There hasn't been a more exciting time for L.A. food-lovers - it seems every week a new, inspired restaurant blossoms and joins the bountiful field. It's almost too much to try to keep up - the minute I put pen to paper for a list of places I want to try, it's already outdated. I LOVE the sheer number of choices on any given day in LA - and often fantasized about winning the lottery and quitting my job so that I could dedicate my days to trying every last one. But every so often I do want to step away from the wishlist (wish being the operative word!), the email alerts and the herds and just go with the flow.
So it was last week when my friend 'Designer' waved her Travelzoo certificate to Drago Ristorante, that I found myself very excited to check out a place that though long lauded as one of the top Italian places in the city, is an absolute dinosaur by LA dining scene standards. Drago Centro, the shinier, newer space in the same restaurant group, located in downtown LA - was on my list to try both for its inventive menu and all day Happy Hour. But I was intrigued by the idea of going to a place that I had driven past for the past 15 years and somehow never experienced; of seeing the earlier beginnings of Chef Celestino Drago's empire; and irresistibly lured by Travelzoo, which had made us an offer we couldn't refuse: $30 for a $60 3-course meal for two, plus 25% off a bottle of wine.
This may have easily been the best lamb I'd had this year - cooked 'medium', it was so tender and almost buttery that I let out an audible sigh. It was beautifully and subtly gamey, incredibly juicy and perfectly counterbalanced by the citrus infused farro for nice textural contrast. The sous-vide fennel was also amazing, with layers that resembled caramelized onion nearly melting away in your mouth on contact - and rich anise-like flavor. The portion was so generous I ended up with lunch-sized leftovers - which was just as delicious the next day. This dish made me wish I had a puppy - with the intoxicating flavors soaked to the marrow, I could imagine a small dog going to town on whatever microscopic morsels of meat I may have left un-emasculated on the bones.
Neither of us are wine connoisseurs, but with the 25% off deal we had decided to go with a Cinque Terre (Designer was delighted to see this on the list, as she had just visited the region last year and was sad that she didn't bring back more bottles, since it is so hard to find in LA). The bright, refreshing wine went really well with the fish - and we loved that the bottle ended up costing probably around the same as two glasses would.
Looking for a light finish, I went for the Coppa di Limone ($8) which was supposed to be made with mascarpone gelato, but was substituted with vanilla as they had run out that night, vanilla shortbread, meyer lemon curd, and blueberries. The citrus cut through the mild vanilla flavor of the gelato nicely and gave the refreshing last bites I was looking for - but wasn't spectacular, and I thought it could have been improved with blueberries that tasted more farmer's market fresh.
All in all, an incredible deal at what came out to $15 per person (before tax & tip) for food, and under $35 for the bottle of wine. The staff was also very warm and much more hospitable than I expected for a fine dining spot - we had such a great time we ended up closing out the place, and they never rushed us or treated us differently because we were using a deal.
Can't believe that all this time I had just driven by and that it took this long for us to experience Drago - like Serendipity, it felt a little like we were meant to be here, and glad that we were finally drawn to the right place.
Though not all the dishes were mind-blowing, the mains we had I thought were incredible - and it was good to see that the prices on the regular menu aren't as high as I originally expected. I had also enjoyed Chef Drago's other venture, Enoteca Drago in Beverly Hills, and am looking forward to checking out Drago Centro at some point. But in the meantime, I can see the reason for Drago's staying power - it's been around for what seems like an eternity on the LA dining scene. Would come back another time when I'm in the neighborhood - and hopefully next time it will not take another decade and a half!
On a 7 point scale:
Flavor - 6 bites
Presentation - 5.5 bites
Originality - 6 bites
Ambience - 5.5 stars
Service - 6 stars
Overall experience - 6 bites
Price - $$$ (3 bite marks regular menu)
Probability of return visit - 95%
[To find out about more deals like these, check out my Get More Bites Outta Your Budget page, and follow me on Twitter for to the minute finds!]___________________________________________________________
2628 Wilshire Blvd., Santa Monica, CA 90403
Look for reservations: Opentable.com