Cititour: The New York Guide to Events, Restaurants, Music, and Nightlife




Cuisine: Italian, European

Chef: John Fraser, Chef; Vera Tong, Pastry Chef

Cititour Review:

I love watching the Oscars. Well, actually, let me rephrase, I love watching the Red Carpet. I mean, the awards themselves can be okay if you get a good speech and a fun zinger from someone like Jon Stewart. (My favorite line this year was when he told the brief story of Diablo Cody, who wrote the screenplay for Juno. He explained that she had gone from being an exotic dancer to a screenwriter. After a pregnant pause, he asked how she was enjoying the pay cut.) But like most people, my favorite part of Oscars is the Red Carpet. I’m a total sucker for the dresses and the hair, and the glamour and the gossip and all that. But what amazes me every year is that these women who are blessed with not only natural beauty, slammin’ figures, but also gobs of money, and unlimited access to stylists, hair and makeup artists and more, can turn up looking like complete train wrecks. It’s something that’s always puzzled me. You’ve gotta try really hard to look bad when you have access to all that help. Interestingly enough, it is this thought that occurred to me after my divine meal at Dovetail—a modern outpost for American food on the Upper West Side, just a dinosaur’s length from the Museum of Natural History. How in the world can you serve food this good, this inspired, in a room this plain ugly? I mean, here you have access to funds (there’s money in this project) and talent, and you come up with this? Forget how you do it, tell me why you do it. I mean this room is a disaster of Tilda Swinton proportions. The room, designed by Richard Bloch (who also designed Masa), is dismal and depressing, padded with such an abundance of cloudy gray that I feared a clap of thunder might interrupt our dinner. There’s no levity, no light, no break from the dreariness of the oppressive gloomy décor. An archway of raw brick feels misplaced and gives the room an unfinished feel. The few windows are covered in bland beige sheers that look cheap, as though they came off a dusty rack at Bed, Bath & Beyond. There’s no way around it. This room needs life. The setup of the space is also frustrating. You enter a small foyer with a choice to go up to a host desk or down to a windowless dining room and restrooms. You’ll find the bar is more of a service bar and it’s sort of this awkward way station reached before you get to the dining room and offers a few high top tables so you don’t have the luxury of a real bar experience. I would not advise meeting at Dovetail for a drink with this set up. Another problem about the space is the location of the restrooms. Those having dinner upstairs, like I was, have to walk back to the front of the restaurant, through the crowds of guests coming in and leaving, to wind around to the staircase to the lower level restrooms. On the night I was having dinner, there was a terrible rainstorm accompanied by wild blustery winds. This meant that every time I went to the ladies room, I was blown by wind and rain from guests opening the door to enter or leave the restaurant. (Note to management about the ladies’ room: the unmarked but downward-sloped slate floor is a serious accident waiting to happen. Both Diana and I almost fell chin-first tripping on that slanted floor.) Think before you design. In addition to exposure to the elements, I had to battle through a veritable scrum of people waiting for coats and lined up to be checked in for dinner at the hostess station. It was a mess up there. By the time I returned to my table by the brick wall, I was exhausted, rained on, and annoyed—not exactly ideal. And this is a shame because the food at Dovetail does not deserve to be met with exhaustion and annoyance. In a time when menus are prone to ubiquity and repetition, here’s a kitchen that seems to approach every dish as a chance for reinvention with a distinct point of view. That point of view is America, as seen through the eyes of a chef, John Fraser, who’s cooked everywhere from Taillevent in Paris to Thomas Keller’s French Laundry in California. His passion for the cuisine of our country comes across first with bread service. You won’t find focaccia or brioche or any sort of olive-rosemary twist (though those would be nice). What you will find are little individual loaves of cornbread so warm and fluffy you’ll almost want to curl up on one and take a nap. What followed our cornbread the night Diana and I had dinner at Dovetail was a first course called fried lambs tongue “Muffalatta” ($13)—a riff on the New Orleans classic overloaded deli-meat sandwich layered up with olive salad. This dish is brilliant—the tongue is cloaked in a crunchy batter and paired with a bracing olive salad and a caper remoulade with enough pickle punch to balance the richness of the fried lamb. While I’ve always loved my Muffalattas, I’m more of a po’ boy girl myself (I dream of Salvo’s), so I think I’d also have enjoyed a fully dressed crispy lambs tongue po’ boy. Just a thought. Our Muffaletta was followed by a pork belly ($16)—fatty, but heavenly, braised so it was practically pulling itself apart, topped with a glossy poached hen egg, set in a stunning broth deeply flavored with pork, swimming with ribbons of kale and meaty forest mushrooms. “This is great hangover food,” Di said, mopping up the last bits. She’s right. Indeed, I’d toss this dish on a warm biscuit for brunch and call it a fine morning. There’s a great salmon too, an appetizer that we shared as a mid-course which was glistening from being cooked a la plancha and topped with a dollop of creamy horseradish gribiche and American caviar ($17). It’s a nice dish, but I thought a bit expensive, at $17 for an appetizer that offers a piece of salmon the size of a domino. The portion on the Idaho potato gnocchi was far more generous and appropriate for its $17 price tag. The gnocchi are served pan-fried and they’re much more substantial than your average potato dumpling. Diana likened them to tater tots, and I’d have to agree somewhat. They’re not light and airy, they’re pretty potatoey (in a good way) and they’re crunchy on the outside, which gives the right amount of weight and texture to balance their accompaniments—a gorgeous foie gras butter that’s more like a jam, braised veal short ribs and prunes. Something too ethereal might not stand up to those ingredients, but these do beautifully. For those who love the prune-stuffed gnocchi with foie gras butter at No. 9 Park in Boston (like my friend Susie), this is a very nice New York City alternative. There are plenty of places in the city to get a great steak, and I’d like to add Dovetail to the list for their roasted sirloin. This manly hunk ‘a beef is seared so it sports a smoky charred crust that caps off moist pink beef. I’d put this puppy up against the best of the best with confidence. But it’s what this beautifully marbled beef is served with that really makes this dish memorable. It comes with a beef cheek lasagna that’s quite refined, so it’s really more of a Napoleon. It’s similar to the lasagna at Bar Blanc in that it’s cut into a circle, but this one’s made up of chocolaty red-wine braised beef cheeks, layered with thin sheets of potatoes, turnips, and celery root. Think haute Shepherd’s Pie. It’s really quite extraordinary, and while it’s merely a side dish to the sirloin, it could really stand on its own. Our other entrée, the scallops, was like spa food compared to the sirloin. They’re the size of crab cakes, and served caramelized to an amber glaze, paired up with refreshing grapefruit segments and a nutty parsnip puree, dotted with almonds ($28). Pastry chef Vera Tong is also quite a talent, and her style dovetails (sorry, it had to be done) very nicely with her savory counterpart. She takes classic America desserts and brings them a bit of whimsy and style. I’m a huge fan of carrot cake, and if it’s ever on a menu, it’s in my tummy. Hers is moist and soft, and piped with a topping of golden raisin and fennel puree and served with a scoop of brown butter ice cream that’s officially my new favorite flavor. Why has it taken me so long to realize that brown butter ice cream is the way to go? Forget chocolate, it’s all about the butter, baby. Her citrus supreme is quite elegant and delicate, a soft cake with Meyer lemon curd and almonds. The brioche bread pudding takes a wild route with the addition of bananas and bacon brittle, bringing an unexpected salty smoky flavor that’s the perfect foil for sweetness. Apparently, what bread pudding has needed all along is just a little bacon. (That can be said for most things in this life.) So, yes, the food at Dovetail is terrific. It alone deserves the three stars that Bruni awarded it in the Times, but those three stars are also its curse. There's an expectation of excellence that's created with those stars that's not being met. The front of the house service is not as polished as it should be (the scrum at the door should not have happened), and the depressing decor seems at odds with creating atmosphere. A three-star restaurant needs to nail all of these elements and in my mind—hospitality, design, and food—and Dovetail doesn't. While the kitchen puts on Nicole Kidman or a George Clooney performance—smart, refined, passionate, and irresistible—the room lands squarely on the Red Carpet’s Worst Dressed List.

Review By: Andrea Strong

Neighborhood: West 70s

103 West 77th Street
New York, NY
(212) 362-3800

Entree Price: >$30