Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Drago - 01/30/2012

2628 Wilshire Blvd
Santa Monica, CA 90403-4623
(310) 828-1585

Tonight we bid farewell to an LA landmark, after 21 years Drago is closing its doors. Along with Valentino, Drago helped define Italian food for a generation of Angelinos. Celestino Drago left his native Italy in 1979, after being hired on as chef at LA's Orlando Orsini. He would also work for a number of years at Spectrum Foods before opening the eponymous Drago in 1991. A dinosaur by the ephemeral standards of most restaurants, the venerable Drago finally fell victim to the tepid economy; with the lease coming due, it didn't make economic sense to renew. But don't feel too bad for Chef Celestino, he still has several other successful restaurants in his portfolio including Enoteca Drago, Il Pastaio, and Drago Centro as well as an artisial bakery, Dolce Forno.

The idea of a fried risotto ball is appealing but they rarely live up to my expectations. This was a happy exception, the crisp fried exterior yielded a plump zesty rice surrounding a core of heady melted cheese.

tramezzino di polenta - polenta sandwich, wild mushroom, fontina cheese, truffle fondue
Savory fried polenta? Check. Rich creamy cheese sauce? Check. Earthy truffle-kissed mushrooms? Check. The starchy heft of the polenta provided a break on the the aggressive flavors of the cheese and mushroom. Delicious if a bit heavy-handed.

carpaccio di capriolo - venison carpaccio madiera, grapes, parmesan, spicy greens
When I first started eating out carpaccio was one of my must orders but I've found recent preparations a bit boring. While this wasn't as good as the other appetizers, the paper thin meat was tender with a cold iron-y tang complimented by the sweet juicy grapes and bright leafy greens.

pancetta - pork belly, fennel, orange, frisee, apple cider vinegar
Easily the strongest of our opening volley, the pork belly is minimally dressed, making for a very pure porcine richness that reminded me of Chinese roast pork. Despite its concentrated flavor the pork felt relatively light on the palate and easily able to stand on its own though the frisee and citrus added charms all their own.

risotto nero - squid, scallops, shrimp, squid ink
While the ink soaked rice might seem a bit daunting, in truth the dish is quite benign. The squid ink has a thinner consistency than the typical cream sauce giving the rice a lighter consistency. The flavor is also fairly mild, with a subtle overarching essence of shellfish.

spaghetti con bottarga - spaghetti with pressed dried tuna roe, olive oil garlic sauce and breadcrumbs, spicy
This was easily the most adventurous of the pastas and probably the most ambitious dish of the night. The aroma was redolent of fish oil and though the flavor was apparent on the palate, in the form of a mackrel-esque oiliness, the bright tang and herbacousness of the sauce balanced the roe quite nicely.

tagliolini bianchi e neri con capesante - black and white tagliolini, bay scallops sauce
Despite being a touch monolithic this was my favorite of the first trio of pastas. The dense supple are augmented by a sauce infused with the sweetness of the scallops.

fettuccine al sugo di carne - ground veal, demi, tomato sauce, parmesan
This dish best exemplifies what Drago's appeal, taking a classic dish and elevating the purity of flavor through premium ingredients and faultless execution . Drago's take on the classic pasta with meat sauce was actually one of the stronger dishes of the evening. The dish manages to excite through its deliciousness while capturing the same warmth and comfort of a familiar favorite.

pappardelle al fagiano - roasted pheasant, morel mushrooms, parmesan
This might be my first experience with pheasant, but the bird doesn't stand out from the rest of the dish. Solid all around, the pasta exudes a heady aroma similar to pot pie while the thick pappardelle has a distinctive weightiness. Another cohesive well executed pasta.

petto di pollo - porcini prosciutto crust, potato pancake, king trumpet mushrooms, pearl onion, prosciutto parmesan cream sauce
Though I rarely order chicken, this dish just sounded too good to pass up. Familiar accompaniments of cheese and mushrooms are enhanced by the smoky richness of cured meats but the real star is the breast itself. Covered in a layer of crunchy bread crumbs the breast itself was exceedingly moist with minimal pressure needed to force the knife through the flesh.

agnello all'agrodolce tortino di patate e funghi alla griglia - pan roasted lamb loin, potato tart, grilled mushroom, sweet and sour
Bistronomics gave me a whole new appreciation for lamb chops and these fit the bill exactly. The meat was so tender I almost didn't need to chew and the flavor had the meaty char of a good steak mixed with the characteristic game of the lamb.

mele caramellate - cinnamon pastry cream, apple, caramel, brown sugar gelato
Drago's play on the classic apple tart had a deconstructed feel to it. The raw and cooked apples provide a nice side-by-side comparison with the raw variety perhaps a touch more tart. The pastry itself was flaky and buttery the perfect crust to sop up the sugary goodness of the gelato and the apples.

semifreddo al limone - sponge cake, mascarpone gelato, grapes
The semi freddo and frozen sponge cake made for an intriguing pair. The resonant flavor of the fresh lemon pervaded the entire dish while dry rough mouthfeel of the cake was quite at odds with the creamy semifreddo.

panna cotta di zucca - red kuri squash, candied seeds, cardamom cream
Though I don't care for squash in my savories, their weighty sweetness worked well with the exotic musk of the cardamom.

The meal at Drago handily exceeded my expectations. The menu does show its age, but with that age comes a level of precision and refinement that keeps the food from feeling tired. Talking with Drago at the end of the meal, while he is in no hurry to reopen, he would be willing to do so if the right opportunity presented itself.

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