May 14, 2012 | BITE: My Journal
Dragonfly Lands on UES
I would expect nothing less than the perfect cooking of this branzino in baby bamboo wrap.
My friends on the Upper East Side endlessly complain they have nowhere to eat except for the usual Italian fixtures – Settemezzo, Elio, Primola, Nicola, Paola. Well, now, dear jaded ones, you have Dragonfly, a deliberately cautious riff on Asian familiars by Cornelius Gallagher.
Mint is the surprise in these hoisin glazed chicken lettuce wraps.
You may not remember, as I do, Gallagher’s bold and original ways with fish and sea creatures when Oceana was on East 54th Street. You may not even remember Oceana in that ship-shape little townhouse. In 2008, his plans to open a place of his own sank with the battered economy and he disappeared, first as a catering chef, then to oversee six restaurants for the Bohlsen Restaurant Group on Long Island. Spurred by reveries of flavors he learned from Gray Kunz in the kitchen of Lespinasse, he toured Thailand, China and Vietnam to inspire the sassy lettuce wraps and sweet glazed pork buns we’re sharing tonight in the narrow little 68 seat storefront on Third Avenue. At last, at 40, a room of his own.
The waiter’s coif and t-shirt confirms this is the laid-back bistro the chef planned.
Expect an exuberant welcome – Grace Walker at the door mastered poise and savoir faire working with Jonathan Waxman at Barbuto. Then settle into Dragonfly’s stress-reducing laid-back modesty. The spicy coconut Margerita, from a small list of cocktails, helps, though it could be colder and have more jalapeno kick for me.
Charred shishito and a chili glaze had oomph to Dragonfly’s sweet glazed pork buns.
Fluke sashimi with tobiko, cilantro sprigs, sliced red radish and tart calamansi dressing is my favorite dish of the night – bold and citric, the fluke bracingly chilled and scrupulously fresh, as I would expect from a veteran of Oceana. Charred shishito and a polite chile glaze add complexity to sweet-glazed pork buns.
Crusty shrimp satay are gently cooked but definitely oversalted.
Crisp-fried phyllo-crusted shrimp come wrapped around skewers to dip in a lime leaf-yuzu remoulade, nicely crusty, but over-salted, three for $13.95 – a challenge for four to share.
Of course we have to have the house Tater Tots: golf ball-size globes filled with Gruyère to slather with a sriracha-sesame spiced mayo. I’d like twice as many, half the size. And the Vietnamese summer roll should be plural for $12.95. (The chef says he was trying not to overfeed us.)
Foie gras with tamarind, the chef’s gift for an old Oceana regular, is not bistro fare he feels.
Having spotted our companion, a regular at Oceana, Gallagher sends out seared foie gras with tamarind and pea shoot sprigs. It’s not on the menu. He also crossed off foie gras gyoza, steamed scallion latkes and wasabi pastrami dumplings because the kitchen is simply too tiny to service a more complicated menu.
Years ago Gallagher followed up a Katz’s pastrami connection, wowing Oceana fans with pastrami-stuffed skate. “I bought the devil’s cut – extra fatty – from Katz’s supplier and served it with beautiful cabbage and Devonshire mustard,” he reminisces.
Fatty rich beef cheeks on polenta with Szechuan style tomato sauce: not to be missed.
Timid eaters who avoid authentic Thai or Szechuan heat will feel safe with most of these “Street Cart” starters, almost all safely assimilated, wrapped in an American flag. I don’t mind. I’m happy enough with Thai beef cheeks – slow cooked in a Szechuan-style tomato sauce and served on creamy polenta with Italian bread crisps. Hot, yes, mildly, but lush and sweet and meaty too.
Deliciously crusted skirt steak is served with tater tots and Vietnamese spinach.
The whole branzino is exquisitely cooked in a bamboo leaf, delicate and moist, perfumed with lemongrass and kaffir in a dashi broth. I would expect no less. The Crying Tiger Skirt Steak served with wasabi Tater Tots has an unusual exterior crunch that I like, but the portion seems rather skimpy. Still entrees are gently priced, running from $17.95 to $25.95 for whole fish and steak. That may seem philanthropic compared to the veal chop at the “usual Italians.”
What’s billed as “Non-Traditional Pad Thai” is wrapped in a crepe – the “inverted bowl technique,” the menu explains. I like the idea, but the noodles with shreds of chicken and pea shoots are decidedly blah.
It’s a first-rate summer roll with shrimp and pork but why not two?
Saigon cinnamon streusel is a bit of a reach to cast Huckleberry Cheesecake as Asian. The house doesn’t even try to work the theme with chocolate banana bread pudding, a molten treat topped with vanilla ice cream.
The menu is still evolving, the chef says. “I’m sweating over it. I want to keep the feeling of a bistro.” Perhaps he’ll go even more untraditional with that pad thai – crisp bacon bits might do it.
Chef Cornelius Gallegher takes the heat of a closet-size kitchen in a tee-shirt.
He knew he was in for a challenge the first time he saw the closet-like kitchen. “The kitchen is tough,” Gallagher agrees. “But I love this neighborhood.”
“Life begins at 40,” I remind him.
“I’m making that my motto,” he agreed with a grin.
1463 Third Avenue between 82 and 83rd Streets. 212 203 5518. Dinner seven nights 5 to 11 pm. Weekend brunch soon.
Photos copyright 2012 by Gael Greene may not be used without permission. All rights reserved.
Follow my TWITTERINGS.