About ten years ago, when macaroni-and-cheese began appearing on the reception buffets of chi-chi weddings, its rise in the ranks from kids’ dish to chef’s plaything was formally established. Aged asiago replaced cheddar, penne defeated elbows, and even curious vegan versions appeared — the simple pairing of cheese and pasta had come so far from Kraft that such boxed versions now seemed an embarrassing relic of the past.
Chef Dawn String has tapped the full potential of this comfort staple by making it the centerpiece of her cute, two-room restaurant in Flat Rock, run with the help of her sons Marquise and Dresden. (“We were intending to move to England and open a café there, but we came across this adorable café that was exactly what we were looking for, and stayed Stateside,” she remarks.)
On the dinner menu are no less than five iterations of the dish: on the top end is a version with lobster (really, langostino, a slightly different crustacean that passes for its pricier cousin). The plainest mac-n-cheese entrée is really anything but — it’s a radiant five-cheese mac featuring Monterey Jack, cheddar, gouda, Gruyère, and Colby. The Mac N Cheeseburger is packed with seasoned beef and beefsteak tomato, and the perhaps most succulent version is the five-cheese entrée baked around grilled chicken and a honey-barbecue sauce, the tang cleverly subverting the richness.
Steaming in ramekins, all these baked mac-and-cheeses are triumphs, and it’s fun to wonder how far String might go in her empire.
“We just added Shrimp Alfredo Mac n Cheese. I have no doubt that others will follow,” says String.
The restaurant is in Flat Rock Square (formerly Singleton Centre), a suite of red brick buildings. String and her sons have infused much charm inside the space — the walls are painted a Tuscany shade of yellow, which somehow pairs perfectly with the delectable house-made lemonade. Architectural embellishments elevate the larger of the two rooms, including a recently opened bar, and art brightens every wall. The dragonfly motif alights in various places, glass carafes of water and cloth table coverings are a sophisticated touch, and insistent pop and R&B hits spray through the audio system, keeping the vibe lively.
“We really enjoyed pulling the interior, and exterior deck, together,” says String. “We wanted it to have some class, but also be a place that if you showed up in jammies, you would be welcome. My sons helped decorate, [along with] the local artists that have made the walls beautiful. We are blessed with some fantastic artists in this area.”
Besides the mac-and-cheese highlights, Dragonfly’s menu is on point with modern fusion items and classics — e.g. a “Black n Blue” salad (bourbon-soaked steak over greens with blue-cheese crumbles); a cherished brunch item, the Monte Cristo sandwich (at its core, ham and cheese baked on French toast); and Shrimp and Grits finished with goat cheese.
Not all of the trendier entrees succeed — on the day we visited, the fish tacos were a little dry. Chefs in WNC are doing a lot with fish tacos these days — a little attention and innovation here would bring them up to a more competitive level.
There’s a lot of bright promise, though. The cozy café has an unassuming, quirky optimism (I can imagine a spin-off food truck with a winning concept — dedicated only to imaginative versions of mac-and-cheese.).
In the meantime, the family-favorite recipe will continue to distinguish String’s fresh enterprise. “We have been working on recipes for a long time, adding and changing cheeses until we had a combination that worked,” she says. “More importantly, it’s a quintessential comfort food, which we think is infinitely important — we chose the dishes that make people happy.”
Dragonfly Cafe is open Wednesday through Saturday for lunch (11:30am-4pm) and dinner (4-10pm) and Sunday for brunch (11:30am-4pm). Reservations welcomed: dragonflycafenc.com or 828-513-5010.