With its slightly awkward, preciously ambitious name, its modest size, and its bland, modishly stark interior, Dovetail could be any one of the numberless dining establishments that open every year, then quietly close, on that vast restaurant killing ground, the Upper West Side. At least that was the early consensus among the neighborhood gastronomes assembled at my table on a recent evening. But when the pre-meal amuses arrived, their chatter momentarily ceased. There were ravioli made with shaved beets arrayed on the plate, and servings of a melting gelée touched, the waiter said, with fried capers and vodka. Peering at these novelties, the local gastronomes looked, for a brief, startling moment, like those shaggy, uncomprehending apes in the opening scene of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. They ate, put down their spoons, then looked around the room in a kind of stunned, slightly suspicious silence. “This feels all wrong,” one of them said. “We’re way too close to our apartments to be eating at this kind of restaurant.”
The author of this unexpected little miracle is a chef named John Fraser, who has worked in this neighborhood before. Fraser is a veteran of some of the world’s great kitchens, including the French Laundry, in Napa Valley, and Taillevent, in Paris. In this city, he has run a very good Greek restaurant, called Snack Taverna, and a not very good one, on West 70th, called Compass. Dovetail is seven blocks north of Compass, just off Columbus Avenue. The Museum of Natural History is a block away; across the street is a foreboding, windswept expanse of asphalt. A tall glass door leads to a midget-size bar area, which leads to the dining room (which fans out from the front, like a dovetail). It’s not much as upscale restaurant dining rooms go (the tables have no tablecloths, the brick walls are fixed with panels of wood, like in a spartan recording studio), but for an accomplished culinary ronin like Fraser, it represents a major step. He is the restaurant’s executive chef and proprietor, and this is the first place he can call his own.
Comfort is an elusive quality in such a rough-and-tumble profession, even for the most promising cooks. Fraser’s last restaurant, Compass, was (and is) famous for giving chefs the ax. Not surprisingly, his cooking there was disorganized and overambitious; he seemed bent (as I wrote at the time) on packing as much of his impressive culinary repertoire into the menu as he possibly could before, inevitably, moving on. But in this smaller, more placid space, there’s an edited, unhurried quality to the cooking, and the pride of ownership is apparent in almost every dish. After the amuses, our table was treated to a salad of big green Brussels-sprout leaves, balanced with salty serrano ham and slivers of sweet Bartlett pear, all bound with a thin layer of cauliflower purée. Then came an interesting composition of breaded lamb’s tongue, fried to an almost tempuralike crunchiness, followed by braised pork belly, which the chef cuts in little squares, sweetens with sherry-cooked shallots, and blends with kale, frizzled maitake mushrooms, and a single, barely poached egg.
Careful readers will note that this is the kind of prim, overstudied Greenmarket cooking that I spend a good deal of time ridiculing in this column. But like all high-quality chefs, Fraser has a knack for shuffling traditional, populist flavors together in ingenious ways and making them his own. At Dovetail, the potato gnocchi aren’t served with the usual gouts of butter and cheese, but sunk in an opulent veal short-rib ragù spiked with foie gras butter and a hint of prunes. Blue Point oysters are shucked, flavored with pineapple and buttons of sea urchin, then served in a bowl so you can eat them with a spoon. Other potentially tired seafood entrées are given a similar twist. Fraser sears his cod in the usual way but serves it over a subtle, gumbolike mixture of saffron, cacao beans, and shreds of crab. Maine scallops are paired with a hollandaise sauce elegantly cut with fennel and beads of grapefruit, and the delicious striped bass is stacked over creamy polenta, then garnished with sweet cipollini onions, smoky bacon, and a splash of lime.
As our meal progressed, the neighborhood gastronomes offered up the occasional complaint. It’s well known, among restaurant professionals, that one of the reasons ambitious, highbrow restaurants don’t tend to flourish above West 65th Street is that the locals, deep in their hard-bitten souls, don’t want them there. This is the land of the stolid brunch eater, the take-home chicken and bag of bagels, the harried parents seeking a no-hassle dinner for their unruly kids. So it was no surprise, really, when one of my guests compared the taste of his delicately carved, pistachio-encrusted duck breast to “old socks” (which was pretty much true). But there were no complaints about Fraser’s venison (even though it’s sweetened with chestnuts, yam purée, and weird little marshmallows flavored with rosemary) or the sirloin steak (cut in strips, with an intricate beef-cheek lasagne on the side) or the excellent, properly pink medallion of lamb, which the chef plates, in homage to those great lamb experts the Greeks, with a dense spoonful of yogurt.
Despite its size, and location, Fraser has big ambitions for Dovetail, and why not? As at other destination joints around town, there is a small private dining room downstairs, and if you have the inclination, you can wash your dinner down with a glass or two of ’98 La Tâche Burgundy ($1,840 per bottle) or, even better, a bottle of legendary ’95 Romanée-Conti ($3,700). Whether the city’s true culinary high rollers can be induced to venture this far up into the great northern tundra remains to be seen. Certainly the desserts (by Vera Tong, who also worked at Compass) should do nothing to dissuade them. People at my table made polite noises about the strudel, filled with hot, hazelnut-flavored chocolate, and a lemony creation called the Citrus Supreme. But the dish to get is the brioche bread pudding, an improbably delicate calorie bomb made with bananas, bacon-infused maple syrup, bacon brittle, and a gently melting scoop of rum-vanilla ice cream. The dish is a sly critique of our comfort-obsessed era, and also an homage, and like much of the cooking at this unlikely little restaurant, it’s worth the trip.
Address: 103 W. 77th St., nr. Columbus Ave.; 212-362-3800
Hours: Monday through Saturday 5:30 to 11 p.m., Sunday 5:30 to 10 p.m.
Prices: Appetizers, $12 to $16; entrées, $28 to $36.
Ideal Meal: Pork belly, rack of lamb, brioche bread pudding.
Note: At $65, the six-course tasting menu is one of the better bargains in town.
Scratchpad: Sure, it’s the Upper West Side. But chefs of this caliber don’t cook in intimate surroundings like this for very long. Catch it while you can.