New York City today is not like it was in the 80s, but the restaurant game is. A restaurant of high pedigree for the uber trendy high society is in one minute and out the next. To remain hip for years upon years is not only noteworthy but also remarkable.
Is Dorsia considered bougie, as in a place that shows off it’s materialism, smugness, and snobbery? Yes, on all fronts, but all of its patrons know this. There is an old saying, “You are what you eat.” In my own defense, I’ve only eaten here 4 times in almost twenty years. When I dine, I have to act the part and tilt my nose to ten o’ clock in order to blend in with the regulars. I have to say, it is fun playing dress up.
I first reviewed the restaurant with high praise in 1988 when they opened close to the Century 21 department store and the Twin Towers in Lower Manhattan. When Ruth Reichl took over as the main critic for the Times in the mid to late 90s, one of the first restaurants she wanted to review was Dorsia. Ruth put on one of her many disguises because she was scared that the employees of Dorsia would show us bias among the other guests. Yelp wasn’t created yet so our words actually meant something. We were still treated like royalty. I wrote an equally stellar review, but Ruth did not. I planned a third visit to Dorsia when they hired James Beard Award winning chef, Resinor Af. Unfortunately, he was fired the day I went in. The owners of Dorsia thought his early attempts of foraging in NYC were blasphemous, especially because they had the money to ship the best and finest ingredients from all over the world. My meal wasn’t spectacular like it once was, but it wasn’t bad either. September 11thhappened and the building where Dorsia was got destroyed. It was rebuilt on the Upper East Side by the Carlyle Hotel in 2008 to little applause if any. The “now” restaurants were Eleven Madison Park, Momofuku Ko, and Per Se. I walked in at 830 p.m. on a Saturday night to an almost empty restaurant without a reservation. Dorsia shut down a week after my fourth and what I thought was going to be my final visit.
One Monday night in December 2013, I was listening to Woody Allen and his jazz band while sipping a tall strong drink; I overheard someone say that she was commissioned to renovate Dorsia. Her name was Hanna Haas and she was the partner of Haas & Mason, the two legends in restaurant architecture and design.
The new owners of Dorsia, a hedge fund firm which made their billions by merging charter schools, hired acclaimed Chef Connie Flossum at the helm. It was rather peculiar to me why Chef Connie would take on such a bad omen, especially after putting so much time and effort into here established Heritage on 8th restaurant in Boston. But the more I thought about it, the more the pairing made sense. Dorsia was inconsistent and so was Connie. Dorsia never had a genre or a niche. It was never Italian, Asian, American, French, and loathed being called fusion. I felt by establishing herself in Manhattan Connie was now playing with the Yankees, the best of the best in today’s modern food world, something she has said in the past of always doing.
The new Dorsia seats up to 20 people, kind of like a small sushi joint. It feels rather cold and masculine as if the place itself was a giant phallic symbol stating to the rest of the restaurant community how big in girth it really is. The furnishings and décor are polished concrete and stainless steal modern artifacts with blue, black, and white color schemes. There isn’t any warmth whatsoever, not even a single flower.
If people want Heritage on 8th, they won’t find it at Dorsia. Heritage on 8th like other fine dining restaurants in the 212 are very personal. Dorsia is strictly business. There are no walk-ins allowed. In order to get a reservation, every Monday at 9 am when the chefs come to unload the farmer’s goods, a lottery takes place, similar to the lottery system done to get cheap yet good seats a couple hours before a performance to one of Broadway’s most talked about plays or musicals. Fifty names are drawn. Those names picked count for all 5 days Dorsia is opened. The person chosen can decide what day and time they wish to dine. They have to put down a deposit too. The base deposit for a 6 p.m. on a Tuesday is $200 a person. An 830 p.m. on the same day is $500 dollars a person. I didn’t want to know what a Saturday night costs.
Dorsia doesn’t have a phone number. Chef Connie only gives out her personal cell to people who matter in keeping Dorsia in business.
The menu changes every month revolving around a single ingredient. When I went, the ingredient was corn. It is prix-fixed only. The ten dishes featured included items made with cornmeal, hominy, masa, polenta, and samp (grits). The menu doesn’t have particular names to the dishes because they’re usually created on a whim and are forever changing. I feel it’s cute and even at times, tongue and cheek when reading it: 10-part salad, 21-part soup, 15-part poultry, 20-part fish. Below the bold are the mise en place ingredients in italics. It was $175 a person when I went, and whereas usually tasting menus have a wine pairing, this particular month had craft beers.
The first course was monkfish stuffed hush puppies. Second were soup shooters: a cold corn and Humboldt Fog cheese soup and a piping hot pozole. I’m always a sucker for a good pozole. This was probably one of the best pozoles I’ve eaten from a Caucasian chef. The love gone into it rivaled any abuela who has made it for me in the past. A nice and light Southern pecan hefeweizen accompanied both of these. A market lettuce salad with DeKalb sweet corn buttermilk dressing, fried green tomato croutons, and crispy prosciutto rillettes was third. The prosciutto had the toughness and chewiness like jerky instead of the fragility of a wafer. Jalapeño and cheddar cheese corn bread in a cast iron skillet followed. I truly appreciated Chef Connie’s focus on keeping the corn bread classic. Every one is baked-to-order. Usually I find cornbread reheated in a salamander or an oven. That is never how corn bread is supposed to be served. There was no sweetener, only the fatty after taste of bacon crumbles and rendered bacon fat. That’s my kind of corn bread. A more fruit forward Oktoberfest brew was poured. Foie gras was plated with good old-fashioned Johnnycakes and pear-apple marmalade. My glass was refilled with a stout. Creamed corn was accompanied with a braised pork shoulder. The pork shoulder was the only item that had a proper title. It was called The Leftover. This was because it was cooked two days prior, stored in the fridge, and reheated. To me, in general, leftovers are always the best way to consume food especially with braised meets whether cooked in the oven or a crock-pot because all of the flavor is soaked in and won’t escape. The creamed corn wasn’t plain like some cafeteria slop. Fresh herbs and garlic complimented the freshly shucked Southern dish. A true test to any cook and chef is how well they do a plain roast chicken. Served in another cast iron skillet over a bed of polenta was a split roast chicken served in a thick roux-like Meyer lemon sauce. The skin was crispy like chicharrónes infused with garlic. A perfectly cooked bird. Grouper with a corn meal crust had the lightness as if the fish was breaded in tempura batter.
A meal at Dorsia can last anywhere from two to four hours and that’s without any kind of dinner conversation. The restaurant is all business like I stated prior, but just because it’s all business they want you to have a good time and truly appreciate what is in front of you. The food is the one that does all of the talking.
Gulf shrimp and grits were plump, large, buttery, and moist. Of all the entrees this one truly was showing off the money being put into Dorsia. It’s places like this that personally hire divers and freelance fishmongers to catch what the chef wants on a daily basis. Rumor has it the owners use their personal jets and yachts to help transport goods. They even pay off the government to do so. Sea Urchin was served tableside by the server. I thought this was quite comical. A play on the tableside guacamole and desserts like cherries jubilee and bananas foster from yesteryear. I was impressed with the server’s skills. He used a finely sharpened pair of Joyce Chen shears to cut the top and get the yummy innards out. The contents were then placed in a molcajete and mixed with softened herb butter. The uni butter was molded back into a stiff cube using liquid nitrogen. It went on top of the most exotic dish of the night, a chorizo, chile verde tamale made with pigeon and squirrel. This was too much and didn’t make sense. A regular banana leaf tamale with a little cheese would have been just fine. I realize that Dorsia’s play on sea urchin has been a staple since its inaugural days, but this however was overkill. Strong and smooth ciders kept the enchanting buzz going. Whole milk buttermilk pie with a cornmeal crust came in a small slice. I was thrilled when there wasn’t any of that 2% buttermilk crap. In my opinion, any kind of buttermilk that’s not straight and pure whole buttermilk is not buttermilk at all. A small saucer accompanied the slice with candied fruits, dates, figs, and one scoop of sweet corn ice cream. My palate was clear.
I really enjoyed the Southern and Tex Mex flair. Dorsia has separated itself from its competition. Having a menu based on a single ingredient every month causes it to be transformative and ever evolving. That is the truest way to be hip even if one who dines at Dorsia is a square.
ATMOSPHERE: Upper East Side elitist New Yorkers and Wall Street types in their 30s sit like a small batch of quiet cattle ready to fill their imaginative three stomachs with prized worthy feed.
SERVICE: 5 Servers per table. There aren’t any bussers. Some of the servers even work in the back of the house too. They are all incredibly passionate and can even give you an oral history of the monthly ingredient. It’s quite impressive.
SOUND LEVEL: Quiet and meditative. One can really collect their thoughts. Conversation is not needed because the food is the only one that talks.
RECOMMENDED: Any chance you can get a seat, just take it and be wowed by whatever creation is going to be placed in front of you.
DRINKS AND WINE: Beer, Wine, and Water only. Beer and Wine are automatically paired and included in the price.
PRICES: The prix-fixed meal prices range from $150-$1,000 a person.
OPEN: Tuesday thru Saturday from 6-11.
WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: Yes
Restrooms: A one-holer for men’s and a one-holer from women’s. I recommend turning on the lights when you walk in. The ambient candlelight is not a sufficient amount to see what you’re doing no matter how good your aim is.