Enter the Dragon
In 1995 China Grill opened to both raves and rabidly raving rants, and it's been that way ever since. It may take diners arriving after 8:30 to 9:00 p.m. half an hour to get seated (still), but once seated, they are never on the fence; no one, it seems, has a halfway opinion about the place. Most of the disagreement centers not on the pan-Asian food, which most people find less than earthshakingly innovative but different enough to be interesting (though pricey), but instead on the so, so SoBe ambience and attitude. Obviously the place has been in business long enough, in a town where turnover every season isn't uncommon, that there must be ample China Grill cheerleaders who love the loudness, the crowds, the celeb-studded see-and-be-seen scene.
Naysayers, though, have always found the food overpriced and the cavernous room overcrowded, deafening, chaotic -- more club than restaurant, really, and more Middle Eastern marketplace than either. After two less-than-relaxing meals -- one where a neighboring table of celebs got fawningly served while my table got ignored; another where my table got served, and charged for, unasked-for double orders because our waiter disagreed with me that single orders were sufficient for five to share -- the place fell off my personal restaurant radar screen for years.
Which is why I missed the opening of the Dragon Room last year; despite the Dragon's definitely intriguing menu, I assumed that an eatery that was physically an annex to China Grill would be more souk than sushi. Assumed wrongly, I'm happy to say. As well as a separate name, the 40-seat room has a separate entrance, though you have to look hard to find it; it's an unmarked, recessed door on Fifth Street, not at the official Washington Avenue address. It also has a relatively sedate appearance -- except for the huge pop-eyed dragon hanging from the ceiling above the fourteen-seat communal counter (there are also private tables surrounding the room, plus seats at the sushi bar) -- and enough acoustic isolation from the Grill space that one hears the dance music but can also hear conversations. And the sushi's good.
So were the items I tried from the list of "zen sai," nine nonsushi small plates, and the eleven "China Grill Classics" completing the menu. Three skewers of duck, fig, and scallion satay, each containing a big bite-size piece of juicy grilled duck painted with a sweet glaze plus two figs, came with no scallions. But three jalapeño halves filled with fresh mango/tomato salsa balanced the richness of the duck and figs. Crispy salt and pepper shrimp were also tasty -- salt and pepper here merely mildly seasoned five flavorful head-on (thank you, chef!) shrimp that were then rather thickly panko-breaded before deep-frying. The shrimp were served surrounding a carrot/daikon/beet salad, the whole dressed with a slightly hot, quite sweet sauce of sambal chili and palm sugar.
Another zen sai, hamachi and mango sashimi, came with rum sauce and "togarashi spices" about which I've not a clue; the dressing's predominant flavor, again, was sweetness. Catching a theme here? But it's not surprising since China Grill's dishes tend toward liberal use of sugar and the sweetest tropical fruits, too. Unfortunately both mango and fish were disappointing; the former tasted like a peach with the blahs, the latter impeccably fresh but quite tough in texture, more like chewy yellowtail snapper than silky soft hamachi (Pacific snapper). Generous dollops of bracingly briny black caviar did effectively counter the dressing's candied quality.
As for sushi, simple individual nigiri featuring different local fish like wahoo and unusual choices like golden tilefish are available, so it's worthwhile remembering to consult the blackboard over the sushi bar (our server never mentioned these specials on two visits). But rolled makis, many of them unusual, are the Dragon's specialties. Rolls come in the usual three styles (individual temaki hand rolls, regular sliced makis, and jumbo futomakis), and each style comes in two sizes -- which is where considerable confusion comes in, since sizes and styles sometimes overlap. Temakis, for instance, are normally uncut cones, but the Dragon's "large" temakis turned out to actually be sliced regular makis, and since futomakis are just large-sized makis, the Dragon's "large" regular makis ... well, you get the idea.
Certain names add to the confusion, too. The spider temaki would seem to differ from the spider futomaki, for example, since according to menu descriptions only the latter contains Japanese pickle and only the former features "wasabi guacamole," but when the intriguing sound of the guacamole preparation caused us to opt for a "large" temaki, it proved to be a regular maki with plain avocado slices -- and Japanese pickle. If there was a difference, it beat us. That said, the crisply fried soft-shell crab was sizable and meaty, and the pickle a refreshing addition to usual spider roll ingredients.
Meanwhile the "vegetarian" temaki and "vegetable" maki proved to be totally different despite similar main ingredients (preserved tofu, spinach, tomato, and cucumber). The small-sized vegetable maki was actually a futomaki whose three jumbo-sized slices disintegrated totally when picked up, since the construction proved to be riceless, and the mango component was indeed a mango jelly. Nice sticky sushi rice that effectively absorbed a tasty miso dressing made the large-sized vegetarian temaki, actually a sliced regular maki, a much superior choice.
Among rolls that turned out as expected, two temakis were outstanding. A hamachi and kim chee temaki played off fat strips of hamachi against slices of mango marinated in spicy kim chee; this Korean chili sauce is often overpoweringly hot, but the Dragon's spare application was ideal, just enough to make one's mouth wake up and salute. Curry, another easy-to-overdo spice, was also perfectly applied to an unusual curry salmon temaki that was everything I really want every time I order a bagel roll: just enough cream cheese to add richness rather than overpower; thick strips of moist, fresh salmon instead of overprocessed smoked stuff. But the very tasty, very large (a "small" was sufficient for two) Screaming "O" futomaki demonstrated that smoked salmon that's not oversmoked can be subtle enough for sushi; other ingredients included avocado, masago roe, an only slightly citrusy scallop ceviche, and a touch of chili pepper. The combo worked, as did a Havana maki's unusual sweet/hot combo of yellowtail, rum, avocado, tobiko, and coconut with a hint of kim chee.
For diners who prefer the "have it your way" approach, however, a tabletop selection of sauces that will be familiar to patrons of BlueSea at the Delano, an older China Grill Management sushi spot, enables complete customization of all rolls. Tip: Some of the sauces (spicy red kim chee, sweet soy, savory garlic/ginger sauce with a rich lamb stock base, soy/citrus ponzu, and a Thai-type peanut) can also turn those usual wasted piles of undressed chicory plus carrot and daikon shreds into tasty and quite sizable salads, considerably lessening the pain of the Dragon's sizable checks.
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