At first glance, the New American brunch menu at Dawa’s in Woodside looks all too familiar. There are sturdy avocado toasts sprinkled with sunflower seeds, pancakes drizzled with organic maple syrup, and yogurt parfait crowned with house-made granola. Two messages punctuate the bottom of the page: one announcing the free-range eggs chef Dawa Bhuti bakes in cast iron and tucks into her affordable breakfast sandwiches; the other broadcasting the restaurant’s vegan offerings, including a lentil soup suffused with herb tea. But just below those socially conscious footnotes is an all-caps directive urging diners to “CHECK ETHNIC PLATES AT BACK.”
“I am not much of a fan of fusion,” Bhuti tells the Voice. The 33-year-old chef, born in Nepal and raised in India, has remained adamant about this bifurcated approach since she opened her namesake restaurant in April with her father, who is responsible for the “ethnic” dishes. Her uncle is also an owner. Customers can cobble together a meal by ordering from either menu. “I don’t want to categorize or generalize our place,” Bhuti continues, adding, “The food that I prepare is based on my experiences [cooking in both fine-dining and home kitchens around the world], and we keep my dad’s Tibetan food as authentic as it can be.”
Authentic in conception and execution, maybe, but you’ve likely never seen gyuma — a hearty Himalayan blood sausage — plated with such style. Cut into generous thirds and served up with fiery sepen hot sauce and sprigs of cilantro, the links look practically dainty. Still, the dish packs a hefty punch: The filling includes nutty bulgur wheat and Sichuan peppercorns, the latter an addition favored in Nepalese kitchens.
The elder Bhuti’s shabaley, or deep-fried beef pastries, are similarly festooned with plenty of pink pickled onions. He also makes three kinds of steamed momo (Tibetan dumpling) from scratch, crimping them into crescents and arranging them into a chic pinwheel formation over a fenugreek-heavy tomato sauce. Before becoming a restaurateur, he supplied homemade lunch boxes to markets and street vendors throughout the city, hauling nearly sixty pounds of food around on public transportation. Now, in their semi-open kitchen, father and daughter complement each other, and it shows. “He is teaching me how to cook the traditional dishes,” Bhuti confides. Recently they added a plate of Bhutanese pork belly slow-cooked with chiles to their Himalayan lineup.
Dawa’s seasonal menu changes often: In contrast to the straightforwardness of her father’s recipes, Bhuti’s dishes show that she is keen to experiment. She credits time spent in Paris for sparking her attraction to market cooking, and she tries to use as many local sources as possible. She gets her produce from farms in the Catskills, the Finger Lakes, and Connecticut. One week, she roasted beets and puréed them for fresh pasta dough, then tossed the wide, bright magenta noodles with shiitake mushrooms and kale-pistachio pesto. Hiding in the $12 dish were some of the most tender fiddlehead ferns I’ve tasted in many springs, their grassy flavor boosted by a quick sauté in garlic.
Bhuti’s other dishes are equally impressive. For $11, she cooks a mean double-stacked fried-chicken sandwich that boasts a crisp crust layered with lettuce, tomato, jalapeño aioli, and pickled onions. (It comes with flawless potato chips piled high in a terra-cotta pot.) Then there are the $10 seared wild cod tacos, which forgo Baja-style batter and rely on red cabbage slaw and, surprisingly, asparagus for crunch. The fish is flaky and sweet and airily topped with a showering of salty queso fresco.
Despite the two separate menus, Bhuti serves all her food on gorgeous dinnerware from cult potter Jordan Colón, who also supplies culinary hotspots like Gabriel Kreuther and Okonomi with dramatic ceramics. The upscale touch, paired with copper-plated cutlery, adds a subtle elegance to the understated dining room’s homespun design, which includes broad front windows and charmingly mismatched wooden furniture. Service is just as comfortably accommodating. One customer, informed that the lentil soup was unavailable one weekday afternoon, went in frantic search of an alternative. “Do you need something that’s vegan?” asked the lone waitress. “The chef can make something up for you on the spot. It’s cool. She loves it.”
51-18 Skillman Avenue Queens; 718-899-8629
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on June 14, 2016