Saturday, June 11, 2011

Drago Ristorante - No, Not the One Downtown

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It's almost too much to try to keep up - the minute I put pen to paper for a list of places I want to try, it's already outdated.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.

Just outside downtown Santa Monica, on a stretch of Wilshire that can be seen as thoroughfare to Brentwood - with L.A. car culture and its laser focus on getting from point A to point B - you could easily miss Drago if not specifically looking for it.  And I had - for 15 years it barely registered on accidental glances out of the corner of my eye, while driving through the area.  Despite the initially intimidating, cold hues in the restaurant's decor, we were given a warm friendly greeting before being seated in the cozy back dining room.  The best part of this Travelzoo deal is that you can choose from the main menu within each of the three courses, and we dove right in.
After placing our orders, we received a plate of Arancini as amuse bouche.  This was an interesting as it was cone-shaped, versus the more traditional sphere, the rice inside was cooked in some tomato-based broth, and they were served with olives.  A lovely way to kick-off the meal!

For my starter, I had the Involtino di Coniglio ($14) rabbit roulade, fava beans, carrots, oregano.  A friend had named her pet bunnies Fifi and Moomoo Coniglio, which I only thought of as adding to their charisma - but never realized that "coniglio" was simply Italian for rabbit til now.  So I did feel a bit guilty digging into this dish - but I can't resist the out of ordinary, and this one almost literally jumped off the menu at me.  Though I found the meat a bit dry, it was to me a creative and flavorful preparation.  And I liked the touch of tongue-in-cheek humor, that belies the slightly austere vibe of the main dining room, pairing rabbit with carrots (serving my food with their food - circle of life on one plate).
Designer went with the Insalata di Barbabietole e Burrata ($13) to start, composed of burrata, market beets, arugula, pistachio, fried shallot. The burrata was creamy and rich, melding nicely with the colors and textures of the other ingredients in the salad - but of course nothing compares to the quality and taste of the fresh, handmade burrata at my fav Osteria Mozza!

My main: Costolette D'agnello ($28) oven roasted lamb rack, sous-vide fennel, farro, orange demi. For some reason, I was in the mood for devouring small animals that evening - so I followed rabbit with lamb. 

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.

Designer was drawn to the oven roasted sturgeon, cauliflower, spinach.  This was also great, with nicely crisped, salty skin taut over velvety fish, well balanced by roasted cauliflower for texture contrast, ribbon of spinach puree for pop of color, and laying on a lake of sauce made of creme fraiche and caviar!!!  I died a little at the table, but Designer didn't love it. 

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.
We struggled to find room for dessert, but couldn't let the last course in the Travelzoo deal go to waste! 

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.
Designer went for the Zeppole ($8) of honey glazed fritters, toasted almonds, blackberry compote.  These were like small donuts, fresh out of the oven, with berry and nut toppings.  I wished we had more room so we could finish this one off - though again the berries tasted as if store bought and not as flavorful as ones I could get from the farmer's market.
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:

Drago Ristorante on Urbanspoon


  1. DUH! HTF did I miss this deal!? I still have the Whist / Viceroy Travelzoo I must use. Was the room packed with Asians sporting coupons???

  2. Haha surprisingly we were the only Asians in the back dining room, but definitely not the only ones there for the Travelzoo deal (in fact, almost every table around us used the coupon - we heard French and Spanish accents ;))



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