It's eerie enough sitting at the only occupied table in a new restaurant. Either you feel like you've discovered a hidden treasure, or that you've been banished to the most forlorn corner of restaurant-dom. It's doubly eerie to be a food critic at that table. Suddenly the stakes are tripled.
There are two ways to open a restaurant: "soft," or with a bang. Big openings are for well-known restaurateurs or the generously capitalized, who can hire a PR company to attract the attention of every half-aware foodie and critic in town. Tiny, first-time restaurateurs generally take the soft approach, hoping that word of mouth will slowly build business. Well-publicized openings can fail in a blaze of hyperbole (on the restaurateur's part) and derision (on the public's part). Soft openings can just fizzle. It all depends on location, luck, talent, and connections.
Drago, which calls itself "a California Bistro," has opened with a whisper. Though the kitchen started serving in mid-April, like many small restaurants Drago has delayed promoting itself until its beer and wine license arrived in mid-June.
Chef-owner Drago Maximov, who cooked in hotels for twelve years, ending up as chef de partie at the Compass Rose in the Westin St. Francis, took over the old Mexican restaurant on the corner of University and MLK and split it into a takeout Tex-Mex -- also called Drago -- and a bistro serving lunch, dinner, and soon Sunday brunch. Maximov grew up in Italy, Malta, and Greece (hint to chef -- who serves Maltese food in the Bay Area? No one!), but designed Drago to celebrate the diversity of his adopted state. The menu shoots for the California eclectic vibe that peaked here fifteen years ago -- a little Mexican, a little Thai, the product of a chef with more international cookbooks than travel experience. For a downtown restaurant, Drago has kept prices low, with dinner entrées topping off at $16.
As much as I hate to knock a restaurant when attendance is down, I wasn't all that impressed by Drago's uneven food. The meal started pleasantly enough. Our waitress hung around our table for a while, partly to entertain us, partly to entertain herself. She looked like she would have liked nothing more than to sit down at our table for a nice, long chat, but then she faded into the back after delivering the first course.
The healthy-sized appetizers she brought could have been mistaken for small entrées, except too few restaurants use the deep fryer for entrées these days. In the chicken kara-age, a take on the Japanese snack, chunks of chicken were battered, deep-fried, then tossed in a tamarind and soy glaze that glommed up the crunchy coating but gave the bland meat a tart, salty kick. Round crab cakes the size of golf balls were rolled in breadcrumbs and cooked in the deep-fryer rather than the pan. The flaky crab inside pulled apart easily, proof of a lack of gluey fillers. A ramekin of spicy mayonnaise came alongside, but the sweet crustacean meat needed no dressing.
A lobster quesadilla had been griddled until the flour tortilla half-moon blistered and the pepper jack inside started to ooze beyond its casing; unfortunately the pieces of lobster in the center hadn't heated past lukewarm. Still, the two ingredients married well, especially when enriched even further with a dollop of garlic-infused guacamole and lit up with a flash of tangy salsa.
As Californian diners discovered in the early 1990s, dilettantism proved to be the dark side of globally eclectic cuisine. Such an amateurish hand showed through in the entrées. I couldn't taste any tequila in the tequila-marinated pork tenderloin hollowed out and stuffed with coppacola ham, onions, Muenster, and mushrooms, perhaps because the loin was doused with a salty mushroom gravy. The meaty filling on its own passed muster, but the dry, overcooked pork that surrounded it didn't.
Filet mignon's reputation as the crème de la crème of beef cuts is no longer warranted now that grain-fed beef has replaced grass-fed, resulting in more tender, better marbleized meat, which means the juiciest of cuts has become mushy in comparison to other sections of the loin. My filet mignon was perfectly cooked and seasoned, but squished under the fork, especially since it had been drowned in the same mushroom gravy. Generous portions of ho-hum mashed potatoes and nicely grilled asparagus filled out the plate. We enjoyed the Singapore chicken, slices of breast meat in red coconut curry, but I've made the same thing by following the directions on a can of Thai curry paste from the corner market.
My companions and I dawdled over dinner, enjoying the fact that we could chat without having to raise our voices. At night the flickering candles on the grid of butcher-paper-covered tables made the dead calm of the empty room wistful, not lonely. It was designed to feel airy and clean, with gray clay tiles, butter-colored walls, and a pale blue ceiling twenty feet up. The only ornamentation: little vases of yellow and blue dried flowers on the tables and a couple of small Miro-esque prints on the walls.
A friend and I returned several days later for lunch, partly to avoid meeting up with our new friend, the dinnertime waitress ("I work every night," she inadvertently warned me), and partly to see who showed up during the day. The answer: three more tables, giving the place a slightly more festive air. Most were local business people ordering soup and half-sandwiches. A single waitress, more polished than the nighttime server but equally warm and friendly, kept watch over everyone.
With no offices to return to, we opted for the three-course lunch, a meal that normally guarantees a stuffed-belly nap. To keep me off the couch, we made it lighter by splitting a Catania salad (named after a town in Italy) with green leaf lettuce, thinly sliced red onion, pimiento-stuffed green olives, and marinated cubes of fresh mozzarella.
A smaller version of the same salad came with my friend's shrimp and crab sandwich. It should have been labeled a crab po'boy, because there was nary a prawn inside. Instead, a couple of leftover crab cakes were smashed between two slices of buttered and griddled sourdough bread, with a thick layer of red pepper mayonnaise, red onions, and lettuce on top. I found it fatty and tasting of old oil, but my friend finished it off.
My chicken piccata was much better. A thinly pounded chicken breast was pan-fried and napped with a white-wine butter sauce punctuated by little vinegary bursts of fragrant capers. For contrast I smeared on dabs of eggplant jam that had been simmered with tomatoes until it melted into a sweet, ruddy puree. The jam also flavored the scoop of white rice alongside the meat.
We finished off the meal with a small bowl of vanilla-bean crème brûlée that was creamy enough to drip off the fork but tasted more like sweetened condensed milk than yolk-rich custard.
Tiny Drago has charm, but does it have enough? In a competitive city like Berkeley, it'll take more than good prices or a PR campaign to fill the room. An underenthusiastic critic won't be much help. An updated, more focused menu would.