Dragonfly Neo-V Cuisine
Touching the earth lightly
by Karen Edwards
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© Photos by Rick Borgia
Magdiale Wolmark with his children in the garden he created behind Dragonly that will provide the restaurant with much of its hard-to-find produce.
Imagine standing in a field in Beijing, China. It’s the mating season for dragonflys and you’re surrounded by clouds of these ethereal creatures, iridescent wings beating gracefully, tirelessly, as they engage in their primitive, primordial dance.
It’s hard to bear witness to a scene like that and not have it indelibly etched in your memory.
For Magdiale Wolmark, the scene resurrected itself when the time came for he and wife Cristin Austin to name their new restaurant.
“We were looking for some symbolism and the dragonfly embodied everything we wanted to do with the restaurant,” says Wolmark.
You have to understand – dragonflies have changed little over the thousands of years they’ve existed on earth. “They live most of the time in the air and touch the ground only lightly,” says Austin.
For a restaurant focused on the earth’s natural bounty – and sustaining the environment that produces it – Dragonfly is the perfect name.
The restaurant opened June 2000 at 245 King Ave., the location once occupied by the King Avenue Coffee House and Byzantium before it moved to Fifth Ave. and High St. By that time, Austin and Wolmark had already lived in Columbus five years. How they came to be here – as restaurant owners – is an interesting story.
Love and competition
Austin is part Japanese, part African-American. Wolmark’s mother is Palestinian, his Polish father a Holocaust survivor who escaped to Shanghai during the war. “They met in Israel,” says Wolmark, whose distinctive first name is Hebrew.
As for Austin and Wolmark, they met in the nation’s capital, where Austin was living and working at a restaurant across from the White House frequented by Bill Clinton (“Always a good tipper,” she notes). Both had been traveling the U.S. as martial arts competitors, but caught up with each other at a competition in Washington. They fell in love, and soon, Wolmark had packed his bags and moved from Philadelphia to Washington where he quickly found work as a sous chef at a now-defunct restaurant called Trumpets.
Both continued to compete, however, while living in the trendy Dupont Circle neighborhood with close friends nearby.
Then, their friends moved to Columbus.
“It wasn’t the same there without them,” says Austin, so the pair followed their friends to Columbus, moving into the Short North, close to Goodale Park.
It was the death of their cat, Sailor, that brought them to what would become their destiny.
”Our friends wanted to console us, so they took us out to the King Avenue Coffee House,” says Austin. “That was the first time we’d been there, and we liked the energy of the place.”
They had dreamed of owning a similar place themselves, and when the coffee house became available, the couple bought it and moved upstairs, then spent time assembling a team of designers, decorators and others who would help renovate the space.
There was never any doubt that Wolmark would create a menu focused on the natural.
“I’ve always been a healthy kind of chef,” he says. It springs organically from his martial arts training and philosophy, he says. And from his own, strong environmental leanings.
Cristin Austin stands in the Neo Gallery and Performance Space next to Dragonfly.
It’s clear that Austin and Wolmark share a deep respect for the earth and its environment. Their feelings don’t spring from some populist movement or timely political message point. Instead it’s something embedded deep in the couple’s spirits – an essential and intrinsic part of who they are and how they choose to live their lives. To know Austin and Wolmark is to not just trust but truly know the earth is in excellent care as long as it’s in their hands.
The restaurant’s official name is Dragonfly Neo-V Cuisine. Neo V for new vegetarian. Dragonfly has never been old school vegetarian, which depends perhaps too much on seitan and tofu, says Austin. Admittedly, a restaurant centered on a plant-based cuisine seems radical, even to vegetarians used to garden burgers and tofu pups. Yet knowing the pair, you understand why they couldn’t open any other kind of restaurant.
“We weren’t entirely vegan when we opened,” says Wolmark. “We used some dairy.” But from the start, Dragonfly committed to using the best seasonal produce that could be locally procured – and that’s never changed.
Of course, it’s meant creating cooperative arrangements with local farmers who are willing to grow the kind of boutique herbs and vegetables Wolmark needs for his creations. Like Wolmark, they’re taking a risk, but it’s a shared risk. Wolmark commits to buying the heirloom tomatoes, and even the greenhouse to grow them. In return, Dragonfly receives, prepares and serves the kind of quality produce unavailable anywhere else. Wolmark simply won’t settle for anything less than the best. If it’s the middle of a Columbus winter, he’ll serve salads made with greenhouse lettuce until it runs out, then he’ll switch to microgreens until spring brings the first, fresh shoots of deer tongue and other lettuces sprouting up from the ground.
Call it a symbiotic relationship, but Wolmark’s arrangements with the local agricultural community is essential if a restaurant like Dragonfly is to exist at all. And Wolmark is quick to point out that Dragonfly could only have been incubated in an agricultural state, like Ohio.
“The soil here is absolutely the best,” says Austin. “I’ve tasted vegetables grown in other states, and they don’t compare.”
When Dragonfly won a Platinum Carrot Award from the Aspen Healthy Gourmet Fest recently, Austin and Wolmark flew to Aspen to accept the award and perform a cooking demonstration.
“Afterwards, participants approached us and told us of all the contest winners, including those in the meat category, our food was the best tasting,” Wolmark says. He credits Ohio farmers for the compliments as well. The Wolmarks flew all of the vegetables for their preparations out to Aspen from Ohio.
The jardin potager
Every inch is planted, horizontally and vertically, with a veritable feast of goodness.
The restaurant, which is now entirely vegan, has recently launched a new adventure. Last year, Wolmark, with help from Jennifer Bartley, an OSU student who turned her thesis on jardin potagers – kitchen gardens – into a new book, Designing the New Kitchen Garden, has turned a pocket-sized space outside his immaculate kitchen into the kind of garden that will provide the restaurant with much of its hard-to-find produce. That was partly Wolmark’s point in creating it. There are some vegetables that are simply too exotic for local farmers to grow, and there are some herbs, like hyssop, that are too costly to buy. By being able to grow his own boutique ingredients, Wolmark solves the problem. But there’s an additional perk as well – the ability to serve diners produce that is only minutes from the garden – and that influenced Wolmark’s decision as well.
To look at the space, you wonder how such a small plot could possibly yield enough food to feed a restaurant full of 50 hungry diners. Don’t be deceived. Every inch is planted, horizontally and vertically, with a veritable feast of goodness. There are five berry bushes, including red currant, black currant, gooseberry, and josta (a berry that’s a cross between a currant and a gooseberry). Apple trees, growing in one bed, will be cordoned when the time is right. There are King Richard leeks, scarlet runner beans, Garden of Eden runner beans, borage, basil, thyme, lovage, a bed full of heirloom tomatoes, a Northstar pie cherry tree, a calendula border, sunchokes that will also provide sunflowers, and every type of exotic salad green you can name. Small logs lean against the entry wall to the garden. They’re growing shitake mushrooms. And that’s only a small sampling of what the garden contains.
As might be expected, Wolmark uses only organic fertilizer, and he’s working with one of his suppliers, a walnut forager, to create a walnut compost he can use to amend the soil. Eventually, he’d like to have the produce from his garden certified organic.
At some point next year, Wolmark will place a table, or possibly two, in the garden to accommodate six or eight diners. The chef’s table will provide a degustion, a tasting, of items created by Wolmark. Reservations are already being taken – a year out – on Dragonfly’s Web site, for what promises to be a one-of-a-kind Columbus dining experience.
For now, however, vegans, vegetarians, and food lovers of all kinds (“this is definitely a restaurant for foodies,” says Austin) can content themselves with the exquisite food that’s served five days a week, Tuesday through Saturday, in their intimate dining space.
Like any fine restaurant, attention has been paid to the smallest detail. You’ll eat with Wedgwood utensils, off glass plates, and with an organic hemp napkin across your lap. You’ll drink real filtered water, and your food will be washed and cooked with filtered water as well.
The menu changes daily and with the seasons. Quality food, inventively prepared and beautifully styled is Dragonfly’s hallmark. In addition to Dragonfly’s “typical” dinners, you might want to stop by for the wine flights offered every Friday. Wolmark’s perfectly prepared food is matched with the complex organic vegan wines served at Dragonfly.
On Saturday mornings, there’s a fixed-price market brunch, you shouldn’t miss. You’ll start with a first course – an appetizer buffet – then move into your entrée, chocolate chip and rhubarb pancakes, for example, served with passionfruit cream; or a portabella and rosemary tartlet served with deer tongue lettuces, toasted cumin and caraway vinaigrette. For dessert, if you like, choose a sorbet sundae sampler or a parfait of caramel carrot and currant gelees.
If you come for dinner, prepare to settle in, relax, and enjoy your meal. Wolmark does much of the cooking himself, with help from two assistants. There will be an eclectic mix of music, from experimental jazz to hip-hop, and amazing art on the wall, courtesy of local artists.
Next door to the restaurant is a gallery and performance space where artists, dancers, and performing artists regularly show off their talent. Austin serves as its proprietor, and works with the artists – some of whom she searches out, others who come to her, hoping their work will be chosen to hang in the gallery or the restaurant itself.
“It’s exciting in here during Gallery Hop,” says Austin. “Crowds will be noshing at the bar, diners will be enjoying their meals, and people will circulate all evening, leaving the restaurant to visit the gallery or walking over to the restaurant to see the artwork over there. And often there will be live entertainment, so there’s a mix of music and chatter.”
Of course, there’s no need to wait for a Gallery Hop to catch the energy at Dragonfly. It’s there for every dining experience – tangible and palatable.
Dragonfly’s national reputation
It’s what has brought people from all over the country to Dragonfly’s door. “We have people from Los Angeles, Boston, Chicago, San Francisco, who come to Columbus just to eat here,” says Wolmark. That’s because they’ve read about Dragonfly in USA Today, or Southwestern Airlines Spirit magazine, in Vegetarian Times, or Vegetarian News. “We’ve been on the Dispatch’s top ten restaurant list since we opened,” says Wolmark.
You could forgive Wolmark and Austin a certain amount of pride in all they’ve accomplished with Dragonfly. But true to nature, it’s not the press or the awards or the top ten lists that make this couple proud. Instead, it’s realizing their vision in a place that embraces agriculture and artists and gourmets alike.
“We’ve taken vegan cuisine and made it acceptable to Columbus,” says Austin.
But it’s more than that, explains Wolmark. “When people walk out of Dragonfly, I want them to walk away connected to this place, to the local agricultural community, to the art community, to the Columbus community,” he says. “It’s all these disparate components coming together in one place.”
Dragonfly has come a long way since its early days, the couple says. The food has become more vegan, more simple. Their vision for a complete immersion experience has crystallized.
What’s next for Dragonfly?
A community of connections
“We’ll continue to work on the garden,” says Wolmark. The pair are making efforts to make the restaurant more self-sustaining, with rain barrels and solar power. There is talk of a second-level, rooftop garden.
The farmer’s market is likely to come back later this summer. And the small vegan delicatessen they opened last year, adjoining the restaurant, is also likely to return.
“We created that so we could offer the community another price point,” says Wolmark. It provides local residents as well as visitors another avenue to taste the Dragonfly experience.
Wolmark envisions the Dragonfly concept expanding to a nationwide level – local networks connecting to each other and beyond, creating the kind of earth-friendly environment that doesn’t just sustain life but nurtures it.
That’s important to Wolmark and Austin who are parents to two children, 8-year old Raen and 2-year old Gabrael.
“The kind of experience we’re creating now is likely to affect our children for thousands of years,” says Wolmark.
He tells of his vision for a future Columbus. “I picture it more like Provence,” he says.
Imagine a city of community gardens, parks lined with berry bushes, tables heaped with fresh homegrown fruits and vegetables. Imagine a place where families dine together and friends with friends, slowly, leisurely, chatting, laughing. A song plays in the distance. Somewhere, people are dancing.
And clouds of dragonflies beat their tender, iridescent wings, gracefully, tirelessly, in their own primordial, airborne dance.
Dragonfly Neo-V Cuisine is located in Columbus, Ohio, at 245 King Ave. They can be reached at 614-298-9986 or visit www.dragonflyneov.com for more information.
©2006 Short North Gazette, Columbus, Ohio. all rights reserved.