Restaurant News

Dropping Benjamins at Dragon Bowl

A few weeks ago, while perusing the new menu at the recently revamped Dragon Bowl, my dining companion and I noticed an anomaly at the casual Heights restaurant: There, amidst the $6 and $7 hand rolls with names like The Kennedy and Third Coast was a $100 hand roll called -- appropriately enough -- the Hundred Dollar Hand Roll.

What could possibly merit this hand roll costing $100? The ingredients told the story: lobster, foie gras mousse, white truffles and Beluga. There was a brief moment of panic on the other side of the table while I tried to calm down my rattled dining companion who thought that the Beluga referred to actual whale meat in the hand roll; she was relieved to learn that Beluga was a type of caviar. Afterwards, it occurred to me: This girl is a regular at Dragon Bowl; are $100 hand rolls containing ingredients its patrons aren't familiar with really the way to go here?

I took a picture of the menu (not the roll, naturally, as I -- the last time I checked -- am composed primarily of carbon and not money) and posted it to Facebook with the question: "Would you order a $100 hand roll?"

An old friend of mine from high school nearly killed me with his rapid-fire response: "I'll keep it simple. No." And then momentarily reconsidered: "Oh, wait. Is 'hand roll' a euphemism? Still no."

Others were equally skeptical: "I probably wouldn't buy a $100 roll right next to the tsukiji market," said chef Justin Basye. And Matt Marcus of the Eatsie Boys chimed in: "White truffle season is from September to December. Seriously doubt they are using fresh!"

"Right now we're using fresh summer truffles," noted Michael dei Maggi, Dragon Bowl's new chef and one of the reasons behind its revamped menu. "Will have some Aussie blacks in two weeks. Best we can do until September."

Fans of The Rockwood Room and Caffe Bello will remember dei Maggi from his stints at the two restaurants, both of which are now closed. And although it's an admittedly odd partnership between dei Maggi and Ken Bridge -- owner of Dragon Bowl as well as Lola and the Pink's Pizza chains -- it's one that's working out so far, as you can see in this week's cafe review.

As for the Hundred Dollar Hand Roll, dei Maggi says that -- believe it or not -- the restaurant has sold a few. But it mainly was conceived "to take the piss," he says. I didn't order one that night, and probably won't ever order one as, aside from the $125 bowl of pasta with white truffles at Da Marco, it's likely the most expensive single item on a restaurant menu in Houston. Or at least it was: The $100 roll was dropped from the menu this week, as owner Bridge and dei Maggi work on tweaking it based on customer favorites.

Luckily, the rest of the menu at Dragon Bowl remains, and unlike that roll, it's extravagantly affordable. Dishes like Third Coast hand rolls with crispy fried oysters inside for $6 or pork belly buns for $7 that have been ringing my bell over and over again for the past month without racking up my bill.

I'm sad to see it go, though, because I felt that the $100 hand roll almost served as a purposeful contrast between Dragon Bowl and other establishments of the modern Asian persuasion. Here, you can get your fancy hand rolls with updated, seasonal, local ingredients. But you don't have to pay out the nose for it, and you don't have to change out of your jean shorts either.

The roll has been replaced, however, with The Tobeck, which sounds more tempting anyway. It's solely described as containing "daily wizardry." Shazam.

See more of Dragon Bowl's casually cool dining room and pan-Asian dishes in our slideshow.

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Katharine Shilcutt