With two side-by-side hot spots along the Wilshire corridor in Santa Monica, it should come as no surprise that the group behind Fia and Fia Steak jumped at the chance to open a third one right next door. Chef Brendan Collins and business partner Michael Greco hope lightning will strike thrice with their new Spanish-inspired restaurant and bar, Dono.
Raised in Nottingham, England, Collins spent serious time traveling and studying in Spain before moving to the U.S., all the while keeping a memory box of flavors and ingredients from the Basque country, Madrid, and beyond. Before opening Dono, which is short for Donostia-San Sebastian, he and Greco traveled around the country for a refresher course, hitting everything from neighborhood tapas bars to Michelin-starred stunners. What they brought back was a cache of new ideas that Collins would make his own.
Collins has a varied resume that makes taking on Spanish food a natural fit. After working throughout Europe and earning Michelin recognition while cooking in England, he made his way to L.A. and worked with Josiah Citrin at Melisse, before honing his own style at places like Waterloo & City in Culver City and Birch in Hollywood. Blending locally sourced, seasonal ingredients with global flair has become something of his trademark: Fia pulls from the Amalfi Coast of Italy, among other places; and Fia Steak elevates traditional American steakhouse cuisine with subtle sparks of flavor from the Middle East to Southeast Asia. He’s his own melting pot.
Out of the three restaurants, Dono has more of a party-friendly vibe than the Fias. The menu is as good for one-on-one snacking with drinks as it is for filling up with a table of friends. There’s a focus on late-night — dinner is served until midnight on weekends, and DJs are there to keep the party going past that — plus an incredible cocktail list created by Gaby Mlynarczyk, including a killer sangria. Here, Collins talks about some of his favorite dishes for this latest installment of Dish by Dish.
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1. Manchego-Stuffed Bacon-Wrapped Dates
“This is so amazingly Spanish, and something we had in nearly every restaurant we went to while traveling. But we wanted to tweak it a bit when we came back to California. The Medjool dates we get at the farmers market are like nature’s perfect candy, just so soft, sweet, and delicious. We stuff them with a beautiful Spanish manchego cheese and wrap them in Benton’s bacon. We roast them until they’re nice and caramelized — it’s just super simple and satisfying. We serve them with a potato aioli, which is basically a rouille made with mashed potatoes, olive oil, and egg yolk. I’d put these against any we had in Spain, and I think these are better. It’s the dates. I have a much better product right here on my doorstep.”
2. Grilled Octopus, Latke Papas
“We had a lot of octopus in Spain. We wanted to feature some Galician food on the menu, and octopus definitely fits the bill. So we begin by braising a beautiful fresh octopus nice and slow in red wine. At our wood-burning grill, we switch between different woods like mesquite, apricot, and apple. We cook the octopus over apple, getting it nice and smoky with a hint of sweetness. Then we finish it with pimenton. Our little twist is serving it with these potato pancakes — basically latkes — topped with creme fraiche and piquillo peppers, mint, and cilantro. In Spain you might see octopus with a potato salad, so this is our take for Los Angeles.”
3. Lamb Meatballs, Cucumber, Yogurt, Mint
“We knew we wanted to bring some Moorish aspect to our food, since the Moors had so much influence on Spanish cuisine. And since we had a lot of meatballs in Spain, this is how that all comes together. We make lamb meatballs mixed with a little bit of ricotta, mint, and za’atar, to bring in those spices. They’re grilled over the wood fire and served with a cucumber salad mixed with yogurt and habanero jam. They’re a little gamey, nice and charred, with those spices and cool cucumber and yogurt to balance it out.”
4. Piri Piri Half Chicken, Corn Salsa
“In the Northwest corner of Spain, you’ll find Galician cuisine, but this is more Portuguese influenced. We make our own piri piri sauce with four different kinds of chiles, onions, and garlic, and it’s cooked down for hours. We marinate the chicken, and cook it over apple wood until it’s nice and caramelized outside and still super juicy inside. Then glaze it with more sauce because it’s so good. Then we serve it with what we call a corn salad, but it’s just like fresh corn, onion, and some herbs pulled together with a little mayo. That’s the California aspect to the dish. Some of us have a higher threshold for the chiles, but for a cooling touch, this salad really works. It’s not a tapa, it’s bigger. We wanted to keep the few large format dishes we have — this chicken, a steak, the branzino — all really simple to give more room to the tapas.”
5. Seafood Paella
“It took us a while to R&D the paella. I knew I wanted it to be seafood only because between Fia and Fia Steak, there’s already plenty of meat on this corner. We wanted Dono to feel a little lighter. First, we had to find the right bomba rice — you can find a million different kinds of arborio rice for risotto, but finding a great bomba rice wasn’t easy. Once we found one that worked, we decided to pre-cook it so it doesn’t take 45 minutes for each order. Then we got to work making a great shellfish stock. Everything goes into it: lobster shells, blue crab shells, shrimp shells. We roast it all first, then make a beautiful stock. We stuff the paella with Caladonian blue shrimp, mussels, Manila clams, octopus, and this really beautiful Spanish calamari. It’s finished with pimenton and lemon. And yes, we get a nice soccarat. You can’t serve paella without that crust.”
Lesley Balla writes about restaurants, travel, wine, and more. You’ll find her work in publications including Los Angeles magazine, Angeleno, The Hollywood Reporter, and The Seattle Times. In a previous life she was the L.A. editor for Zagat and Eater. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram. Follow Resy, too.