At restaurants known for their social scene or celebrity owners, the food is often overlooked by customers, the owners or both.
That could have been the case at New York City restaurant The Dalloway, which caters to lesbians and is owned by reality TV veterans Amanda Leigh Dunn, co-star of Showtime’s The Real L Word, and Kim Stolz, a former America’s Next Top Model contestant who is now an executive at Citigroup.
New York magazine’s review mentioned the owners, Girls Who Love Girls Who Love Girls night on Thursdays, and the cocktails, but not the food. The New York Times noted the décor and fashionable crowd, but not what’s going on in the kitchen.
What is going on in the kitchen is the work of Vanessa Miller, a Cincinnati native and Tufts University graduate with a degree in economics and political science.
Miller started waiting tables at Grafton Street in Cambridge, Mass., and soon moved to the back of the house, where she worked her way up the ranks. After graduating from college in 2011, she became executive chef at sister restaurant Noche, which serves Latin food in Boston’s South End.
A former classmate of hers met Dunn and Stolz in New York and introduced Miller to them.
“On a day off I got on a bus and came down to meet with Kim [Stolz], and I decided to do a tasting for her,” Miller said.
She soon found herself in New York helping to conceptualize the restaurant, which opened in November.
“I came down in two weeks, and from the time we got into the building to the time we opened was six weeks,” she said.
The whirlwind has resulted in a successful small plates restaurant with food that has won accolades from social media fans, even if it has been largely ignored by the mainstream media.
Miller shared her experience with Nation’s Restaurant News.
Is it hard to be the chef at a restaurant that’s known for its scene?
Yes and no. We opened with a line of people wanting to come in. I think it’s really rare that you open a restaurant knowing you’ve marketed to a niche that has a demand for it.
We understand that it can be a little intimidating, realizing the reputation that the bar has, but we’re starting to see a more diverse crowd come in. Everyone likes good food; it doesn’t matter what your sexual orientation is. It was good to have that initial boost, and we can build off of that now.
Was moving to New York a big adjustment for you?
Yeah, in large part because it happened so quickly. I don’t think I slept for more than two hours in the first three months I was here.
As a chef it’s an exciting city to live in. We look for inspiration in the places around us. I live really close to Chelsea Market, and for inspiration for the menu, I just walked around and looked at what was available.
How do you describe your vision for the food at The Dalloway?
Our tagline is “New American small plates with a focus on seasonal ingredients.” It’s taking traditional dishes and moving them in an opposite direction from what people think they are. You see a lot of short ribs, but not necessarily with a cherry chipotle glaze, and lots of asparagus with poached eggs, but you don’t see them often deep fried.
Why did you decide to focus on small plates?
I like small plates because it allows me to play around with bigger, bolder flavors, because you’re not worrying about people losing interest in it. In economics we have a law of diminishing marginal returns. The same thing applies with food. If there’s only five or six bites, that flavor’s still going to be strong when you’re done with it.
We want guests to wish there were one more bite of the food, and we want them to try a lot of different things.
What are the most popular dishes?
The short rib is a really, really popular dish. Also the beet risotto with citrus butter-glazed lobster and mâche. But the Brussels sprouts salad is probably our best seller. It’s caramelized Brussels sprouts with grapes, roasted shallots, quinoa, arugula and a little truffle oil.
Why do you think quinoa is so popular these days?
Ingredients have a way of coming and going. People are on a healthy kick, and quinoa’s a very neutral flavor and takes on the flavors it’s served with.
People get on these superfood kicks. You see them on the menu for a couple of months and then you don’t see them again for another 10 years.