or those of you who might be a little confused by the changes happening at 2598 Telegraph in Berkeley, here's the scoop: Dragonfly Teahouse is and is not still Bison Brewing Company. The hard iced tea they serve is not the same as Long Island iced tea. And chef Geoffrey Deetz believes Vietnamese and Mexican cuisine complement each other well.
The idea didn't come out of eating Doritos and spring rolls in some pot-addled haze. Working as a consulting chef and cooking teacher in Saigon for two years, Deetz found many of the ingredients he associated with Mexican cuisine -- cilantro, black beans, limes -- in the markets, and ate banh mi sandwiches and sautéed green rice that resembled tortas and arroz verde. He began teaching a Mexican-Vietnamese fusion class, and married a Vietnamese woman. Then the hard iced tea thing finally came through.
Several years before, after selling his share in Spettro to his sister and closing his next restaurant, Luna Piena, when it needed significant earthquake retrofitting, Deetz expanded on his home brewing experiments. One day he went to the store and picked up a couple boxes of Celestial Seasonings Red Zinger tea, put it in a brewing bag with water, yeast, and sugar, and decided to see what happened. He tried the fermented tea on ice.
He loved it. His friends loved it. Dan Del Grande, the owner of Bison Brewing Company, loved it. Deetz and Del Grande decided to produce this new brew in mass quantities, but it took several years to sort out the permits, design custom tea blends, and set up the production process. That's when Deetz headed off to Saigon.
Last August he returned to Berkeley to take the helm of the kitchen and remake Bison Brewing Company into Dragonfly Teahouse. Since the restaurant continued to brew and distribute its own beers, Deetz and Del Grande deliberately left the transformation incomplete.
A "Bison Brewing Company" sign still adorns one wall of the building, and its Native-Americanesque logo tops Dragonfly Teahouse's logo on the front door. The 1980s-era industrial brewpub decor has been retouched in celadon greens and grays, with bamboo leaves on the walls and a neon-red Chinese pictograph above the door.
On both visits, our servers greeted us with small tumblers of the clear, pastel-hued hard iced teas for us to sample. All have alcohol contents of 7.1 percent, and all but the peach contain caffeine, so you can get buzzy while you catch a buzz. (Teetotalers can purchase all of the proprietary tea blends steeped in hot water.) The distinct flavors of each tea came through: The jasmine green tea tasted at once floral and astringently herbal, the hibiscus bright and juicy. The peach and mango-blood orange both came out light and fruity.
But frankly, if I want fruity drinks I'll have a screwdriver. The joy of drinking wine and beer is that the sharp flash of the alcohol illuminates all the full, rich flavors beneath. The iced teas had no body, so the tang of the fermented yeasts and the soft bitterness left by the tea leaves stuck out oddly. Some of my dining companions agreed with me, some didn't. One friend liked the peach tea -- by all accounts the mildest and most pleasant -- enough to order a second pint, and several tables around us bought iced tea by the pitcher. I was content with a pint of fragrant coriander rye.
World-fusion small plates accompany the drinks. No item costs more than $8, and portions are generous -- three plates plus dessert was more than enough for two people. Unless you're a real boozehound, you'll probably pay between $15 and $25 a person.
Deetz likes to play with food, throwing disparate cultures, ingredients, and techniques into one dish to see what comes out. Sometimes the dishes appear to tread a straightforward course, such as when he showcases his extensive knowledge of Vietnamese cuisine. A tall mound of shredded red and green cabbage mixed with mint, Thai basil, cilantro, scallions, roasted peanuts, and here and there a tender poached shrimp was dressed in a winning replica of nuoc mam, punched up with extra sugar and lime. Described as a "hot pot," our barbecued mussels came spread out on a large square plate strewn with strips of mint and red chiles. Tiny but plump, each mussel had been brushed with a light, sweet glaze and then roasted just until the flesh was creamy and imbued with smoke.
Sometimes, he's all over the map. Large balls of risotto were molded around brie, red peppers, and crawfish tails, dipped in bread crumbs and fried until the center became rich and molten. It came with a smoky, mild pasilla aioli. The herbal flavor of grape leaves dominated the modern-day dolmas stuffed with a light, sweet mix of rice, dried pears, mint, and pecans.
Booberry salad, which emigrated from Spettro's with the chef, needed just one thing: ripe blueberries. The bitter vegetable notes of the mixed greens glimmered through the transparent balsamic vinaigrette. The fresh goat cheese, sharp pickled onion, and tart underripe fruit balanced out the caramelized walnuts, though the distinctive berry got lost.
Deetz tends to fall prey to a culinary flaw I find common in fusion food: faulty logic. A tastes good with B. B tastes good with C. Let's not just assume that A and C taste good together: let's throw all three ingredients in the same pot and it'll be innovative and multitextured. For example, a perfectly respectable pizza -- substantial, crunchy crust, parmesan, and mozzarella blistered on top -- is topped with marinara sauce. And sharp, bitter kalamata olives. And sweet roasted yellow peppers. And earthy roasted shiitake mushrooms. And lemongrass-chile Thai sausage. To enjoy the pizza, we have to either pick off the sausage, or take a large bite and pretend the lemongrass isn't fighting with the marinara and the olives.
But time and time again, his deft seasoning and solid execution pull him from a conceptual trainwreck. In the "tacadillas," tiny corn quesadillas were filled with pepper jack and topped with a big dollop of ginger-lime guacamole, meltingly tender fried sea bass, and a corn and yellow pepper salsa. In the mouth, only the important flavors -- sweet corn, fresh fish, tart lime, biting chile -- came through. Crunchy calamari rings covered in white and black sesame seeds, their nutty roasted flavor released by the deep fryer, perked up with a dab of a sugary sambal-fired dipping sauce.
Desserts were pleasant but unmemorable. Vietnamese culi coffee ice cream had a darker, earthier tone than most coffee ice creams. The best was a soursop crème brûlée whose berry-apple tang played well against the creamy custard and caramelized sugar top.
Dragonfly Teahouse (aka Bison Brewing Company) is a restaurant filled with odd juxtapositions -- and improbable delights. For risk-taking diners, an occasional failure is worth the playful, vibrantly flavored successes. As for the hard iced teas? You're going to have to judge for yourself.
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