Monday, February 18, 2008

Come together, right now.

The only things at all pretentious about Dovetail, chef John Fraser's (lately of Compass) new Upper West Side restaurant, are its name and the slogan printed on its cards and matchboxes: "to join together harmoniously." That vocabulary lesson aside, my two visits to Dovetail were nothing but wonderful from start to finish.

The space is tiny - the miniscule, slightly awkwardly-situated bar abuts the main dining room, which is long and narrow, just like the typical Manhattan apartment. Downstairs is a smaller, quiet dining room with votive candles set into the exposed-brick pillars and windows into the kitchen. I was seated downstairs for both dinners, which had its good points (a delightful waiter named Christopher) and its bad points (the quiet room is more suited to a romantic dinner than a girls' night out - and both of my visits were the latter).

Before we get down to a menu blow-by-blow, let's address the inevitable: whenever any restaurant of more than middling quality opens on the Upper West Side, people feel the need to decide if it's good, period, or just good compared to what's nearby. There's more than a little uptown/downtown rivalry inherent in the question, of course, though it's true that the Upper West Side is hardly an (upscale) gastronomic destination. However, I firmly believe that Dovetail is not only good "for the neighborhood," but good, period, end of story.

Now let's talk about the important stuff - the food and, of course, the booze. Both of my meals kicked off with a cocktail from the small, careful menu. I tried the rye Manhattan on the first night, and it was delightful - well-balanced, smooth, and served with house-preserved cherries (always a welcome improvement on the store-bought, overly sweet maraschino variety). Last night, I ordered the Monastiri, a gin cocktail with thyme, honey and lemon juice. I'm not normally a sweet cocktail type, but I figured I could deal with the mellower, richer flavor of honey. The piney thyme sprig complimented the gin and lent a pleasant, woodsy tang to the round, warm flavor of the honey. It was a bit sweet for me, but I'd still order it again.

Both nights, the amuse was a variation on a traditional Russian caviar service - vodke gelee with American caviar, crunchy fried capers, and horseradish cream, eaten in one flavorful, texture-rich bite.

Rare is the restaurant where I prefer the mains to the starters, and Dovetail is no exception. While both courses are good, the starters are more interesting and just plain better. I think chefs feel more at liberty to experiment in this category (as long as you've got a green salad, everything else is pretty much open for free play), while mains tend to follow the "at least one steak, a couple of fish, a chicken, and one or two other things thrown in for variety" formula. The starters on the more casual "Sunday Suppa" menu (a ridiculous bargain at $38.00 for three courses) are slightly more rustic, but just as tasty, as those on the more formal regular menu.

The brussels sprouts salad pairs the leaves with serrano ham and apples - and since brussels sprouts become almost nutty when served alongside something a little meaty and something a little tart, the result is quite tasty. It's also cool to see a green salad made with something besides mesclun.

Clam chowder with chorizo was rich and creamy, and the sweet, tender, briny clams played nicely against the cubes of hot, crisped sausage. The black pepper croissant served alongside was great for dipping. Sunday's pork belly starter came with braised cabbage and sliced apples - again, that great trio of cabbage-y greens, apple, and pork. The pork was meltingly tender, and the crisp, tart apples were a refreshing complement to the fatty belly.

My favorite thing so far at Dovetail is the sweetbread starter from the regular menu. Three sweetbreads, served piping hot and crispy, are accompanied by paper thin slices of radish and fennel, a mustard jus, and an eggy, rich sauce. The contrasts of hot and cold, meaty and mustardy, and crunchy and soft make this one of the best things I've eaten in quite some time.

The mains are all solid, though there are a lot of braised meats. Now, I know it's winter, and I'm alone here, but I just don't understand the ubiquity of braised short ribs, braised lamb shank, and the like.

Braising is probably my least favorite preparation for red meat - it becomes too unctuous for me to enjoy without a significant contrast (such as pickles) on the plate. But, as I said, I'm pretty much alone there, something confirmed by my friends' enjoyment of the braised lamb shank (Sunday menu) and the beef cheek lasagna (served alongside a fabulous sirloin with balsamic reduction - featured on both menus).

Fraser has a way with shellfish, which I ordered as my main at both meals - scallops from the standard menu, and shrimp on Sunday. The seared scallops were served with ruby grapefruit, braised salsify, and micro cilantro. The rich, sweet salsify (often compared to the flavor of oysters) and the fresh, slightly sour grapefruit made a lovely backdrop for the meaty, rich scallops. And while I'm not a cilantro fan, the sharp herbal note was awfully good.

The shrimp were roasted and served with a deconstructed romesco (roasted peppers, olives, onion and almonds) and tangy, garlicky Greek yogurt. Absolutely delicious - bright flavors, juicy shrimp, all good. I'm going to have a hard time ordering anything but fish at Dovetail, I think.

Dessert is courtesy of pastry chef Vera Tong (also formerly of Compass). The baked chocolate mousse was good, but the carrot cake was fabulous: warm, earthy, spicy, and served with a brown sugar buttercream to die for. The petits fours were also top-notch - teeny tiny caramel macarons, berry jellies, and fudgy truffles.

The service is great - attentive, but not hovering, and Christopher was full of recommendations, ideas for pairing, and let me take as many pictures as I wanted. Always a big plus in my book.

133 W. 77th Street
Between Columbus and Amsterdam

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