"In here, life is beautiful. The girls are beautiful. Even the orchestra is beautiful!"
The line from Cabaret pops into my head as we drive up to impeccably manicured Hotel ZaZa, home to Dragonfly restaurant. The valets appear out of nowhere and graciously help us from the car.
"We're here for the Blue Plate special," I tease the valet as he takes my keys. It's not even 6 p.m., but we have theater tickets, and I hate to rush. We are quickly shown to a table and, just as the Emcee says, everything is beautiful.
Dragonfly Grilled lamb lollipops $15 Brisket bacon cheddar sliders $9 Sea salt fries $7 Comida $18 Summer berry cr�pe $8 French toast $12.50 Egg sandwich $12 A Slice of Ice $8 Afterschool Snack $7
The color scheme is black and white with accents of warm, pale green. Flat-screen televisions run strange loops of video clips, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and Fashion Week mixed with things I don't recognize. What looks to be a tiny dinosaur skeleton hangs over the bar. The doors are open to the pool and strains of hip-hop filter in on the breeze. There's something at once eclectic and, yes, a little pretentious about Dragonfly.
Well-dressed customers sit at the bar and a few other tables are filled with diners. Bare bulbs of varying shapes and sizes hang from black cords from the ceiling like a graphic chandelier. White cloths cover the tables and the black wooden chairs have fabric seats made of broad stripes in black and white. One bright yellow bloom sits on each table.
The walls are black. The ceiling is painted with Chinese icons or scenes. One wall is filled with portraits and paintings. Another has circular cutouts of drawings of Victorian female faces and eyes. The waitresses are thin and pretty, albeit a little on the brusque side. The menus have clever quotes printed inside.
"I don't diet. I just don't eat as much as I'd like to." —Linda Evangelista, supermodel
I order a Ciroc Grape Frost (Ciroc Vodka, white grape juice, St. Urban Reisling) to drink. But it is too crazy strong. The waitress happily replaces it with a Big Flirt (Ketel One Vodka, Cointreau, pineapple, passion fruit, Champagne), which suits me far better. I'm a lightweight. I know. Each cocktail is $12.
We decide to do a couple of the shared plates and just one entrée for the two of us, which was more than enough food. We opt for the grilled lamb lollipops served with pickled jalapeños and balsamic greens, the brisket bacon cheddar sliders with house-ground beef and traditionally dressed, and the hand-cut sea salt fries accompanied by truffle ranch, honey mustard and ketchup for dipping.
We don't get any plates for sharing, which is kind of odd, and there is no cheese to be found on the sliders, which is even odder. But the taste of the food makes up for any service foibles. The sliders are juicy and well-seasoned and the buns warm and soft. Although the meat looks like ground beef, it tastes like lovingly prepared brisket.
The lamb chops are a teeny bit fatty, which leaves little meat on two of them, but they are tender and flavorful without overwhelming the taste of the lamb. When I eat a lamp chop I want to taste a lamb chop, and at Dragonfly, I do.
But the star of the starters is the sea salt fries that come to the table in a little fryer basket as if just plucked from the oil. Crisp and salty with little to no grease, the fries are small in size but big on taste. The truffle ranch is so good we don't bother with the other two offerings. Come on, it's truffles. Enough said.
For our shared entrée we decide to try out the comida, described on the menu as "What the kitchen staff is eating tonight." Those are some lucky bastards. I would have taken my turn at the dish-washing station for another serving of what comes to our table.
The dish consists of a slice of thickly cut bread soaking in tomato and olive oil with four pork and beef meatballs with only mozzarella on top. It's served with a bit of arugula and is like a deconstructed and reconstructed pizza of sorts. You could easily cut the meatballs with a fork and my only disappointment is there weren't more. The bread absorbs all of the goodness of the dish and is tasty enough to eat alone.
The manager stops by to ask how we're doing, but the gesture seems uncomfortably disingenuous, and he can't seem to get to the next table quickly enough.
After dinner, I order mint tea and am served jasmine instead. I drink it without mention because I'm too distracted by our desserts to bother. We opt for A Slice of Ice (vanilla ice cream, Oreo crust, chocolate and caramel sauce) and the chef's ode to his childhood, the Afterschool Snack (house Hoho, baked Twinkie and a butterscotch pudding cup). The Slice of Ice is a high-end ice cake. It's a little too rich for my blood, though, and I take only a few bites before my palate is overwhelmed and a little frozen.
The Afterschool Snack, however, wins my heart. All three components taste like the real thing, only up a notch, with none of the chemical aftertaste or overly spongy texture of their namesakes. The texture of the two baked goodies is moist and clearly just baked. They're sweet without giving a painful sugar buzz. The pudding too has the clear taste of homemade and clings to the spoon even when you turn it upside down. Mamma would be proud.
We return a few days later on a Sunday for brunch. The place is hopping. It's the third Sunday of the month so Dragonfly's special Sunday School brunch is in session. It all seems very exclusive (which the hostess snootily tells us it is), with velvet ropes and guests filing into a room where only attendees are allowed. Apparently, $35 and a reservation will get you in the morning party scene complete with dancing on the tables and scantily clad waitresses who don't look anything like the Catholic schoolgirls I went to school with. Next time.
The manager says he will "make a nice table for us" when the hostess greets us. We wait a bit and then are shown to the same table where we sat just a few nights before. This time it's pounding club music that invades from outside and is a bit unpleasant on a Sunday morning.
Immediately you can tell things are different. The servers are men and they're sweet, but they are also hustling, sweat on their brows and upper lips. "There are only two of us for all of this," the waiter says, surveying the restaurant and patio with his arm. "Because of Sunday School." We nod empathetically.
The bar is packed and the patio is full too despite the oppressive humidity. The same reel plays on the televisions and seems even more bizarre on a Sunday morning. Beautiful, barely dressed women keep popping in, wearing tiny plaid schoolgirl skirts and teeny, barely there tanks with knee socks and black heels.
We order the summer berry crêpe with Grand Marnier and Chantilly cream; the French toast with brown-sugar-glazed bananas and Vermont maple syrup; and the egg sandwich with fried egg, bacon, cheddar cheese, Dijon mayo, lettuce, tomato and sesame bun.
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SHOW ME HOW
The French toast and the egg sandwich come out surprisingly quickly. After waiting a few minutes, we finally ask about the crêpe. The waiter looks confused and heads to the kitchen. "I'm so sorry," he says when he returns. "It was just sitting at the window."
The French toast is light and sweet and fluffy. It's almost like dessert, like bananas Foster sans the ice cream. Luckily, it's only one thick slice. Any more would have been too much. Strangely, some of the edges are a bit uncooked, leaving the center gushy. But 90 percent of the toast is perfectly toasty and warm.
The crêpe has strawberries, blackberries, blueberries and one grape for good measure. This too was very sweet and dessert-like. It was particularly good with a few bites of bacon. Sweet and salty heaven. The egg sandwich is shockingly large, the size of a hamburger, and very cheesy. It's a classic choice and certainly tasty, but nothing out of the ordinary.
The whole scene is rather Cabaret-esque. The European décor, the waitresses' seductive uniforms, the illusion that in here, everything is beautiful. It may be a little self-involved, but there is nothing illusory about chef Daniel Landsberg's menu. It is beautiful.