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Address: 103 W. 77th St., at Columbus Ave.

Phone: (212) 362-3800
Dinner: Mon.-Sat., 5:30 p.m.-11 p.m.; Sun., 5:30 pm.-10 p.m.
Cuisine: New American
Vibe: Understated townhouse
Occasion: Destination dining; civilized date
Don’t Miss Dish: Salmon a la plancha; grilled venison
Price: Appetizers, $12-$16; entrees, $28-$36; desserts, $10.
Reservations: Recommended

Eating salmon on the upper West Side doesn’t sound particularly
thrilling, but at Dovetail it’s a religious experience. The rosy fish,
grilled à la plancha, is exhilarated by a creamy horseradish gribiche
(egg and mustard sauce) and bursts of caviar. With its buttery finish,
it’s an intense and entirely satisfying appetizer.

So is much
of the sophisticated cooking at Dovetail, a New American restaurant
that recently opened up on the upper West Side. Chef-owner John Fraser
isn’t concerned with the trend toward hypercasual dining. With a
rigorous sherry menu and the imminent debut of afternoon tea, Fraser
appears to be waging a war for a middle ground between formal dining
and the cafeteria.

Tucked into a townhouse, the 75-seat dining
room is a civilized and slightly drab meditation on brown: walnut
tables, chocolate carpeting and maple-paneled walls – with not a stitch
of artwork. Yet, nearly every chair was occupied on a recent Monday
evening. Before I could even order a glass of wine, a nearby table was
offering their (unsolicited) suggestions and gushing about a salad; a
frisee and bitter lettuce salad so compelling they had traveled from
their West Village neighborhood uptown for the second time in a week.

for the salad, it’s excellent and oddly addictive. It gets a vibrant
sprinkling of squash, pickled raisins and hazelnuts, and a tangy splash
of hazelnut vinaigrette. While the decor craves color, the food
doesn’t. A succulent venison loin arrives with a wintry entourage of
yam puree, rosemary marshmallows and chestnut confit.

venison, like many of the other dishes, is far from simple. Though an
appetizer labeled “Blue Point oysters” sounds straightforward, it
isn’t. Removed from their shells, briny morsels bob above a smooth
sunchoke puree, scattered with charred pineapple, uni (sea urchin roe)
and sunchoke chips. The dizzying arrangement gets a vital kick from
tomatilloes and a peppery mignonette.

With classic training
from French Laundry and Compass, Fraser produces an ambitious menu
whose nuances are carefully chosen. Crushed peanuts and salty
bacon-studded polenta anchor a flawlessly braised striped bass crowned
with celery hearts. Pistachio-crusted duck is lavished with black
truffles, roasted endive and apple butter.

Of all the entrees I
sampled, the best is Fraser’s tasty riff on lasagna. Thin sheaths of
turnip stand in for pasta; they melt into a robust layering of beef
cheeks and king trumpet mushrooms. A lasagna this flavorful deserves
its own stage. Yet, it’s flanked by overcooked sliced sirloin, which
serves only as dull distraction. I was similarly perplexed by an
unnecessary terrine (molded from chicken wings) in the center of an
appetizer of finely seared skate with chickpea puree, orange and
cardoon segments.

Here, dessert is thankfully not an outsourced
afterthought. Pastry chef Vera Tong, who came over with Fraser from
Compass, invigorates a traditional almond soufflé with a rush of
apricot ginger coulis, and a cheesecake parfait with cooling drifts of
kaffir lime foam. Skip over the “Citrus Supreme” with a bracing lemon
curd for a sensational brioche bread pudding with bacon brittle.

the menu is streaked with imagination, it’s refreshingly understated:
Dishes aren’t tagged with showy labels and they don’t arrive with
long-winded explanations. After I had secured the last bite of salmon,
the brown-on-brown decor didn’t seem like much of a sacrifice.


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