Recently Krista Nightengale reported on her visit to Dragonfly inside Hotel ZaZa in Uptown. Last week, I attended a press event and got to check out the renovated dining room and sample some of new chef Dan Landsberg ‘s menu items. I wasn’t anonymous or paying so what follows is not a review. Rather it is a description of what to expect at Dragonfly.
The bottom line is: forget everything you ever knew about Dragonfly. This is not your father’s Dragonfly. Remember him: The dude with the dope raps. The one who protested the Vietnam War and is still a Dead Head at 60. Like the original Dragonfly, he’s edgy. It was perfectly conceived in design and menu and took Dad back as he engaged in a 20-year counter-apostasy of youth. [Editor's note: Andrew's on his own here!]
You, by contrast, bought a Prius. You wear woolly pullovers in February. Your preferences go more towards the familiar. Because of you, and the growing number of people like you, Dragonfly found it harder to stay out there in the netherworld between Woodstock and Nepal. Add to that an economic recession that shuttered many other restaurants and you have a situation pushing for change. Hotel ZaZa owner, Charlie Givens, took that to heart.
Walk into Dragonfly now and you’ll find circular marble-topped tables in the bar area (in fact the use of marble carries over to the top of the bar itself) and idiosyncratic art work on the wall. Much of it comes from Givens’ personal collection. They say that someone’s choice in art is a porthole to their soul. In this case, my take is that Givens was your father but has finally come to terms with his loss of youth. Witness the photographs and paintings on the wall that are portraits of old people apparently comfortable with their age. [Editor's note: he's on a roll.]
Tablecloths remain on the four-tops although the banquette that once dominates the center of the room has yielded to less formidable individual tables. One detail I did’nt know existed is a giant classical relief on the ceiling in the center of the restaurant. In the previous incarnation it was covered with a drapery but Kimberly Miller, of Design Duncan Miller Ullmann, exposed it in a way that enriches the room’s vertical aspect. The patio area has expanded all the way out to the pool (the people who used to party there now have to use one of those baths with a door in the side). The outdoor tables provide a respite from the high inside volume levels, although I did not get a chance to ask the perennial Dallas patio question: How will they control the climate out there in July and August?
All this adds up to an ambiance that could be described as European Urban or Paris Bistro. It is informal, and could become a little frenetic when busy as the bar and restaurant coexist cheek-by-jowl. On the mid-week night I visited, the place was hopping. The casual bar tables were occupied by pairs of 30-something women who might indeed be choosing more economical places to eat but don’t seem to have pared back their clothing budget. The restaurant tables were occupied mainly by couples, again with the young demographic predominant.
All of the above dodges the most wrenching change at Dragonfly – the new menu. Givens brought in noted Dallas chef Dan Landsberg to accomplish the transformation. Landsberg opened Fog City Diner here many years ago. He served under David Holben at Toscana, as execuchef of Seventeen Seventeen and opening execuchef at Restaurant Stephan Pyles. No wonder this man has the confidence to describe his position in his LinkedIn profile as a “dishwasher at Tillman’s Roadhouse.”
So what hath Landberg wrought? The culinary theme can be put into perspective by saying that if you like the menu at Neighborhood Services then you will like Dragonfly. If you like the menu at Horne and Decker then you will like Dragonfly. Although you may like it more than either of these other two. The preparation was very precise in everything we ate and, if this continues, then Dragonfly will be very busy. They also take reservations. On the issue of pricing, Dragonfly is no longer a ‘destination’ restaurant. i.e. somewhere that requires a special occasion. The median appetizer price is $10 and the median entrée price is $23 (both are exactly the same as the Neighborhood Services on Lovers). Warning: Order the local Trinity River unbottled water as wine pricing will blow your cellar doors off. A glass of 2009 Layer Cake Shiraz is $12 (retail is $16 for a bottle); a glass of 2006 Trefethen Merlot is $12 (retail is $30 a bottle); a glass of 2008 Newton Cabernet Sauvignon is $14 (retail is $25/bottle). This is a well-chosen wine list but the prices are from your father’s Dragonfly.
We started with appetizers. Devil’d Eggs with Tobiko Caviar, Bacon, Watercress and Salmon Gravlox ($7) were light and enticing. The Perfect amuse-bouche (or amuse-gueule in my case, as I had missed lunch). Poncy restaurants would present these pre-meal with a flourish of ze chef sort zat you would like zis az you look zo special ed. A daily special of Microgreen Stuffed Taco Shells with Foie Gras Mousse was crisp tortillas assigned to hold a more valuable cargo than is usually the case. Hopefully these will migrate to the regular menu. Wasabi Potato Wantons ($7) were that kind of dish that is so brilliant in conception and so simple in execution that you want to memorize it for your next dinner party. What I like most about wasabi is that its intensity can be so finely calibrated that it can take on multiple characters in the hands of a skilled chef. Hoisan BBQ Baby Back Ribs ($13) were the dish of the night. Juicy, earthy (because of the meat) but accented with the fruitiness of hoisan sauce. You might want to put down your knife and fork and eat these with your hands. Brisket Bacon Cheddar Sliders ($9) combine the three ingredients prior to cooking. Thus ensuring the cheese melts and the bacon is evenly distributed through the burger. It gives a resolved taste in the mouth. This could be one of the best burgers in town.
Next we rattled off three salads. Dragonfly Greens (cucumber, red pepper baked ricotta and pistachio) ($6) is the house salad but you might regard it as the anti house salad. So often house salad is the forgettable throwaway on the menu but here, apparently at Givens suggestion, it is a visual tour de force made from mesclun greens tossed with cherry vinaigrette bound, S&M-like, with a cucumber shaving. Ricotta is micro planed over the top and the red pepper gel that it sits on provides visual contrast with the greens. It seemed like sacrilege to demolish the elegant tower to eat the dish but it had to be done. Asparagus Salad (chervil, frisée, portobello, truffled fingerling chips) ($9) not only turns ‘truffle’ into an adjective but is one of the best darn salads around town. The ‘croutons’ in this salad are chunks of portobello mushrooms. Roasted Cashew Asian Chicken Salad ($11) is going to appeal to the diner who wants a chicken salad and regards Asian accents as a plus. With the cashew chicken was Napa cabbage slaw with carrots and daikon sprouts, pepper, scallions, cilantro and sweet Thai chicken vinaigrette that gave it considerable heat punch.
Main courses were Bay of Fundy Salmon (toasted orzo, toasted coriander, baby spinach) ($25). Great intense salmon flavors from searing on one side but the star of the show for me was the toasted orzo. Seriously, if you make orzo at home try toasted orzo. I don’t have a clue how you do it (maybe in an orzo toaster) but the flavor effect is to orzo what the maillard reaction is to meat. Does that make sense? No? Not to me either, but taste this and you will understand. Roasted Pork Tenderloin (ginger scallion Lo Mein, Asparagus, Sweet ‘n Spicy Sauce) ($22) was perfectly cooked pork tenderloin with all the pluses and minuses of that particular piece of pig. It looked beautiful. It was tender beyond belief. It was just lacking in taste. I can see why fruit sauces developed as a common accompaniment to this cut and I hope chef Landsberg adds one to this dish. Our final entrée was Comida ($18). This is not so much a recipe as a statement of corporate values. You get to eat what the kitchen staff ate that night before starting work. I approached this idea with huge reservations based on my experience as a consumer of Comida. I once worked at a steakhouse where Comida consisted of fries thawed from a plastic bag. They tasted of nothing except the salt you added. Imagine how motivated the staff was to begin evening service. Dragonfly staff have things much better. On the night that we were there they had a melt in the mouth rich pot roast with red wine jus, brown butter, spaetzle, and spring onions.
Dessert is playful. There are names like Afterschool Snack (House Hoho, Baked Twinkie, Butterscotch Pudding Cup) ($7). Who Put Their Peanut Butter in MY Chocolate (peanut butter mousse, chocolate bundt, fudge sauce) ($7) and, from somewhere, a glass of milk in a chocolate-crusted glass arrived. All are good, and may contain a calorie or two. Our evening had begun with a discussion of the best technique to make smooth ice cream and, as if to show that he isn’t confined to comfort food, Landsberg produced miniature cones with Egg and Bacon Ice Cream. Breakfast for dessert!
The redecoration overhaul took about four weeks and virtually the whole staff stayed so there should be no ‘opening blues’. Front of house man Chas Martin brings, as Krista described, enormous enthusiasm and charm to the Dragonfly enterprise. Landsberg had just one position to fill, his own assistant in the kitchen, but may have done that by now. Based on my experience I see a bright future for Dragonfly. Think of it as your new neighborhood eatery with a menu that is familiar, but not indolent. While someone else wrestles with the oxymoron of a neighborhood restaurant in a boutique hotel I will just get down and eat.