Dragonfly: a Zen Garden of Taste, Texture and Ambiance
“If you’re expecting Dragonfly to be a traditional sushi restaurant, then you need to think again,” utters my friend Julienne, a once-a-week sushi-holic with whom I recently dined at the year-old hot Orlando spot. “Sushi restaurants usually focus on the food, not on the décor. This place has the ambiance you’d expect in a San Francisco restaurant, with mood lighting and modern high-style. The music is contemporary and low enough you can have a conversation. The long couch in the lounge bar area invites mingling. This place is visually stunning. Perfect for date night or with all the indoor and outdoor private space, great for groups wanting to meet in a fashionable, comfortable setting.”
Dragonfly does indeed have ambiance. The restaurant is designed with three key elements in mind: sensual, spiritual and savory. Sensory is easy. There are those deep red spots of color on pillows, seat backs or drop down curtains that shield private spaces for group dining and the contrasting smoothness of river rock crusted cabinets and scalloped baseboards. Cork flooring pads against clicking heels. Latticed wood screens contribute to the gentle flow of the restaurant. A European walnut tree previously cut down was creatively reimagined into an expansive sushi bar counter. “We believe in sustainability, both in our décor and in our food,” notes Dave Talpasz, GM for Dragonfly. Even the restrooms havea zen spa quality, with stall walls of hand-painted gold swirls and stone basins.
Spiritual elements welcome you from the front entrance, with a wall-length wooden cabinet composed of small drawers placed behind the hostess desk. Some of the doors are open, with lights emitting a halo-like effect. The cabinet is omikuji, which means that it contains written fortunes. In Japan, omikuji would be found in Shinto shrines or Buddhist temples. The fortune- seeker would extract a paper charm. Negative fortunes would be returned to the drawer and closed in. Positive ones are held in glowing drawers or hung from an omikuji tree, much like the artificial metal structure omitting a tranquil vibe beneath the 20’ high lounge bar ceiling.
The savory element is obvious. “We have 230 menu items, and more than 70% are not sushi,” says Talpasz. Dragonfly is a modern izakaya restaurant, meaning “small plates that are meant to be a shared experience.” It’s in the foods that promise to delight and trick the tongue with unpredictable combinations created by Executive Chef Ray Hideaki Leung, who studied under Iron Chef Master, Chef Morimoto.” Talpasz refers to menu items as “Dragonfly spins on the traditional,” though he hastens to mention that a traditional meal of soup, salad, entrée and dessert is available.
Dragonfly’s first incarnation was in Gainesville in 2000 when two University of Florida graduates fulfilled their dream to open a restaurant. When their 80-seat restaurant was “plagued” with wait times exceeding two hours, Hiro Leung and Song Kim expanded to 200 seats. When Dragonfly opened at Dellagio Plaza on Sand Lake Road, the concept widened, as did its menu, including one of the largest sake’ selections in Orlando. Since then, the dinner-only restaurant has received multiple magazine awards.
Julienne and I chose a cozy booth that gave us views of the wraparound patio (seats 90), the dining room and lounge bar area, and the sushi bar (250 seated for buyout). We literally wanted to “breathe in” in the aromas emanating from the exclusive robata grill, a system that sears proteins and veggies in a 1000-degree heat. Along the length of the curving sushi bar, a sample of many of the proteins and veggies that are grilled over imported white oak coal repose in a clear casing. Overhead, 60-pound strands of beads individually strung from enormous lights emit a softening glow. All that was missing at this point was the food.
We were on a taste-testing mission. Talpasz arranged our tasting, looking to show off some of the unusual dishes in which Dragonfly specializes. We were more than happy to grab our chopsticks and go for the journey.
First course was a favorite of both Julienne and mine: edamame (poached soybean pods). Unlike the traditional that are salted and perhaps dipped in soy sauce, they were first butter sautéed, tossed in a cast iron skillet with some garlic butter, togarashi and finished with dancing bonito flakes. Heat causes the paper-thin flakes to dance. ($6, or $5 for traditional) With our edamame we tried two signature cocktails. The cucumber martini tasted to me like sour mix blended with the fresh coolness of cucumber. Actually, the cucumber was a five-day emulsion process that Dragonfly creates, as they do many of their drink ingredients. We also had a Mo J OJ, an orange flavored mojito. Liked the tang.
Next up was the Warm spinach & Shitake Mushroom Salad tossed in a warm miso vinaigrette and topped with toasted macadamia nuts. ($8). I would never have thought to have ordered a spinach salad in a Japanese restaurant, but this is one not to overlook. Let’s just say that neither of us was willing to waste a drop of it!
Michael Sharp, one of the head servers and trainers and a former Japanese resident, proudly educated us on each dish as it arrived. Garlic Rub Escolar was a buttery tender white fish, part of the mackerel family. It was finished with Yuzo (Japanese citrus soy). We sampled the Yuzo, but the delicate bites were better bare. Arriving next was Risotto with Loch Duart Salmon, a high-quality salmon imported from Scotland. Dragonfly actually sources locally, but brings in fresh products six days a week. The tender texture of the risotto was enhanced with Dragonfly’s homemade seasoning, a bit of marscopone, shemiji mushrooms, cilantro, shallots, garlic, white miso, and finished off with the tender bites of salmon. At $11 for an order, this was enough to feed four as a side dish.
We ordered a Lychee Martini that balanced between sweet and refreshing before the arrival of Crispy Yuten Shrimp, a tempura fried giagantic shrimp finished with Yuzu, candied walnuts, and freshly fried cilantro. The flavors popped from the flavorfully moist shrimp.
We couldn’t be at Dragonfly and not try two of their popular Robata grill specialties. Both the chicken ($6) and the ribeye steak ($9) skewers of small cubes were charred. Two skewers come with each order. The robata’s 1000-degree heat sears in the taste of the protein, so seasoning is slight. We loved the chicken but our steak was a touch overcooked. Both proteins were tasty onto themselves, but we enjoyed dipping them into the three sauces served with each robata order. The three kid-friendly (not over-‘hot’) sauces were a spicy miso (veggies), orange yuzo (chicken and seafood), and the tare (like a sweet teriyaki, for meats and chicken).
I know you’re thinking how we could still be eating. Remember, these are small plates meant to be shared. We did not eat every bite of every dish, anxious to have room for sushi. The three top sushi dishes were served in descending order. Julienne and I both preferred the first one, the signature Dragonfly roll. Usually served in six pieces for $14, this was a fried sushi roll containing tuna and albacore. It was then baked and topped with a homemade spicy sauce, then cooled down with scallions, sesame seeds and a sweet soy sauce. Julienne says, “If you like sushi, this is a must.”
#2 was the 8-slice Bomb Roll, with tempura shrimp and snow crab mixed with Japanese may, fish roe, and avocado. We liked the tempura flakes topping that gave it a slight crunch. $13. The last was the Cobra Kai, a $14 sushi roll in eight pieces. Sharp compares the Cobra Kai to a Starburst candy in that the flavors burst out. Not sure that they burst out, but we did enjoy the combination of red onion, tomato, snow crab, tempura flakes on the inside and the buttery richness of the Loch Duart Salmon, garlic-shiso pesto and aged balsamic on the outside. The sushi is served with the customary paper-thin slices of marinated white ginger. When I inquired why the ginger was white and not pink, I learned it is commonly dyed.
Talpasz says the average check for guests is about $35 each when sharing the Japanese small plates, but if you love Happy Hours for early dining and drinking with friends, check theirs out from 5-7 pm daily. The current Sensual Six menu features unique cocktails and appetizers for $6 each. The menu will likely change in late November. The name may become the Happier Hour, but the price remains the same. There are no restrictions on where one has to sit to take advantage of the Happy Hour prices. If you’re meeting a group, one section of the patio has a lengthy table for 20 that oversees the Delagio’s sculpted fountain. When the weather chills, weather insulated drop-down curtains keep the space cozy.
Just when we were thinking we were sufficiently full and didn’t need to eat another bite, dessert arrived. Though house specialties are deep friend tempura cheesecake and a tempura ice cream that’s first insulated by pound cake before it is battered and deep fried, Talpasz thought a green tea crème brulee would be the magic finish for our tasting. This was the largest crème brulee I have ever been served. The delicate green tea taste lingered as an after-bite. The dessert was artistically beautiful, with a spooned blueberries balanced on one side and a Pirouette wafer just off center to counterbalance the design. Scrumptious.
I can’t promise how you’ll enjoy the ambiance and flavors of Dragonfly, but I can guarantee that Julienne and I left feeling pretty happy.
Karen Kuzsel is a writer-editor based in the Orlando area who specializes in the hospitality, entertainment, meetings & events industries. She is a Contributing Editor-Writer for Prevue Magazine and is an active member of ISES and MPI, for which she is on the Membership Advisory Council and the Industry Advisory Council. She writes about food & wine, spas, destinations, venues, meetings & events. A career journalist, Karen has owned magazines, written for newspapers, trade publications, radio and TV. As her alter-ego, Natasha, The Psychic Lady, she is a featured entertainer for corporate and social events. firstname.lastname@example.org; www.ThePsychicLady.com
Karen~Another great review! You made sushi sound so delectable and promising that even I might be able to try some at Dragonfly, and generally I like everything ‘cooked’, if you know what I mean:-) But, I do have a lot of friends who already enjoy it [sushi, that is], so maybe I can find one of them to go with me to try this place out. Now that I know they have so much more to offer, I’m sure it’s worth the trip. Thanks for informing us along with the entertaining and detailed descriptions. Like I said, another great review!
Thank you so much for taking your time to read it. I was curious whether there’d be food my non-sushi or fish eating hubby would enjoy. Was quite surprised that 70% of the food isn’t sushi. Let me know what you think after you go. If you happen to think of it, tell them you came because of my article.
I totally agree with Terry. Despite not liking raw food your post is so well done that was willing to prove it! Congratulations!
I appreciate your positive feedback.