The name of John Fraser's new restaurant, Dovetail, invites clever metaphors about the neat integration of various things. But in truth the restaurant is not really characterized by the sort of seamlessness that its name evokes.
Its older, low-key clientele and its location, tucked on a residential block by the Museum of Natural History, in the spot I remember as the old-school Ethiopian restaurant Blue Nile, mark it as a neighborhood restaurant. Yet, its $30-and-up main courses and an unusual degree of obsequiousness from the staff, not to mention some highly ambitious cooking, advance the argument that it's a destination restaurant. Two dozen sherries distinguish a substantial wine list that includes bottles from all over the world, among them affordable selections that reflect Mr. Fraser's Greek culinary experience, as well as multi-thousand-dollar vintage Burgundies.
The room is serene, if not alway shushed, paneled with shiny maple and with dull fabrics that give it the dry feeling of a modern chamber-music conservatory; gratuitous slabs of brick and little candles seem like a painstaking attempt to mitigate the stiffness. Mr. Fraser's menu is sophisticated and self-conscious, full of savvy references and sly jokes aimed at I'm not sure what audience. I started with "wings" ($14), a dish of meaty skate wings laid on top of small, barely noticeable boneless morsels of Buffalo-wing style chicken caked in gluey, buttery hot sauce. Get it? Wings. Another starter ($13) is a tribute to (what some menus inappropriately call a "deconstruction of") the muffaletta, the New Orleans Italian sandwich distinguished by its zesty layer of olive salad. This is a plate of sliced green olives and capers, a puddle of tartar sauce, and two lengths of fried lamb's tongue — the "breaded tongue represents the bread in the sandwich," a waiter explained — along with a pressed, layered terrine, made from prettily nested parabolas of salami, provolone, and mortadella.
Mr. Fraser, fortunately, earns the license to put his whimsies on the plate in this way, by never forgetting to cook deliciously as well as conceptually. The flavors on the plate of skate are layered in complex and effective ways, citrus, earth, heat, and sea weaving together with memorable impact; and the vivisected muffaletta awakens deep memories of primordial messy sandwiches. With excellent Blue Point oysters on hand, many a chef would be content to send them out on the half shell, perhaps with a creative sauce, but not here: Mr. Fraser evicts them from their shells and lays them raw on a cold plate with nutty sunchokes, sweet pineapple, and brinier-than-thou scoops of sea urchin ($13). Buttery, brown-seared gnocchi ($16) hover on the verge of disintegrating into the super-rich short-rib braise they lie on, which itself melts darkly under the intoxicating influence of "foie gras butter." Any richer and this dish would be a spread.
Main courses aren't quite as busy, or at least they don't pack their big ideas into as small a space as the starters do. It's been a while since I saw good old sirloin on an upscale menu, but here it is for $36: three miniature pink-hearted cubes of good crusty steak sharing a plate with a lozenge of pastry-like lasagna whose filling is tender, savory beef cheek meat. A single trumpet mushroom, halved, grilled and tossed on a side salad, is probably the priciest ingredient on the plate. If we're supposed to infer the humor implicit in Dovetail's cooking, is the joke here one at the diner's expense, of cheap meats and exaggerated profit margins? It's one that the comfortable clientele seems happy to swallow.
Medallions of grilled venison ($30) are bloody, wonderfully tender, and mild-flavored, and yet almost outshone by their vigorous under-salad of salty, buttery white cabbage. The cleverness here comes in the form of savory marshmallows, just a few, with the herbal zing of rosemary, melting onto the meat with surprising congruity.
Pastry chef Vera Tong worked with Mr. Fraser at Compass, and her inventiveness complements his here as well. She covers a rich, dense slab of brioche bread pudding with sliced hard-caramelized bananas, a honeyed waffled cookie, intensely rummy ice cream, and nibbles of salty bacon. A moist individual carrot cake with raisin and fennel purée comes with beurre noisette-flavored ice cream, a sophisticated angle on a familiar sweet. Desserts are $10.
The restaurant's name implies gray, fastidious subtlety, but Dovetail's ambitious strength is decidedly elsewhere, in surprise juxtapositions and delicious tricks. Perhaps the name is a winking misdirection as well.
Dovetail (103 W. 77th St., between Columbus and Amsterdam avenues, 212-362-3800).