Do or Dine
1108 Bedford Avenue, Brooklyn NY 11216 (b/n Lexington and Quincy; map); 718-684-2290
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Service: Mostly the owners on the floor; chatty, beyond casual, and genuine
Setting: Disco ball inside, graffiti murals out back
Must-Haves: Foie gras doughnut, chicken, "The King"
Drinks: BYO for now; expecting liquor license next week ("but we've been saying that for months")
Cost: Small plates $6-12, mains $14-20
Grade: A bizarre but incredibly likable B
"So... how do you pronounce 'District D9NE?' we asked each other, bemused, as we regarded a listed entree on the menu at Do or Dine. "De-nine? De-nine-y?"
"Oh, it's just District Dine," volunteered Justin Warner, our sometime waiter, sometime chef, diligent water-filler, and one of the restaurant's four partners. "Have you seen District 9? Remember what they call the aliens?" A beat of silence. "Prawns."
Ah. "It's prawns. Head-on prawns. In clam broth. With cherry tomatoes. But seriously, it's a good movie. You should see it if you haven't. You deserve it."
If this sort of pun-laced pre-meal banter annoys you, you may as well stop reading here, because Do or Dine probably isn't for you. Opened in Brooklyn's Bed-Stuy earlier this summer, the restaurant is an intentionally oddball, intentionally free-form eatery with no particular culinary bent (except fried things; and yuzu) and no totally fixed menu ("This whole restaurant is a culinary expression of ADHD," said co-owner Luke Jackson*).
Bad puns and foie gras doughnuts have a way of getting attention, and the blogs and Twitter haven't shut up about Do or Dine since it opened. ("Yeah, we're slammed," said Luke. "Slammed like a fire roaring at my ass every night.")
*Journalistic convention aside, let's call them "Luke" and "Justin", because once a guy shows up at your table with a blowtorch, it's hard to call him "Mr. Warner." And you get the feeling they're not called by their last names much.
The Do or Dine crew (with the exception of partner Perry Gargano) came together at The Modern, a Danny Meyer restaurant that's a white-tablecloth establishment if ever there were one; Justin and third partner George McNeese were on the floor, Luke worked the bar. "It's an uptown funnel," Luke said of the Modern; "This is a little more my speed."
If they wanted to get away from working for the man, they've done it. (The man wouldn't come within three miles of this restaurant.) But even though they've ditched formality, they haven't ditched service at all. Do or Dine is BYO for now, but they've got chilled glasses for beer and serve wine with practiced ease. The backyard tables are rickety and angled, but they take care to set the dishes on the flattest plane possible. And when they ask "How are the prawns?" and "Can I get you anything else?" and "What did you like on the menu?", they stick around and listen for the answer.
So, about the menu. I'd be a lazy writer if I called this stoner food*; and that's a fair average, though not quite a fair assessment. A lot of the menu certainly veers into "real food" territory; shishito peppers with a quartet of salts, a great roast chicken over summer succotash. In that Do or Dine deserves the stoner food label, it's in the ethos of the place, a sort of wide-eyed, chuckling, "Whoa. Let's eat this. This is awesome." That's not to say it's all silly or amateur-feeling; though some of it is. But it's served with simultaneous levity and care that's a little unexpected. It sounds like all gimmick. In other restaurants, particuarly those with that hipper-than-thou Brooklyn bent, it would come off as insufferably affected, the kitchen having a joke at your expense. At Do or Dine, you're in on the joke.
*Though what else would you call fried dumplings topped as nachos? A fried PB-bacon sandwich?
And it helps that some of the food is incredibly well-executed—frankly, a lot better than I thought it would be. There's a vaguely Japanese element to many of the dishes, including the pork and wasabi shumai ($6), among our favorite of the starters—shatter-crisp skins around a salty, juicy core of pork flecked with wasabi. Whether they needed the extra layer of coconut milk at the bottom, we didn't know, but anything this porky and crunchy will win us over.
The parade of fry continues with Nippon nachos ($6), fried gyoza in nacho clothing—they're topped with cheddar and chipotle gouda and sour cream (infused with jalapeño-steeped masago) and a tart, fresh pico de gallo; the simple soy-spinach filling of the gyoza doesn't add much, but that's not the point, is it? We wish our cheese had been a bit more melted, but something this well-fried is still plenty tasty.
Some of the simpler dishes were more successful, like a plate of shishito peppers ($7) that flew off the table, paired with four salts flavored with green tea (mellow), seaweed (ditto), yuzu (tart, if not strongly yuzu-flavored), and wasabi (awesome). The E666s ($9)—that'd be deviled eggs, if you're not pun-inclined—are quite good on their own, though the baby octopus they're crowned with was more novel than delicious. (Ditto the octopus heads impaled on cornichons.)
Octopus fared much better in the tako taco ($6)—tako translating to octopus, taco; well, you get it—where it was properly tender and a little bit charred, pairing nicely with a tomatillo salsa; the corn tortilla was a little dry on the edges, but not enough to bring the dish down that much.
"Escargot, go, go!" announced Justin as he slid the escargot to hell ($8) onto the table; "They're running toward salvation." The "salvation" would be a peach-mint yogurt smoothie that's intended as a chaser; the escargot themselves are wrapped in a chorizo-breadcrumb blend that's actually quite tasty but mushy enough to be texturally unappealing. As an illustration, it's somewhat charming; as a plate of food, a head-scratcher.
So too was the "cold-smoked" corn soup ($8). "Cracker Jack on top," said Justin. "No, except we're budget. I think it's Crunch and Munch?" Either way, the garnishes couldn't distract from the overwhelming smoke flavor that permeated the soup. As befits guys who like to use blowtorches tableside, they use a "Smoking Gun" handheld smoker to infuse it with smoked hickory flavor. It works, but it works too well; we couldn't taste corn or much of anything else.
But all was forgiven when the foie gras doughnut ($11) arrived on the table. A beautiful, barely crisp-edged yeasted doughnut from nearby Dough is filled with a silky foie mousse that's as improbably light as the doughnut itself. It's served, according to Justin, with "whatever Smuckers preserves I feel like filling it with." A little tartness does pick up the palate, but honestly, foie plus dough is a combination that needs no improvement. Best as a shared starter.
While the entrees were simpler, they were carried off well, like a roasted half chicken ($15) with impressive skin (crisp, golden, the kind you cut off and eat first) and juicy meat, those juices running into a buttery tomato-corn succotash that makes eating your vegetables easy. The beef tenderloin ($18) was as tender as a person could want it, if without a sear that could've contributed more texturally; the fingerlings, on the other hand, were remarkably good, their golden crisp hiding a fluffy interior. Over arugula and a mustard-laced creme fraiche, it's a simple plate of food but better for it.
Whereas some dishes could pass as tasty things thrown together, others actually showed that there was someone in the kitchen who could cook; you don't get chicken skin or fingerling potatoes that tasty accidentally. "We have an awesome sous chef," Luke told us, taking credit for some of the ideas but none of the execution. "Christian. Man. He worked at DBGB, Motorino, Daniel... Quietest Puerto Rican you've ever met but damn, that guy can cook." I can count on one hand the number of times I've heard a restaurant owner immediately credit his sous for the food coming out of the kitchen (which, here, partners George and Justin head up), but Luke spoke with nothing but admiration.
"This wasn't our idea," said Luke as he delivered "A Fish and Some Chips" ($16). "Our friend came up with it one day and said 'Here, you can have it.' Check out the yuzu-tobiko mohawk." Given the way it's scored, breaking the skin open, just about every morsel of fish has both tender flesh and golden fried bits; no neglected, dull white fish here. The chips could've had more (well, any) crunch, but worked as sponges for the yuzu-based sauce over the top quite well. (They like yuzu here. I do, too.) The prawn-aliens of the District D9NE ($14) were a little mushy, as it's easy for head-on prawns to get, but the broth is silky and rich and fennel-y, the cherry tomatoes popping the mouth with sweet juices and borrowed salinity.
"The desserts are kind of stupid," said Justin, but that didn't stop him from rattling off a list: a Snickers ice cream sandwich ("still in the original wrapper"), a S'more ("a real one!"), a doughnut bread pudding ($6). Made with leftover Dough doughnuts (the ones that don't get foie-stuffed) and topped with whipped strawberry cream, it's an awful lot less decadent than it sounds; for whatever reason, the doughnut flavor doesn't translate, and it just seems like a slightly spongy pile of sweet.
It's The King ($6) you should order—a take on an Elvis sandwich, made with cashew butter, banana, and crisped-up face bacon from the Meat Hook: "They just give it to us! It's awesome! And we get it sliced at the bodega across the street." (There's nothing but awe and respect in his voice when he talks about the bodega guys.) The whole thing is then deep-fried, and the bread takes on an ethereal, cloudlike lightness that somehow fuses with the banana and makes the whole thing as frankly irresistible as the foie gras doughnut. (The secret: Wonder bread. I now want to eat fried Wonder bread every day.)
"Do you want milk or dark chocolate for your S'more ($3)?" Justin asked. "Milk is classic, you know? But dark is sophisticated." They make no attempt to improve on a classic—"We source the ingredients from C-Town across the street. Honey Maid, Kraft, Hershey's."
So you already know what this tastes like. The usual problems of a S'more apply; the chocolate doesn't really melt; the marshmallow is prone to scorching before it's totally molten. The real question: Is it worth $3 to have Justin show up at your table with a torch, attentively browning your 'mallow and yelping "Ah! BLOW!" every time it catches on fire? It might be.
This is the play at Do or Dine, between the food (some fantastic, some less so) and the fun. "I would like to order that. The prawns," said the table next to us after hearing the "District D9ne" brief. "Because of their name." Ultimately the food is the food, and some is worth ordering, and some isn't. But this whole thing would fall flat if the cooking weren't decent. All of it is, and some of it's great. And if it isn't, you can imagine the owners shrugging and saying "Let's do it this way instead."
"This is the next Momofuku!" "This is the next Roberta's!" blare Twitter and Yelp and the Internet; whatever your opinion on those establishments, well, it's not. What these guys are doing is creative in the "Wow, look at this crazy shit on a plate!" sense, not a culinary boundary-pushing sense. This isn't M. Wells, serving venison jerky and veal brains and suddenly convincing you that you love those things.
But it doesn't want to be. These are a few dudes making food that cracks them up; finding that other people like it, too; and often, finding that that food's actually quite good. They take their customers seriously, but they don't take themselves too seriously, and I bet they'd be a little puzzled if anyone did.
So many restaurants, particularly of the hipster Brooklyn set, serve food that's ostensibly fun but with such a remarkable lack of care that it's off-putting. Do or Dine is fun because it's fun, blissed-out and earnest and often silly but rarely stupid. It doesn't feel like a gimmick. It just feels like a good time.
I'll admit it; I want to go back. And I'll be getting a foie gras doughnut.
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