Entries in John Fraser (9)



You have to admire the effort behind Narcissa, chef John Fraser’s new restaurant in The Standard East Village hotel. The space is lovely, and well put-together. But we’ve been down this road before, and it usually doesn’t end well.

By my count, Narcissa is the fifth restaurant at this address since 2009. It’s built on the dead bodies of Table 8, Faustina, The Trilby, and The Restaurant at The Standard East Village.

In 2011, André Balzacs acquired the building (formerly the Cooper Square Hotel) and incorporated it into his chain of boutique hotels. His other New York property (straddling the High Line) has been a hit—it’s not my taste, but I respect it—and no doubt he thought that he could spread his pixie dust on the other side of town.

For the main restaurant (there is also a casual café), Balzacs followed a formula that has already bombed here twice, bringing in a respected chef who could fill seats on name recognition alone. First it was Govind Armstrong at Table 8, then Scott Conant at Faustina. Now it’s John Fraser, whose quiet Upper West Side restaurant Dovetail has a Michelin star. Let’s hope they have better luck this time.

According to the website, Fraser is serving “California cuisine with new techniques of roasting, rotisserie and slow-cooking.” Does that set your pulse racing? Nah, me neither. I didn’t notice any “new techniques,” but Fraser has mastered the old ones. The restaurant is named for a cow on Balzacs’ upstate farm, which supplies much of the produce.

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Dovetail (remodeled)

News that Dovetail had remodeled yet again brought me back last week, where I hadn’t been since a disastrous “Sunday Suppa” in 2008.

I’ve been a fan of chef John Fraser since he was at Compass. His short-lived pop-up, “What Happens When,” served one of the best meals I had in 2011. But neither of my Dovetail visits quite lived up to the three New York Times stars or the Michelin star it currently holds.

The space was remodeled in 2009 (photos here, here), gaining a new 16-seat bar area, twenty new seats in the dining room, and an expanded wine cellar. But it still resembled the original décor (left), with exposed brick and no tablecloths.

Last month, Dovetail closed again for a week. This time, they’ve gone all-in for elegance: there are crisp white tablecloths, and no more brick. It finally looks like a three-star restaurant.

That makes Dovetail more endearing, though it would no doubt have been a demerit when Frank Bruni and Adam Platt reviewed it four years ago. Its reputation assured, Dovetail no longer hedges its bets.

The current menu is in four sections: appetizers ($20–34), vegetables ($17–34), entrées ($37–48), and desserts ($10–16), with about half-a-dozen choices per category. Yes, that’s expensive if ordered à la carte. There’s a four-course $85 prix fixe, but you can order just two courses (as we do in most restaurants, and did here), and contain the damage.

I can certainly do without such pompous moralizing, as: “The chef recommends that you order four courses.” Yeah, duh. Of course he does. If you offer a carte, don’t act disappointed when diners use it.


Dovetail has always served a trio of amuses bouches (above), and although I failed to take note of them, they were excellent—as they’ve always been.


From the vegetable section came a compelling starter: cured carrots, chicken feed (sic), and a soft-boiled egg ($18; above left). I wouldn’t serve it to a hungry football team, but it is larger than it appears in the photo.

Braised lamb ravioli with saffron, olives, and peppers ($24; above right) were also quite good, if a shade less novel.


Swordfish ($37; above left) with clam chowder, chorizo, and thyme, was the evening’s most impressive production, as beautifully cooked as it was to look at. (Fraser does have a high quotient of ingredients to the square inch.)

But it seems there is always one dud at Dovetail, and this time it was Sweetbreads ($46; above right) with heirloom potatoes, bacon, and truffles. It takes chutzpah to charge $46 for sweetbreads. They really have to be good. These were just average, and and the truffles didn’t add much flavor.

The dining room was not very busy, but we dined relatively early on a Saturday evening, and then left for a show. Our upselling server did a fine job, once he was past trying to sell us into four courses. 

The 24-page wine list has magnums of 1959 Château Latour at $11,000; yet, they’ll happily sell you a recent Beaujolais Nouveau at $30. The sommelier showed not a hint of dismay that I ordered it. The server could learn from her. That Beaujolais isn’t an anomaly, either. Whatever your price range, you can do business here.

In 2008, appetizers at Dovetail were $11–18, entrées $24–34. You could order at the bottom or the middle of that range, and walk out with an excellent mid-priced dinner. At its current, much higher prices, Dovetail can no longer claim to be an over-achieving neighborhood place. Fraser wants a second Michelin star.

At its best, Dovetail lives up to its billing. Fraser is a talented chef: the effort and craftsmanship in his best work elevate this restaurant over most of its peers. But at these prices, the duds (even if rare) are harder to excuse.

Dovetail (103 W. 77th Street at Columbus Avenue, Upper West Side)

Food: **½
Service: **½
Ambiance: ***
Overall: **½


What Happens When


Note: What Happens When closed in June 2011, after five months. It had intended to remain open for nine months, but could no longer continue after it lost its liquor license. With sufficient effort it probably could have been reinstated, but for a restaurant that had planned to close anyway in October it wasn’t worth the expense.


Just one word . . . pop-up. It seems to be the latest restaurant trendlet. Exactly where the term originated is beyond google’s capacity to answer, but you don’t find many references before 2010.

The notion of a “pop-up restaurant” is somewhat elastic. It can take many different forms. The one clear requirement is planned extinction: these places aren’t meant to last. Some exist for just a night or two.

Then, there’s John Fraser’s new pop-up, What Happens When — though he prefers the term “temporary restaurant installation” — which he insists will die after nine months, if not sooner.

Fraser is best known as chef of the Michelin-starred Dovetail on the Upper West Side, which is still doing fine. My two meals there (here, here) were slightly meh, although I liked his work at Compass.

So what is Fraser doing in a restaurant that he’ll kill after nine months? As he told Frank Bruni:

He was wondering what it might be like to have a restaurant he could fool around with and walk away from when, less than three months ago, he happened upon the SoHo space, on Cleveland Place, where Le Jardin Bistro had just closed. The landlord was willing to write an eight-month lease, beginning in December, with a likelihood of several month-by-month renewals until the building, mostly vacant, can be redeveloped.

What Happens When is not so much a pop-up, as a string of them. Once a month, the menu, the décor, and the soundtrack will be tossed out and re-done. The current version looks just as temporary as it was meant to be, but it’s nicer and more polished than many restaurants I could name that don’t have sell-by dates.

Part of the funding is coming from Kickstarter, a creative arts seed money site. This is an unusual approach, as restaurants, pop-up or otherwise, are practically always treated as profit-seeking ventures. It makes you wonder what would be possible, if the culinary arts were more often funded like the rest of the arts, with donated money?

Mind you, he’s not giving the food away. The menu is $58 prix fixe. After three cocktails ($13 each) and coffee ($5), the bill came to $102 before tax and tip. That’s a fair price for food that would have a good shot at three New York Times stars if the restaurant were permanent. Of course, if the restaurant survives for the full nine months, he’ll need to come up with eight more menus as good as this one.

Fraser has a graphic artist, an interior designer, and a composer on his team, for what he calls “an ever-changing culinary, visual, and sound experience.”

Your eyes may glaze over when you see all of the hand-doodled drawings explaining the “inspiration” for what’s called “Menu No. 1”: blue cold conflict expectation ice intensity reflection tension Winter.

There’s a faintly wintry feel to the current menu, but if there is any reflection or tension in the offerings, the connection entirely eluded me.

The menu is brief (just four appetizers and five entrées), and so are the wine and cocktail lists, also suffixed with “No. 1.” The current cocktail list offers three creations, all named for characters in Hamlet: Polonius (gin, mandarin orange juice, sweet & dry vermouth), Ophelia (photo below; vodka, dry vermouth, pickling liquid), and Laertes (rum, allspice, lime, honey). Again, how these related to the “inspiration” wasn’t quite clear, but they did pair well with the food.

The meal began with a trio of amuses bouches (above right): from right to left, a bracing pea soup, an onion dip with croutons and pickled ramps, and “ants on a log,” served with a champagne cocktail.

The bread service (above left) is wonderful here, as it always is at Fraser’s restaurants: a warm garlic–olive oil roll with a hint of cheese and black pepper.

The appetizer (above right), referred to as “potato skins” on the menu, is much more elaborate than that. Hollowed-out fingerling potato skins join forces with pickled sausage, sorrel, and a wheat beer fondue.

I was comped an excellent spiced foie gras and rabbit terrine (above left). (It’s not listed on the menu, and I didn’t see it at any other tables.)

The guinea hen entrée (above right) had many supporting players, and I can’t do justice to all of them. I especially liked the buckwheat crèpe (left side of the plate). The breast of guinea hen itself was just a shade less tender than it should have been, but the conception of the dish was first-rate.

Desserts came around on a cart, a startlingly old-school idea at an anything-but-old restaurant. The menu doesn’t credit a separate pastry chef, and the desserts (three of them, I think) didn’t quite have as much inspiration as the savory courses. I had the rice pudding, which was just fine, but you could have it anywhere.

There are some obvious compromises at What Happens When. Fraser told Frank Bruni that it cost about $100,000 to build, as opposed to over $2 million at Dovetail. The chairs supposedly came from eBay, though I’d take them any day over the backless bar stools that you have to endure at the Momofuku restaurants.

He certainly hasn’t skimped on service. I saw a small platoon of chefs behind the half-open kitchen window, and there are certainly enough servers for the 65-seat room. The tables have small silverware drawers, and you’re encouraged to lay the table yourself, but after the first course the staff replaced the silverware, as they would at any other restaurant.

Reservations are accepted through the nascent Urbanspoon online site, instead of the more established (but far more expensive) OpenTable. Availability most days is typical of a hit restaurant in New York City: 5:30 or after 10:00. If What Happens When wasn’t temporary, you’d have to ask if that could last? At a restaurant that is expected to be gone in nine months, the question doesn’t matter.

Why nine months? Fraser told Bruni that even if the building remained available, What Happens Next wouldn’t continue: beyond that, it would become another permanent restaurant, negating the whole point of a venture that you can play with, and then dispose of. But if it works, it’s hard to believe that someone else, if not Fraser himself, will try the same thing again.

The current menu will be in place until February 25.

What Happens Next (25 Cleveland Place between Kenmare & Spring Streets, Soho)


Sunday Suppa at Dovetail

Dovetail opened last year to rapturous reviews. When we visited in March, I couldn’t quite decide if it deserved all those laurels. I gave it 2½ stars, half-a-star lower than the major critics did. We were back this evening for Dovetail’s “Sunday Suppa,” a three-course meal for just $38. If the food were as good as the critics say, this would be one of the best deals in town.

Unfortunately, I had the same reaction as last time: excellent appetizers let down by disappointing entrées. Pastry chef Vera Tong’s wonderful desserts offered partial redemption. I also have the same reaction to the atmosphere. At times, Dovetail acts like it wants to be a three-star restaurant, but it doesn’t carry out the act thoroughly or consistently enough to deserve it.

I was also dismayed to find almost no red wines below $50—and those I did find were both young and obscure. I settled on a 2005 bottle of the seldom-seen Irouléguy appellation from the south of France, at $49, which they then proceeded to charge at $51 (they corrected the bill when I pointed this out). This is definitely a wine list that has not caught up to the recession.

Dovetail is still doing brisk business, but it’s not as busy as it was six months ago. I was able to reserve a 6:30 p.m. table just a few days in advance. Still, you can’t just walk in at prime time. When we left, at around 8:30 p.m., they had just turned a party away.

The meal started well. The amuse-bouche (above) was a sliver of smoked salmon wrapped around a horseradish filling. The bread service was the same terrific cornbread that Dovetail has been serving since the beginning.


All three appetizers were first-rate: an Asparagus Velouté with cream and bacon (above left), Mushroom Risotto (above center), and Sweetbreads (above right).


Among the entrées, Lamb Meatloaf (above left) was the least objectionable, but it was a bit dry. Loin of Pork (above center), served off the bone, was too tough. Prime Rib (above right) had to be sent back, as it was too rare. It came back rubbery; adding insult to injury, it carried a $12 supplement.


We had no complaint about the desseerts—a French Toast-like confection (above left) with enough butter and cream to be a meal in itself, Carrot Cake (above right) and sorbet (not pictured).

The level of accomplishment in the appetizers and desserts makes us wonder how the entrées could be as off-key as they were, but we’ve been underwhelmed by them twice, so we’re bound to conclude it’s a chronic problem. The kitchen probably turns out some great main courses (the talent is obviously there), but it hasn’t happened on either of our visits.

Dovetail (103 W. 77th Street at Columbus Avenue, Upper West Side)

Food: *½
Service: **
Ambiance: **
Overall: *½



[Kalina via Eater]

John Fraser must be floating on air. Dovetail, his new restaurant, scored a rare “triple triple”: three-star reviews from Adam Platt, Restaurant Girl, and most importantly, Frank Bruni. Just before the Bruni review came out, I snagged a Friday night reservation for a few weeks away, figuring that it was about to become nearly impossible to get into this place.

I was a big fan of Fraser’s work at Compass (so was Bruni). If ever a chef deserved his own place, it was Fraser. And he was gutsy enough to put it on the Upper West Side, a neighborhood where upscale restaurants haven’t traditionally thrived. Compass, at least, is close enough to Lincoln Center to attract a pre-show crowd; Dovetail most likely will not.

dovetail_logo.jpgLocation doesn’t matter now: with nine stars to its credit, and counting, Dovetail is a certified destination. Even on the Upper West Side.

The Richard Bloch design suggests some nervousness about the restaurant’s mission. In the entrance lobby, a floor-to-ceiling glass-enclosed “wine wall” and a large host stand make Dovetail look upscale and stylish.

The main dining room looks much humbler, with bare wood tables and exposed brick that would be more suitable for a neighborhood place. (An overflow dining room downstairs looks even more spartan.) Wisely, he added carpeting and padded walls to absorb the sound, but it isn’t quite good enough. With tables that are awfully close together, you don’t get much privacy.

Menu (click to expand)

Servers in conservative ties and crisply pressed white coats look and act like they parachuted in from a much fancier place. I was pleased that they seated me before my girlfriend arrived, and that they let us linger over cocktails without pressing us to get on with it. But after we ordered, the amuse-bouche, appetizer, and entrée all came out at speed.

By contemporary standards, Dovetail is a mid-priced restaurant, with appetizers $11–18, entrées $24–34. A five-course tasting menu is only $65, and on Sundays there’s a three-course prix fixe at just $38. And it is virtually all excellent. As my girlfriend put it, “This is what Adour should have been.”

A sommelier noticed that I was puzzling over the wine list. When I asked her for a red under $60, she came back with three options well below that price, including two in the $40s. It was a refreshing change of pace from wine directors who invariably suggest wines right at your maximum, or indeed even above it.

dovetail01a.jpg dovetail01b.jpg

A duo of amuses-bouches offered sashimi-quality tuna on a skewer coupled with salmon roe on a white spoon. The bread service was a warm slice of cheddar corn bread.

dovetail02a.jpg dovetail02b.jpg
Idaho Potato Gnocchi; Pork Belly

Both appetizers were hits: potato gnocchi with veal short ribs and foie gras butter, and pork belly with porcini mushrooms, spinach, and a fried hen egg.

dovetail03a.jpg dovetail03b.jpg
Halibut; Rack and Leg of Lamb

The entrées offered a bit less excitement, but halibut was expertly done. My girlfriend thought that rack of lamb was a bit tougher than it should be, though I didn’t find any problem with the piece of it that I tasted.

The ambitious food is somewhat let down by both the ambiance and service, but they certainly won’t stand in the way of Dovetail being a tremendous success.

Dovetail (103 W. 77th Street at Columbus Avenue, Upper West Side)

Food: **½
Service: **
Ambiance: **
Overall: **½


The Payoff: Dovetail

Yesterday, Frank Bruni awarded a glowing three stars to Dovetail, confirming that the Upper West Side sleeper hit is the Real Deal:

The inconspicuousness of the restaurant’s entrance may be bonkers or in fact brilliant, a subtle signal of Dovetail’s confidence in its inner strength. The carpeting and padded walls in the back definitely make sense. They keep noise in check.

Depending on where you sit, the restaurant can feel too plain for entrees that average above $30. The wines by the glass could be more exciting, and a few dishes don’t succeed, like an appetizer marriage of skate and chicken wings that’s inspired by semantics more than anything else.

All of that gives me concern about the possibility of a slightly disappointing dinner here. But most of my experiences were hugely positive.

The Eater oddsmakers offered an astonishing 15–1 odds on three stars, an opportunity for someone to make a killing. The oddsmakers are seldom that far off the mark. Like Eater, we took the more conservative two-star bet, so we both lose $1.

          Eater        NYJ
Bankroll $66.50   $82.67
Gain/Loss –1.00   –1.00
Total $65.50   $81.67
 * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Won–Lost 30–14   31–13

Rolling the Dice: Dovetail

Every week, we take our turn with Lady Luck on the BruniBetting odds as posted by Eater. Just for kicks, we track Eater’s bet too, and see who is better at guessing what the unpredictable Bruni will do. We track our sins with an imaginary $1 bet every week.

The Line: Tomorrow, Frank Bruni reviews John Fraser’s Upper West Side hit, Dovetail. The Eater oddsmakers have set the action as follows (√√ denotes the Eater bet):

Zero Stars: 9-1
One Star: 3-1
Two Stars: 2-1 √√
Three Stars: 15-1
Four Stars: 25,000-1

The Skinny: It’s rare that a restaurant enters this world with the favorable winds that Dovetail enjoys. Both Adam Platt and the Restaurant Girl awarded three stars. The Platt review was especially striking, as he has awarded more than a deuce just three times in the 26 months since he started giving stars. That’s even less than Frank Bruni.

Could Dovetail be en route to a triple triple? Eater doesn’t think so, and neither do we. Bruni tends to spread out his three-star ratings (he has given just 21 of them in 45 months on the job), and he awarded three stars to Le Cirque just two weeks ago. On top of that, our sense is that Dovetail is more casual than most of the places that have earned three stars from Bruni.

On the other hand, Bruni’s judgment is seldom more than a star away from Platt’s, which would seem equally to preclude a one-star outcome.

The Bet: We therefore agree with Eater that Frank Bruni will award two stars to Dovetail.



Note: Compass closed in August 2011 to make way for a Greek restaurant, Loi, the brainchild of cookbook author Maria Loi, which is expected to open in the fall.


A friend and I visited Compass last night (previous reviews here). I believe this was the first time I’ve been seated in a booth. The upholstery is ultra-plush, and I practically disappeared into it.

The $35 prix fixe is one of the better deals in town. The amuse bouche was a small soup. A basket of several kinds of bread rolls arrived, and I could very well have spoiled dinner by eating too many of them. The appetizer was a Butternut Squash Velouté with brown butter. After it arrived, a server sprinkled a pixie dust of pumpernickel, apples and parsnips into the soup. Up next was the Pistachio-crusted duck, with roasted endive and carrot emulsion. Both first-rate. The dessert (yogurt panna cotta) was unmemorable. As always, there were petits-fours after dinner and a small coffee cake to take home.

They recommend wines by the glass to go with each course—perfectly respectable choices, varying from $9–14 per glass. We’d already had a good deal to drink before dinner, so we just had one glass with the main course. The menu on the website is up-to-date. It’s very much as I’ve described it in the past, although I see the porterhouse steak is no longer on offer.

Compass (208 W 70th St., West of Amsterdam Avenue, Upper West Side)

Food: **
Service: **
Ambiance: **
Overall: **



Note: Click here for a more recent review of Compass.

As part of my effort to catch up on restaurant reviews, here’s a duo on Compass. First, my visit in September of this year:

I last visited Compass during its brief steakhouse phase, enjoying a wonderful rack of lamb on that occasion. The restaurant will still serve you a dry aged porterhouse or a rib-eye, but the emphasis now is on “Creative American Cuisine.” A friend and I looked in on the continuing experiment on Saturday night. She was last there with me three chefs ago, and pronounced the current version a significant improvement.

There is a prix fixe menu at $32 (or $46 with paired wines). It looks like a good value, but the available entrées (chicken, salmon, or hangar steak) didn’t suit our mood, so we ordered ALC. She chose the Gazpacho ($9), I the White Corn and Summer Truffle risotto ($18), a wonderful if slightly watery concoction.

The restaurant calls its ALC main courses “Compositions.” There is also a section of the menu called “Simply Roasted,” which offers mostly steaks (anywhere from $24 for a fillet or $72 for the porterhouse for two); side dishes are extra, at $8. If you order one of the Compositions, I should think the side dishes were superfluous.

Anyhow, I chose the Confit of Halibut, with Baby Squash, Artichokes, Picholine Olives, and Basil Sabayon ($28). She chose the Poached Maine Lobster with Potatoes, Summer Truffles, Leeks and Onions ($33). Both were happy choices, aided and abetted by a terrific Chardonnay on the wine list for about $40.

We concluded with a selection of cheeses ($12), to which the restaurant added a selection of complimentary petits-fours (five apiece). As we were leaving, we were each handed coffee cakes to take home for Sunday’s breakfast—a nice touch usually associated with higher-end places.

Part of Compass’s problem, I suspect, is that it’s an unusually large space for the area. I don’t think I’ve ever seen it full. Here’s hoping that the latest formula will take root and flourish.

And now, my visit of November 5th:

I seem to keep returning to Compass, as it’s one of the better mid-priced fine dining options near Lincoln Center. Last night, I returned with a new friend, and again I was not disappointed.

We both had the $32 prix fixe, which for its quality is one of the better deals at this price point. I started with a salmon tartare, followed by braised shortribs that melted in your mouth. Dessert was a yogurt panna cotta.

My friend and I dined at Blue Hill the night before. Now, if you asked a dozen knowledgeable people, most would say that Blue Hill is the more reliable, but my friend and I had no trouble concluding—at least on this occasion—that we had enjoyed our dinner at Compass more.

With its checkered history of four chefs in four years, it would have been easy for Compass to wither and die. It has a large dining room to fill, but we found it busy last night. It’s a pity Amanda Hesser demoted it to one star, back when Katy Sparks was at the stoves (which seems like ages ago). Compass is back.

Shortly after I wrote this, Frank Bruni restored Compass’s two-star rating at the Times.

Compass (208 W. 70th Street, west of Amsterdam Avenue, Upper West Side)

Food: **
Service: **
Ambiance: **
Overall: **