Mon, Jan 16, 2012
After the foie gras doughnut and the Nippon-Nachos –– dumplings covered in cheese, pico do gallo and mango sour cream –– it was time for soup. Or at least a soup bowl. Inside there was only crumbled butterscotch bacon. My guest and I eyed each other uncertainly.
We were sitting next to a wooden mouse toy on wheels, below a slowly spinning disco ball. Earlier I had noticed Band-Aids holding up a poster in the bathroom downstairs. The dishes are just as absurd as the décor. There’s a feeling here that anything can happen.
Then it gets really weird. Our waiter moves in to delicately pour the peanut butter and pumpkin soup. The formal service is part of the surprise at Do or Dine. It keeps things from becoming completely nonsensical and let’s you know you’re in on the joke.
How do these guys balance the fun and the formality? I went back to spend the day with the Do or Dine team to see how it all goes down. Co-owner Justin Warner warned me it could be a very boring day. I doubted it.
Finding the restaurant can be part of the fun or frustration, depending on your worldview. Once you get off the G train in Bedford-Stuyvesant, and head down Bedford Avenue it still takes an eagle’s eye to confirm that you are at the right location. A faded red, yellow and green awning announces a West Indian and American restaurant named B’s Taste Buds. I ducked under the awning to see a newer addition to the underside. It’s a black sign that reads “Do or Dine.” The original sign still throws people off. A few customers each night stop in and try in vain to get take-out from B’s.
The food that is served here is presented in a setting of high- and low-end details, thanks to another co-owner Perry Gargano, also known as the man upstairs. He’s a jewelry designer by day and doesn’t spend much time at the restaurant, but his presence is felt. He is responsible for the look of the joint. The décor, like your dinner, is filled with jokes that you are in on and a few that might take you a minute to figure out. Looking up, the lights are strings of black wiring coming out of large flowered tea saucers and the bulbs are inside of teacups. The ceiling is arched in the center of the restaurant and is painted in thick black pop art style lines to look like beams of wood. One “beam” is painted yellow –– very much like a Roy Lichtenstein. Behind the bar there’s a gilded mirror with a fork stabbed in the bottom and a rabbit mask hanging from the top.
Many of the dishes have a story behind them. Take the Nippon-Nachos. The idea comes from George McNeese, another owner. Warner says that McNeese has a theory that all foods are either a sandwich or a nacho, ravioli or spaghetti. Something inside something or piled on top of something else. “What is both?” Warner asks. That would be the Nippon-Nachos. Dishes like these are created when McNeese and Warner get drunk and do a bit of cooking and mental Ping-Pong, says Warner.
The cuisine is hard to classify, by design. It’s the customers that go with the flow that they want to cater to. They like those who gleefully sop up the foie gras and jelly mixture oozing out of their donuts while exclaiming, “This place is insane!” “We’re not into people who have crazy attitudes. We’re not into catering to them,” Warner says. “Bed-Stuy isn’t the place to be a dickhead.”
Warner, McNeese and co-owner Luke Jackson met at the Modern, the fine-dining restaurant in the Museum of Modern Art. Warner and McNeese were servers and Jackson was behind the bar.
The trio’s different personalities act as checks and balances. Warner’s got energy, and dresses like a guy who raps about wine, which he does. Jackson is the mellow worrier, serving spirits and wry humor in a top hat with curls popping out. McNeese rounds out the group, soft spoken, heavily pierced and wearing a bent fork as a bracelet. Warner says they’ve learned everything from Danny Meyer, the famed restaurateur who owns The Modern.
It’s hard to imagine Meyer jumping up on a bench to change disco ball lights at one of his restaurants, but that was just how Warner started his day. Warner calls over his shoulder, bulb in hand, “See if I don’t explode.”
Just as that job was done, Jackson comes over with some bad news. The restaurant had scored a B grade on their New York City Health Department inspection. The restaurant now was required to hang the large green B in their window, a scarlet letter of sorts. “It’s meaningless, but I worry about the impact,” says Jackson. Warner’s plan is to surround the grade, which must be posted on the restaurant window, with positive reviews of the restaurant.
When the guys responsible for dinner proudly say, “We’re not chefs,” you might not expect rave reviews. But diners and critics alike, from the New York Times to Thrillist, have embraced Do or Dine’s fearless and fun cooking style.
Still, that popularity comes with a cost. “It makes it hard to feel confident experimenting,” says Justin Warner when he discussed the restaurant’s hype. “People who come here now will get upset if a dish they’ve heard about, or had before and want again, is not on the menu.” Dishes like fish and some chips and chicken and woffals –– a Cornish game hen topped with chicken liver sitting on a fried-liver-spiked waffle covered in a blood orange sauce –– have become cult favorites.
Speaking of cult favorites, Warner has to pick up some doughnuts.
We head off to Dough, the shop a few blocks away that supplies the pastry that the team will fill with foie gras and jelly for the evening’s dinner. Dough is a shop after Warner’s and the rest of the Do or Dine team’s heart, with flavors like blood orange and pumpkin pie.
Back at the restaurant Jackson’s wife Lurie Jackson is making fresh juice for the cocktails. “She’s my secret weapon. She helps me appear organized,” he says. The staff is eating burritos. “Watch this,” says Jackson. “You’re going to witness The Tortoise and the Hare here.” Warner shows his fast feasting ability, and finishes his burrito in a few bites, just as Jackson has settled down to start his.
During lunch, the group flips through a few issues of Lucky Peach magazine, a publication by David Chang, the chef and owner behind Momofuku restaurants. Chang’s fusion Asian dishes and love of kimchi and pork belly have influenced many new quirky restaurants and young chefs in New York City as of late. It’s not clear where the magazines have come from, but I do know what they think of them. “Found it in the gutter,” says Jackson. I realized that I have not seen any of Chang’s influences on the Do or Dine menu.
After lunch, it’s time to get down to business. Jackson asks Brooke Sweeten, Warner’s girlfriend and a waitress at Do or Dine, for the “end of night blah, blah, blah,” which turns out to be a sort of sign-in sheet that he’s trying to implement. He’s also looking over the proposed brunch menu. “What’s the hangover helper?” Jackson asks Warner. “Like Hamburger Helper,” Warner replies. “Yeah, I get it, but what is it?” says Jackson.
Warner answers vaguely. He still has the health department letter grade on his mind. He sets about Scotch taping together the restaurant’s positive reviews. He wonders aloud if he could make an edible tape out of Scotch whiskey. Jackson wants to wait to frame the reviews before they hang them. But Warner doesn’t want to wait. When he’s done surrounding the letter grade with accolades he seems satisfied. “It’s really not distracting from the B at all,” he says. But it doesn’t matter it’s the fuck you that counts.”
Somehow they make it work. At Do or Dine the dishes come out smoothly, the wine is poured correctly and as Warner glides the length of the small restaurant he holds his arms behind his back, one hand clasping the other elbow, a dead give-away that despite his baggy jeans and shiny blue trucker hat this boy has been trained. Then he not so subtly sneaks sips from a tall boy of Narragansett Lager that he’s left at the service window.
“There’s just a little too much seriousness in the cocktail world,” says Jackson. The same goes for restaurants, with their organic and farm-to-table talk. Not that these owners don’t understand seasonal and organic ingredients. They’ll add small touches, like seasonal jellies in the foie gras donut. But, Jackson continued, “I’m not worried about being precious about it. I want to be the kind of bar that you feel comfortable doing shots and beer and you can get a great Manhattan.”
The epitome of high-low equation that the restaurant embraces can be seen in the Do or Dine pickleback. A traditional pickleback is a shot of whiskey chased by a shot of pickle brine, but this one is much more. Order the drink and Jackson places a clear sphere of brine in a white ceramic dish next to a shot of whiskey.
What Jackson does worry about is making it all work. “We’re doing very well here and still can’t make it turn. We will though, just a matter of getting out of the hump,” he says as he wrote a check for a delivery of fish. The last check he wrote to the vendor bounced and the bill says ‘No Checks,’ but no matter.
It’s not just the bills that Jackson worries about. “Owning a restaurant turns me into a conservative or at least a libertarian,” says Jackson, sipping from a bottle of Negra Modeol and discussing his frustrations with city bureaucracies. In addition to the new less-than-stellar health inspection rating, it took the restaurant a few months to get a liquor license. Chatter doesn’t stop him from attentive service. He stops a server from pouring a glass of cava for a customer in the dining room while at the bar. “Pour it table side, yeah?” he tells the server. And off the bottle and glass go on a silver platter.
Across from the bar in the small kitchen two new chefs, Josh Feigin and Nick Subic, are prepping ‘heart attacks’ –– peppers stuffed with cheese and salmon and deep-fried.
McNeese and Warner pop from the front of the house to the basement and into the kitchen throughout the night. They’re doing experiments down in the basement. Warner feeds Jackson a spoonful of tapioca. He brings me vanilla essence power that he pretends to snort before sprinkling a bit on my hand for me to smell.
By 7 p.m. on a Tuesday the restaurant is full. Each owner has cracked open a beer and it’s hard to tell if they’re working hard or hardly working. That old saying pops into my head. “If you love what you do you’ll never work a day in your life.” And another thought comes to mind. When I had asked Warner why they opened a restaurant he says, “We basically wanted a place for us to hang out.” It’s not the most sound business plan, but so far, so good.
Do or Dine, 1108 Bedford Avenue (Lexington Avenue), Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn