Poring over the new menu at Dragon Bowl Asian Bistro on a recent Friday night, I was stunned to see options at the Heights hangout such as a Third Coast hand roll with crispy fried oysters and jalapeño relish, and a crispy duck curry with a confit of leg in a Thai-style red curry. When I'd heard that Michael dei Maggi — former chef-owner at The Rockwood Room and most recently of the now-closed Caffe Bello — had been hired by Dragon Bowl's owner Ken Bridges to revamp the menu at the low-key, pan-Asian bistro, I hadn't known what to expect. And now I knew.
My dining companion and I took advantage of the happy hour pricing to try one of the most attractive-looking new menu items, choosing two pork belly buns for $6. What came out could have been a meal on its own, and for a while, the buns completely distracted us from reading the rest of the menu.
Inside the fluffy white mantou, which most people will recognize as the buns that normally accompany Peking duck, was a thick stump of pork belly that jiggled with fatty promise as our waiter set the dishes down on the table. The pork belly was fully encased on one edge with a husky strip of cracklin', the pork skin bubbly and crisp and demanding to be eaten deliberately. There is a skill involved in getting the right ratio of cracklin' to pork belly in your mouth at the same time, after all.
In near silence, we ate the pillowy bun wrapped around juicy pork and crunchy skin, the salty-slick taste met by bites of scallion and sweet plum sauce that I dragged the bun through before each bite.
"Now I know what dei Maggi is doing here," I said to my friend as we finished. And after that, I zeroed in on the hand rolls that occupy their own piece of real estate on the menu, many of them a bargain at $6. The man could do a pork bun, but could he do sushi rice?
The answer was also a strong "yes." That Third Coast roll and a salmon skin hand roll arrived cheekily set in red, Tiki-style cocktail glasses, a nod to the more modern and playful direction of the revamped restaurant.
A salmon skin roll is nothing new on a sushi menu, but here it's further developed, with marinated salmon belly tucked into the roll alongside crispy fried strips of salmon skin that look like soft-shell crab legs sticking out all akimbo, its spiciness and glorious fattiness tempered by sweetly vegetal watercress and well-vinegared rice.
The Third Coast roll was even more of a hit, with a fat Gulf oyster breaded and fried oh-so-lightly and occupying almost the entire length of the hand roll. A punchy jalapeño relish inside oozed out of the bottom like ice cream out of a cone as I crunched through the oyster and the Napa cabbage in fast pursuit of it. And like a little kid eating an ice cream cone, I was devastated when it was gone.
Then again, it was only $6. Which means I can look forward to many more of these treats without destroying my budget.
Those $6 hand rolls are key at Dragon Bowl. When owner Ken Bridges initially opened the restaurant in 2006, it was his aim to create what my friends and I refer to as a "useful restaurant." A useful restaurant offers solidly good food at affordable prices in a convenient and cozy location. Simple as that. And for a few years, Bridges accomplished this goal while also running his Pink's Pizza locations and opening a new restaurant down the street, Lola.
Then, Dragon Bowl started to slip downhill. It had never been the "best" of anything, really, but it had consistently good items on its pan-Asian menu, like fried rice, pad Thai and bulgogi. It had always done a brisk to-go business on its busy corner in the Heights, but the food was slowly creeping into mediocre territory.
Bridges had to make a decision: give up the ghost completely and sell the restaurant, or fully reinvest in the place and rebuild it, Six Million Dollar Man-style, into something better than it was before — better, stronger, faster. Luckily, he chose the latter option and began shopping around town for a bona-fide chef to head up his operation.
He found that chef in Michael dei Maggi, a man who's seen a tumble from grace as owner of swank steakhouse Rockwood Room, which closed unexpectedly last year. After that he went to work for Tony Vallone at Caffe Bello, but they parted ways over the doomed direction of the restaurant, which itself recently closed. While some may rightly question dei Maggi's track record and his ultimate fit with Bridges and Dragon Bowl, it's difficult to question his impact on the menu here.
Witness that duck leg confit in a viscous red curry with piney, citrusy swirls from galangal in the broth, sweetness from an abundance of red and yellow bell peppers, and a single, fat leg lazing in the middle of it all with dark, dusky, tender flesh that parts seemingly with a look, no knife required. Or the easily constructed sushi rolls with soft pats of vinegared-rice underneath generous cuts of fish. Neither the rice nor the fish are served cold, a fact I relished while letting some buttery slices of escolar slip down my throat like the forbidden treat they are.
In classic dei Maggi style, however, some tongue-in-cheek items have made their way onto the menu as well, like the Hundred Dollar Hand Roll that sells for — you guessed it — $100. Filled with lobster, foie gras mousse, shaved white truffles and beluga caviar, only a few have been sold since the roll was introduced, dei Maggi admitted. It doesn't seem to matter; the object itself seems to exist more to poke fun at exaggeratedly modern, upscale sushi restaurants, channeling Magritte as it winks up from the menu.
But a talented chef and a new menu aren't the only things Dragon Bowl has going for it right now.
Although the restaurant retained its counter service at lunch and still does that same, brisk to-go business, Dragon Bowl is now full-service in the evenings, with a happy hour designed to get and keep butts in its seats. This gives its jovial waiters a chance to shine, touting their own personal favorites ("You have to try the Hippie Fried Rice!") while keeping customers in sake and beer.
And it also encourages you to relax and enjoy the spiffed-up interior, with deep-hued greens splashed across the tall space and eye-catchingly modern yet comfortable banquette seating inviting leisurely meals. Graphic art of the Lichtenstein persuasion hangs from one wall for now, but the art rotates fairly often; Bridges has always been a supporter of local artists in this way.
If you're eating alone or dining with a friend who's as interested in the food as you are, grab a seat at the metal bar and watch the cooks work the woks over a large, three-burner range that shoots flames into the air as they cook. You'll catch Bridges back there just as often as you will dei Maggi. Bridges is clearly taking his commitment to the rebuilt restaurant very seriously, but he always makes time to interact with his customers. Many are regulars; most live in the immediate area. It lends a familial vibe to the place, especially at night.
Over a recent dinner, my dining companion tucked into his bowl of garlic-laced bulgogi while I enjoyed two more of the new hand rolls: the Kennedy and the Don Ho. The Kennedy lived up to its WASP-y East Coast connotation, showcasing a large piece of tempura-battered lobster, inside along with an astringent tartar sauce that punched up the asparagus and caviar tucked alongside it.
The Don Ho, too, had a Hawaiian bent true to its name: grilled pineapple sweetly offset a swaggering piece of grilled Spam, salty and porky and charmingly silly. I loved them both.
I've loved all of the hand rolls, in fact, save one — the one that costs $100. Perhaps one day I'll plunk down the cash, but for now I'm just happy to have my useful restaurant back in better, stronger and faster shape than ever.