Haute Cuisine … Off (Yes!) Columbus

“Your amuse bouches,” the waiter said, setting down a plate of white plastic spoons whose filling glistened like a display

“Your amuse bouches,” the waiter said, setting down a plate of white plastic spoons whose filling glistened like a display of jewels. “Vodka gelée with sour cream, salmon roe, fried capers and chives.”

So much going on in one tiny mouthful! Our minds were racing. Yet each element of this fleeting palate teaser was precise and distinct.

The spoons were served along with confit shrimp pinned to the end of long wooden skewers, and a crusty, moist corn bread made with white cheddar. We hadn’t even looked at the menu yet.

Dovetail, chef and owner Jon Fraser’s excellent new restaurant, is tucked away in a hard-to-find townhouse on West 77th Street, one block from the Museum of Natural History. The main dining room—reached by climbing a flight of stainless steel stairs and passing through a small bar—looks like a faculty dining hall. It has plain wooden tables, a plain dark carpet and plain paneled walls, unadorned by art. The customers play the part, too: bespectacled, bearded gray-haired men in bulky sweaters and neatly coiffed, professorial-looking women in black. “I feel I could get a Ph.D. just by sitting here,” said one of my friends, who is from Scotland, as he looked around the room.

“This is what the Upper West Side is like,” explained his American companion, as though we were watching a nature program. “It’s totally different from downtown.”

But as the amuse bouches had hinted, the food at Dovetail makes downtown seem a lot closer.

Mr. Fraser brings a distinguished pedigree to his new venture: he has cooked at the French Laundry, Taillevent and Maison Blanche. In 2003 he opened Snack Taverna in the West Village, where he introduced his stylish take on Greek cooking. More recently he was the executive chef at Compass, an uneven restaurant whose kitchen he turned around to critical acclaim.

Mr. Fraser is a chef to watch; while the surroundings may be drab, there is no lack of color on the plate; the food at Dovetail is carefully crafted and complex.

In Fraser’s hands, a simple frisée salad becomes a work of art, the leaves elegantly heaped up with radicchio, squash, hazelnuts and pickled golden raisins, tossed in a hazelnut oil dressing. Blue point oysters are served not on the half shell, but already shucked, in a large white bowl, with pineapple mignonette and sea urchin roe, topped with slivers of fried sunchokes. My mind was racing again, spurred on by the chef’s daring interplay of unexpected textures and tastes.

Leaves of brussels sprouts garnish thin slices of serrano ham and perfectly ripened pears on a plate streaked with a creamy cauliflower purée.

“Do I detect a little truffle oil?” asked the Scotsman after he’d tasted the sprouts, which, like me, he’d first encountered in life as gray, sodden little balls. “Don’t you think that truffle oil is overused these days?”

I agreed, but it had its place in this dish—there was a certain irony in the idea of brussels sprouts, such a maligned vegetable, being a vehicle for haute cuisine.

Truffle oil is rich, and so is much of Mr. Fraser’s food. The clam chowder is smoky and thick, laced with pieces of chorizo and thickened with potatoes whipped into a smooth cream. Grilled salmon a la plancha is also extraordinary, the orange-pink flesh rare inside a caramelized crust.

Breaded lamb tongue, cut in small pieces and fried, constitutes Fraser’s version of a deconstructed muffuletta sandwich, with peppers, capers and slivers of black and green olives. The plate is decorated with a tiny terrine, made of charcuterie meats in a ham gelée lined with cheese, resembling a doll house Art Deco radio. Puffs of potato gnocchi arrive slathered with an ethereal ragú of veal short ribs with foie gras butter and prunes. Rich, for sure, and unforgettable.

But there are limits: The rack of lamb, faultlessly prepared with Indian spices, tabbouleh and Greek yogurt, proved too rich for me.

Haute Cuisine … Off (Yes!) Columbus