While there’s something innately comforting about the well established or tried-and-true, lets face it, everyone is always looking for the next big thing. That’s what makes the two-month-old Joe & Misses Doe so uniquely appealing… it’s been assembled entirely from scratch (including the name and menu), but it’s also wholly familiar, a 2.0 version of the popular five-year-old restaurant, JoeDoe.
“Once my wife Jill and I actually got married, we joked that JoeDoe lost his bachelorhood and had to evolve into a different restaurant,” laughed chef and owner Joe Dobias. “We also felt that throughout the years, we had ended up with two distinctly different customer bases. The fine dining, cheffy, farm-to-table food we offered at dinner attracted one very specific clientele, and the no-reservations, static, playful menu at brunch brought in another.”
That’s why Dobias decided to simplify things by discontinuing fancy fare during dinner service, in favor of an all-day menu of fun-to-eat foods divided into sharable snacks and hearty large plates. Hardcore JoeDoe fans will be relieved to find that the infamous Fried Matzoh is still available, but newer dishes like French Dip Dumplings, Bone Marrow Toast and the Fat Guy with Glasses Burrito (made with local fish, tomatillo salsa and chilies) are not to be missed. And a new beverage program comes courtesy of Misses Doe, including “Classic,” “Quirky,” and “Mix-Your-Own” Cocktails, available in small, medium or “big boy” sizes. There’s even a section of “Cocktails for Two” for the lovebirds, like the Mega Michelada with tequila shots, light beer, hot sauce and lime.
“There was only so far we could go with fine-dining concept in our current space, because we don’t have gas, or a walk-in, or an internal staircase,” said Dobias. “There are all sorts of shortcomings that led itself to having a more casual restaurant.” We also spoke with the chef about the pros and cons of working with his wife, how he’s tried to model his restaurant after Blue Ribbon, and why he’ll probably never be in league with a “big money partner.”
Were you always interested in food and cooking growing up?
Yes, although being in the restaurant business wasn’t by choice at the beginning. I’m from a blue-collar family, so we all had jobs when we were kids, and mine tended to be in restaurants. I wound up falling in love with that way of life.
What’s your earliest formative food memory?
I’d say cooking for Jeff Smith… I think his restaurant was called My Grandmother’s Kitchen. I cooked a whole hodgepodge of foods while I was there, from Jamaican Jerk Patties to Béchamel-covered Crepes. That was when I began trying to cook to impress.
What job would you say really kick-started your career?
Working for Ming Tsai at Blue Ginger in Boston when I was 22. I’d wanted to own a restaurant since I was 12, but that really put me on the path.
Any anxiety in switching your name and concept over to Joe & Misses Doe, considering all of the time and effort it must have taken to establish yourself as JoeDoe?
Unfortunately, that’s the life of the NYC restaurateur; the unknown. There’s a lot of money and time involved and not a lot of profit to be made, so only a few survive. Once you get used to the constant risk-reward strategy, you’re on your way to being a successful restaurateur, and if you can’t handle it, you drop out. The unknown is a blessing and curse in the city. Everyone wants to check you out when you’re new, and see what you’re about. On the other hand, once you’re established the comfort level increases, because people come into your restaurant already knowing and appreciating what you’re about.
What are some dishes on your menu right now that you think really embody your new concept?
The most popular by far is the French Dip Dumpling, which is essentially a French Dip Sandwich re-imagined in dumpling form. We’re using Pierogi dough with a Roast Beef and Mozzarella filling and Au Jus on the side. And we’re doing a wedge salad that we call the Dredge Wedge, where we actually inject dressing into the lettuce. Because whenever I eat a wedge salad, I always complain about the lack of distribution of dressing; it’s just a plop of blue cheese in the middle of the iceberg. And we have a snack menu now, which we never had before. It’s great for sharing and communal-style meals.
Some of your most popular items at JoeDoe were cheeky plays on Jewish food, like the Fried Matzoh, the Conflicted Jew Sandwich and the Matzoh Balls via Mexico. Will they live on at all at Joe & Misses Doe?
We do have the Fried Matzoh on the snack menu, and the Conflicted Jew still lives on at our East Village sandwich shop, JoeDough. The Matzoh Balls, unfortunately, are dead until Passover.
Not being Jewish yourself, how did Jewish-style food become a part of your repertoire?
I’m just a really big fan of exploring traditional dishes, and re-imagining them in fun and new ways. There tends to be a lot of restrictions when it comes to ‘religious’ food, so not being Jewish, I’m able to get away with a lot more. I approach ingredients from a chef’s perspective, and look for ways to be creative with them. For example, I don’t think matzoh always needs to sit in chicken soup and you don’t need to eat it only on Passover.
You’ve said you’ve attempted to model your own businesses after Blue Ribbon. Can you elaborate on that?
I think at our current incarnation, it’s about doing those super classic dishes that we all grew up with, but that ended up getting beaten to death. Because we’re in an interesting time where what’s old is new again… even bellbottom jeans popped up again for a while. And especially since the economy isn’t so great, we end up gravitating back towards classic comfort foods. I think that’s what they’ve always done really well at Blue Ribbon, embracing foods that are good always, without so much concern towards hyper-seasonality or locality. They’re foods that evoke taste memories and emotions, that simply taste good and are satisfying.
You’ve indicated that you plan to relaunch JoeDoe as well at some point. Any idea when or where yet?
The comedy of everything is, we opened this spot just two months ago and we’re still trying to figure everything out, and all people keep asking about is, when are you going to reopen JoeDoe? Everyone loves new stuff… if you’re not opening something new, they’re asking you when you’re going to. But yes, eventually, we want to reopen JoeDoe in a space that can accommodate ultra fine-dining done counter-style, which is very in vogue nowadays. At least I think that’s where we’re headed.
What would you say is the best part about working so closely with your spouse, and what has been the most difficult?
The difficult part, of course, is that we just don’t get away from each other. We have to carve out time; otherwise it’s way too easy to be on top of each other. So we make a concerted effort to do our own thing; I’m coming from the gym now and she’s at a ballet class. The other thing is you have to be careful about bringing the pressure of the business home. You need to cut off talk about work and just sit at the dinner table together and eat! The positive side, of course, is just about everything else. It’s having a partner that I’m not worried about jumping ship tomorrow because times are bad.
What do you think your wife would say is your most annoying kitchen quirk, and vice versa?
Mine is that I leave the tops and caps off of everything, like ketchup. She even gets mad at me when I do it at restaurants. Also, that I’m always trying to get too much done at one time… “Oh, it will be fine!” are my famous last words. It drives Jill crazy. And Jill? She’s a micromanager. She worries herself sick because she’s really detail-oriented and can’t leave it to other people to do their work themselves.
You competed on an episode of Chopped and won. Which ingredients threw you off the most, and what dish did you end up being most proud of?
The one that threw me off the most was the Dried Cherries in the first round, because they gave us Hamachi as well, which is quite mild and delicate. So my idea of doing something raw was a challenge. But that was also the dish I was most proud of, because I used that Italian grandmother’s trick where they use bread to mellow out tomato soup; I used bread to mellow out the cherries in a vinaigrette.
What do you consider to be the single greatest achievement in your career thus far?
The fact that I opened the restaurant before I was 30 years old without doing it with a big money partner. I pretty much used a credit card and took out a bunch of loans with friends. Awards are awards, but having your own business is the most rewarding of all.
Why have you avoided getting involved with what you dub ‘big money partner?’
It’s easy to be wooed by a money person that dangles promises in front of your face; things that you probably couldn’t get on your own, or would have had to have worked incredibly hard for in order to get on your own. But it’s also easy for the money person to eventually shoo you away, saying that they own your name and they own your concept because they have a better lawyer than you. So for me, working with my spouse has been a breath of fresh air. We get to concentrate exclusively on making everything better, for our customers, our employees, ourselves and our neighbors, instead of worrying about return for our investors. No one’s going to blast open the door of the kitchen saying, “You have to put toast on the menu because my friend came in and you didn’t have toast, and he really likes toast.”
Do you see it as a dying breed, the independent, chef-owned restaurant?
At the end of the day, I think the concept of a restaurant actually being owned by someone is horribly lacking in NYC right now. Because everyone wants to have a franchise, six, seven or eight restaurants immediately after they open their first. I want to see the chef. I want to see the owner. I want to know their name. I want them to serve me a plate of food at some point in time or top off my wine. I want them to give a shit that I’m spending money in their place. That’s what motivates me as an owner.