Drago (Santa Monica, CA)

Drago Ristorante
2628 Wilshire Blvd
Santa Monica, CA 90403
Dining date: 11/30/11

Downtown’s Drago Centro serves some of my favorite Italian food in the city.  I’ve been there a number of times, but never to sister restaurant Drago in Santa Monica (one of chef-owner Celestino Drago’s first restaurants). The upscale Italian menu is fairly similar at both locations, but the downtown restaurant is just much more convenient for me. However, I was invited to come dine at Drago; it would be the perfect opportunity to finally venture out to the westside outpost.

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Opened in 1991, Drago has been a notable Italian restaurant in this city since opening. Celestino Drago doesn’t cook much these days, so the kitchen is in the hands of chef di cucina Evan Gotanda. He created a special tasting menu for us to sample our way through the menu.

We found some starches awaiting us at the table when we arrived.

Breadsticks and bread

breadsticks

bread

Arancini

arancini

We were first served this amuse bouche, crispy rice balls (towers?) stuffed with cheese and ground beef. It was as good as it sounded, with a warm, cheesy filling and a wonderful crispy texture.

Ricotta e pere ricotta, pear, red wine, arugula, hazelnut salt

ricotta

I believe the ricotta here was house-made, a creamy and sweet cheese that, with the sweet pears, paired well with the peppery arugula and red wine sauce. Bits of hazelnut provided a welcome crunch.

Agnolotti di zucca butternut squash, ricotta, butter glaze

agnolotti

I was eagerly awaiting some pasta dishes and this one didn’t disappoint. The squash provided a creamy, sweet filling while the exterior pasta still had a nice chew to it. A rich butter sauce with a subtle truffle essence completed the dish. Delicious and I wanted more!

Risotto alla barbabietola beet risotto, shaved candy beets, puffed risotto

beet risotto

Next up was this vibrantly-colored risotto. Sometimes I enjoy beets and sometimes I hate them; it was definitely the former this time. It lended a sweet dimension to the risotto, the rice of which was perfectly cooked. The addition of crispy puffed rice added some nice texture too.

Cecaluccoli al fagiano cecaluccoli, roasted pheasant, morel mushrooms

cecaluccoli

There was a pasta substitution here from one of Drago’s signature items – pappardelle with pheasant and morels. Instead, we were served a hand rolled cecaluccoli which had a delectable, addicting chew. The rest of the pasta was as good as I remembered from Drago Centro – a deep, rich sauce and chunks of tender pheasant.

Trota salmonata Arctic char, carrot, rapini, oregano, balsamic

arctic char

Next was this Arctic char, seared to a superb crispy skin. The flesh was moist, and I liked the addition of the earthy rapini. However, I found the rapini to be surprisingly bitter and the dish overall to be a touch salty.

Costata di manzo New York steak, soft polenta, bacon, brussels sprouts, red wine

beef

Here we also had the addition of braised short rib, completing a duo of beef. Both were cooked well, and the short rib was expectantly tender. A little bit of smoky bacon flavor came through on the brussels sprouts, while the polenta was light and creamy. Not quite as unique as the other dishes, but it was tasty.

To complete the meal, we had two desserts.

Brioche al mirtillo orange espuma, orange dust, cranberry granola

brioche

This dish had a breakfast feel to it – a warm brioche, orange (espuma), and granola. I thought the idea was fun and found the individual flavors to be pretty spot on. I really liked the texture of the granola too.

Crostata al cioccolato dates, brown sugar gelato, walnuts

crostata

Lastly was this dessert; it was a solid chocolate tart with a creamy date puree. I enjoyed the brown sugar gelato, while some walnuts added a bit of crunch to each bite.

My meal at Drago was as strong as expected. I thought the highlights were in the pasta/risotto area, which were some of the strongest I’ve had in recent memory in LA. Compared to other Italian restaurants I’ve tried in Santa Monica (Valentino, La Botte), I think I preferred Drago particularly for this reason. Thank you to Diana and Cathy for making this happen!

Note: This was a sponsored meal.

Delfina (San Francisco, CA)

Delfina
3621 18th St
San Francisco, CA 94110
Dining date: 11/26/11

delfina sign

It’s hard to believe that Delfina has been open for 13 years. It’s as popular as ever, still being a very busy restaurant and oft-difficult dining reservation. Its popularity as a quintessential neighborhood Italian restaurant has helped Craig and Anne Stoll open up two other concepts, equally as popular: Pizzeria Delfina and Locanda.

I first dined here a long time ago and don’t remember much. I remember it being crowded. I also remember having the spaghetti and thinking it was too al dente. That’s about it (hey, I was pretty young). I’ve been wanting to return, particularly for some hearty pastas and just to check out the local scene. At the last minute, I was scurrying for a reservation on the day after Thanksgiving and a Delfina spot popped up. Bingo!

delfina interior

Grilled Monterey Bay Calamari warm white bean salad

squid

We started with this appetizer. The squid was tender and really benefited from some lemon zest and a nice smoky char from the grill. The warm bean salad was a nice touch too, adding some creaminess and body to the dish.

Spaghetti plum tomatoes, garlic, extra virgin olive oil and peperoncini

spaghetti

A good spaghetti, the noodles had a delectable chew while the sauce had a bold tomato flavor, slightly on the acidic side. It’s no Scarpetta spaghetti, but it was an excellent pasta.

Pappardelle pork sugo

pappardelle

Seeing this on the menu, it was a must-order. The pork helped to create a rich sauce that really went well with the pappardelle. I wanted just a little more sauce and some bigger pieces of meat though. The pasta was perfectly cooked, while a little bit of cheese added some extra richness. Tasty.

Paccheri all’ Amalfitana rock cod

rock cod pasta

The pasta was chewy and the sauce creamy, but thought the fish was kind of fishy. Also, I thought the fish and sauce could’ve been better incorporated; they just didn’t seem to come together as well as I expected.

Liberty Duck in Guazetto polenta Valsugana, cipollini

duck polenta

I thought this was a pretty hearty entrée with two duck legs smothered in a rich braising liquid. The meat was tender, though not particularly moist or dry. Really nice depth of flavors. The polenta was fairly dry on the outside making me wonder if it sat under a heat lamp for a little while; however, some of the polenta underneath its shell was light, creamy and delicious.

Black Pepper Buttermilk Panna Cotta barolo and huckleberries

panna cotta

Soft and delicate, the panna cotta had a great smooth consistency and was a nice ending to the meal. Personally though, I don’t like a lot of tart flavors and the buttermilk definitely came through. As it should. The huckleberries were a nice touch too.

The meal at Delfina was a pretty good one. The food had a warm and comforting feel to it and I could see why it’s still such a draw. The prices were quite reasonable, with the food coming out to under $50 per person. Overall it was pretty delicious and I’d love to try more, particularly the small plates and pastas.

Drago Centro (Los Angeles, CA)

Drago Centro
525 S Flower St
Los Angeles, CA 90071
Dining date: 10/20/11

exterior

Given that I work in walking distance of Drago Centro, I visit semi-regularly. Most often it’s for happy hour, but occasionally I’ll drop in for lunch too. Drago Centro was one of the DineLA participants that extended their special for an extra week; given that I had a new coworker that wanted to try lunch here, it was an opportune time to drop by.

I’ve almost always had excellent food at Drago Centro (the pastas are some of my favorite in the city); as good as the food’s been, the service often has been equally as lackluster. Since this was a workday lunch, I was just hoping for a relatively smooth meal.

bar area

interior1

interior2

Bread service consisted of bread rolls and a delicious olive oil. With bread, I think I actually prefer olive oil over butter.

bread

crispy salt cod croquettes lemon aioli, radish arugula

salt cod

I liked the salt cod, fluffy and sort of creamy on the inside and delicately crispy on the outside. The lemon aioli provided a nice acidic counter to the richness of the croquette. The dish was a bit heavy-handed with the salt though.

bocconcini mozzarella salad spinach, olives tomatoes

salad

My coworkers opted for this mozzarella salad and enjoyed it.

sausage and rapini pizza mozzarella cheese

pizza

pizza2

My coworkers also went for this pizza, generously sized. The meat and vegetable flavors were well-balanced and worked well in tandem. Not particularly a memorable pizza as a whole, but a good one.

swordfish spaghetti spicy tomato sauce, pinenuts, capers, raisins

spaghetti

I went for this spaghetti. Expectantly, the pasta was cooked perfectly with chunks of swordfish scattered throughout. I thought the fish was a little bit more fishy than I had expected. The tomato sauce wasn’t too spicy at all (which I liked), and some capers and raisins added a little bit of a salty/sweet dimension to the bites.

chocolate and olive oil terrine red currants, almonds

chocolate olive oil

This was an interesting dessert – layers of a different chocolates made up the layers of the dessert. I enjoyed the chocolate, though I couldn’t really tell how the olive oil came into play. Was it one of the layers? I didn’t taste it. Still, a tasty dessert.

toasted bread pudding caramel, salted cream

bread pudding

This bread pudding was pretty well-executed. The caramel and salted cream combined to add a “salted caramel” flavor, while adding extra richness to the dessert.

Not the best meal I’ve had here, but Drago Centro’s food was pretty good, as usual. Service was attentive and plates came out of the kitchen at a good pace – a definite plus. I also liked that the DineLA menu didn’t seem to skimp on portion size – this was a ton of food in three courses. Given its proximity to the office, I will surely be back but I think it’s a worthwhile visit for anyone looking for a good Italian meal in LA.

Scarpetta (Beverly Hills, CA)

Scarpetta
Montage Beverly Hills
225 North Canon Dr.
Beverly Hills, CA 90210
Dining date: 10/13/11

interior

This was my first visit back for dinner since my truffle-laden opening night experience (though I did visit for brunch last month). This meal would be a lot different, for sure, as DineLA brought me back. The menu looked promising with both the polenta and spaghetti offered, though I was disappointed to see the spaghetti as an entree offering (I could’ve sworn it was originally an appetizer when the menu first came out). 5 appetizers, 4 entrees and 3 dessert choices were available at a set $44. I went for the polenta, branzino and panna cotta, and was also able to sneak some bites of a few other dishes.

Bread service was pretty good with a variety of breads and accoutrements including an eggplant caponata, marscapone butter, and a citrus-infused olive oil.

bread

bread2

As far as the breads go, the most interesting was this hearty stromboli with salami and cheese.

stromboli

Onto the first courses:

CREAMY POLENTA fricassee of truffled mushrooms

polenta

Not quite as decadent as the white truffle-laden version I had last time, it was still a very delicious dish. The polenta was tasty on its own; warm and comforting, light and creamy. So rich, clearly there was a generous amount of cheese and/or butter in here. The mushrooms added an earthy depth of flavor that really went well. I tasted no truffle flavor as advertised, though.

PUREE OF EGGPLANT SOUP sicilian spiced lamb ragu, baby tomatoes & ricotta dumplings

soup

Puree of eggplant. Interesting. Not something I would typically order, but I got a chance to try someone else’s. Pretty good actually, the lamb really added a savory richness to the dish.

SPAGHETTI tomato & basil

spaghetti

The classic. I’ve had this in each of my previous visits so I didn’t order it again, opting for the branzino instead. I think everyone enjoyed it though.

GRILLED MEDITERRANEAN BRANZINO saffron-cipollini puree, fresh ceci beans, calamari & tomato marmalade

branzino

I liked the crispy charred skin; it had a subtle smokiness that I thought went well with the moist flesh. The squid added some chewy texture, while I thought the tomato added a welcome light acidity. The saffron-cipollini puree provided a little bit of savory sweetness.

ORGANIC ROASTED CHICKEN kabocha squash puree, caramelized cabbage, fegato & parmigiano emulsion

chicken

SHORT RIB AGNOLOTTI garlic chips, toasted breadcrumbs & horseradish

agnolotti

A well-made pasta, this one was al dente but felt very delicate. The short rib was a pretty meaty filling, while the breadcrumbs added some subtle texture.

VANILLA CARAMEL BUDINO gianduja chocolate sable cookies

vanilla caramel budino

COCONUT PANNA COTTA guava soup & caramelized pineapple

coconut panna cotta

I thought this was excellent. The coconut flavors were clear and pronounced in the ice cream and light panna cotta, while the guava soup provided a complementary fruit flavor. The pineapple added more fruit and sweetness, without making this dessert overly sweet. Everything came together so well.

A second visit to Scarpetta for dinner was a good one. Clearly, much better than my brunch visit a month ago. Though this meal wasn’t quite as interesting and unique as the first visit, it wasn’t trying to be. The food was actually more comforting and somewhat homey…the polenta and spaghetti were clearly in that boat. Most importantly, I found the food to be well-executed and quite tasty. Is it my favorite Italian restaurant in LA? Quite possibly (though I still need to visit a few other spots, Angelini Osteria being one of them).

Previous Scarpetta posts:
Opening night | Brunch

Bar Agricole – 1/8/11

Bar Agricole
355 11th St
San Francisco, CA 94103

I’ve been curious about Bar Agricole for a little while. Opened in August, much of the hype was around the fresh, artisanal cocktails. I wondered – how about the food? It’s called a ‘bar,’ so it sounds like the emphasis is on drinks first, food second. However, a lot has been said about the food as well. Food critic Michael Bauer just named it one of the 11 best new restaurants of 2010. Given my newfound appreciation for cocktail pairings (fostered at Los Angeles’ Test Kitchen), this was a must-try place on my list.

It took me a while to notice it, but the napkins are actually denim. Soft denim. Weird.

Tequila Cocktail with sweet vermouth, stonefruit bitters and orange


We started with this small cocktail compliments of the bar. It had a strong citrus and peach nose, and actually went down rather smooth with a pretty strong orange flavor.

Moonraker Cocktail with brandy, peach whiskey, cocchi americano and absinthe

This cocktail had a strong caramel flavor; slightly sweet, yet slightly savory too.

Ti Punch with white agricole and lime zest

The punch had a noticeable lime flavor and an interesting sweet/bitter interplay.

Grilled squid with meyer lemon, potatoes and cilantro

The squid was cooked well, yielding tender and rather meaty pieces of squid. The meyer lemon was instrumental in adding a little bit of citrus and acidity to accompany the squid, as well as the savory potatoes. Yum.

Dungeness crab with farro, dandelion greens and chili

The farro had a really nice chew to them – perfectly cooked. The crab chunks varied in size, and the smaller pieces were rather overwhelmed in the farro. However, when the ratios were correct, this was a delicious bite. A little heat from the chili and some extra body from the greens rounded out the dish.

Spaghetti alla puttanesca with a meatball

Next was this rather ordinary looking spaghetti. However, this was a very good pasta. The pasta was al dente with a sweet and tangy tomato sauce. The meatball was moist and had some good fresh herb flavor; this was a surprisingly strong pasta, especially after having some good ones for lunch at Cotogna.

Long Rhum Buck with ginger and lime

This next cocktail was probably my favorite of the night. Ginger and lime flavors were both evident, and worked very well together.

Wood oven roasted pork chop with savoy cabbage and scarlet turnips

The pork chop was cooked to a medium temperature. There wasn’t as much of a sear as I would’ve liked, but we still have a lot of food flavor. The pork chop was pretty juicy too, and I liked the savoy cabbage to go along with it.

Chicken al mattone with chickpeas and purple carrots

We were thoroughly enjoying the food, so we ordered one more entree. The chicken was cooked okay – it wasn’t dry but not that moist. However, the skin was nice and crispy, and the chickpeas and carrots combined for a little bit of sweetness and earthiness.

For dessert, we opted to head out to my favorite ice cream shop anywhere. It was about 10:30pm and 40 degrees outside – still, the line was out the door. The honey lavender at Bi-Rite Creamery is so good.

I was impressed with the food at Bar Agricole. This is in some part due to the level of expectations (I was cautiously optimistic going in), but the food here really is quite good. And the cocktails? I had high expectations and they did not disappoint. I expect Bar Agricole to remain a popular spot for the foreseeable future, drawing in both cocktail-seekers and foodies.

Cotogna – 1/8/11

Cotogna
490 Pacific St
San Francisco, CA 94133

Cotogna is Michelin-starred Quince’s sister restaurant next door, opened in November. Serving the same type of rustic Italian food, Cotogna is a much more accessible way to sample some of Michael Tusk’s food. The restaurant just started Saturday lunch service a couple of weeks ago; given that I was in town for the weekend, this would be a perfect opportunity to drop by. I’m a big fan of pastas in general, so our menu choices tended to lean towards these dishes.

Tagliolini with dungeness crab

This was the first pasta we tried. All of the pastas we sampled were cooked a perfect al dente, lending a nice chew with each bite. The sauce was richer than I anticipated; I could have used a little bit of acidity or lemon zest.  Still very good though. Large chunks of sweet crab meat were all over. An excellent pasta.

Farm egg raviolo with brown butter

The filling of this ravioli was a creamy, cheesy mixture. The runny egg on top, in tandem with the nuttiness of the browned butter, made a rich and satisfying sauce.

Lamb pappardelle cooked in the wood oven

The first thing I noticed about this pasta was the meaty chunks of lamb dispersed throughout. Tender and flavorful, these were excellent. The pappardelle was good, but I was missing a little bit more of a ragu; this felt a little too much like meat and noodles, without the sauce to bring it together.

Pizza with wild nettle, egg & pecorino

The last savory item we tried was this pizza. I’ve been eating a lot of pizza in San Francisco over the last couple of months (probably too much). Compared to some of those, I thought this was just okay, but really it’s a pretty solid pizza. The wild nettle provided a strong vegetal quality to the pizza, while the egg added a really nice richness to it. I probably could’ve used two eggs on this pizza, as I thought this was the difference-maker.

Bonet with caramel & amaretti crumble

Lastly, here we had dessert. A bonet is kind of like a flan – a smooth custard. The almond flavor of the amaretti crumble, in combination with the caramel, was quite good. The amaretti crumble had a sort of macaron texture, providing a mild chew as well. Served cool, I thought this was a nice way to end the meal.

My meal at Cotogna was very satisfying – I’d say it met expectations. I was a little picky on the pastas, and that’s because Quince serves some of the best in the city. Cotogna isn’t quite at that level, but it presents a much more reasonably-priced way to try some of this hearty Italian fare. I would return, but not before returning to Flour+Water.