|At Dressler and DuMont: Valentine’s Day Menus for Modern Dining
Diners reserve some of their highest expectations for Valentine’s Day. It’s a day to impress, after all, a day to communicate one’s love and affection (or greeting card-inspired sensitivity) to romantic partners. And many diners happily transfer some of the emotional burden of Valentine’s Day to the restaurant, leaving it to the chef and menu to impart the high-impact romantic message in so many plates, glasses, or delicate, frothy touches. But making the traditional, luxury-studded Valentine’s menu work for your restaurant concept, especially in the current economy, is more of a challenge than it used to be.
Diners have already proven they’re unlikely to forego restaurant spending in a recession, and they’re just as unlikely to stop ordering wine with dinner. Given its psychological importance, Valentine’s Day dining will likely be another “extra” expense that consumers will insist upon. But restaurateur and 2009 New York Rising Star Colin Devlin thinks expectations for Valentine’s Day have changed slightly and that diners are no longer as intent on a high-gloss experience.
“I think people want an honest gesture, something that’s more straightforward,” says Devlin. “And I don’t think it’s truly based in the downturn of our economy.” Devlin implements this laid back attitude at DuMont and Dressler, his Brooklyn hot spots that share executive chef Polo Dobkin. Both restaurants will offer special menus this February 14th that blend their own styles with a modern, relaxed romanticism.
Certain Valentine’s fixtures are non-negotiable, however. “From the restaurant standpoint you have to provide all of the things that would make the holiday and that day seem special—special menus, tasting menus, wine pairings, and oysters,” Devlin explains. “But at the same time,” says Devlin, diners “want to exercise as much freedom as they can.” And he thinks this isn’t evidence of the recession so much as the increasingly well-informed dining public. “There’s more of an educated diner out there,” says Devlin, who expects to see fewer diners blindly swallowing the costly pomp of standard occasion-dining, even on a holiday so clogged with culinary tradition as Valentine’s Day.
His restaurants are wisely emphasizing a more relaxed take on the holiday, complete with a tongue-in-cheek burlesque show at Dressler on Friday and a holiday-steeped mood to keep the weekend booked with amorous, celebratory couples. This shouldn’t be a problem, asboth Dressler and DuMont have a lot of experience catering to couples. “Historically, these places have been seen as pretty good date spots,” says Devlin. And while Dressler, with its multiple chandeliers, ruby accents, and candlelit polished tables seems like the more obvious romantic spot, Devlin thinks DuMont might actually see more foot traffic this February 14th. “I think Valentine’s Day diners will choose DuMont because it’s a little more reeled in [than Dressler] and there is less fanfare.”
Even the $80 three-course prix fixe Dressler menu foregoes Valentine’s Day flourish, with appetizers like coddled egg with flecks of pancetta and black pepper and entrées like prime sirloin with creamed spinach and grilled royal trumpet mushrooms—comfort food that still manages to be respectably sexy. Dressler rewrites the typical “cote de boeuf for two” with a gutsier, rustic rendition: heritage pork chop accompanied by Anjou pear, spaetzle, and whole grain mustard. For its part, DuMont’s $65 three-course prix fixe stretches Valentine’s fixtures like foie gras with a creamy terrine with kumquat, almond, and mâche. (At Dressler, whole lobes are simply seared and paired with quince, grapes, and aged sherry.) And entrées like pan-roasted cod with pancetta and lentils or roasted duck with farro and pomegranate exude the kind of rustic comfort that makes the DuMont Valentine’s menu warmly reassuring.
Devlin expects both restaurants to sell more liquor and wine during the holiday, a tried and true way to reclaim profits on a weekend traditionally dedicated to a feast composed of high-cost items “[Alcohol] will definitely create more of a portion of gross sales than it normally does,” says Devlin. And for Valentine’s Day, when diners are much more likely to opt for one or two (if not more) bottles or cocktails to celebrate, “there’s opportunity to definitely make your profit margin healthier,” says Devlin.
One mistake Devlin won’t repeat this year is overestimating the quantity of Champagne diners consume. “We’ve always purchased aggressively, anticipating this huge demand for Champagne and sparkling wine,” he explains, but it doesn’t always happen. “It seems to be more of an antiquated thing.” Instead, Dressler and DuMont will emphasize cocktails, counting on the popularity of mixology and house-made ingredients to shoulder the beverage-burden of the holiday. “I think the artisan, gourmet cocktail program has definitely taken more market share [recently] than it has in the past.” A bar menu with aphrodisiac cocktails could easily make up for the extra expenses of the holiday. “That whole culture,” says Devlin, “is stronger than anything else.”
Dessert at Dressler and DuMont is simply about fulfilling diner expectations with one marquee ingredient: chocolate. “Traditionally there are two or three extra desserts that tend to be in the chocolate department,” Devlin says, and this year will be the same. But beyond this concession to tradition, Devlin is counting on a more modest—and less contrived—romantic formula to work for his restaurants: high quality, honest food and drink presented in a festive environment, free of gratuitous formality. It’s a formula that’s kept couples coming back to Dressler and DuMont on far less romantic days of the year.