One of my favorite things about my “job” (if you can call eating for a living a “job”) is discovering little off-beat neighborhood restaurants, places like The Redhead, Char No. 4, and some years ago now, The Little Owl, Tia Pol, and Prune. There’s something to the intimacy of small spaces and the personal reflection of the owners that makes me feel very much at home and also makes me respect the struggle and the effort that it takes to bring a restaurant off the ground without the help of a team of investors and the name of a fancy celebrity chef. So when my food-writing students and I walked into JoeDoe, a dorm-room sized restaurant on a dark stretch of First Street (just a hop, skip and a jump from Prune), I was immediately happy.
The restaurant has all the trappings of a neighborhood gem. It’s owned by a young married couple—Joe Dobias, the chef (Savoy, Blue Ginger in Boston), and his wife Jill, a ballet dancer who runs the front of the house with the warmth of a grandmother (albeit a stunning and graceful 20-something grandmother) welcoming her little ones home. They found their shoebox on First Street, a former Polish restaurant, and gutted, scraped, painted and furnished it themselves with salvaged vintage pieces including 19th century church pews. They opened their doors with 27 seats, and no liquor license, which slowed them down a bit, but they were finally in full swing in September with booze but no gas: the restaurant’s bathroom-sized kitchen is run on induction heat. It’s amazing what you can do without gas.
Joe’s menu is a fun and quirky affair that reflects his Italian-Irish heritage in dishes like cod in a stew of bacon and cabbage, and his wife’s Jewish heritage as well. On the cocktail menu you’ll find a cocktail called the Lucky Driedel made with Maneschevitz that’s garnished with gelt, and on the appetizer menu you’ll discover a dish that’s an ode to the Jewish staple chopped liver that might be the greatest sandwich ever placed on a restaurant menu (if not on earth). It's contents: challah, liver, bacon (!) and onions ($11). It’s a must-have for anyone who was raised with a bowl of chopped liver in the fridge. (Me.) Granted, the addition of the forbidden fruit (bacon) to such a quintessentially Jewish sandwich is pretty funny. In any case, Joe griddles slices of thick-cut challah bread and makes a massive chopped liver, bacon and caramelized onion sandwich that he slices in four triangles and sets up around a dish of sweet apple chutney, a nice bright counterpoint to the rich meaty unctuous flavors of the liver and bacon. It’s one of the greatest things I’ve ever eaten. I am taking my dad immediately. He’ll go berserk.
Other appetizers like his rice ball stuffed with cheese, pinenuts and mutton in the center ($11), reflect more of his Italian heritage. Instead of a crowd of little rice balls the size of Ping Pong balls, Joe serves one massive rice ball the size of a softball that arrives in a bowl of simmering pulpy tomato sauce. The flavors are terrific, but the size of the ball makes it harder to get the outside crisped. Instead of a contrast in texture between the crust and the rice, it’s sort of mushy all around, which isn’t ideal.
A dish called Beets and Butt ($12) eats like an Irish staple from the depths of winter. This is a hearty, come-home-from-the-fields dish that’s ideal for these cold days that turn dark before 5pm. Joe serves a bowl of braised English ham hock that’s coupled with marrow butter, braised and pickled beets that offer a great contrast to the more mellow earthy flavors of the butt. A crispy English muffin (nice nooks and crannies) teeters on the edge of the bowl, giving you something to mop up the last bits of sauce with. I must say that of the three appetizers my students and I shared, none of us were able to get enough of that challah sandwich. Even Alisun, who’s from Portsmouth, New Hampshire and has never had chopped liver before, was hooked.
Joe’s entrees also reflect a playful side and his respect for local farmers with names like Manx Station, Mt. View, and Open Valley called out on the menu. Cod ($26) is served “Irish Style” in an ale broth swimming with clams, onions, and yes, bacon. While the clams were plentiful and the cod was cooked beautifully—the fish was supple and almost silken—it was the smallest piece of cod I’ve ever seen on an entrée plate. It seemed like we got the runt of the fillet litter. The broth was rich and heavy with bacon and onions, which was great on its own, but it overwhelmed the delicate flavors of the cod. With a few tweaks this could be a great seasonal fish dish for winter.
Chicken at JoeDoe comes in the form of a half a poussin ($24), served with deep-fried pierogies in a Pepto-Bismol colored beet and sour cream sauce. Unfortunately, this dish did not win favor at our table. Not only did the bird lack any discernable seasoning (it was menued as a “Garden of Spices Poussin” but this garden of spices was barren), and it wasn’t hot, it was tepid. What’s more, the dish just did not come together as a cohesive concept. I like the idea of the pierogies, but they were stuffed with goat cheese and minced dark meat—not a terribly tasty combination—and seemed misplaced next to the tiny delicate bird (and why not use chicken?).
But the filet of beef from Manx Station ($29) was much better, a wildly generous portion of sliced tenderloin cooked so it was a rosy shade of pink in the center, and adorned with a bright and refreshing apple slaw with sliced fingerling potatoes and an artery-threatening sauce heavy with marrow. It’s the perfect Sunday roast you can have any night of the week (though at prices that shoot this high for a little place on First Street, perhaps the neighbors won’t be able to stop in that frequently).
There’s a modest but very good dessert menu at JoeDoe that goes a long way toward removing memories of flavorless little birds. Bananas Foster Bread Pudding ($8) comes with a buzz-worthy drench of caramelized rum sauce and a scoop of vanilla ice cream, and vanilla tapioca ($10) is showered with maple brittle and served with two homemade pecan sandy cookies. A cheese plate ($14) includes an impressive selection of domestic cheeses (goat, cow and sheep), sliced for ease of consumption and garnished with fruit and bread. But our favorite dessert was a dark horse, one that none of us particularly had high hopes for: the wildflower honey custard with Turkish flats ($8). The custard is creamy but light, and tastes as though a honeycomb was melted down with cream. To dip into your custard you can use a spoon or even better, the crispy Turkish flats (wavy pieces of confectioner sugar dusted fried dough) sprinkled with honey and crushed salty peanuts.
I might not have loved everything I was served at JoeDoe, but I did love the place. Despite the few missteps on the menu, this restaurant has genuine heart. There’s the sweetness and warmth of the service and the friendly small town feel of the place that beckons you to return for dinner, or even just to sit at the bar for a glass of wine and a cheese plate, or a Lucky Driedel and a challah , bacon, and chopped liver sandwich.