Marlin Kaplan has been a presence on Cleveland's restaurant scene almost as long as there has been one. In 1993, he opened Marlin, one of the city's first hip places at a time when Cleveland was just finding its way onto the culinary map.
Marlin packed them in with its Asian-French fusion menu so new to the meat and potato city.
Kaplan has been a mainstay since. With his latest venture, Ohio City's Dragonfly, he says he's going back to his roots. He took over the kitchen in April, creating a menu with Asian influences and hints of French cuisine.
Dragonfly is a place where you can stop in after work or pop in after the West Side Market closes for a drink, a few appetizers, creative sushi or one of the imaginatively produced entrees.
It's small yet hip, sleek yet welcoming with an affordable menu and really good vibe.
A curving bar dressed up with a few translucent shapes of subtly changing lights dominates the front of the house. On the other side of the partial brick wall, an exposed kitchen adds energy to the dining room. There's also a large chalkboard listing some of the day's ingredients from the chef's garden at Red Hawk Farm in Geauga County.
When Kaplan came to Dragonfly, Adam Waldbaum, one of his partners, turned over 2 acres of his farm to the restaurant. The bounty here ranges from herbs and vegetables to eggs.
The wait staff take turns working in the field. They harvest what is ready to be picked. Some food, such as the eggs, come every other day.
"This is all about doing this right," says Kaplan. "Good, clean, healthy ingredients produce good, clean, healthy dishes."
The Dragonfly menu is divided into separate sections for appetites of all sizes, and there is a hint of the exotic in nearly all the dishes.
But fresh is the operative word throughout the menu. Take the seviche ($11) from the small plates section. Served in a v-shaped cocktail glass, it was a burst of brightness with pieces of delicate tuna and shrimp combined with a slight zing of jalapeno, calamansi lime and all resting on a garden-fresh granitee, which is French for ice.
For a place that doesn't bill itself as a Japanese restaurant or a sushi house, Dragonfly has extensive and imaginative offerings.
Be sure to check out the specialty sushi rolls. Every one I had was almost enough for a dinner. The combinations are sometimes unexpected such as the Kim Jung Eel ($14) with hamachi, kimchi and scallions topped with eel, or the Dragonfly ($13.50), with crab, bok choy, cucumber, avocado, mango mustard and a char su glaze.
The Mt. Fuji ($18) is one you won't soon forget with its soft-shell crab tucked beside a crispy shrimp tempura and rolled together with kiaware and takuan, all topped with a spicy crab salad. The naturally sweet crab and crunch of the tempura, the creaminess of the other ingredients, and the fresh and zesty crab salad created the perfectly balanced flavor fest. And, it filled an entire entree-sized plate.
Those perfectly combined ingredients are what Dragonfly's dishes are all about, especially the entrees. They are a sort of comfort food for the adventuresome, flavor combinations that hit all the right notes, even though they may be unfamiliar.
The Adobo Chicken ($16) was half a braised chicken served in a bowl with soothing coconut milk sauce that had hints of cinnamon. Heirloom bean salad on a bed of bamboo rice gave the dish an exotic, sensual appeal. Like so many on the menu, it used a familiar preparation, braising resulting in tender moist chicken, and turned it around with an unusual combination.
Also high on the comfort scale was the Tokyo-style ramen noodles ($13.50). It's a bowlful of noodles in a delicate dashi broth that's garnished with a generous portion of tender smoked pork shoulder, kimchi and, of all things, a delightful preparation of grilled Spam. Kaplan's whimsy may have gotten the better of him but the smoky, tender slices of ham in a can really worked.
No less exotic is the dessert menu with its Asian twists on dishes such as creme brulee, torte and gelato. Especially delicious was the guava and mascarpone empanada, deep fried and touched off with a red wine reduction. It was somewhere between the midway at the county fair and the French countryside.
But at Dragonfly that kind of curious juxtaposition is what it's all about.