Batman is suspended over the ocean waves with a shark clinging to his leg. Beating the beast on its nose fails to knock the 6-foot monster loose, so the Caped Crusader takes a desperate, last-gasp course of action. "Quick, Robin," he yells up to the Boy Wonder, strapping himself safely into the hovering Bat Copter, "hand me the shark repellant spray."
Here we sit in Dragonfly at Hotel ZaZa, the dining room draped like a fictional Arabian harem, with its puffy fabric treatments of rich earthen color, its service watchful and refined without being penguin-stiff, its self-censuring expectation of fashionable dress and comportment—and we are trading anecdotes from the campy 1960s Batman TV series one Saturday night. It's not the sort of place to gesture toward the bar, drop your voice a couple octaves and blurt out: "They may be drinkers, Robin, but they're still human beings." But from the moment we saw chef de cuisine Adam West's name printed on Dragonfly's new fall menu, scenes from the TV show starring the deadpan actor of the same name, kept popping into our heads.
"I just feel bad for him," says executive chef Grant Morgan of his assistant. "He's still young—he's got a whole life of [Batman jokes] ahead of him."
DRAGONFLY Soup of the day $8 Lamb chop lollipop $16 Tuna tacos $14 Deconstructed ahi roll $17 Pan-roasted duck breast $33 Supreme pheasant breast $30 New York strip steak $42 Wilted spinach $6 Flourless chocolate cake $8
Well, it is hard to resist. When Morgan arrived from Las Vegas almost three years ago, he thought the constant stream of holy-this and riddle-me-that references was funny as hell. Now he just endures the ribbing alongside West, as night after night they present one of the most impressive seasonal menus in Dallas.
Fall flavors are generally somber but not so at Dragonfly, which subtly hints at autumn heaviness without actually going there. Scallops are plated with butternut squash, an apple cider reduction here, the sparing use of brown butter there. Pheasant breast is pan roasted and presented hunter-style, with potato hash and gravy. And the diced potatoes are caramelized in bacon fat to the point where they almost melt into thin air on the tongue, leaving behind a tart, smoky residue. The meat itself is pale and gentler in flavor than wild bird, but thankfully not as lean.
"We were trying to get away from the staple chicken dish everyone puts on their menu just to be safe," Morgan explains. "The thing I like about pheasant is you don't have to cook it all the way through, so the meat is much more tender than chicken."
To make up for the placid farm-raised taste, they sauté the meat in pan drippings, then swaddle it in a thick and hearty gravy. Duck served over red cabbage is an even more remarkable dish. The meat is surprisingly rich and silken—and it sits on the most extraordinary renditions of red cabbage I've ever experienced.
Keep in mind that a plate of duck and cabbage—both red and white—are Czech staples. When I lived in Prague, I picked through countless versions of cabbage, from tart to spicy to those with an odd clove-anise background. But I tasted nothing like this. Morgan braises the cabbage with foie gras, which melts into the shredded cluster, creating an earthy flavor while lending elegance to this common vegetable's expression of texture and taste. Seasoned and saturated with a port wine reduction, the result carries a sweet, spicy, holiday lilt over the dignified reminder of foie gras.
Considering this is just a mound of red cabbage, it's brilliant—although Morgan refers to it as an accident. Seems they first tested a duck three-ways plate, playing with breast, foie gras and meat from the drumstick. Then the staff tried to perfect cabbage sautéed in rendered bacon fat. One afternoon some foie gras melted in a too hot pan and...
"We just stumbled on to it," the chef admits. "It was dumb luck."
Our luck too, because we're the beneficiaries.
Morgan's aw-shucks demeanor can't completely disguise his confident composure. Before coming to Dallas, he spent two years in Las Vegas and six in the upscale haunts of Vail. He arrived to take over a kitchen previously associated with the likes of Stephan Pyles, Jeff Moschetti and Marc Cassel—tough Crocs to fill. (OK, so not all chefs wear Crocs.) Instead of making an immediate splash, Morgan first launched a menu of basic, home-style dishes and then began to stretch out slowly. "I didn't want to be so presumptuous as to 'know' how Dallas eats," he explains.
When Morgan took over, West was working on the line. The new chef recognized West's talents and promoted Batman to his current position. Morgan also kept up the old "feed me, wine me" tradition by offering a three-course chef's choice dinner option, in which daring guests give the chef permission to whip up off-menu items. The server generally asks if a guest is allergic to certain ingredients and informs the kitchen; otherwise, what arrives at your table is up to the chef. And in a city known for gaudy prime beef palaces, he had no problem stamping "best steaks in Dallas" on his menu.
In this town, these are fightin' words, which he defends by serving steaks pan-seared with shallot and thyme and drizzled with butter as it cooks, a trick known as arosée in French culinary tradition. The technique creates a piece of beef so generous in flavor you never fall into a meat coma—that dull, heavy feeling of having gorged on too much beef. Instead, each bite is lively and rich, with subtle hints of herbs, salt, pepper and more. It's so close to perfection that the chef can't resist showing off, presenting the New York strip partially sliced to reveal a gorgeous black and brown strata ringing its rare magenta core. But this finishing touch allows juices to spill out onto the plate, essentially trading appearance for flavor. They offer a choice of sauces too, but think about staying away from them, or risk obscuring some of the steak's natural character.
It's definitely a great steak—and one that justifies the chef's braggadocio.
Dragonfly's appetizers seem somewhat clumsy, maybe even sophomoric, in comparison to such stunningly genteel entrees. The lamb chop lollipops are rather silly, though tender and served with a raspy horseradish dip. A starter of tuna maki "deconstructed" is a far too cute presentation in which some elements, such as crab ceviche, disappear under the sluggish weight of avocado and sushi rice. Tuna tacos? Subtle and interesting, with a trickle of peppery heat sneaking in at the last—but hardly worth the $14 price for three bite-sized snacks.
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Otherwise, the dynamic duo of Morgan and West has crafted something special: a seasonal menu of subtlety and depth, where even afterthoughts—like the pepper gnocchi served with their brilliant duck breast—contribute subdued yet unexpected pricks of flavor.
Dragonfly may leave you speechless. At most, you'll be able to mumble some sort of exclamation—a muffled "WOW!" perhaps; or a barely audible "Holy Escoffier, Batman." More likely, you'll want to return for more. Same Bat-time, same Bat-channel.
Sorry, Adam—couldn't resist.
Dragonfly 2332 Leonard St. (inside Hotel ZaZa), 214-550-9500. Open 7 a.m.-11 p.m. daily. $$$-$$$$