Friday, December 30, 2011

1MB Travels: Hong Kong: Xi Yan (Public & Private Kitchens)

As 2011 draws to a close, and I continue to chomp my way through the amazing food in Hong Kong - I thought it time for a little "Blog Sorbet", a virtual palate cleanser if you will - before I dive into recaps of all the great eats this holiday.

This came from realizing I had dines from my trip last year I still have yet to capture - semi-consciously saving best for last, I just never got around to posting about them, and they were some of the most incredible meals (not just last year, but perhaps, ever!).

So, let's start with Xi Yan - sites of some of my favorite 'modern' Chinese meals ever both in 2010 and 2009. 2009 was before the blog, but the meal was so amazing I feel compelled to share it even now (as you will see, one of the dishes became the header for my blog!).

Xi Yan is truly one of a kind, started by Jacky Yu, a former graphic designer in advertising who decided to give up a high-paying career to pursue his passion as a chef.

His unusual background makes its presence known in several critical ways: a distinct aesthetic from decor to menus, great branding, and well 'designed' concepts for dishes along with playful, marketing savvy puns / updates of traditional dish names.
Getting his start as a cafe attached to the popular, smartly branded G.O.D. nostalgic home furnishings and gifts store, the Xi Yan concept (Chinese for 'banquet') quickly found a large and loyal audience, and expanded to several branches across Hong Kong. Also recognizing the private kitchen trend and chance to experiment with new dishes to a limited set of 'test' diners in a more intimate setting, Jacky opened a private kitchen with just 6-8 tables tucked away in an office building in Wanchai.

We managed to score reservations months ahead of a holiday vacation - we expected to be impressed, but the meal went far beyond in creativity, taste and overall experience!

The prix fixe menu:

The meal overall was amazing - to avoid a novel-length rave I will just include highlights here:

Braised Abalone in Japanese Sake and Soy Sauce - while abalone is iconic to any Chinese banquet as a luxury item (usually as a giant 'steak' in starchy broth), we'd never seen it served like this, amuse bouche sized, in a seashell topped by a stroke of fusion genius - uni (sea urchin) and ikura (salmon roe), ingredients more typical to sushi. The fusion of two historically politically opposing cultures were reinforced with the mixing of Japanese sake and Chinese soy sauce for the base. Beautiful dish - our mouths were definitely amused and pleased.

Braised Pork Belly my love of pork belly aside, this dish was the show-stopper and mind-blower of the evening and is the most creative presentation I have probably ever encountered in Chinese cuisine.

Example of Chinese
Shan Shui painting

Jacky took a classic, very rustic Chinese dish, braised pork belly with preserved vegetables, and elevated it to a work of art inspired by traditional Chinese "shan shui" (山水 mountain, water) paintings. Veggies were molded into a tall tower, then meticulously enrobed in thinly sliced pieces of lush, fatty pork belly in the shape of a mountain - then placed in a serene looking 'lake' of sauce studded with additional pieces of meat to evoke boulders in the water. Then he gave it a Chinese name that was just as beautiful - translation won't do it justice, but the general gist is "Rolling east hills above the clouds intoxicates for a thousand leagues" (the key pun being the Chinese words for 'pork belly', 柬玻which phonetically also sound like the words for East Slope/Hills). Clever and so gorgeous we could barely bring ourselves to eat it.

Crab on Savory Radish Cake - crab is typical in a Chinese banquet. Radish cake is typical in dim sum lunches. We had never seen the two together until Xi Yan - steamed crab resting on a bed of radish cake and broth. This one was milder in flavor, but beautifully refreshing in its lightness after the heavy, bold flavored pork and preserved vegetables dish. And it had another exquisite name - which translates to roughly "beautiful spring slumber" with the pun in Chinese on the 'red' of the crab's shells being part of a phrase that means 'beauty'.
Deep Fried Grouper with Fragrant Paste - steamed whole fish, head, tail and fins on, is another luxury item usually served at Chinese banquets. Frying is unusual - as well as service with anything other than light, clean soy sauce with some ginger and scallions.

Here Jacky first steams the fish, then deep fries it for a salty crunchy exterior, while the inside is so tender it could make you cry. And whole fish is usually served on its side - but here it's served 'upright', as if still alive - a little scary looking even for us who are used to seeing whole fish, so we can only imagine the reception by non-Asians. In any case, this fish was pretty damn delicious, and taken over the top with the western inspired touch of citrus coming from the original use of pomelo. It made so much sense we wondered why no one had thought to do it like this before?

As a palate cleanser, we got a Red date and Jujube Sorbet with Bird's Nest, ingredients traditionally used in hot liquid desserts, served cold in a shot glass, topped by a dehydrated slice of pineapple for bit of tartness with the sweet.

All in all, an amazing meal that inspired us with its creativity on all levels - creativity backed by taste and talent both in the kitchen and out. No wonder the private kitchen became fairly public knowledge (and objects of desire) pretty much instantly.

When I returned the following year to Hong Kong for the annual holiday trip, we went to visit their then 'new' public restaurant branch in Taikoo Shing, which has a more fast casual, less high-concept vibe and offerings but was also an incredibly delicious meal. With a group of 6 people, we got to try a ton of dishes - gotta go to sleep so I will start with the pictures here, and fill in the recap shortly!

Fried Spring Rolls with Radish and Dried Oysters

Dan Dan Mian in soup (left), no soup (right)

Grilled Thai Pork (charcoal grilled pork neck)

Deep-Fried Crispy Chicken
with Fermented Bean Curd Sauce

Seaweed and Shanghai Noodles
 in Prime Fish Soup

Custard Glutinous Dumplings with
Sweet Potato Ginger Soup

Clockwise from top left: Red Bean Tofu Pudding,
Milk/Banana Ice Cream, Banana Pudding, Glutinous Rice Pudding

On a 7 point scale:
Flavor - 6.5 bites
Presentation - 6.5 bites
Originality - 6.5 bites
Ambience - 6 stars
Service - 6 stars
Overall experience - 6.5 bites
Price - $$$ (3 bite marks)
Probability of return visit - 100%

Coming up shortly: Review of lunch at Xi Yan Restaurant


Hong Kong

Xi Yan Private Kitchen

3rd Floor, 83 Wanchai Road., Wanchai, Hong Kong
Ph: 852-2575-6966

Xi Yan Restaurant ("East" branch)
Shop G505 & G508, Ning On Mansion, Stage V Taikoo Shing, Hong Kong

Ph: 852-2380-0919



Thursday, December 29, 2011

1MB Savvy Saveurs: Savings & Sweepstakes 12/29/11

Deals and sweepstakes uncovered this week - sorry a little light this week as I'm travelling!  Click here to follow me on Twitter for instant updates on the latest discoveries :)

Happy grazing!


  • Travelzoo 2012 Flight Sales Finds Got withdrawal symptoms from your holiday vacation already?  Plan your 2012 getaway with post holiday fare sales starting from $32.  For travel on JetBlue, Virgin America and other airlines Jan 4-May 16, 2012.  See site for details.


This is meant to be an easily digestible (yes, I did) report of third party offers - I am not the sponsor nor affiliated in any way with any of the companies listed above. I do not receive any payment for these listings. Please read offer details / official rules carefully before deciding whether to submit your information.


To get more mileage for your money everyday - see Get More Bites Outta Your Budget. Check out my Sweepstakes Page "Win Your Next Bite" - for more foodie promotions!

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Merry Christmas - 聖誕快樂!

Merry Christmas from the other side of the world!

This year, I'm thankful to be in Hong Kong (with few days in Singapore) with family for the holidays.

It's been perhaps the longest year ever - and I'm really looking forward to seeing what 2012 (Dragon year must mean luck?) will bring.

Meanwhile, I am grateful for some amazing friends, family who have stuck by me through rough spots in the year, been an incredible source of strength and support - ever ready with an encouraging word, the crazy deal I missed, the way to laugh at myself and situations, the monumental understanding and patience with the food paparazzo activities before every meal (and now really joining in at times to help with food styling!) + the endless questions about ingredients and backstories - and most of all the reminder to appreciate and enjoy every moment of life.

And to those of you who have been there with me, whether in-person or here on the blog - a heartfelt thank you, for joining me in foodie adventures, taking time to share comments, notes or asking great questions that have really helped me grow as a blogger and person. I wish you a fantabulous holiday and I will see you again very soon! :)

Han Bat vs Mountain Cafe: Sizing Up Korean Sick Soups

For some reason, just before I travel my body always gives way to the bug du jour - it's as if it'd been holding on to get through the stress of leaving everything in a good place at work, at home, before going on vacation - and just when all is set to go, it decides it's ok to throw in the towel on my immune system.

As I save my only international trip of the year for the holidays, I was anxious when I started feeling a cold coming on just before my trip. No time / not in the mood to cook - I went in search of foods to soothe body and soul, to fuel the fight against the virus before it gets full blown.

I remembered a Korean 'sick soup' that supposedly does wonders for hangovers and/or illness - Sul Lung Tang. And according to a quick Google search, one of the 'best' of these comes from a hole-in-the-wall in Koreatown, that specializes in nothing but this soup: Han Bat Shul Lung Tang (not sure why they spell Sul with an "h", other places do not - any Koreans out there can shed some light on the correct spelling?)

Han Bat is very much bare bones (pun intended) - a no-fuss storefront on a less trafficked side of 5th street, unglamorously located across the way from a Carl's Jr. With just a handful of tables and a short menu that fits in a photo frame on the wall - your choices are basically beef soup, or boiled beef soup - and what types of meat/offal to put into it.

Even while nursing a cold, I refuse to go for boring old 'flank' or 'brisket' beef, and I wasn't about to pay over $16 for 'boiled beef' soup - so I ended up with Sul Lung Tang with Intestine, Tripe & Spleen ($8.28).

Sul Lung Tang in general is made by slow simmering ox bones - typically 12-15 hours by most accounts. This process results in a nutrient rich broth that is said to help boost your immune system, and also is soothing to eat (in marked contrast to bold flavors of more familiar Korean foods that involve kimchee or barbecue).

I expected to love this soup - afterall, ramen broth makes me go all weak in the knees, which is another slow-simmered soup, but just made with pork bones instead of ox (and ok maybe bonito as well). And I love offal.

But despite best of intentions, I intensely disliked Sul Lung Tang. As it's the first time I'd had it, I'm not sure if it's Han Bat's preparation or the type of soup in general that I don't like the taste of. But to me the milky looking broth had a slightly gelatinous consistency (probably from the collagen in the bones) and lacked layers / depth of flavor - it basically reminded me of cloudy dishwater. That you can feel coating your throat and stomach as it goes down (which I suppose would be great for hangovers - so no use to me since I've long outgrown those days!) Even the offal didn't help - there were only a few narrow strips of tripe, and the intestines were a bit too slimy for my taste. The spleen was fine but didn't contribute a lot in taste to the soup. I do like glass noodles, so if I had to say one positive thing about this soup, I would say it's the inclusion of the noodles. Again it's my first, so perhaps I would give the soup another chance at another place, but at Han Bat I could barely finish my bowl.

The banchan (side dishes) were an entirely different story: Han Bat serves up a bowl of kimchee, a bowl of radish kimchee, and a bowl of rice (included in cost of soup). The kimchee was delicious, perfect balance of sour/spicy with a satisfying crunch. And they also set down a giant plastic bin of chopped scallions that you can add to the soup for flavor - but again nothing added to the soup helped - we just weren't compatible.

A little while later, just before my trip, knowing I was still feeling under the weather, Sophia from Burp and Slurp recommended Mountain Cafe for a dinner meet up via Marilyn from Nomlog.

I hadn't heard of the place before that night, but a quick search online and it was clear this place was indeed well known for two sick foods: Abalone Porridge, and Ginseng Chicken soup, and that both would be amazing.

This hole-in-the-wall was much different - it's a much smaller space, with maybe 5 tables max, squeezed in around the open kitchen, where two mom/grandma figures toiled to bust out bowl after bowl of steaming deliciousness. The menu offers wider range and diversity than Han Bat, but because of the open kitchen set in a tiny space, and personal service from the staff of three, it feels a bit more like you're getting a home-cooked meal.

Sophia ended up not being able to join us, so Marilyn and I grabbed a 2-top and excitedly checked out the menu. I knew we were probably going to go with the signature soups, but it was fun looking through their other menu offerings (the translations are also pretty amusing - like the "soup made from the bones of the four legs of an ox". Would it taste 'off' if you only put in 3 legs? And why, whatever would they mean by "good for your stamina"?).

Though Abalone Chowder is their top seller, I'm fairly used to 'jook' or rice porridge from Chinese cuisine, and it's fairly simple to make - so I opted for the richer sounding Ginseng Chicken Soup ($10.65) - made with a whole chicken, ginseng, garlic, jujube, ginger and sweet rice.

It was love at first bite - the giant stoneware bowl came steaming hot, and you could smell the gingery goodness from 10 feet away. Where most people would say blander foods are better when you are sick (taking it easy on the digestive system), that is exactly the stuff of foodie nightmares, and exactly why I hate being sick. Viruses harm my body, but bland foods kill my soul. Ginseng Chicken Soup thankfully rails against convention - it's full of amazing, unabashed layers of rich flavor, yet still packed with soothing effects that are immediate - one spoonful and it warms you to the core, nourishing and coaxing your body (and soul) back to health on impact.

I loved the interplay of flavors and textures here - delicious chicken broth is elevated with subtle sweetness from jujube (dates), bit of heat from the ginger, slight bitterness from ginseng, held together by fragrant but not overwhelming garlic; tender chicken meat is offset by crunchy scallions, with sweet rice adding textural interest. AND you get an entire chicken in the soup, so it makes for a filling meal!

THIS is chicken soup for the soul.

As if the amazing soup were not enough on its own, the ladies also bring out four dishes of AYCE banchan: kimchee, radish kimchee, some sort of sesame/soy/sugar marinated cabbage, and beef stewed in soy-based sauce with shishito peppers. All four were tasty, and loved that you can get unlimited refills of each.
The beef in particular tasted great when mixed in with the Abalone Chowder ($7.85) - Marilyn was a sport and got this so we could try their other signture dish.

This turned out to be one of the best rice porridges I have ever tasted - not so much for innovative ingredients (there are others that serve up more creative combinations, and in larger volumes), but for flavor and consistency.

It's easy to make congee / jook / rice porridge way too bland - so bland you get more sick from eating it (in my view - perpetuating the cycle of sickness through deathly boring soup for the uninspired soul).

Mountain Cafe's abalone chowder, though small in number and pieces of abalone (to be expected, given the price!) delivers on big flavor. And though the addition of raw egg is not a new concept, for some reason the way that Mountain Cafe prepares their chowder and egg, once you break the yolk and spread it throughout the porridge, it becomes very creamy and smooth, and tastes like luxury.

My initial reservations about getting this since you can make it at home fairly easily (in theory)? Gone after tasting. Plus, who wants to cook while sick anyways?

Of the two at Mountain Cafe, I will say Ginseng Chicken Soup is my favorite for its complexity and value (whole chicken / meal in a bowl for just over $10!)

In the match-up of Han Bat vs. Mountain Cafe - Mountain Cafe wins with a K.O. quickly seized in round 1 (both of the cold/flu bug and of its heavier weight competitor - in concept and popularity anyway - of ox bone soup).

Now, already on the trip I had been so looking forward to, and eating my way through the culinary heaven of Hong Kong - I still can taste that Ginseng Chicken Soup in my mind, and crave it. Will definitely be back to Mountain Cafe when I return to LA, whether or not I am sick.

Thanks, ladies of Mountain Cafe, for getting me better in time to enjoy my trip! (And thanks Sophia for the rec, and Marilyn for another fun dinner adventure!)

On a 7 point scale:
Flavor - 6 bites
Presentation - 6 bites
Originality - 6 bites
Ambience - 5.5 stars
Service - 6 stars
Overall experience - 6 bites
Price - $$$ (3 bite marks)
Probability of return visit - 100%

Han Bat Shul Lung Tang
4163 W 5th St, Los Angeles, CA 90020
Ph: 213.388.9499

Han Bat Shul Lung Tang on Urbanspoon

Mountain Cafe
3064 W 8th St, Los Angeles, CA 90005
Ph: 213.487.7615

Mountain Cafe on Urbanspoon

Friday, December 23, 2011

Kiriko Sushi - Making Its Mark at the Olympic Collection

Olympic Collection brings back many memories - that complex on the corner of Olympic and Sawtelle with its boutique shops, restaurants and bakeries anchored around an event space - was the answer, back in college, whenever anyone asked where we wanted to eat. There was the college kid wallet friendly udon place, Mishima - that wasn't too rough on the palate either (back then). Same goes for Hong Kong Cafe (decent offering of authentic Chinese without long drive to SGV). And a laid back bar on the first floor, if we wanted to drink and hang out a bit afterwards.

Now, 'all grown up' - even if just on a cellular level, not so much mental/ emotional - I still love to visit the area to indulge cravings for quirky/tasty snacks like chocolate filled koala shaped cookies, and chips so spicy the bag features an image of a grandma breathing unseen fire into the air, at Nijiya Market across the street. Recently the much buzzed about Tsujita, with its Tsukemen (cooled noodles you dip into fish/pork broth slow cooked for hours!) just opened a lil ways down as well - and I cant wait to try it. But on a rather hot day, I decided to go with Kiriko Sushi, on the 1st floor of Olympic Collection.

Kiriko may not always come up on lists of Top Sushi Places in LA, but perhaps only because it's not a place that's big on self-promotion nor takes an 'of the moment' approach - but rather inauspiciously serves up high quality sea creatures and their own modern take on sushi in their cozy space with a handful of tables around a featured bar.

At first I was drawn to the blackboard featuring a lunch special that seemed to have a LOT of stuff offered for $15 (4 courses?!)...

But I had heard great things about Kiriko's specialty sushi / sashimi and decided that should be my first experience of the place...

So I swung all the way to the other extreme and went for the Omakase - Sashimi & Sushi ($46) which touts "Today's best selection of fish picked by chef (assorted sashimi, 5pcs of sushi, soup and salad). This ended up being quite a bit more food than I expected!

First up: Miso soup and salad - these were classics, well executed. Both tasted incredibly fresh and a nice way to kick off the meal.
Kiriko doesn't waste any time with making a great impression - the first dish (sashimi/Japanese tapas plate #1) was beautifully plated, and had me at hello.

I LOVED that they don't play it safe with standard slices of fish first, but dive straight into service of more exciting sea creatures / sea creature parts.

Monkfish Liver with fermented soybean sauce - I was so excited to see this 'foie gras of the sea' on the platter! Apparently this comes from one of the ugliest fish in the sea, but its liver at least is beautiful and full of vitamins and minerals that are good for you. This was the freshest monkfish liver I've ever had (ok, so from a big sample size of two) - texture that's silky smooth, lush and somewhere between butter and firm tofu, rich but subtle flavor that is to me like a nutty and less bold version of lobster tomalley.

The topping of fermented soybean sauce makes it more like a Japanese tapas item and gives it extra flavor without overwhelming the natural richness of what I'm just gonna call 'monkfish foie'. Loved this.
Octopus a classic, well prepared - not sure if they massaged these tentacles, played Mozart to it, whispered sweet nothings etc. but whatever their method, these pieces were tEnDeR as heck! Loved that it was served up in pristine form with just a gentle dab of fresh wasabi.

Surf Clam with fresh seaweed - I loved the presentation of the third item on the plate - served up in a lovely pearlized ceramic clam-shaped dish, with fresh tendrils and folds of seaweed strewn over the clam, as if it had literally just washed up on shore this way.

Clam can be tough if not cooked right, but Kiriko's preparation was perfect, soft yet slightly chewy, juicy and tasting of fresh ocean water.

As almost sort of like a palate cleanser in between plates, next up was an item from their appetizer section - Mango Wrapped in Smoked Salmon with caviar. The salty, soft and yieldy slice of salmon was an interesting pairing with the tart/tangy crunchy cut of fruit -punctuated by the brine of the black caviar spheres.

Next up was a Sashimi plate #2. Starting on the far left: Kampachi-carpaccio (amberjack), served with rounds of jalapenos and a vinegar fish roe gelee. I loved the vinegar fish roe gelee for its different twist on the usual brush of vinegar in liquid form over sushi. However, I did find that the combination of acute acidity and heat from the jalapenos did somewhat overwhelm the carpaccio instead of letting its natural, pure flavors shine or giving it an assist to let it shine first.

In the middle atop a shiso leaf are Albacore Tuna slices with fried shallots and tobiko- this would probably tie for my favorite of the plate - albacore tuna doesn't have much star power on its own, and in contrast to other fish that I would want to taste in a clean, pure way - when put in unusual combination with fried shallots (for crunchy explosions of pungent flavor) and tobiko (lovely bursts of subtle salinity), and unique taste of the shiso leaf, was elevated to bites of beauty.

Lastly, to the far right, my other tie for favorite item on the plate: Tako Sakurani (tender Japanese octopus slices) with a thin line of ponzu sauce. Loved the unusual cut of octopus, which almost took on a squid like appearance and textural quality. The ponzu sauce also cut through nicely with bit of tartness.

Then came a series of sushi rolls, starting with Toro sushi - a nice, fatty and perfectly sized piece of tuna over a well-formed and just barely perceptibly warm rice roll.
Red Snapper sushi - another lovely slice sprinkled with tiny bits of seaweed.

Ok I should know what this one is but I didn't write it down so if you know what it is, please tell me!

Goldeneye Red Snapper sushi - this was my favorite of the sushi rolls, yes, I'm predictable by now about my love for the unusual. So yes, I loved this one - haven't seen it in many sushi places - maybe just Kiriko and Asanebo

The color, texture (lightly pan-fried so that the skin has an exquisite, slight, salty smokiness, and the outside is just barely cooked while the inside is still tender and raw), taste are all beautiful. Top it off with a dab of yuzu kosho ( A fermented paste made of yuzu rind, chili peppers, and salt) for tart/bitter/heat and it's perfection in a roll.

For the grand finale - a Crab Hand Roll that gave the meal a sweet, satisfying finish with the softest, freshest, sweetest crab balanced with sesame for fragrant crunch, and perky rice all wrapped in a crisp sheet of fresh toasted nori.
All in all, I definitely enjoyed the unusual offerings more, but also preferred the ones that let the clean flavors of the sea creatures shine.

Though $46 is much more than I would normally spend on lunch, I found the omakase at Kiriko worth the splurge - if nothing else, as a defiant reaffirmation of this phase of my life (yes, I've long graduated from the Mishimas of the world - I make my own money and this is how I choose to enjoy it...cue Destiny's Child song?).

On the flip side, when I do get back to the realities of my regular budget, I will have their $15 lunch deal to look forward to checking out as well.

On a 7 point scale:
Flavor - 6 bites
Presentation - 6 bites
Originality - 6 bites
Ambience - 5.5 stars
Service - 6 stars
Overall experience - 6 bites
Price - $$$ (3 bite marks)
Probability of return visit - 100%

Kiriko Sushi
11301 Olympic Blvd #102, West Los Angeles, CA 90064
Ph: 310.478.7769

Kiriko on Urbanspoon

Thursday, December 22, 2011

1MB Savvy Saveurs - Savings & Sweepstakes 12/22/11

Deals and sweepstakes uncovered this week - sorry a little light this week as I'm travelling!  Click here to follow me on Twitter for instant updates on the latest discoveries :)

Happy grazing!

  • Eva Restaurant 
    • $40 for $80 of dinner / $29 for $58 2-course bottomless mimosa brunch Sunday for two people.  Deal at Bloomspot (~5 days left to buy) 
    •  Sunday Suppers $39pp multiple courses (varies ~4-5 courses) bottomless house wine!
  • Get $25 gift certificates to restaurants across the country for $1!  Use code: JOY

This is meant to be an easily digestible (yes, I did) report of third party offers - I am not the sponsor nor affiliated in any way with any of the companies listed above. I do not receive any payment for these listings. Please read offer details / official rules carefully before deciding whether to submit your information.


To get more mileage for your money everyday - see Get More Bites Outta Your Budget. Check out my Sweepstakes Page "Win Your Next Bite" - for more foodie promotions!

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Drago Centro - Urban Italian in DTLA

"Ms. Sassy" and I have a little holiday tradition to get together for a nice meal before everyone heads their separate ways to family gatherings (the calm before the storm of frenzied feeding - might as well abandon all restraint until the new year).  This time we decided to take our year-end round-up to Drago Centro, with her $50 group buy deal in hand. 

Located in the City National Plaza tower, Drago Centro is a little hard to find while driving (don't do what I did and circle 5 times - get specific directions here).

Ducking inside the fortress-like glass tower on a cold night, we found a sleek yet welcoming space.  There was the bar area, floor to ceiling wine racks encased in glass, like a 1-story version of Aureole Vegas, followed by the main dining room with vaulted ceilings.

Though the ALL DAY Happy Hour was tempting, it was only served at the bar and with a limited selection in terms of cocktails, so on this night we headed straight for the table.

When we got the full menus, my heart nearly stopped when I saw a cocktail with TRUFFLE along with all kinds of market fresh sounding deliciousness in it: Pinzimonio ($18) jacopo poli grappa, fresh tomato, fresh orange, olive oil foam, fresh pepper, hangar one vodka, cucumber water, fresh basil, white truffle powder. 

Unfortunately, the bartender apparently 'had a rough night' the night before, and did not have all the ingredients left for this drink (the thought of bankers 'partying it up' and 'going crazy with the truffle cocktails' made us laugh a little - between my tears from not being able to try this amazing sounding drink.  Must come back another time.).

Though nothing can replace the concept of that drink, the Lushington ($12) rye whiskey, quince gastrique, egg white, 25yr aged balsamic vinegar also caught my eye, and our server gave it his recommendation.  I thought the whiskey was a little strong, so the cocktail would best consumed with or after food, not on an empty stomach.

For our starters, I was glad my archenemies for the night, those 1% bankers, didn't also deplete the supply of Le Animelle ($13) crispy sweet bread, gnocchi, huckleberry, rapini. 

Sweet breads are of course the best culinary euphemism ever - really the thymus gland or pancreas of usually calf or lamb. 

These little nuggets of offal have flavor that reminds me of veal but texture more smooth like organ meat - fried to a beautiful golden brown here to better highlight both.  I loved the counterbalance with thin, crispy crust, al dente gnocchi, and the chewy and still slightly crunchy rapini.  All held together by the sweet/tart huckleberry. 

The only thing I didn't love about this dish was the shape and stiffness of the gnocchi - they looked cocoon-like to me, especially in the dimly lit dining room.  But the sweetbreads and everything else on the plate was fantastic.

Ms. Sassy opted for a much healthier start with the L'insalata di Mele ($13) pink lady apples, bacon, candied walnuts, arugula.

Though truffles eluded me in cocktail form, I was excited to hear I could have fresh white truffles (excuse me while I faint!) in my Il Risotto ai Funghi.  (My eyes floated for two seconds to the saffron risotto with bone marrow, but then were lured by the beacon of truffle).  The dish is normally on the menu for $19 (sans truffle), and you can add fresh shaved white truffle as a 'topping' - which kicks the price up considerably to $85.  Thankfully, Drago Centro offers the white truffled risotto as a half portion at $45 - this would be a splurge, but more affordble than full portion, we had Ms Sassy's group buy deal, and I figured this would be my holiday present to myself? 

So came the risotto with wild mushrooms and parmesan, cooked perfectly - and a special truffle escort/server came out to carefully shave the fungus over it.  It wasn't white glove service with a baby bell jar for the truffle like at Providence, but I didn't care as the truffle looked gorgeous with its veins of white weaving through rich, decadent chocolate colored 'flesh' and had an intoxicating perfume that I wanted to surgically implant inside my nose so I can carry the smell of bliss around with me. 

I was so taken by the truffle that I neglected to photograph Ms Sassy's entree!  She wanted Butternut Squash Agnolotti, but they were out of it (foiled by bankers once again?) so she went with the Le Pappardelle al Fagiano ($20) with roasted pheasant and morel mushrooms.  Ms Sassy kindly offered a bite and I loved the texture of the pappardelle, and the rich, gamey, earthy flavors - but found the strips of pheasant a bit on the dry side.

We felt like stuffed pheasant ourselves after the first two courses, and I know I was starting to wish I had worn stretchier pants - but the desserts sounded so good we couldn't leave without trying them.  I got the Panettone di Natale ($10) toasted bread pudding, orange caramel, salted cream, pears.  From the description, I was expecting a traditional bread pudding, thick and rich with carb and caramel on overdrive.  I was pleasantly surprised by the light, almost cake-light buttery rounds of bread pudding, served warm with slices of pear that I think has been poached in a light syrup.  I loved the texture and the flavors of the bread pudding, but wanted that to be punctuated by bolder flavors in the caramel and salted cream.  Everything on the plate was even keel - there was a relative deficit of 'je ne sais crois' - I wanted at least one flavor to 'pop' and make a statement.

Ms Sassy got the dessert I would have normally gone for - La Panna Cotta ($10) vanilla panna cotta, strawberry, rhubarb, basil cake, sunflower seeds. The presentation was fantastic, and this was the only plate in our meal that drew audible gasps (besides the truffle risotto, of course) when it arrived.  The humble vanilla panna cotta is served in a boat shaped dish with beautiful blooms of colors and textures - red from strawberries and raspberries, blackberries, green from hand torn pieces of basil sponge cake, and crunchy fried squares studded with sunflower seeds.  This tasted as good as it looked - the panna cotta smooth and creamy underneath it all.  This is a dessert that alone would draw us back to Drago Centro, even without another group buy deal.

All in all, another fantastic meal with Ms. Sassy, in a part of town we don't normally venture to - but that offered an enjoyable evening of great food in a nice setting (we got a table overlooking the plaza, felt Manhattanite) - with several items on the menu that would bring us back.

For more deals like this one, check out my Get More Bites Outta Your Budget page.

[Deal alert: Happy Hour all day, every day at the bar.  Cocktail, well drinks, beer and small bites specials starting at $4 - see menu here]

On a 7 point scale:
Flavor - 6 bites
Presentation - 5 bites
Originality - 5.5 bites
Ambience - 5.5 stars
Service - 6 stars
Overall experience - 5.5 bites
Price - $$$ (3 bite marks)
Probability of return visit - 100%

Drago Centro
5 South Flower Street, Los Angeles, CA 90071
Ph: 213.228.8998

Parking: Structure - 3 hours free at dinnertime with validation from restaurant (3 hours for $5 with validation at lunchtime)


Twitter: @dragocentro
OpenTable: Look for reservations (and points!) 

Drago Centro on Urbanspoon


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