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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Saturday, January 28, 2012

The Source - 12/10/2011

I remember leaving WP24 feeling very conflicted. While I appreciated the attention to detail the kitchen brought to Chinese food, the marginal improvement in overall quality didn't warrant the high price premium over more traditional restaurants. The one thing WP24 did excel at was their dim sum, inventive and delicious, the small bites captured the best of what fusion cooking can achieve.

With that in mind when I saw Puck's East Coast version of WP24, The Source, ranked #3 in the city by Washingtonian, I felt compelled to try it. While the restaurant's dinner menu bears a striking similarity to WP24's the dim sum was almost entirely different so I felt opted for the Dim Sum Brunch rather than a complete dinner tasting.

Located in the Newseum, the restaurant features two levels; a bar and lounge comprise the ground floor while the second floor houses the dining room proper. The Source's kitchen is headed by Scott Drewno, a veteran of Puck's Chinois as well as Vong and Ruby Foo in New York. Despite his Polish background, much of Chef Drewno's professional has been in Asian Fusion, making him well-suited to his current position as The Source's Executive Chef.

Pork Meatball Banh Mi - Country Pâté, Pickled Jalapeño
The meal started off quite strong. The smoky smack of the pork meatball is augmented by the rich mouth feel of the pate and creamy mayo. The pickled vegetables provide some much needed levity and contrast though I would have liked them to be even more prominent.

Crystal Chive Dumpling - Chinese Mustard, King Crab
The Crystal Chive Dumplings were one of my favorites from WP24 and one of the strongest of this octet as well. I quite enjoyed the dense toothsome texture of the skin in conjunction with the slickness of the stuffing while the sauce adds a spicy piquant cast to the shellfish-tinged sapor of the dumplings.

Kobe Beef Hash - Poached Egg, Yukon Gold Potatoes
It is rare that I complain about a dish featuring poached egg, but the hash was probably the biggest letdown of the entire meal. Though the egg was enjoyable, the hash was mealy and bland. Any distinctiveness the Kobe beef might have brought to the table was smothered by the oppressive weight of the curry sauce.

Sea Scallop Sui Mai - Curried Lobster Emulsion
Scallops and lobster made this sound special, but reality fell a bit short. Though the filling was tasty, neither the texture nor flavor were reminiscent of sea scallops. Moreover the wrapper felt a bit dry as if the dish had sat for a while after being prepared.

Pork Belly Pot Sticker - Black Vinegar, Chili Oil
I've never had success with pork belly potstickers. Instead of the unctuous decadent character of pork belly the filling tastes decidedly normal. Though the dumplings were well made, I can get very good dumplings for much less than the $5+ The Source charges for 3.

Chow Feung - Rock Shrimp, Sweet Soy
I'm a sucker for chow fun and though the noodles felt more like knife-shaved noodles than true chow fun I quite enjoyed their heady wok fired char and delectably potent spice. All things considered the dish would have been much better without the three severely overcooked shrimp.

Duck Bao Buns - Lacquered Duckling, Cucumber
This was arguably the most traditional item on the menu, though Peking duck really feels more suited to dinner than dim sum. The skin itself was crisp and flavorful while the bun had a nice freshly steamed texture. My only complaint was the slice of duck breast, which felt a bit dry.

Wok Fired Shrimp Dumplings - XO Sauce
The last course consisted of three fried shrimp dumplings in what was allegedly "XO sauce" Instead of the expected umami and spice, the sauce tasted darkly sweet, more like black bean paste than XO.

On the whole, I found the dim sum to be a bit clumsier and less refined than WP24's, but much of what I said about WP24 holds true for The Source as well. Though I didn't always enjoy the courses, I appreciated the creativity that went into them. The quality and experience are definitely a cut above the typical Chinese restaurant, but the price more than reflects it. At times I feel the meal emphasized style over substance, but putting aside my Monterey Park bias, I was able to enjoy the meal for what it was.

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Monday, January 23, 2012

Charlie Palmer Steak - 12/09/2011

101 Constitution Avenue Northwest
Washington, DC 20001
(202) 547-8100

There was a time when a visit to Morton's or Ruth's Chris was the pinnacle of gustatory delight for me. Though I still enjoy a good steak, on the whole I find steakhouse fare overly simplistic. The one exception to this has been Wolfgang Puck's CUT which actually offered inventive appetizers along with top quality meat instead of the typical shrimp cocktail, and Caesar salad. Having been burned by Palmer in the past the one thing that brought me to Charlie Palmer Steak was its connection, however tenuous to Brian Voltaggio. Voltaggio honed his skills at Palmer's flagship Aureole, and opened Charlie Palmer Steak as its head chef and eventual partner. Though he moved on a number of years back, I was hoping his creativity would live on in the menu.

It has been awhile since I've had a drink this bad. The "rough cut" sugar just sank to the bottom making it unbearably sweet. The rest of the drink tasted watered down, with a medicinal petrol-y undertone, I'd expect something of this quality at a house party not a steakhouse.

Amuse - White Wheat Soup
Though by no means stellar, the presence of contrast and the savory/sweet balance of the soup made it one of the better dishes.

I ordered the soup hoping for something lighter with to compliment the heavier dishes ahead, but this had none of the finesse I was expecting. Instead of a vegetal sweetness, the broth is think and laden with a savory cheesy weight and the intensely salty pancetta only exacerbated things.

Adjusting my expectations, I could have forgiven another overly heavy flawed appetizer but for the poor quality of the ingredients. My first shrimp tasted none too fresh and the mealy texture of the second was gorge raising. When charging $4.50 per shrimp the least you could do is make sure they are edible.

For my steak I settled on the rib eye rather than the dry aged New York Strip. The meat was about what I expected, moderately tender with sufficient fattiness and a nice char but with a bit more gristle than I expected. The sides were equally pedestrian; neither the potatoes nor the mushrooms were particularly special but there were no overt flaws either. While there was nothing wrong with my main course, I was hoping for a bit more creativity from the kitchen.

The meal ended with a fairly typical massively heavy steakhouse dessert with the buttery filo crisps injecting some contrast to the myriad forms of chocolate on the plate.

My two previous experiences with Charlie Palmer restaurants so far have both been abject disappointments and Charlie Palmer Steak continues the string of failures. Blunt, tired, and severely institutional; but for the name on the door I could have gotten this meal at any steakhouse.

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Thursday, January 19, 2012

LudoBites 8.0 @ Lemon Moon - 01/18/2012

12200 West Olympic Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90064-1038
(310) 442-9191

What better way to ring in the new year than with a new LudoBites. This time around Ludo has pulled out all the stops with a luxurious seafood heavy menu. As always demand for tables is fierce and though the new lottery system was relatively painless, seats were no easier to procure. For those math geeks out there, Krissy got just under 10,000 requests and with ~500 tables, chances of actually winning a table were still pretty poor. Fortunately the restaurant also has 6 walk-in spots available at the bar. Naturally having missed out on the lottery, I made a point to show up at 4:00 to ensure my spot when the restaurant opened at 6:00. Waiting proved unnecessary as the bar didn't actually fill up until after 7:00.

NV Cambremer Cidre, Domaine du Manoir de Montreuil, Pays d'Auge, France
We kicked things off with a French apple cider. Think adult Martinelli's the light alcohol and sweetness make for an easy drinking libation while the musty funk gives the drink some maturity.

Chicken Tandoori Cracklings
I was expecting a bowl of fried chicken skin chips but the cracklings are only one element of this dish and not even the most important. The sapid crispy skin is topped with a quinelle of chicken liver mousse adding a bitter iron-y twang to the concentrated essence fried chicken from the skin.

Crab Meat, Shrimp, Avocado Guacamole, Pomelos
Though Ludo doesn't specifically call it out, the crab meat, is actually the vaunted "Hairy" crab from Japan. The flavor of the meat is more concentrated and nuanced than the norm, with both sweetness and brine in abundance. The accompaniments included a creamy banana-tinged guacamole as well as a bitter pomelo paste for contrast. The shrimp consommec provided a brothy lushness that added a powerful savory sensation to the dish.

Scallop, Leek, Potato, Black Truffle
Our waiter dubbed this Ludo's take on vichyssoise. Simply put this was the best tasting dish of the night. The salty sapor of the fried potato and the gentle creaminess of the leek captured the essence of vichyssoise beautifully. The scallop and truffle were pure luxurious indulgence and though I couldn't really taste the truffle, the scallop was absolutely perfect.

Uni Creme Brulee
Another one of the night's best dishes this combines the eggy oceanic sainity of the uni augmented by a generous spoonful of the ikura. The sugary crunch of the crust was key here, providing bot textural and flavor contrast to the seafood.

2010 Savary Vielles Vignes Chablis, Chardonnay, Burgundy, France
Hailing from the same region on France as Ludo, this wine exudes distinct hints of green apple backed by a lush acidity that lingers on the palate.

Raw Beef, Radish, Beets, Eel
Ludo's previous raw beef dishes were the star of their respective meals so I came to this one with high hopes and Ludo didn't let me down. The beef itself is more of a textural element than anything else. The smoked eel actually provides most of the flavor while the tangy horseradish mayo adds a pleasing creamy consistency. I was a bit apprehensive about the beets, and the inky purple smear was indeed potent, though its lingering vegetal finish was a nice change from the jammy attack.

Foie Gras, Tamarin, Turnip, Daikon
This was arguably my favorite dish of the night. The foie "soup" was an unexpected plus with the chunks of fatty liver absorbing the rich heady broth. The turnip and daikon provide a contrasting bitterness while the broth combines a light savory tang from the tamarin with a floral depth from the basil.

Seared Black Seabass, Fennel, Lettuce, Bernaise Vinaigrette
Though labeled as a seared, the meat is so tender that it could be mistaken for a sous vided fish. The fish comes topped with a zesty piquant sauce that was heightened by the tang of the Bearnaise Vinaigrette. The lightly bitter essence of the romaine and subdued licorice essence of the fennel were key in balancing the aggressiveness of the fish.

Monkfish Liver, Cucumber, Cornichon, Mustard Seed
A favorite of mine at sushi restaurants, this is my first time having Ankimo warm. The liver lacked the expected creaminess, and instead presented with a lean eggy funk. While I enjoyed the vegetable accompaniments, I found the bitterness of the mustard seed a touch overwhelming given the unexpected austerity of the liver.

Jidori Chicken, Parmesan Soubise, Broccoli, Wasabi, Egg
Hearty, soulful, and satisfying this is the quintessence of roast chicken. The breast was utterly moist, easily one of the best that I've ever eaten especially with the overarching savor of the Parmesan.

Duck, Orange, Olive, Carrots
The final savory was a play on the classic Duck à l'Orange. Though the breast stands on its own, the orange does add pleasing succulent freshness. The crunch and subdued flavor of the carrots were quite enjoyable, but the olive paste was almost shudder-inducing in its potency.

From the Tank Red, Grenache/Syrah/Carignan, Rhone, France
Just what you'd expect from a house wine, open and easy drinking with lush fruits tinged with earth and pepper.

Goat Cheese Profiteroles, Pistachio, Crispy Leaves
Our waiter dubbed this course a mix of savory and sweet but for my part all I got was the former. The pastry itself was spot on, but filled with the gamy tang of goat cheese and paired with a plethora of vegetal accompaniments, I was hard pressed to see the dessert part of this dish.

Chocolate Napoleon, Orange Creamsicles
One of Ludo's gifts is his ability to re-imagine classic pairings, in this case orange and chocolate. The orange creamsicle is a thing of beauty: fresh, lively, and expressive, an absolutely vital counter to the unabashedly bitter chocolate.

Lemon Meringue Tart
As always Ludo's deconstructed tarts are a joy. The acidity and concentrated citrus of the lemon adds excitement and energy to the buttery crust crumbs. The cream makes a welcome addition, taking some of the edge off the lemon.

The dishes at Ludobites 8.0 speak for themselves so I'll just close with this: Best. LudoBites. EVER!

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