The dragon king’s daughter, ancient Buddhist tradition tells us, was an eight-year-old female dragon who became the first woman ever to reach enlightenment. Female, young, in the form of an animal? It seemed impossible for such a creature to attain Buddhahood – and yet she did it.
There could be no more appropriate spirit animal for Toki Masabuchi, proprietor of the popular Dragon King’s Daughter restaurants on Bardstown Road and in Southern Indiana. We crossed the river recently to check out its new, larger location on New Albany’s Market Street.
The new place is impressive. An inviting bar with comfy overstuffed furniture is equipped with a Japanese robatayaki grill where bar snacks are grilled over charcoal. A short corridor lighted by bright Japanese red-paper lamps leads to the main dining room, a large space with a high ceiling, spare and cool in pale beige and white with minimal decor and large floor-to-ceiling glass walls offering views of downtown New Albany. Large hanging lights that look like spun-sugar spheroids hang over undraped wood-look tables set with small, black plastic chopsticks and spoons rolled in slick black cloth napkins.
Dragon King Daughter’s menu offers a wide choice of makizushi (sushi rolls), with more than 50 choices, many of them marked as vegetarian, that range in price from $7 to $14. Quite a few have lovably wacky names such as the Green Acres ($8), a mass of veggies rolled in rice, and the screaming baby ($11), scallops fired up with both jalapeños and hot sauce.
Other maki rolls display creative international fusions, such as the Italian picnic ($10), packed with asparagus tempura and covered with prosciutto, basil and pine nuts, and the coco caliente with spicy tofu, roasted garlic, red pepper and a fiery drizzle.
A shorter list of rice-ball nigiri or raw-fish sashimi options are priced from $4 to $8, plus chef’s choice bento boxes ($20) and chirashi sashimi platters ($17). Nearly two dozen plates and ramen bowls briskly cover highlights of the Japanese canon, all attractively priced under $11. A separate lunch menu offers about 20 noodle dishes, sushi rolls and a lunch bento box; most lunch items are $10 or less.
Adult beverage lists are extensive and well-chosen, but I was just as happy at lunch time with Dragon King’s Daughter’s signature mango iced tea ($2).
Miso soup ($1) and a simple Japanese salad ($2) got our lunch off to a good start. The soup was warm, and its bonito-flake broth was rich and appetizing. It was filled with tiny dice of kabocha squash and onion that lent their flavors to the broth. The salad was different from the usual Japanese-restaurant standard, with well prepped field lettuces in lieu of the standard iceberg, and an intriguing creamy white variation on the ginger dressing that retained a good ginger flavor but added a hint of ranch.
A pair of well-fashioned makizushi rolls, both made in inside-out style with rice on the outside, filled a long plate. The Japanese veggie roll ($7) was loaded with a variety of crunchy veggies whose mixed textures and flavors added interest: cucumber and avocado, daikon radish and the less familiar kanpyo (calabash) and shibazuke pickle. Avocado tempura roll ($8) featured crisp-fried avocado strips rolled in rice, topped with chopped walnuts and plated on sweet-hot mango chili sauce.
A pair of unagi (eel) nigiri sushi bites ($7) were well made and tasty. Thin but wide eel slices were crisply grilled and delicious, portioned so generously that there was more eel than rice. Happily, the traditional sticky sweet brown sauce was served in a dish on the side, not dribbled all over the fish.
The lunch bento box, pictured at the top of the page, is priced according to the particular sushi roll you choose as its cornerstone. We went with Son of Jade ($13) and were happy with this choice. The black and red lacquered box was chock full of goodies. Most were delicious, although we could have done without the tortilla chips and ginger-scented salsa despite the culinary diversity that they brought to the table.
Everything else in the box was fine: Three perfectly fried fried gyoza potstickers filled with ground chicken; a a dollop of dark-green seaweed salad sprinkled with sesame seeds; and a cooling bite of seeded and halved cucumber slices brined in rice vinegar and with some sesame seeds.
The Son of Jade roll was the real winner, though. A big inside-out roll cut into 10 slices, it bore a dense chunk of dark-red tuna at the center, with a slice of pink raw salmon and a slice of avocado on top. Its wonderful flavors were fresh and bright and spoke of the ocean.
Our hearty lunch was one of our best Japanese restaurant experiences yet in the Louisville area. It all came to $42.90, plus a $9.20 tip for our server, Kelsi.
Robin Garr’s rating: 89 points
Noise level: The large open room is spare, hard and angular, and it looks as if it would be noisy. However, even with a good lunch-hour crowd, it was easy to chat with my partner. (Average sound level 62-71 dB.)
Accessibility: The entrance and floors are flat and level, easily accessible to wheelchair users, and the restrooms are properly equipped for disabled patrons.