Drago Centro – 10/9/10

Drago Centro
525 S Flower St
Los Angeles, CA 90071

For me, Drago Centro is consistently one of the most frustrating dining experiences. The frustration doesn’t stem from the food (it’s consistently fantastic) but rather from the consistently poor service. Since it’s opened, I’ve probably dined here close to a dozen times. The food continues to bring me back (and the fact that I work and live downtown), but the service, at times, can be downright mediocre. For a number of my meals, the service has overshadowed the strong food.

Occasionally, I wonder whether I’m getting less attention from the waitstaff because I’m a relatively younger diner. The best service I’ve had here was coincidentally one with my parents. Other meals have seen a dessert with bacon bits served to a pescetarian diner (as part of a fish-only tasting menu), forgetting to serve the wine pairings accompanying the tasting menu, and a weekday lunch that took 2.5 hours.

On this night, I felt that our main server seemed almost…unhappy to serve us from start to finish. Not once did he follow up on any of the dishes to ask how they were, and I don’t recall any “thank yous” throughout the meal. There weren’t even any apologies when someone forgot to serve us the amuse bouche. In my opinion, Drago Centro serves one-star Michelin worthy food, but the service lags far behind.

Enough bickering, on to the food:

il carpaccio di langostino langoustine carpaccio, pears, yuzu vinaigrette

This dish was a very light starter. The langoustine was pounded thin – the sweetness of the pears and the acidity from the yuzu vinaigrette made this a successful dish.

le pappardelle al fagiano pappardelle, roasted pheasant, morel mushrooms

This was probably one of my favorite dishes of 2009. When I first had this dish, one of Drago’s signature pastas, I marveled at the chewy, eggy ribbons of pasta and the rich ragu filled with shreds of pheasant. This is still a great pasta even if I’ve had it a number of times.

Next came the amuse bouche. While we were eating our first courses, the neighboring table was presented with this dish. Naturally, we were confused and annoyed. When we inquired as to this dish, our waiter responded with “oh, they must’ve missed you.”

Salted cod croquette with herb aioli

A crispy exterior added some crunch to the bite, with the salt cod adding a mild fish flavor. The herb aioli rounded it out with some acidity and herbal flavor to add some depth.

il branzino branzino, cioppino broth, potato, seafood ragout

My previous experience with branzino here was carved tableside. It looks like they no longer do this, but the fish is still an excellent preparation. The flesh is moist and flaky, while the skin is crispy. A seafood broth filled with mussels, clams and shrimp adds some depth of flavor. I still think La Botte has my favorite branzino preparation, however.

la quaglia sausage stuffed quail, polenta, fall vegetable ragout

This dish somewhat reminds me of a stuffed squab my grandmother makes each Thanksgiving. Fennel sausage is stuffed into the cavity of the quail – the flavors of the sausage and quail combined is quite delicious. The quail was cooked a little more than I would’ve liked, as I thought it could’ve been even more moist and juicy if it was a little rarer. However, still a very nice and flavorful bird.

We passed on dessert, partially due to time constraints and partially due to the fact that we just weren’t happy with this experience.

I will be back to Drago Centro. Put simply, it’s very convenient for me and I love the food. However, my visits will likely be limited to lunchtime and service at the bar for the time being. The service in the dining room has been just way too frustrating for me – enough to easily detract from the experience. If the service could match the food, this likely would be one of my favorite restaurants in the city.

Chaya Downtown – 10/7/10

Chaya Downtown
525 S. Flower St.
Los Angeles, CA 90071

I work downtown, and Chaya Downtown is in my regular rotation of lunch spots. I really enjoy their bento box, though it’s fairly steeply priced at $24. The box includes a meat, a fish, sushi and a salad. Surprisingly, you can substitute out the salad for an extra serving of meat or fish, something I always do. Chaya’s DineLA lunch menu had a few dishes that sounded pretty good to me, so a visit here was an easy choice.

Hawaiian Albacore Poke seaweed and sesame soy vinaigrette

This dish started the meal off well with its light, clean flavors. The vinaigrette added a nice acidity, while some chili oil presented a touch of heat. The fish was tender – I enjoyed the large chunks.

Soy Braised Angus Beef Short Rib wasabi mashed potato

This was one of the three entree options. The short rib was cooked beautifully – extremely tender and not overly fatty…I’m not sure how they did it. The wasabi mashed potatoes had a nice amount of heat, though it wasn’t as smooth and creamy as I would’ve liked.

Two Way Rice Bowl Shrimp Tempura Bowl and Tuna Sashimi Bowl

Another of the entree options was this rice bowl duo – tempura and a chirashi bowl of tuna.

Herb Poached Salmon sundried tomato puttanesca sauce, braised tuscan kale, fennel

The third entree choice was this salmon, which I didn’t try.

Profiterole Sicilian pistachio ice cream, valrhona chocolate sauce

I had high expectations for these profiteroles, made with pistachio ice cream. Perhaps unfairly, I thought of Bouchon’s excellent rendition. However, this was not Bouchon. The pastry was a little soggy and the ice cream, while good, didn’t have a very strong pistachio flavor. The chocolate sauce, which was supposed to be made of valrhona chocolate, tasted like Hershey’s chocolate sauce.

Green Tea Cup Cake green tea frosting

Greek Yogurt Sorbet fresh strawberry and mochi

I’m not a fan of tart frozen yogurt, so I didn’t really care for this. The sorbet was interesting, having the consistency reminiscent of frozen custard.

My Chaya meal started strong, but unfortunately disappointed with dessert. Overall it was okay, and for $22 a pretty decent deal. I likely will not be coming back during this DineLA stint though.

Rivera – 10/6/10

1050 S Flower St
Los Angeles, CA 90015

I’d been to Rivera once a while back. It was a weekday lunch, and I remember the delicious and moist fish tacos, as well as generously-sized kurobuta pork short ribs. I’ve been meaning to go back to try dinner out, but I just haven’t had the right “push” to get me there.

When I was tasked to pick a restaurant for eight of us for a DineLA meal, Rivera immediately struck me as a candidate. With its notable tequila cocktails from bartender Julian Cox and rather unique “upscale Latin” menu, I thought this would be a fine choice.

Rivera’s kitchen is open to the street via large windows. I always enjoy being able to see what’s going on in the kitchen on my way in.

Tortillas Florales housemade nixtamal tortillas, “Indian butter”

This is not part of the DineLA menu, but I had to try it. This is one of the most notable dishes offered at Rivera. During my past lunch visit, I had asked for these and was told they were only available during dinner. So, I finally got to try them – and I was not disappointed. The tortillas were beautiful, and the “Indian butter,” really like a smooth guacamole, was wonderful.

Ensalda Espagnola frisee, baby spinach, endive, idazabal cheese, macadamia nuts, and jerez sherry vinaigrette

I didn’t try this salad, but heard it was a good salad – though it wasn’t anything special.

Flan de Elote corn custard, black quinoa, and squash blossom sauce

This warm flan was creamy and custard-like, very smooth. The corn added a nice sweetness, and the black quinoa added a little bit of texture to the dish, making this a definite favorite.

Post-Columbian Gazpacho traditional cold heirloom tomato soup

This was a fairly standard gazpacho. Solid. Not overly sweet nor overly acidic.

Sea bass with Mofongo white sea bass fillet, garlic, platanos refritos, lardo iberico

This was my first time having mofongo, in my opinion, one of the best food words to say out loud. It’s basically fried plantains, mashed with garlic, spices, oil and often fried pork skin or bacon. The sea bass was cooked very nicely, with the skin crispy and having a nice smoky flavor. The mofongo was subtly sweet, which was rather nice with the bass, a relatively heavier fish.

Puerco Pibil banana-leaf braised pork shoulder

My first piece of this was way too fatty (greater than 50%). However, subsequent slices were quite nice, very moist and tender. The pork flavor was quite good, though the sauce did not have a lot of depth. I found the potato crisps to be crucial in adding a textural element to the dish.

Market Vegetables

I didn’t get a chance to try the vegetarian course, featuring a variety of fresh vegetables.

Mille Hojas 70% Columbian chocolate leaves, ripe banana, cabrales queso azul, spanish red wine reduction

Unfortunately I didn’t get a good picture of this dish. It was a cheese course dessert featuring dark chocolate, bananas and blue cheese with toast. It really didn’t work for me, as the blue cheese was very overpowering.

Hielo y Fuego poblano chile sorbet, jarabe de porto

Interesting dish. I thought the poblano chile sorbet would be too spicy for me, but it wasn’t. The heat was present but mild, and the port syrup added a sweetness to temper the heat. Nice!

Xocimilco ancho chile chocolate cake, avocado mousse, lime pepper sauce

I’m actually not a big fan of spiciness in my desserts. This one instantly reminded me of LudoBites 5.0’s chocolate cake with spicy olive oil. The cake itself was good, with ancho chiles adding some heat. The avocado mousse was an interesting component of the dish, but I found myself somewhat bored after a few bites.

In all, it was a solid meal at Rivera. I really want to love Rivera, but I can’t. There were some great dishes, including the flan and the pork, but there were some dishes I didn’t enjoy so much. However, I will continue to follow Chef John Sedlar’s movements (restaurant Playa opening later this year) and wouldn’t mind coming back to Rivera at some point in the future.

Test Kitchen: Marcel Vigneron – 10/1/10

Test Kitchen: Marcel Vigneron
9575 West Pico Boulevard
Los Angeles 90035

Best known as Top Chef season 2’s runner-up to Ilan Hall and the chef everyone loved to hate that season, Marcel Vigneron has been cooking in LA ever since the show ended – most notably at the Bazaar with fellow Top Chef alum Michael Voltaggio. Vigneron clearly showed that he was a talented chef on the show, and I’ve been interested in trying some of his food ever since. When we found out he would be doing a short stint at the Test Kitchen, I jumped at the chance. Fellow bloggers dining at this meal were Christina of food, je t’aime, Famished Foodie and, of course, Kevin of kevinEats.

First, an amuse bouche from the kitchen.

These were potatoes in a tomato gelee with a little bit of parsley, cilantro and basil chlorophyll. Pretty interesting – the potatoes were nice and creamy, while the tomato added a little sweetness and acidity.

In addition to the main menu, two appetizers/bar bites were offered on this night.

Salty Potatoes chlorophyll mayonnaise

I loved the brilliant neon green of the mayo. The potatoes were soft and creamy (same potatoes in the amuse bouche), and perfectly salted. The mayo had a leafy-green vegetable flavor to it, which I thought was nice with the earthy potatoes.

Shishito Peppers kobayaki & bonito

These shishito peppers were a bit spicy for me. Okay, way too spicy for me. Though, I thought the flavor of the roasted pepper was nice before the onset of the heat. The bonito wasn’t really apparent.

Kombu Cured Hamachi crispy rice, pineapple, avocado

This was the first dish of the tasting menu. The hamachi had a nice clean flavor, with some sweetness from thin slices of pineapple (on the bottom). Really quite good. The rice crackers on top added a wonderful texture to round out the dish.

Halibut Cheeks flavors of puttanesca, artichoke

The cheek of a fish is often one of the best parts. In this example, it was cooked very well, leaving it tender and moist. However, the rest of the components (parsley sauce, marinated artichokes, anchovies, roasted and caramelized cipollini onions, kalamata olive powder) weren’t there for me. I found them hard to reconstruct all into one bite, and some of the flavors (including the anchovies) were rather overpowering.

Wagyu Beef Tongue & Fried Egg radish, beet, arugula, beans

It was a bold move to have beef tongue as one of the main courses. Definitely not the most approachable part of the cow, it can be pretty chewy if not prepared well. This wasn’t the case here – the tongue was very tender with just that subtle beef tongue flavor (it’s hard to explain, but I think you know what I mean if you’ve had it).

The egg, cooked for “six and a half minutes” and fried in pankow, was marvelous. With its rich and creamy yolk interior, and crispy breaded exterior, this was one hell of an egg.

Vadouvan Lamb Chop cauliflower, amaranth, mint

This lamb, from New Zealand, was cooked a little bit on the rarer side, which made cutting with a butter knife pretty difficult. However, I thought it had a nice lamb flavor without being too gamey. The cauliflower, made into a couscous-like consistency, was interesting, though it didn’t have a strong presence.

Ricotta Fritter baby peach panna cotta, agave

I enjoyed the crispy light fritter; here it was paired with a very smooth panna cotta. Just a little sweet, the textural contrasts were very nice.

Macadamia “Sponge Cake” textures of strawberry

I didn’t care so much for this sponge cake. I found it rather dry, with an oatmeal or cereal-like flavor. Unsweetened cereal. The strawberries were a nice touch, but I wanted a little bit more sweetness and moisture out of this dish.

Overall, there were some hits and misses in this meal. I came in with pretty high expectations, so I’d probably have to say it was a little disappointing. Still, Vigneron’s dishes displayed some really interesting techniques and flavors that clearly showed he is a very capable chef. It will be interesting to see where he will be cooking in the future.

Some guest chefs were also in the kitchen this night! From left to right: Alex Reznik, Walter Manzke, and Marcel Vigneron.

Previous Test Kitchen posts:
Jordan Kahn (Red Medicine)
Walter Manzke
Adam Horton (Saddle Peak Lodge)

Test Kitchen: Adam Horton – 9/27/10

Test Kitchen: Adam Horton
9575 West Pico Boulevard
Los Angeles 90035

Test Kitchen continues its ever-popular run, this time with chef Adam Horton of Saddle Peak Lodge in Calabasas. Saddle Peak Lodge uniquely features a variety of wild game in a fine dining setting, including elk and ostrich on its menu. Just 27-years old, Horton is doing his best to modernize the rather ‘traditional’ menu at Saddle Peak. This meal, titled “The Modern Face of Saddle Peak Traditions,” would be a better view into Horton’s vision, and a place for him to showcase what he can do. I’m glad that the Test Kitchen has given him (and others) the forum in which to try new things, and stretch their imaginations.

Dining in this party this night were Test Kitchen staple Kevin of kevinEats, Christina of food, je t’aime, and my friend Shawn. Tonight, no ‘bar bites’ were featured, so we went straight into the first course.

Wild boar “spread” with grilled toast

This was my kind of “spread,” as it was basically shredded boar meat. Tender, rich and savory, I enjoyed this pairing of boar with the crusty toast.

Heirloom tomato, buffalo and its cheese

Here is Horton’s rendition of a caprese…with a little bit extra – the buffalo mozzarella was paired with actual buffalo meat (sounds like a logical progression, no?). The caprese was a solid rendition, and I enjoyed the addition of the buffalo meat carpaccio, which added to the richness of the dish, and added a little more complexity and depth of flavor.

Escolar with sumac, edamame, horseradish, uni, flavors of pho and puffed rice

I enjoyed this dish – the escolar’s flavors, though rather mild, were not overwhelmed by the horseradish. I was missing some of the flavors of pho, however, and this was something I was looking forward to, being an avid fan of the noodle soup.

Pork belly with vadouvan, apple, yogurt and cucumber

This was probably my favorite dish of the night. The pork’s skin was very nice and crispy. The meat, while rather fatty, was very tender and flavorful. I was able to pick out the curry-like flavor of the vadouvan, and the sweetness of the apple was a welcome addition.

Elk with almond, bacon, brandied cherries and squash

Next we had New Zealand elk. The tenderloin was tender, though not quite tender enough to easily cut with a butter knife. Surprisingly, it wasn’t too gamey at all. The sweetness from the squash, and especially from the cherries, was a bit too much though, and overshadowed the elk.

Parmigiano Nero with apple, hibiscus, white chocolate and olives

Next was the cheese course. Now, I’m rarely a fan of the cheese course and avoid it whenever possible (in favor of another savory or dessert course).  However, I really enjoy parmesan cheese and actually enjoyed this course. The sweetness of the white chocolate and apples balanced well with the nutty richness of the cheese.

“Thai green curry” with chicken, lemongrass, cilantro and lime

The description of this course SO does not sound like your typical dessert. Coming out of left field, it sounds more like a popular entree at your neighborhood Thai restaurant. I thoroughly enjoyed the lemongrass custard, with the complementary flavors of the cilantro and lime foam.  The kicker was the small pieces of chicken skin, reminiscent of bacon bits, which added some chicken flavor and crunchy texture to the dish. Really interesting, and I think it worked!

This was another satisfying meal at the Test Kitchen. There were no complete misses, though I had my disagreements, particularly with the elk. I was glad to see Chef Horton’s take on some more ‘modern’ dishes, while maintaining some of the traditions of Saddle Peak.

Chef Adam Horton in front middle, with staff from Saddle Peak Lodge: