The first time I remember eating at Dragonfly Neo V was May 4th, 2008 – though in reality it turns out I’d been there once before, back during undergrad and before I had any concept of “fine dining.” Thinking back on that that meal in 2008 in retrospect, however, I realize now that even then I really didn’t have much of a concept of fine dining – I’d logged a mere two Michelin Stars , both at Wolfgang Puck’s Beverley Hills Spago, and that was at lunch. Flashing forward to February 2011 and having promised a friend (vegetarian) that I’d take her to dinner as a thank you for saving me from public transportation I wondered how Dragonfly would stand up with a good 83 (give or take a few based on yearly fluctuation) stars and 25 of Gayot’s “40 best restaurants” in my rearview.
Still residing at its original location on King Avenue but with a number of upgrades since my last visit – most notably “On the Fly” street-food next door and a lounge entrance - the building remains unassuming aside from a sign demarcating the entrance. With a pleasant young man collecting coats at the door I was greeted pleasantly and led quickly to a two-top where my guest was already waiting with an excellent Lavender Gimlet in hand. With the short menu – 5 appetizers, 4 mains, and 3 desserts – plus drinks already present on the table the next thing I noticed was the soundtrack…Shins, Strokes, Silversun Pickups, Modest Mouse…hipster/alt in a good way and at a good volume. With menus in hand I declined a drink of my own and opted to stick with water that aside from one glitch early in the meal remained full throughout. Interestingly as the restaurant was only ~1/4 full it would actually be a team of three – a female, a male, and Chef Wolmark himself taking care of us throughout the evening.
With orders placed – a main each, no appetizers, the first item to arrive at the table would be the nightly amuse bouche – a squash puree wrapped in a cured slice of zucchini alongside a dollop of “tapioca caviar.” Sweet and savory, a traditional opening volley, the puree was nicely tempered in both taste and texture by the zucchini while the faux-caviar was a bit sticky without the characteristic “pop” of the namesake eggs, but the briny-gives-way-to-subtle sweetness was on point.
The second item to hit the table would be the house bread – a vegan friendly baguette paired with house made hot sauce and black bean puree. Slightly sweet and more spongy in mouth-feel than a traditional baguette the bread was quite tasty and vastly more hefty than tradition. Without butter or olive oil I personally found the hot sauce to be slightly too spicy but the black bean puree to be quite tasty. Mixing the hot sauce and beans, at least to my memory of it, reminded me of refried beans.
With main courses arriving shortly under an hour after I sat down I’ll note the pace at Dragonfly in the evening was cool and calm which was okay given the outstanding soundtrack and company, but it may have been less so if one were dining solo. With my dining partner opting for the nightly special I decided to select the gnocchi pomodoro. Wondering exactly how Wolmark would pull off Italian Gnocchi without egg or Parisian Gnocchi without butter or cream I was pleasantly surprised by the dainty pasta that tasted somewhere between a baked potato and choux-based. Lightly pan crisped on the exterior and married with a sauce of smoky chopped tomato, basil, chili, garlic, and perhaps nutmeg atop a swirl of sautéed onions the flavors were simple, classic, and excellent – easily the best Gnocchi I’ve had in Columbus.
The other item to arrive at our table was the special du jour - Crispy glazed Seitan “Mock Duck” with shiitake in heirloom sesame oil on scallion pancakes with citrusy cabbage, chopped scallions, and cilantro. Unfamilar with seitan my vegetarian friend described it as a wheat based protein and sure enough, on review it turns out to be insolvable gluten portion of washed flour that is then rendered into a textural meat that even without preparation has been referred to as “duck like.” Always leery of vegetables pretending to be meat I have to admit that as good as the gnocchi was, the “duck” was better. As a daily soy sauce consumer I thoroughly enjoyed the manner in which the sweetened version used in this dish caramelized during cooking and even more so how it interacted with the earthy mushroom slices and lemon tinged cabbage. Heavy in onion and light in cilantro atop surprisingly traditional Asian inspired pungent pancakes the entire blend was spot on and although you couldn’t have fooled me that I was eating the sort of duck I’m accustomed to (IE the rare preparations of artisan breeds becoming more common in fine dining,) the pseudo duck was better than your standard fowl both in taste and texture.
With my gnocchi gone and my friend’s leftovers boxed up we were next offered dessert – a decision I deferred to the lady and a decision she declined. Rarely one to leave a restaurant without dessert I will say that while all the options sounded good only a creamsicle style tapioca really struck me as something I’d have liked to taste. While we were not offered coffee, delivered with the check (I’m still unsure why people consider Dragonfly “expensive” as I’ve spend twice as much on a single appetizer as I did on a meal for two) were two squares of organic 66% chocolate dusted with sea salt and paprika – an excellent closer that would serve well to be replicated into a larger scale dessert. With the bill settled we lingered for a bit as my friend finished her drink and although the restaurant was starting to fill up, there were still open tables and we were never pressured to leave – as a matter of fact, the servers continued to check in on us regularly.
Making our way out of the restaurant and back to my car the first thing that came to my mind was how Dragonfly compares in the grand scheme of things – but after a quick thought that simply isn’t fair as I’m not a vegetarian or vegan – I love foie gras, I love poultry and fish in all forms, and if you serve me bread imbued with bacon there is a good chance I’ll leave you a great tip. Refocused more on what they were doing with their concept I can honestly say that Dragonfly hits on all cylinders and accomplishes something that only they and Kihachi can here in Columbus - they make you feel like you are in a bigger city eating a meal that is worth going out for. While the vegetables aren’t French Laundry quality and the handling and preparation aren’t striking the genius chords of David Kinch there is no doubt in my mind that Dragonfly would be a hit with vegetarians no matter where they were located – New York, San Francisco, any anywhere in between – and in bigger cities I imagine they’d attract more omnivores as well.