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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