A dish called Dragonwell Lionhead summons imagery straight outta Game of Thrones: writhing lizards hatching from the skulls of your enemies doused in Sriracha—or something like that. Part of the letdown in ordering this dinner off the "new dishes" menu at Dragonwell Bistro is that it's just meatballs. But the disappointment is heightened because they are such bland meatballs. The chopped pebbles of pork leg are satisfactory meat, but they're braised to a dry uniformity, then served in a bowl of what looks like boiled cabbage and water. The dish costs $16, and it is one of the house's evening bargains.
I don't want to heap trouble on Dragonwell, a Chinese restaurant that seems to have suffered enough turmoil already: It was owned by local chain Sungari until Jan. 1, and signage in the foyer explains at length how it has feuded with restaurant.com over obsolete gift certificates. But this is the sort of eatery that comes and goes in downtown Portland without notice, and the accumulation of them has come to define the dining scene along the downtown MAX lines, where exceptions like Luc Lac appearing as rare points of light. So its failures are worth examining, if only to ask who pays $22 for Yin-Yang Shrimp.
The Yin-Yang dish contains items carefully separated on their sides of the plate: giant prawns in a tangy Mandarin sauce on their end, and bitsy shrimp in Cantonese white wine sauce on the other. It's actually the most enjoyable meal I had at the bistro, because it offers two options for monotony, while everything else stuck to one. The recipes here all follow a template: evenly coat meat and veggies in something sweet and sticky. The presentation is outstanding. The consumption is a drag. While nothing is a fiasco—the seafood, especially the battered scallops ($23), struck me as good catches—the taste and texture of each bite is unvarying. Most of these sauces, such as the Champagne orange chicken glaze that's sticky with actual (seemingly canned) mandarin oranges, are not a far cry from mall food-court Chinese. Meanwhile, the egg drop soup was the thinnest I have ever tasted.
It also cost $3.50. Which is the troubling thing about an otherwise forgettable place: Somehow, dining in ostensibly posh environs in the central city seemingly inflates prices to keep the doors open. They're a good bit cheaper at lunch, which may explain, along with the coupons, how those doors actually remain open. That makes Dragonwell Bistro less a symptom of our troubled economy and popped real-estate bubble than a victim of it, another desperate effort to keep the mediocre times rolling. It is all rather fantastical.
- Order this: Seafood is best here, if also most expensive; try prawns or scallops.
- Best deal: At lunch, similar menu items are half the price.
- Iâll pass: I half suspect that soup was hot tofu water.
EAT: Dragonwell Bistro, 735 SW 1st Ave., 224-0800, dragonwellbistro.com. 11 am-10 pm Monday-Thursday, 11 am-midnight Friday, 5 pm-midnight Saturday, 4:30 pm-9 pm Sunday. $$.