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Mister robata
Sushi and grilled meats will have you saying ‘domo arigato’

Photo by Jason Greene

Rumor had it that in recent years, Dragonfly – Gainesville’s much-lauded modern izakaya – had lost some of its luster in its effort to maintain “it spot” status among the college town’s cognoscenti. So, like those naysayers’ attitudes, the posh Japanese resto headed south to the Dr. Phillips area of Orlando, intent on wowing a less judgmental audience. At first blush, the place does indeed impress – the glossy wraparound sushi bar and angled bento-box ceiling are pure eye candy inside this trendster’s haven. Tranquil it’s not, but with a name like “Dragonfly,” one would expect the joint to be abuzz in music, chatter and hubbub, and it is. The restaurant’s website, however, offers an alternative description of the vibe:

Dragonfly strives to reach an emotional enlightenment through the balancing of the Sensual, Spiritual and Savory philosophy. Dragonfly is a modern day female yakuza boss.

The first sentence reads like a bad Babelfish translation; the second … well, that’s just bloody amusing, if not a little threatening. Really, apart from the heavily bandaged pinkies on all the servers and cooks, there’s nothing remotely menacing here. Daunting, yes – for instance, the menu, which comprises a swarm of small plates of the sushi, sashimi and robata (grilled simply over charcoal) variety. The indulgent passion platter ($24) is a testament to the slicing skills of the sashimi chefs – nine pieces of ruby-red tuna, plush salmon and buttery izume dai (farm-raised tilapia) are artfully presented, while yellowtail sashimi ($6) is spectacularly melt-in-your-mouth. Signature dragonfly rolls ($14), while meaty, are somewhat cumbersome, with tuna and albacore wrapped with thick strips of grouper, then topped with scallions and eel sauce. The fact that the rolls are baked lends to their corpulence, but it’s all just a bit too much for its own good. A mistake in our order resulted in a complimentary plate of yellowtail collar (regularly $14), a truly outstanding piece of fish and, like all their robata items, grilled over imported, smoke-free bincho-tan charcoal. 

Other robata favorites we joyfully gorged on were shishita peppers ($4), skewered chicken breast ($5) and sublime bone-in short ribs ($9) served with kimchee. The latter, a nod to Korean galbi, is further sparked with a dip into the spicy mayo and orange yuzu sauces. Both beef tataki ($10), made of rare, lightly seared ribeye mixed with daikon and ponzu, and sesame-bolstered wakame salad ($5) show that the kitchen can also do the simple things right. No izakaya experience would be complete without a swig of sake – we liked the crisp, clean and mellow taste of the Hatsumago junmaishu ($24).

Desserts aren’t listed on a menu but, rather, recited by rote. We nodded when “green tea tiramisu” ($7) was uttered, which turned out to be more gimmick than concept. The red-bean ice cream ($3) was as modest and toothsome as a meal-ender can get; the bowl came with dollops of flavorless green-tea ice cream and surprisingly snappy ginger ice cream, but we would’ve preferred three scoops of that blushy confection.

There’s no question that Dragonfly is dressed to impress, and with Amura and Nagoya just yards away, the sushi scene on the corner of Sand Lake Road and Dr. Phillips Boulevard has certainly gotten a lot more competitive. For Dragonfly’s sake, here’s hoping it doesn’t make like its namesake and live an intense, albeit fleeting, existence.

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