In the States, sushi is futuristic food, and it probably always will be. Never mind that there’s virtually no technology involved in its making: It’s got that looksleek and Technicolor. It’s taken hold slowly but surely, sort of like the Internet but more like television. By infiltrating lunch buffet lines without losing its downtown cachet, the ever versatile yellowtail roll represents the dream fulfilled of every upstart capitalist from here to Tokyo.
But, most important, sushi is clean and sexywhich is undoubtedly why it’s served at Dragonfly. In the restaurant/club’s permanent dusk, everything, including eel, is photogenic, and, try as you might, nothing on the menu will stain its interior expanse of white. Patrons don’t so much give in to Dragonfly’s food as appropriate it into the evening’s role-playing. Oh, thanks, I prefer myself as a blonde, too. Can I feed you some octopus?
Dragonfly is essentially an annex of the 18th Street Lounge; both are under the same ownership. From the get-go, the new venture has benefited from its handlers’ uncanny knack for conjuring up an atmosphere that somehow rests just behind reality’s curtain; Dragonfly sits at street level, but its frosted windows shut off the outside world so successfully that you won’t be sure you’ve found the place until you actually get inside. Still, the Lounge folks are exhibiting some stylistic range: The urban coziness of their first venture is supplanted here by a cool approximation of how Mom and Dad once envisioned the future. I have no doubt that Dragonfly’s design trust obsessed over the Jetsons furniture and the placement of the projectors that silently beam Japanese videos onto whitewashed walls, but the end result is proudly boxlike. Of the moment, too. As Y&H’s architecture consultant assures me, “Maximalism is out.”
Indeed. As if the food and surroundings weren’t spare enough, Dragonfly takes the whole sushi restaurant concept quite literally. Those who believe miso soup and/or seaweed salad to be a rite of passage on the way to raw fish might want to stop in someplace else first; Dragonfly serves sushi and nothing but. Finding variety in the face of such culinary rigidity requires coloring outside the lines. I’ve come to the point where I ask the bartender to throw a few extra olives in my martini just to ensure that I leave sated.
The single-mindedness of the kitchen is not manifest in its attention to qualitythe graying tuna I’m served on ill-formed rice is proof enough of that. Yet the food does occasionally transcend its role as just another design element. In an effort to represent as many food groups as possible, I find myself checking off more vegetable rolls than usual. And someone here clearly knows how to handle produce: The plum roll is faintly fruity, the avocado soft and buttery, the full-on veggie roll a mouthful of crispness cut through with the sharp flavor of radish.
Items involving seafood are more problematic. At times, the restaurant performs at a level that’s worthy of its crowds; the scallop nigiri, for instance, is plump and sweet-tasting the night it ends up on our platter, and the eel is unfailingly stellar, slightly smoky and lightly darkened by a bit of glaze. But the kitchen too often churns out the type of sushi that could cause first-timers to swear off the stuff forever.
Tuesday’s fish seems to have a way of making it to the weekend at Dragonfly. The shrimp is ruddy and a little tough, and there’s nothing subtle about the mackerelit tastes roughly the way a fish market smells. And consider yourself lucky if you don’t have to bark and do tricks like a seal to get your waitress’s attention. I might be able to stomach waiting for 45 minutes for a meal at a busy French place. But for sushi? No one’s cooking anything.
It is entirely possible that Dragonfly’s operators couldn’t care less about how it performs as a restaurant. It’s got a lot of other things going for it. Being able to watch an endless stream of tall, attractive people model what appears to be the same armful of black evening wear makes it that much easier to bear the inevitable wait for your food order. Enough pomp reflects off of Dragonfly’s white space to make even Tuesday’s yellowtail glisten like today’s catch.
What’s more, Dragonfly’s staff isn’t entirely allergic to people. The bartenders are pally, and regardless of what transpires once we sit down, the hostess is exceedingly gracious in making sure we get a tablewhich is admirable, if only because the 18th Street Lounge has managed to build a mini-empire atop a firm foundation of institutional prickliness. In fact, the mothership’s influence seems to have had a more profound effect on its neighbors than its offspring. The night we go trolling nearby for an after-dinner drink, we strike out twice. The first place requires a membership, and we don’t even try getting into the second one. There’s a “list,” and we know we’re not on it.
Dragonfly, 1215 Connecticut Ave. NW, (202) 331-1775.
Madam’s Organ owner Bill Duggan called in to say he didn’t read me much (no offense taken) and to offer that the menu at his bar is no longer a prop. “Frankly, in the past, I wouldn’t even eat here,” he admits, but his new chef, Carlos Wilcox, has changed that. Now Duggan brings his kids in four nights a week to feed on soul food. I wouldn’t go booking a table at the Organ for Valentine’s Day quite yet, but the meatloaf is enough to make you forget how stupid you got the last time you closed the place. The loaf is soft and sweetened with that otherworldly red paste that home cooks can never make the same way twice. It’s the kind of unpretentious stuff that begs to be washed back with a pitcher of beer.
Madam’s Organ, 2461 18th St. NW, (202) 667-5370.
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