Whether your choice is from the sushi bar or a hot-as-blazes grill, everything at Dragonfly Robata Grill is magnificent.
Along with food trucks and cupcake shops, a food trend that has fascinated me this year has been the rise of multiple restaurants run by independent chefs, an idea that’s been prevalent in New York and Los Angeles for years. The Ravenous Pig, for example, spawned Cask & Larder; the owners of Teak Restaurant opened RusTeak a few months ago; and Luma begat Prato. I can’t wait for some of our other star chefs to spread their wings.
Dragonfly Robata Grill, in the Dellagio Town Center, is a spinoff of two Gainesville restaurants, the original downtown Dragonfly and Yume Umē near the University of Florida. Executive chef Ray Hideaki Leung and his brother, co-owner Hirofumi Leung, established Dragonfly in 2000 as a place for innovative takes on traditional Japanese cuisine. They ventured into Orlando in June of 2010. Chef Ray travels between both locations, fine-tuning his modern izakaya, the Japanese equivalent of a gastropub.
The Orlando version is a charming and relaxing room, a big-city downtown take on ancient Japanese restaurants, with dark woods replacing bamboo dividers, and leather seats and banquettes instead of tatami mats. It feels relaxing and almost zen, in an upscale Sand Lake Road kind of way. Service is superb and unrushed, and I liked the designer spin on Japanese obi sashes worn by the female servers. If it’s too hot or crowded to get a table on the pleasant patio, sit by (or at) the sushi bar and observe the kitchen. The multiple layers of activity—the slow and measured sushi-ya at the front, the speedy but mindful cooks at the super hot grill, the staff sautéing and broiling at the back—is a bit of theater worth watching.
Leung has been working in sushi kitchens since 1995 and interned at the hand of Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto in Philadelphia after graduating from the Culinary Institute of America in New York.
“I like to cook Japanese food, slow and simple,” he says, as if that’s an easy task. Intensely aware of the slightest details, Leung delights in how a slice of lemon can completely change the balance of a dish, or how adding the fat of tiny clams and salt of shaved bonito to miso soup ($8) can transform a normally unremarkable bowl.
The specialty that Dragonfly brought to Orlando is robata, a grill using imported oak bincho-tan charcoal that burns hotter and longer than standard American coals. Robatayaki is to hibachi as a firefighter’s hose is to a garden sprinkler. The 1,000-degree grill imparts a quick outer crisp and sublime taste to robata unagi (barbecue eel, $12) and elegantly simple sea scallops ($9). A variety of vegetables, chicken and seafood come off the grill, with Wagyu beef rib eye ($19), braised short ribs with pickled carrots ($14) and yellowtail collar ($13) being some of the delectable standouts.
Yes, sushiphiles, there are fascinating maki rolls. The signature Dragonfly ($14) wraps tuna and white albacore in a slice of grouper, sauced then baked, for a combination of sweet, spicy and savory. Cobra Kai ($14) is a unique construction of crab, onion, tomato and lemon, topped with Loch Duart salmon from Scotland and dressed with garlic pesto and aged balsamic vinegar. Don’t miss any of the flavors—eat it slowly.
Sashimi, served either plain or as part of a salad (with baby spinach and soy-onion vinaigrette; $13), is sliced very thin. The pieces of big eye tuna, Scottish salmon, butterfish and yellowtail are unlike the chunks of fish we’ve come to expect, but they are exactly perfect for taste and texture, a wisp of fish that warms gently on the tongue and is unforgettable.
Lightly fried agedashi tofu ($8) is placed in a house-made fish stock with scallions, salmon roe, earthy nameko mushrooms, seaweed and grated daikon. It echoes of the sea, the forest and the earth, rich tastes that have lingered with me.
Bold yet respectful, Chef Leung seems to be constantly looking for ways to improve and adapt his menu—“evolve” is a word that comes up often in conversation. While even experienced sushi fans may spot the clever twists in Dragonfly’s menu, Leung has already moved on in his mind. “This is so circa 2010 now,” he says, the sound of distraction in his voice. “I’m looking for new directions, local sourcing. I just met a woman who grows heirloom daikon radish; I didn’t even know that existed. My mind is rolling.”
“I have so much to learn,” Chef Leung says, and the results of his continuing quest will surely delight us all.
If you order only one item:
Make it fried rice and threads of crab ($12) with garlic, bits of seaweed and shiso, an herb that tastes a bit like basil and mint. Sounds rather dull, but the risotto-like texture and intensely rich flavors are a satisfying delight—a bowl and a glass of wine could be a meal.
Two books to savor
Celebrity chef Susan Feniger has always taken inspiration for her restaurants, Border Grill and STREET, from the world of food carts, dishes from the markets of Turkey and hawkers of India. She generously shares those influences in Susan Feniger’s Street Food (Potter, $27.50), a beautifully illustrated gathering of recipes and techniques that will have you making Indonesian tek-tek noodles, Romanian sweet and sour eggplant and Tunisian chicken kebabs as if you’d grown up eating them.
Closer to home, local food writers Pam Brandon, Katie Farmand and Heather McPherson have combed the Sunshine State for ingredients and recipes for Field to Feast (University Press of Florida, $28). From the Dade County avocado farms in Redland to the Panhandle peanut fields of Milton, the Sunshine State’s bounty is celebrated in recipes from farms and local chefs. The melon and shrimp dish from Scott Hunnel of Victoria & Albert’s and the mushroom potato cakes courtesy of Zellwood’s Monterey Mushrooms are just two of the many must-make meals.