Tonight, Drago Centro ushers in my favorite season by introducing a new fall cocktail menu designed by much-lauded bar manager Jaymee Mandeville. We caught up with Mandeville a few times during her Lil' Twisted Sangrita Summer Tour with Neat Bar's Carrie Hah, but were excited to see what she could do on her home turf. Drago pairs Mandeville’s unique and expectation-defying concoctions with a well-curated, surprisingly affordable, and delicious bar menu by chef/owner Celestino Drago.
When we arrive, we are ushered into the spectacular glass-enclosed lounge section by the bar to start in on Mandeville's menu. The Autumn's Deluge (below, left), with Karlsson's Vodka, Breckenridge Bitters, lemon, white grapes, and prosecco, is a wonderful introduction to the menu - herby, bright, and bubbly. The Break Maiden (below, middle), featuring Larceny Bourbon, byrrh, fig shrub, and mint, is more of a serious cocktailer's drink that lets the bourbon shine. Both are good, but it's the Campfire Dawn (below, right), with Pierde Lamas Puritita Mezcal, Clear Creek Douglas Fir eau de vie, sugar, Scrappy's Lime Bitters, and Fee Bros. Mint Bitters, that gives you a first solid glimpse of Mandeville's creative side. The smoky yet refreshing drink makes this Oregonian think of a forest after the rain, and isn't quite like anything I've ever tasted.
Food-wise, the first items we see are the beautiful il tagliere di formaggi assortiti (cheese plate, $7) and il tagliere di affettati con gnocco fritto (charcuterie accompanied by a basket of fried gnocco, $6). The cheeses and cured meats are impeccably selected, and the fried gnocco (dumplings, not pictured; think unsweetened fried dough) disappear in a hurry.
The colorful Indochina Tí (below, left) pairs one of our favorite spirits, Smith & Cross Rum, with coconut milk, serrano date syrup, red bell pepper, citric acid, Thai basil, and Angostura Bitters. Looking at the ingredient list, we expect something in the neighborhood of a thick and syrupy Thai tea. What we get is much lighter and much more complex, with the heat from the serrano, the herbaceousness of the basil and the bite from the bitters and bell pepper playing off each other in interesting ways.
Similarly, the Through the Looking Glass (below, middle) looks like the sort of heavy, creamy drink you would enjoy in colder climes. But the combination of Oxley Gin, cardamaro (a wine-based digestif amaro), Earl Grey tea, sugar beet syrup, citric acid, cream, and nutmeg, is surprisingly bright and light (though very gin-y).
The Savoy Rouge (below, right), with Bank Note Scotch, Crème Yvette, housemade rose vermouth, Reagan's Orange Bitters, and Cocktail Kingdom Wormwood Bitters (and a liquor-soaked cherry in the bottom of the glass!) takes us back in a more classic cocktail direction. Like the Break Maiden, this is a drink for those who appreciate the taste of top shelf alcohol.
We take a short break in the drink tasting to dig into a skillet of juicy, well-seasoned meatballs (below, right) and le ostriche (below, left), a plate of briny Crystal Point oysters topped with an elegant, refreshing cucumber mignonette ($6).
The two most picturesque drinks arrive next. The Paraiso (below left) is an absolute show-stopper of a drink, with its fuschia hue and nigella-seed and sea salt encrusted rim. The drink itself, like so many of Mandeville's creations, is nowhere near as sweet as it looks like it would be - the combination of Tapatio Blanco tequila, prickly pear cactus, cardamom infused honey, chives, lime, and orange blossom water layers sweetness with more savory elements.
The table seems to agree that the American Hillbilly (below right), with Bulleit Rye, pancetta rosemary infused maple syrup, baked apple bitters, Miracle Mile Forbidden Bitters, and lemon, is the favorite of the night. It's the epitome of seasonal, with intense apple and caramel notes, and a bit of spice from the bitters.
The next round of food is more carb-based. The kobe sliders (bottom photo, $6) with mushrooms and fontina and the various “pizzas” (top left, $4 or $5) are solid (though the pizzas are more flatbread-like for us, with the crisp, airy bases being just substantial enough to support the tasty toppings). But I’m blown away by the il calzone ai funghi e tartufo ($10): the great crust used for the flatbreads here enfolds a truly incredible filling of ricotta, mushrooms and truffles. The creamy, earthy combination is one of the best things I’ve eaten in weeks.
The two final drinks on the fall menu are on opposite ends of the spectrum, but both are great. The Rosie Carver (below, left) uses Lillet Rose and smoke-infused ice to highlight Ford's Gin and Aylesbury Duck Vodka, two new spirits from The 86 Company. Simple and straighforward. On the other hand, the Long For Yesterday (below, right) throws together Pink Pigeon rum, Tempus Fugit Crème de Cacao, Bitter Truth Xocolatl Mole Bitters, espelette syrup, cream and soda for a dessert drink with delicious depth.
We’re comfortably full but not bursting when the gorgeous desserts hit the table. Both i bomboloni (bottom left, $10), a plate of warm doughnuts with prosecco and peaches, and la panna cotta alla vaniglia (vanilla panna cotta with berries and puff pastry, (top right, $10) are very nice. While we're simply not quick enough to snag any of the orange and pistachio-filled cannoli (bottom right), they get good reviews. But it’s the classic tiramisu (top left, $10) and accompanying crumbly biscotti that takes the trophy for me this round, with a great combination of textures and a nice balance of sweet and bitter.
Join Jaymee and the Drago crew tonight from 5-close to sample all ten of Jaymee's inspired creations for only $8 each (normally $12). While you're there, dig into a couple (or three or four) of the fantastic bar menu. I can't think of a much better way to welcome back fall.
*Disclosure: this was a hosted meal.
Drago Centro - Downtown
525 S. Flower St. Ste 120
Los Angeles, CA 90071
Hours: Mon-Thu: 11:30a - 9:30p, Fri: 11:30a - 10:00p, Sat 5:00p - 10:00p, Sun 5:00p - 9:30p