The Upper West Side has recently been making a run at culinary relevance, and John Fraser’s new spot, Dovetail, quickly joins that smallest of elite (Telepan, Barney Greengrass, Ouest)—restaurants that could actually justify a special trip.
Fraser knows the local scene (most recently, he was the chef at the decent Compass), but brings formidable experience from regions that might be considered far afield in a Saul Steinberg worldview (the legendary French Laundry in Napa Valley, the undersung Snack Taverna in the West Village).
Of course, that doesn’t keep Dovetail, despite having a charming location inside a large brownstone around the corner from the Museum of Natural History, from uncorking the neighborhood’s trademark generic decor. The muted look smacks of a mediocre hotel restaurant, complete with dark earth tones, unadorned padded walls and sound-muffling brown carpeting; a basement dining area is equally dull, albeit quieter and cozier. The service, it should be noted, was accordingly antiseptic, a robotic chorus line of blasé, emotionless waiters that somehow managed to think we were missing entrées long after we’d eaten them.
The food starts out on better footing. Three different amuse-bouches send signals of serious intent, if not perfection: peppery raw tuna blanketed in sharp Parmesan shavings; an odd vodka gelée sprinkled with caviar eggs and fried capers; pleasant white-cheddar corn bread. Those will prove some of the lightest moments of any meal here. Fraser’s menu has a rich, seasonal emphasis, perfectly epitomized by sumptuous gnocchi. These potato dumplings, browned yet pillowy, excel thanks to a veal short-rib ragù fueled by heavy doses of foie gras and butter, as well as the perfume of pecorino—a combination that comes off as almost chocolaty, like an extravagant mole sauce.
Another ambitious appetizer, sliced pork belly, arrives segregated from a poached hen egg and a pile of forest mushrooms. The clear intention: the world’s most decadent bibimbap. Already soft and rich, the meat didn’t gain much with a yolk coating, and the mild porcini mushrooms added more textural contrast than any significant flavor. Still, a winning combination.
With the eight entrées equally divided between fish and meat options, Fraser nonetheless makes sure the aquatic dishes are sufficiently caloric (seared foie gras with the monkfish; hollandaise on the sea scallops). For example, meaty, perfectly braised striped bass has some delicate notes—thanks to prominent lime chunks—that get overtaken by a bacon jus and mascarpone polenta. A strange flavor progression that nevertheless expresses itself harmoniously on the palate.
The meats skew gamey—grilled venison, pistachio-crusted duck, an Indian riff on lamb. The most intriguing, however, was a sirloin and beef cheek lasagna. The “lasagna” is more akin to moussaka, with shredded beef cheeks layered between paper-thin slices of turnips in a lovely red-wine reduction. The other half is an excellent sirloin, with a deep black char—the result of roasting in lieu of grilling—that imparts a wonderful smoky flavor into the marbled meat. Together, the sweetness of the lasagna and the saltiness of the sirloin make for an extremely complementary duo.
The restaurant’s best dessert uses a similar juxtaposition. Pastry chef Vera Tong, also from Compass, tops her brioche pudding with bananas—and bacon brittle. Wintry and memorable.
As my meals progressed during my visits, I noticed the clientele tides rolling in. A rush of gray-haired clients early on (more likely to tap the far-ranging wine list for one of the four-digit beauties it whimsically dubs “serious swill”), replaced later by date night for the stroller-pushers. As best as one can tell, almost all were from the neighborhood. With Fraser permanently in residence, that dynamic might change.