda Ya in Little Tokyo twice within half a year.

I'm thinking about Kappo Honda lately, so that might be on my radar very soon!

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Pepsi Monster,

I see. Definitely give Izakaya Bincho a try first. Then after seeing how nice Tomo-san's cooking is, you can try Kappo Honda in O.C., and understand how that is, and how it compares to the Little Tokyo branch. Enjoy!

ila said...

everything is so much more exciting in LA! it tingles me to see all these exotic bird dishes.
about lamb osso bucco... i just had some at marche moderne in costa mesa, and it was phenomenal. unfortunately it was the lunch special though :[

Exile Kiss said...

Hi ila,

If you happen to be up in Downtown, definitely give Drago Centro a try. Some great food there. :)

Thanks for the reminder on Marche Moderne; love going there whenever I'm in the area. I'll have to go back and try their Lamb OB, thanks.

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