The Vegetarian Option: Dovetail
103 West 77th Street, New York 10024 (b/n Columbus and Amsterdam; map); 212-362-3800; dovetailnyc.com
Cuisine: Uptown American
Setting: Upscale but mostly unfussy
Veggie Options: Monday night vegetarian prix fixe
Cost: $38 for four courses, excluding drinks
I was thrilled to hear that Dovetail on the Upper West Side is offering special vegetarian and vegetable-based prix fixe menus every Monday night through the spring and summer. A Greenmarket-inspired menu is a great opportunity for critically-acclaimed chef John Fraser (who once worked at the French Laundry in California and Taillevent in Paris) to experiment with vegetable-based dishes. For vegetarians, it's wonderful to have a fresh addition to a limited list of fine-dining options.
Dovetail's vegetarian menu offers three choices for a first course, three for a second course, and four for a third course, including at least one vegan selection for each course. Another vegetable-focused menu (not for vegetarians) offers an equal number of options. (You can choose some courses from each menu at your meal; you're not stuck with one or the other.) The prix fixe includes three courses plus dessert for $38.
Is it a good deal? Well, that depends on you. Pick wisely, and you'll enjoy a sophisticated, subtle, skillfully prepared meal. If you take a risk on the more whimsical dishes, though, you may be disappointed.
Once seated and served a glass of tangy Austrian rosé ($8), we started with an amuse of snow pea pods and watermelon radish; it was a crisp, fresh bite. The vegetable consommé which followed was first presented unfiltered in a mason jar (with perhaps more ceremony than is necessary for a mason jar full of broth and vegetables.)
The consommé, once strained, was a showstopper. Amazingly clear, with delicate fennel and basil flavors and a hint of acid from the tangy pickled carrots which lazed in the bowl, it was the perfect start to a spring meal. Barely-cooked pea pods, sliced open to display their wares, added texture and sweetness. Mushroom-filled dumplings contributed an delicate earthiness to an otherwise feather-light dish. It was elegant and deceptively simple, just the kind of refined dish we were hoping for from Chef Fraser.
The mozzarella appetizer (pictured below) was a bit disappointing. The cheese itself was slightly rubbery and not particularly flavorful. If you're going to serve a dish called "Mozzarella," the title ingredient should be a pretty good specimen. The dish was nearly redeemed by the accompanying samosa, fried and folded more like an empanada, filled with lusciously creamy curried squash and served with a bright green poblano-and-cilantro purée. A plate of these flavorful samosas would have been perfect, but the single serving was barely three bites. A shower of pomegranate seeds and pepitas added color and crunch, but didn't really tie the disparate elements of the dish together.
The cauliflower tempura which followed was a total hit, though. Shatteringly crispy outside, richly creamy inside; the preparation perfectly flattered the produce. The subtle spicing evoked India without getting too close to something we could order on Curry Row—the dish was a little whimsical while still being utterly delicious.
As pleased as we were with the cauliflower, we wondered if Chef Fraser's playfulness went too far with the sweet and sour seitan which followed. It's not that it wasn't tasty—it was perhaps the most polished, most delicate take on Americanized Chinese we've had. The baby bok choy was deliciously fresh and perfectly cooked, and fresh citrus added brightness. But sticky sweet sauce on deep-fried wheat gluten is almost a parody of vegetarian food, and beautifully arranging three spoonfuls on a huge plate did not make the dish fundamentally more sophisticated.
The barbecue parsnip rib was a bit more vividly flavored—a spicy tamarind sauce was a nice complement to the well-caramelized parsnip, but as we ate the crispy fried potato chunks which were served alongside the "rib", we wondered why the chef chose to riff on junk food.
The more successful braising greens lasagna (pictured above) truly showcased some of spring's best ingredients. Romanesco broccoli perched on top, echoing the flavorful greens sandwiched between layers of buttery pasta sheets. The highlight were the butter-sautéed morels, whose earthiness was echoed in a scattering of pinenuts and feta cheese. Deeply savory without a heavy sauce, the lasagna was both rich and light.
We tried the kitchen's egg- and dairy-free offerings for dessert: the truly creamy vegan maple cheesecake was made from a soy-based cream cheese with nondairy Purawhip topping. While not cheesecake, exactly, it was smooth and mousse-like, with an excellent buttery-tasting crust and tasty brittle topping.
We were impressed by the rich and moist vegan chocolate cake, which was served with an excellent pear sorbet and kumquat candies (the kitchen assured me they weren't made with gelatin.) The contrast of flavors was perfectly pitched.
While we're glad to see an accomplished chef offering a fine dining menu for vegetarians, we wonder if Chef Fraser's Monday night menu might be more successful if he stuck closer to his classical training. While a few of the dishes we tried were knockouts, the menu was a bit too hit-or-miss to recommend wholeheartedly.