As I have mentioned in the past, one of my most difficult tasks when dining in New York City is setting the agenda – not only do I now know a number of great people there, but I’ve also dined at enough amazing restaurants that I could easily spend five days simply going to the same places I’ve been before and have an absolutely lovely time…but then of course I’d never experience anything new, and that is part of what dining out is all about. Call it a first world problem, call it an upper class tragedy, call it whatever you like, but it was with that in mind that I opted against a return to The Modern, Corton, Bouley, Lincoln, or so many others on this trip and found myself seated with two of my favorite dining partners at John Fraser’s Dovetail on a Saturday night in February.
Now, having mentioned the other restaurants under consideration it is not really like Dovetail was a consolation prize – Fraser earned his chops under Keller at The French Laundry and later worked at Taillevent before heading to New York and was awarded 1 Star by Michelin and 3 Stars by The Times only a year after opening; clearly the man has skills yet for one reason or another it had always barely missed my short-list until a recent string of positive reviews largely relating to his foray into a more vegetable-centric approach and a tasting menu that looked too good to pass up…a tasting menu that we would only realize had changed substantially once we arrived at the restaurant.
Entering the small foyer where our party was greeted by the dining room manager it was even before our coats were taken that I noticed something peculiar about Dovetail – first that there was a child no older than five wandering between tables and secondly that the restaurant was loud…really loud…like Momofuku or Babbo loud. Thinking this a bit odd considering the subtle décor but largely unaffected as I’ve definitely had good food in such spots before it would be mere moments before we were led to our table towards the back and away from the children, seated at a plush four-top, and greeted our server Natalie who presented the menus for food and wine, explained the tasting menu, poured water, and left us to decide.
With music and background chatter high and lights low it would take a bit of time to navigate the menu as the options had changed so drastically but when Natalie finally returned we decided on the four course prix fixe in order to sample more of a variety (and to avoid some rather unattractive/downright boring options on the tasting) and with orders placed and a request for pairings by one member of our table it would not be long before our first bites would arrive in the form of the nightly bread service including Whole-wheat Flatbread Crackers, White Cheddar Cornbreads, and Truffled Fontina Arancini. Thinking this more a set of canapés than a true “bread course” as it was described I will admit that while the cracker did not do much for me the arancini was quite delicious and as for the cornbread – let’s just say I think cornbread should be in every bread basket and this one was divine with a toothsome crumb, plenty of moistness, and lovely savory notes along with the slightly sweet corn.
Moving quickly as we’d not even finished our bread course, the second item to arrive on our table was the nightly amuse; a dish described as “Grapefruit Panna Cotta, Champagne Gelee, and Hackleback Caviar” by the runner and with each of these constituents plus a cipollini present I was immediately intrigued…it just did not seem like a pairing that would work and yet on taking a bite it did, a briny, pungent, and bracing two bites that undoubtedly achieved its goal in awakening the palate and making me wonder what would follow.
Sitting and chatting as we waited for our first course (and a second round of cornbread for myself) it was perhaps ten minutes after the amuse when things took an odd turn – the sort of turn that can really effect one’s perception of a meal and the sort of thing I won’t soon forget. Having mentioned that one of my partners requested a wine pairing it was here that the sommelier arrived and on presenting the night’s first bottle my friend’s wife requested a picture (something I’ve seen done hundreds of times and in hundreds of blogs) to which the sommelier begrudgingly obliged but given the low light conditions a second request to set the bottle on the table (something I’ve seen done hundreds of times and in hundreds of blogs) drew a blatant sigh of exasperation, hands on the hips, and finally a “I don’t have time for this!” before he stomped away and stood glaring at our table from a distance until the picture was taken a mere twenty to thirty seconds later. With the restaurant less than 75% full and the sommelier visibly not doing anything during this time it was and still remains inexplicable to me what this was all about, but none the less it no doubt colored my impression of much that followed.
With the bottle now removed from the table and discussion ongoing about what precisely had just happened it would not be long before our first courses arrived and delivered by runners with a brief description by our server the meal got back on track with what I felt was the strongest course of the evening, a course much like lunch in that two of us opted for foie gras while the other chose something unexpectedly delicious – the “Lamb Agnolotti, winter vegetable stew, balsamic, and Meyer lemon.” Beginning first with the Agnolotti, I must say I was impressed to see such delicate pasta at a non-Italian restaurant and with each packet stuffed with ground lamb, cumin, and other spices it was equally impressive to see a tender piece of lamb belly in the bowl flavoring the stock. Thin but flavorful and speckled with mushrooms, carrots, peas, and a light touch of balsamic I was also intrigued by the candied Meyer lemon which added some levity to an otherwise wintery dish, sort of mirroring the uncharacteristically mild weather outside.
Having already mentioned the duo of foie, much like the Manzo there would be one cold preparation and one warm, and once again it was hard to decide which was better (though neither were as good as the ones that afternoon, in my opinion.) Beginning first with one of Dovetail’s signatures, the “Sautéed Foie Gras with Graham Crackers, Huckleberries” arrived in a different presentation than previously experienced by my dining partner and replacing the large serving of crumbled cracker was a sort of graham pudding beneath the liver and the poached berries – a stylistic choice that I’d not have made given my love for contrasting textures, but not one that hurt the flavor of the expertly cooked liver and sweet/spicy balance of flavors.
Moving next to my choice, a dish titled “Rabbit & Foie Gras Terrine with Fennel Mostarda, Romaine, Breakfast Radish,” while it was quite delicious with a good balance of lean rabbit and creamy liver, the best compliment I can give is that it was daring – a terrine that touched on the traditional American love for sweetened foie gras but veered towards the savory/bitter route more commonly seen in France through the use of not only radishes and Brussels’ sprout leaves but also a thin layer of romaine lettuce puree that worked point/counterpoint with the sweetened fennel to really show off the subtle nuances of the terrine. Not generally one to intentionally pair food with wine this is the sort of dish that would have gone extremely well with a dry champagne – something I may have considered had it not been for the sommelier’s antics.
With first courses cleared the second set of plates arrived rather quickly and with the lights turned down even further at 9:00pm the atmosphere of the room became even more strange – the music, loud conversation, and dimness making it almost a supper-clubby, again something I didn’t expect and with the second wine of the evening, a 2010 Tenuta della Terre Nere presented with far less attitude two of us would receive a dish denoted as “Cured Carrots with Chicken Feed, Soft Boiled Egg.” Bearing in mind my affinity for runny eggs, seeds and grains, and my original interests in Fraser’s vegetable based dishes this dish arrived with high expectations and unfortunately failed to meet almost all of them for any number of reasons – an overcooked egg with a gritty yolk, grains that were texturally sound but flavorless, and finally carrots that were overly briny and dry…each bite as disappointing as the last.
For my other friend (who had originally debated skipping the salad course completely) the eventual decision due to the similar price of 3 courses a la carte versus the 4 course prix fixe was the Turnip Ceviche with Quinoa, Habañero, Sweet Potato and although I’d originally coveted the carrots this plate turned out to be much more successful with the thinly sliced and flavorful seasoned turnips providing the majority of the plate’s flavor while the nutty quinoa added a pleasant textural variation. Utilizing the peppers and potatoes largely as seasoning, heat and sweet respectively, this was the sort of vegetal inspiration I anticipated when I originally made the reservation.
With plates finished and collected by runners no one asked what we thought of the dishes and moments later wine number three arrived by the hand of the same man, this time smiling and pleasant – what changed I’ll never know, but it was welcomed. With wine poured, described, and bottle placed on the table it would then be moments before more runners appeared with our main courses – the server absent and plates left with the descriptions of ‘duck’ for two of us and ‘sweetbreads’ for the other. Beginning first with the duck, an obvious choice described on the menu as “Pistachio Crusted Duck with Sunchokes, Dates” the dish set before us would include the well prepared and surprisingly lean bird in three strips, each coated in a delicious pistachio crust with sunchokes both whole and pureed, dates, and spinach all around. With the duck tender and delicious, even more interesting was a disk, nearly the size of a hockey puck, comprised of a dense terrine I’m rather certain was confit leg, fennel, and onions that added a whole different dimension to the well composed plate.
For the final savory of the evening, “Sweetbreads with Heirloom Potatoes, Bacon, Truffles” was one of two dishes that we ordered which carried a supplement (the other being the seared foie) and while the first was good, this one was superb with at least three whole sweetbreads served hemisected, crispy on the outside and creamy within forming the base. Moving past the slightly gamy glands and serving as no less impressive, the linear composition was rounded out with not only the tender potatoes, crispy smoked bacon, and truffled pan jus as above but additionally by grated cheese, whole walnuts, and small slices of truffle all of which added their characteristic notes. Admittedly a bit salty as noted by one of my dining partners I personally enjoyed that aspect of it as well, particularly as it related to driving home some of the more robust notes such as the aromatics of the truffles and smokiness of the bacon.
Knowing that the restaurant had a cheese trolley – one of my very favorite things – when our primary server finally returned to our table we inquired about this and her response was that we could select 3, 5, or 7 cheeses and deciding to go all in we opted for seven at a cost of $25 – a veritable bargain compared to many – and Natalie walked away, presumably to get the cart, but in reality to simply select seven cheeses for us in a (her words) “dealers choice” fashion…something at this point that I was not willing to accept, and on telling her this I was begrudgingly presented a list of cheeses that would be cut and delivered on a porcelain plate with Fennel Poached apples, Hazelnuts, Honeycomb, and Raisin Bread plus thick white ‘crostini.’ Still failing to understand why they have a wheeled cart or a menu if the cheeses are to be “dealers choice and cut twenty feet away I will say what we received was good, the most notable being an excellent raw cow’s milk Salva Cremasco and a sheep’s milk Pyrennees Brebis, but also Champlain Valley Triple Crème, Chevrot, Pont L’eveque, Podda Classico, and Le Chevre Noir.
Taking our time with the cheeses as the restaurant finally began to clear and quiet (though the unnecessary music remained) it would be shortly after 10:15 when our pre-dessert would arrive – a small but unmemorable 1-2 bit composition of condensed Pineapple, Pink Peppercorn, and Honey that effectively cleared the palate but little more and with coffee offered and accepted we sat and waited while our desserts were prepared, mine likely responsible for the fifteen minute delay during which I sipped on the rather unremarkable coffee (okay, admittedly I’d spent the whole afternoon at the coffee and tea show, so perhaps I was a bit jaded.)
When desserts arrived it would be with a bit of a show for mine, but again with little fanfare or description for the others. Beginning first with the restaurant’s signature, a Bittersweet Chocolate Soufflé with Earl Grey Ice Cream the soufflé itself stool tall and proud with the intriguingly savory ice cream and cookie crumble resting in a small bowl to the side. Topped at the tableside with thick and intense caramel with more to be added as desired I must admit that this was a very good soufflé both on the cakelike exterior and nearly molten core, but what was meant to be achieved with the use of bittersweet chocolate was mostly lost with the addition of the intensely sweet sauce. A good dish, ample in portion, but not as interesting as I’d hoped (nor as good as the one I’d experience a few days later.)
Moving next to the bites I tasted of my dining partners’ desserts I will say for the sake of full disclosure that my memory of each has faded over the intervening months (and meals) but with one featuring “Lemon Meringue Pie – Basil, Cassis Sorbet” and the other a “Chocolate Praline Marquise – Hazelnuts, Banana Ice Cream” the fact that I remember so little of either probably does not bode well. To the best of my knowledge they were enjoyed by those that ordered them, but overall I have to imagine the first was not my cup o’ tea as I rarely (if ever) order citrus desserts while the second seems as though it would have probably been my choice had the soufflé not been on the menu.
With the hour now just before eleven and the restaurant largely emptied out the check arrived along with a trio of mignardises – an Apricot Pate de Fruit, a Peppermint Whoopie Pie, and an Espresso Caramel, all of which I remember well as they were not only some of the best mignardises I’ve had in a while, particularly the pate de fruit which was rife with jammy texture and tasted much like the filling of one of my favorite childhood Hungarian cookies made by my grandmother each Christmas.
Bill divided and paid it would not be long before we made our way to the doors, collected our coats, and made our way to the streets – myself with a long subway ride back to Brooklyn and my friends cabbing it back to their Manhattan apartment. With more dining plans for each day that followed I feel that overall my friends were happier with Dovetail than I, but given time to think about it the experience just was not that great. Sure there were some good dishes – some even great – but the room, the service, and the ‘experience’ just weren’t that special…not when I could have returned to one of my favorites instead. First world tragedy, indeed.