By Dennis Kempton
There has long been a rivalry between east and west ends of the city, but as far as food and culture go, the burgeoning Lincoln Park neighborhood of our fair city is giving downtown a run for its money — and not just in the figurative sense.
In October, Dovetail Café & Marketplace opened up in the space occupied by Duluth Folk School at 1917 W. Superior St. The name was inspired by the dovetail joint that brings things together in carpentry. It’s a fitting name, considering the space also serves nearly 70 instructors and offers classes for aspiring artisans.
The building’s facade is colorful and inviting. It even looks hand-crafted. And when you walk in, it’s spacious and unstructured. The café occupies the right side of the building, where an amusing and charming wood cabin within the space features seating for people to gather for food, coffee, beer and conversation. Or, you can tuck into a seat at tables forward of the bar, situated to give you clear views from the large storefront windows on Superior Street.
The staff were friendly. And I was hungry. Usually, I do some prep work before I show up anywhere. Dovetail doesn’t yet have a bona fide website or a menu anywhere online, and I hope that gets sorted out quickly. The café’s early popularity was a draw for me, naturally. Word-of-mouth marketing is a formidable force, but some people like to do some online peeking about before committing to a new place.
So, I stood at the counter, quickly checking out the menu. What I love about Duluth’s restaurant and café scene lately is the intrepid leap into taking traditional plates a step higher on the culinary scale. The menu offers the usual fast, casual coffee shop food you’d expect: sandwiches, salads, soups and baked goods — all prepared on site and, when possible, sourced locally. A selection of local beer, naturally, graces the menu.
Service was friendly and prompt. Before me were three plates and a 10-ounce pour of Earth Rider’s Cranbecrush.
I tucked directly into the quiche of the day, made with roasted red peppers. Delicious. The crust, house-made, is buttery, flaky and light. The filling was beautifully made and well-seasoned. The secret to a great quiche is heavy cream. A heavy cream makes a light quiche. This was good stuff and just enough of a serving to tempt me to order up another.
Press-grilled sandwiches are standard café fair. Dovetail serves up a few, and its bacon, apple and mozzarella sandwich with caramelized onions on sourdough has a lot of potential. Mozz wouldn’t be my first choice to pair with apples. The sandwich would taste amazing with some creamy Gruyere or even cheddar to complement the sweetness of apples. The sandwich is filling, though, and served with kettle chips. The apples are just crisp enough. With the cranberry ale, it’s a great lunch option.
I ordered the vegetarian banh mi, and found myself facing the issue where restaurants run into problems when modifying sandwiches to serve vegetarians. I love a traditional banh mi, and it’s a delicious example of Vietnamese street food. But it’s meant to have meat on it, usually pork or paté. Strongly marinated vegetables — daikon, carrots, onions, with a hint of sweetness — are meant to blend with savory meat and bread. Personally, I don’t think it should be adapted to vegetarian fare, but if you’re going to do it, make something meaty for it. Use seitan or tofu, or even a plant-based paté or a thickly grilled mushroom.
My sandwich was marinated vegetables and bread. While the baguette was crisp and held up well with the wet ingredients inside, it missed the mark of being a banh mi. Restaurants should know that not everything is a successful modification for vegetarians. The café has a delicious selection of salads already. Let banh mi be banh mi.
I love cafés. And I love the ambition and mission of Dovetail Café. It’s an essentially Duluth kind of place, marrying the creative arts with a gathering spot for tempting food, fresh coffee, local ales and the din of friendly banter. It’s a definite breakfast or lunch spot worth the dive to a neighborhood being restored and revived. There’s civic pride in that. And the menu is a developing diamond.
Dennis Kempton is a Duluth-based freelance arts and culture writer.