I already know a little about Neil Bieff, the Ossining-based designer whose flattering, diaphanous dresses have a universal appeal, and who earlier this year was featured in an utterly charming WAG story written by the magazine’s editor in chief, Georgette Gouveia. But nothing prepares me for the man himself, when we meet for dinner on a late fall evening at David DiBari’s Cookery in Dobbs Ferry, a “neo-nostalgic” Italian restaurant winning plaudits for its rejection of the red sauce, red-check tablecloth Italian default and its plucky presentation of gutsy Italian showstoppers.
Neil, it must be said, comes with a set of preconditions — perhaps likes and dislikes is a better way of putting it — but happily his dislikes are peeves I also happen to share. He doesn’t like too much noise (check) and he doesn’t do lunch, which I wish I could check but I can’t, as lunch is my favorite meal of the day, so let’s gloss over that one. But Neil also doesn’t like to eat dinner too early (double check. I used to live in Spain so the idea of a 5 p.m. dinner is anathema. We agree on an 8 p.m. start.) And he’s happy to be seated at the bar, side by side, so he can hear his companion talk, which I’m fine with over a Negroni or an Old Fashioned, although when reviewing I tend to prefer a table where I can observe the activity in the room.
Did I mention it’s a blind date? Blind dates are much the best fun for Table Talk, although no date these days, with the internet as a prop, is entirely blind. I know what Neil looks like before I actually find him at the bar, looking very much like his picture in June WAG (an image which he hates, by the way), nursing a glass of Sauvignon Blanc but minus the red rose he had teasingly told me he was going to be holding in his mouth.
What pictures don’t reveal, of course (although the very best portraits should) is character, and it’s a pleasure to find — almost immediately — that we share certain traits. We bond instantly over the Cookery’s house-made bread and smoked seaweed butter, a huge umami hit atop a wodge of comforting, yeasty dough, so good that frankly I could devour a whole loaf of it, call it supper and go home contented.
We quickly discover a shared love of travel, Asia, India (where Neil has been a hundred times) and Italy, of course, the authentic and exotic always trumping the tried and tired tourist trail.
But prompted for the third time to order by our server, we break off to consider the menu further. Neil is an octopus man. “I love octopus,” he announces, for all and sundry to hear. At the Cookery, it is fried, prepared and served with a smoked marinara, along with a pistachio and serrano salsa, a real corker of a dish. I come down on the side of a rich chicken liver parfait, which comes with a nicely charred slab of cornbread, the almost bitter char nicely cutting the richness of the liver, and served with a sweet, concord grape preserve. We share a terrific salad, kale as you’ve never had it, with lentils, currants, capers and almonds, as pingingly fresh as it is healthy and generous.
Our table talk moves from travel to Trumpworld — as Neil calls the current dystopia — but we keep the politics brief. Why spoil a terrific dinner? Children are a much more enjoyable topic. We have two sons apiece and all eight of their ears must be burning this evening as we exchange stories of their particular virtues and idiosyncrasies. Neil is clearly smitten with his boys, as am I with mine, but we halt the praise as pasta heaves into view. For Neil, a glorious spaghetti dish with pork and clam sausage, spiked with garlic and lemon, not for the faint-hearted and for me, ridged, radiatore pasta, with a lovely, slow-cooked lamb Bolognese, prinked with fresh mint. Portions by the way, are huge, so that when Rose, our clued-in, ever-patient server, stops by to ask about mains, we decline. Which is not to say I won’t be back for the Cookery’s osso buco, or branzino en croute with beguiling-sounding “old-school caviar butter.” Because I will.
Over lashings of Sauvignon and a straightforward but nicely buttery Kumeu New Zealand Chardonnay, we muse on love, life, marriage and saving the planet. We are not so much ladies who lunch as older dads who dine, and it feels good. We share a dessert of vanilla ice cream, which I’ve heard is a specialty of the house, and I wonder silently why houses where everything is special (the Cookery — here’s looking at you!) bother to have specialties in the first place.
Too soon, dinner draws to a close, before we have fully had time to put the world to rights, although we have certainly made a good start. I pay a bill that is not inconsiderable, considering the casual nature of the joint, but the wine has been good, the food has been great and the company best of all. And who can put a price on that? As we stumble out into the chilly, black Dobbs Ferry night, with a new friendship formed, neither one of us, I bet, feels the cold.
For reservations, call 914-305-2336 or visit thecookeryrestaurant.com.