Behind the Scenes at Dressler

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Oh Dressler, she’s a stunner for sure: all wrought-iron stylings and chandeliers and black lace, the red booths with their racy stripe of deepest burgundy. Ornate and flirtatious, a mix of the best of the rococo and the deco, she draws you in with her dark good looks well before you order your first drink. That’s poured into a proper Champagne coupe—the Emily Dickinson, perhaps, made of Fernet-Branca, Cherry Heering and lime—and sweet alongside six cold East Coast oysters served on a silvery platter at the silvery bar, their sparkling brine perfectly on point with your surroundings.

Opened in the spring of 2006—that impressive metalwork sourced from the sculptors at Ferra Designs in the so-close-and-yet-so-far-away Navy Yard—Dressler was steampunk, it seems, before steampunk hit the scene.

Better still, that odd yet fitting name-given by owner Colin Devlin, a Brooklynite who bartended for Keith McNally at Balthazar before opening Dumont in 2001—comes from Pulitzer prize-winning author Steven Millhauser, via his 1996 novel Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer. Appropriately, it’s an architecturally symbolic story, a boom-and-bust tale about a turn-of-the-last-century New York City businessman who leaves his father’s humble cigar shop to build grand hotels with Disney-like themes, built-in streams or nymphettes reciting poetry.

As at Martin’s maniacally massive Grand Cosmo hotel, the trappings here almost steal the show. But focusing on Dressler’s dressing would be an awful oversight—as so many stars (from the Times and even Michelin) attest. Sure it’s a perfect place for celebratory glasses of sparkling cava, but Dressler isn’t just a tricked-out, destination-restaurant pony where you order nothing but a thick, marbled steak.

Though if it’s steak you want, chef Polo Dobkin will delight you—either prime sirloin or a grilled hanger, both served with braised short ribs, horseradish mashed potatoes and creamed spinach with Bordelaise, a meaty meal nearly as fine as you’ll find at Peter Luger across the street. (That’s what many Georgian diplomats would surely tell you, seeing as how they kept the place open way past closing after being turned away by the folks at Peter’s when they showed up reservationless.)

Dressler’s steak can hold its own, but the rest of the menu has earned this eatery its reputation as a 718 Gramercy Tavern: tiny, salty crab cakes ready to dunk in a pink remoulade; a crusty-edged, pan-roasted diver scallop nestled in creamy potato puree and finished with crispy slivers of bacon and a wisp or two of wild mushrooms. There’s the housemade ravioli-butternut when I’m writing, sweet pea by the time you’re reading-floating in a good-enough-to-slurp Parmesan broth; a massive slab of a pork chop, served with nearly candied baby turnips and few slices of pork belly; half a Hudson Valley chicken roasted and served with dumplings and hen of the woods; an oxtail ragu over handmade pasta and rich, herby ricotta; and Dobkin’s signature dish: an expertly cooked artichoke heart filled with plump, tender cranberry beans, a tangle of creamily dressed baby greens, shards of Parmesan and a spike of spring-green parsley oil. (Not to mention the coconut cream pie and chocolate soufflé cake topped with housemade malt ice cream, courtesy of pastry chef Dalia Jurgensen, whose Kitchen Confidential-style book Spiced wowed readers when it came out last year.)

Chef Dobkin, also the executive chef at Dumont (beloved for burgers and mac and cheese) and Dumont Burger, its even more laid-back spin-off-brushes off his approach as no-brainer, based on simplicity, technique and consistency: It’s just “classic contemporary seasonal American,” he says, “staying true to regional ingredients.” Dobkin—whose real first name is Juan Leopoldo, thanks to his mother’s Spanish roots—is aware that sounds cliché. Yet outside of a few words the waitstaff learns during family meal—”why is heritage pork sought after?” quizzes the general manager as he goes over the menu, “because magically raised and healthy animals and really old breeds make for really tasty pork”—Dressler is subtle about its sourcing and its seasonal bent.

That may be because it’s something Dobkin’s done for decades.  Though Dobkin was raised in Manhattan, his father has land up in the Hudson Valley, where Dobkin grew up picking-his-own at nearby farms and orchards, and still stops by to load up his car with produce for the drive back to Brooklyn. (He also gets great ingredients delivered from places like Tivoli’s Paisley Farm, whose baby mustard greens he can’t seem to stop praising: “I’ve never tasted anything that delicate, yet that assertive,” he raves.) He cites his time at Gramercy Tavern and the Screening Room, both places known for simple, ingredient-driven food, as formative, too.

“Smart people start with what they know,” he says. “You’d be a fool,” he says of chefs or restaurateurs who don’t plan a business around what they love to eat, “to go with something else.”

It’s a philosophy that’s worked well for Dressler, which in just four years of operation has been written up by the New Yorker, Food Arts, Travel & Leisure, no fewer than four times in two years by the Times’s Frank Bruni, and in 2007 became the third Brooklyn restaurant—after Saul and Peter Luger—to earn a Michelin star from the fancy-pants French reviewers. (The only drawback was that Dobkin was getting married five days later: “I asked Stephanie, ‘how would you feel about not going on our honeymoon,'” he recalls, thinking of the crowds who might expect his presence. “She looked at me and she said, ‘Are you serious?'”)

Establishment accolades like those draw the bridge and tunnel crowd-meaning Manhattanites. Or beyond. (Last time we dined the British actor Patrick Stewart—best known as Captain Jean-Luc Picard—was causing a ruckus for the Star Trek fans at the scene.) “We got a big European influx,” says Dobkin of the days post-Michelin, “a lot more tourists.”

Martin Dressler, who dreamed of creating beloved big-city businesses with international acclaim, would be impressed.

Rachel Wharton is Edible Brooklyn’s deputy editor, who credits Polo Dobkin with turning her on to the beauty of perfectly cooked cranberry beans.

Editor’s note: Dressler and DuMont have closed.

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