What is that wafting in the air on Restaurant Row at Sand Lake Rd? Is that some kind of grilling? Given all the restaurants around here one would expect this smell. But this is not your common grilling, there is something unique about this olfactoral beckoning.
My fading memory of a bygone time living in Japan, where the very fulfillment of hunger depended on how well the olfactory nerve worked, sparked to attention. Not being able to speak nor read Japanese, it was challenging to find good food without guidance. The simplest way was to always have an escort. Or the most adventurous was to determine by smell what lies behind each mystery doorway. Depending on the sweetness, smokiness, fishiness or lack thereof was a good measure of the dining experience. I was always drawn to soy sauce on burning wood. Or saltiness rather than fishiness. It also helped if the sake was free flowing.
In Japan the use of white charcoal, bincho-tan, produces a clean burning fuel alternative to regular charcoal with impurities. Dragon Fly Orlando uses this same bincho-tan in their robata charcoal grill. The sweet smell of soy on burning wood, with clean clear lines of precise kitchen movements sets the stage for a dining experience. There is a sense of calm and Zen when chefs move about their task with purpose rather than chaos. The stark modernist décor lend to calmness that radiates as upscale ambiance. Whether there is a small or large group there seems to be a place in the restaurant that could very well be just for you.
Absent from here is the proverbial “Sushi list” or long list of common named items found in every Japanese or sushi restaurant in Orlando. However, there are distinct specialty rolls, robata grill items, and small plate items served tapas style. The beer list ring out with domestic, import and seasonal draft. Premium spirits rub elbows to create signature drinks. The sake selection ranges from Ginjo, at least 40% was polished away from the rice grain, to Junmai Dai Ginjo, which can go well beyond 70% polishing. There are also tokubetsu, special processed, and nigori, milky, sake on the list. Ideally, both sizes of 300ml and 720ml, makes an appearance. However, absent was the sweet little sparkling sakes. The ample wine list features global selections. There is also a reserve wine list upon request. Happy hour menu consist of a shorter selection of items.
Speaking of happy hour, I arrived during happy hour. I was asked if, “I had a reservation?” “No.” I responded. “Are you here for happy hour?” Then I realized it was happy hour, sure, I’ll take advantage. “Yes.” “Would you like the bar, sushi bar, or outdoor patio,” one of the distracted three greeters asked. “Can I have a table inside?” “No.” was the response, “They are reserved.” Mind you at this time ALL the tables inside the restaurant was empty. Sour taste to begin. Later as we sat and dined, we read the fine print on the happy hour menu, that said Bar, Sushi Bar, and Patio only. Would have been nice if they were upfront about it, I wouldn’t mind. When I was finish dining all the tables were not occupied. Go figure. Let’s get to the food.
Sawbuck Malbec – Medium bodied with notes of berries and cherries, hints of cinnamon and nutmeg, slight sticking to palate with a medium finish. Went well with the robata grilled items. The minute the first glass hit the table, I could smell the vinegar. I hoped that a little airing out might soften the structure, to no avail. Luckily, my server was quick to offer another wine or a replacement. I chose a new glass from a fresh bottle. Outstanding.
Boxed Sushi is rice molded in a box topped with (your choice of fish) our choice was salmon, tuna, yellowtail, and mackerel. Not being of the true nigori style (rice topped with fish) the fish easily slipped off the rice. Sofshell Crab with cucumber and scallions hand roll was slightly crunchy. I did not get any spicy in Spicy Salmon Kobachi with cucumber and scallion.
Japanese Sliders with Certified Angus Beef Burgers, on fresh baked buns, with shiso, fried scallots, cabbage, heirloom tomatoes, and honey wasabi mayo. Little gut bombs! These darlings delivered a heavy punch what they lacked in size. Great textures and flavors.
Steamed buns with short ribs and/or braised pork, pickled veggies, and secret sauce. We got one of each. Great take on the popular Gua Bao. Which is a fluffy steamed bun that opens like a wrapper. It can be stuffed with various delicacies. This is an extremely popular Taiwanese vehicle for street bites. Both meats were well seasoned and delicately cooked. Wonderful mouthfuls.
Surf ‘n Turf Grilled Shrimp, Bacon, cucumber, Snow Crab delight, asparagus, cream cheese
& scallions. Topped with Beef tataki & avocado. Finished with sweet soy-apple
cream sauce. The unconventional addition of bacon in this maki roll makes a sumptuously delicious roll into bacoliciousness! I am compelled to add, those blobs of sauce were very amateurish. It took the esthetics away from a great roll.
Uni Sashimi – The delicate, creamy, irony, lusciousness of sea urchin. This was extremely fresh. If you cannot handle the minty bitterness of Shiso leaf, too bad. I plopped that whole thing in my mouth! More please….
Bacon wrapped Enoki Mushrooms was a nice delightful bit. Crunchy sweetness from the mushroom cuts the fattiness of the bacon very well.
Shio Saba (Norwegian Mackerel) was a good size portion of grilled fish. The fattiness of this fish caramelized well on the robata grill to give awesome smoky flavors. It was to too dark on the patio to get a good picture.
Robata Sauces – Left: Sweet Soy; Middle: Yuzu citrus; Right: Spicy Miso. All nicely balanced. I should say that most of the robata items were aptly seasoned and the natural flavors were adequate. However, if dousing your food in sauces is you thing, go for it.
Good recovery from the initial “Happy Hour snafu at the door”. The service was cordial and unobtrusive. However, the food runners were emotionless. A little more than announcing food and shifting plates around could have gone a long way. After all this is a very snazzy place, service should go with it, no? The overall ambiance was very upscale and loungy. Edgy sounds add to the more metro feel. At happy hour the prices are muted, but the regular prices are steep. However, extraordinary does not come at bargain prices. The suggestion that this place jazzes up the Japanese pub is right on point. Although, it felt very big city in there. So, slip into something snazzy and do it up.