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Ms. Dahlia's Cafe's signature buttermilk biscuit

By Nadine Friedman

There has to be a seminar involving entrepreneuring women like Margo Lewis somewhere.  I’m not sure what it entails, but picture some sort of 3-day lecture, many firm, manicured handshakes,  and being handed a flash drive that says “Owning the Future: Female Visionaries Symposium 2014!”  Except Margo would have designed the flash drive and come up with a better title for the event. And fired me as idea person.

Suffice it to say, Margo Lewis, owner of Ms. Dahlia’s cafe in Bed Stuy, has got her shit together. The thing that you notice immediately about Margo is that she notices everything in her bright cafe. She’ll notice you noticing. Between our discussions about Ikebana, crappy brunch meat and Ms. Dahlia’s difficult buildout, Margo trained a new chef,  gave a tourist directions and oversaw the aesthetic debate over Omelette v. Scrambled for a biscuit sandwich.

And oh, oh, these biscuits. I flutter my handkerchief like a Southern woman thinking of these. Despite Margo’s pedigreed resume and a Louis Vuitton suitcase cake design to match, Ms. Dahlia’s Cafe, which in October 2009, is all personality and  borough soul. You can see it in the tray heaped with flaky, unstructured biscuit mountains: what I came to hear about.

(Oh, and customer #1  went with scrambled. Omelette sounded “McDonalds-y.”)

How did you create this space?

This isn’t how I originally envisioned it.  It was going to be a much bigger set up – bar/lounge/restaurant.  But costs changed, there were landlord issues, and I was told “buh bye!”. I was like, “Alright.   Take the small space, create the business, and still make the environment you want.”  It turned into skepticism from others. “How could you possibly put in any more money? How can you make this anything?”  And I said, “Watch.”

The results are this place. You do what you can. It wasn’t what I originally intended, but this…is me.  This is what I do. I have a graduate degree in Media and Film from The New School, was Event Director at Parson’s, and I’m a floral designer. I work with Corey Davenport, another floral designer, at Cake Bliss, my custom cake design company.  So you can see my passion for projects. I love construction. [Gesturing to the cafe] I built the lantern, the pagoda. I create visions, soup to nuts. Budget doesn’t scare me.

What are the core principles behind your cooking, and the cafe’s scheme?

This is an open kitchen, like you’re in someone’s house. It’s accessible, like the menu. There are many brunch places with amenities to spare, but the eggs? Hmmmm.

The core behind my recipes is to provide comfort food with variations of ingredients that offer a healthier alternative – without stripping it down to something healthy but bland.  With Dahlia’s, I’m sharing some of my experience in providing tasty, whole foods in a comfortable environment that feels like home.  I believe in having a dedicated staff, people who love being here.  I love being here.

What are the recipes closest to your heart?

The recipes developed with the encouragement of my customers. Dishes like the Chicken Andouille sausage gravy for the buttermilk biscuit.

Tell me specifically about the biscuit.  Because I am so very in love with it.

Our recipe for Buttermilk biscuits has changed from the one we opened with. I went in to research and development for two days and tried many versions before settling on the chosen one.  The buttermilk biscuit egg and cheese with Turkey bacon are our #1 seller.  It’s big and designed to melt in your mouth without being too light and airy. You want a crispy outer shell and a flaky interior. You want soft not mushy. You have to taste one to know what I mean…When you taste one, you know.

You’d think making biscuits would be simple, but it’s actually crazy. Sometimes, I gotta get in there to find out why they aren’t popping. They need to pop.

Where are you from? How did you become interested in cooking?

I have memories of my mother making all kinds of delicious food from scratch in St. Albans, Queens.  She could build a meal with almost anything – whole ingredients with great style – and make it taste wonderful.  She taught me the “taste” of good food.  Once you have that, you can make almost anything. My sister was a professional chef, my father cooked… I had all these people around me teaching me the way to taste, create. People think good food is a right, automatic. It’s not!  It has to be developed.  The food here is a re-creation of what we do in my family. It’s Dahlia!  She isn’t a person- Dahlia’s a spirit. Always here.

You can see from the diverse clientele what Miss Dahlia’s brings to the neighborhood – what does the neighborhood contribute to you?

Opening Dahlia’s has been an opportunity to bring a polished and quality food experience to a community in need of change and variety…The neighborhood is full of folks who appreciate simple food that just tastes good – like the classic buttermilk biscuit with eggs and cheddar.  We’re also inspired to innovate with traditional things – like we do with our cucumber lemonade – hand squeezed.

You getting a beer and wine license?

Full monty.

And you’re managing all BOH and FOH drama?

And the cake business…(Without turning around) Alycia, would you turn down the music a bit?

How do you…do all this, again?

My daughter asks me the same thing.  I tell her, “I just don’t know”. But the thing is, now that we’re settled, there’s less day-to-day drama.  So production has gone to the next level.  When you delete the drama, you have the ability to focus and do what you are meant to do – I’m meant to be in hospitality.

Ms. Dahlia’s Cafe is located at 449 Nostrand Ave, between Putnam Ave & Jefferson Ave, in Bed-Stuy.

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