Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Returning to Dovetail

On Monday, I ate at Dovetail for the first time since I left the line. At first, it was awkward... I was awkward. I was nervous to see old faces, the subdued intensity of the dining room, to smell familiar scents of the kitchen. But, that all melted away as I walked in and saw my favorite flamboyant waiter and then, the General Manager. Hugs and laughter ensued.

Since I was early, they escorted me over to the bar. Instantly, I thought of the last time that I sat on one of those bar stools. It was the night Chef John and the Executive Chef, Alex, promoted me to Entremet.

Even though I was "asked" if I wanted the promotion, it wasn't as if I had a choice. It wasn't an option to say, "Well, you know, Chef. I really don't think I'm ready yet." I was moving over to the hot-side; leaving my cold appetizers and salads behind. It was all machismo from here on out and this was my moment to show off my cajones.

"Tanaka, you know I'm setting you up to fail," said Chefy with a grin and that characteristic twinkle in his eyes. I remained as calm as I could -- and exploded with an enthusiastic "Yes, Chef!"

The bartender, another familiar face, welcomed me back with a sparkling glass filled with Rosé. The refreshing, cold bubbles instantly quenched my thirst on this humid summer evening. Daniel and our friend, Bing -- whom worked as Dovetail's poissonnier (or, fish roast) before moving onto to another prestigious kitchen -- joined me at the bar. Glasses of sparkling rosé were also presented before them. Once they sat us at our table, memories of each night on the line came rushing back. I scanned the menu.

"Oh! The duck dish with cherries and tarragon!" I exclaimed.

It went on right before I left. I remember just minutes before service, Chef was tasting all the new dishes. Then, he came to the duck.
"It's missing something...." he mused.
We all waited anxiously. What was this elusive ingredient?

Alex, the Executive Chef looked at me as if tarragon should magically appear in my hands. For a split-second, I panicked. And, then I remembered: Earlier that morning, I was getting ahead on prep for the next day. One of the ingredients on my mise en place list was tarragon for fine herbs! I rushed into my lowboy and pulled out a pint of freshly picked tarragon leaves. I ripped off the top and presented it to Chefy. He gave them a quick sniff, then licked his lips and with an excited grin, dove into the container. From then on, the dish would leave the kitchen with fresh, perfectly picked tarragon leaves. I exhaled with a sigh of relief.
The tasting menu on Mondays is vegan and vegetarian-focused. As cooks, Bing and I dreaded every Monday. Traditionally, in kitchens Mondays are a slow day. Not at Dovetail. Each Sunday, every cook on the line received a new prep list. This meant, at least three new vegetarian dishes, in addition to the regular a la carte menu that included meat. It felt like cramming for a final each week. Plus, Veg Mondays was Chefy's pet project, so he was always in the kitchen -- always critiquing. He spit out fires one after another until your head was spinning.  "Three gnocchi. Two risotto. Four Cucumber. Two Lamb. One duck. Adding on..." He always spoke so crisply and quickly that I often found myself shaking my head in confusion. "What's on fire again?" I'd whisper to the roast, the line cook on my right. "I have five minutes to put all that up in the window?" As a line cook, Veg Mondays made me sick to my stomach.

As a diner, however, Veg Mondays are great. It's Chefy and the Executive Chef's (Alex Aparicio) ideas melded into one seasonal menu. Chef Alex grew up in Westchester, but his background in Peruvian flavors gives the kitchen a street-smart flair with a Latin-Asian kick. Fresh pea dumplings with paper thin slices of Mangalitsa ham -- Chef Alex's nod to his beloved late night Chinese take-out.

The winner of the night though were the fried artichokes! The artichoke hearts were turned beautifully then breaded in panko. Small bites of bone marrow scattered around the plate brought bursts of juicy fat. The rich chicken jus poured table-side matched perfectly with the peppery arugula. Thinly sliced purple cauliflower added crunch and color. It was summer on a plate. 

Bing leaned over, "Alex said that we had to try this."

And, I'm thrilled we did; the dish was delicious. I'm so glad I tried Dovetail -- as a cook and as a diner.   
Just before the dessert course, I saw Chefy peering out at our table from the corner of the dining room. I couldn't help but think that maybe just this once he was trying to impress me.

Dovetail is located at 103 West 77th Street, New York, NY  10024.
For reservations, visit Opentable or call (212) 362-3800


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