Blue Dahlia exudes charm, from the battered wooden sign on the sidewalk out front to the enclosed arbor patio at the back. An early entrant into the East 6th renaissance, Blue Dahlia has built a compelling mix of simple, French-inspired dishes, heavily reliant on seasonal local produce. A second location is set to launch in Westlake on June 8, 2012 (just a few days from now) and I think the approach that keeps it so packed on the East Side will work well on the West Side, too.
The small indoor space is dominated by two massive community tables made from giant polished slabs of warm, gnarled wood. Smaller tables are fit close together, and a long counter supports shelves covered in loaves of fresh bread. It's a tight squeeze, but thanks to the focused, attentive, and generally fabulous staff it never feels chaotic; more well-managed bustle.
The menu is varied, with a handful items loosely bucketed into breakfast items, beautiful open faced sandwiches, salads, and a sweet selection of inexpensive dinner entrees.
Everything's good, but the basic rule for me so far: the less ambitious the dish, the more fantastic it is. It's not that these folks don't turn out pretty impressive stuff - it's just that the most inspired flavor comes from the core elements they work with. As an example - the tomato gazpacho, basically a coursely chopped mix of a Johnson's Backyard Garden basket is far more impressive than the cream-based white gazpacho, a more finessed mix of cream and cucumbers that doesn't really come together.
Likewise for the entrees - where Blue Dahlia lets the vegetables speak for themselves, it's a thing of beauty - the ratatouille is tangy and deeply satisfying, but the bed of Israeli cous cous and mixed greens, and the shaved Parmesan on top felt like afterthoughts. In the case of the greens, a pretty distant afterthought - lovely little sprigs of baby romaine wilted into squish against the heat of the vegetables. I would have been happier eating that ratutouille in a simple bowl with a chunk of crusty french bread to mop up the amazing flavor.
The tartines I've tried have been more consistent - goat cheese and tapenande is simple and on point, served on a rustic slate board on slightly spongy, wonderfully dense whole wheat bread with a bright shock of roasted red pepper. The combination of astringent and creamy in that sandwich is brilliant, as it is in the savory chicken salad.
Blue Dahlia is many things. It is beautiful. It is welcoming. It is phenomenally well staffed. Food here is made with love, and made with some of the best ingredients I've seen in a town stuffed with farm-to-market eateries. But for all that I love about Blue Dahlia, it's not a place where food is deeply transformed - there's nothing fussy, nothing genius about it. It's a place to go to enjoy a glass of wine and a slate of artisanal cheese, on a patio that is bearable even in the heat, exactly the breezy neighborhood restaurant you wish would open up down the street from you.