Restaurant (Week) Review: Dovetail

100712-demian-dovetailAnother chapter of New York Restaurant Week has begun.  And with that another case of the butterflies for me.  I see Restaurant Week as a dual-edged sword of incentives.  The cheaper price fix is an incentive for more diners to eat out.  As well as an incentive to try restaurants they might not normally go to.  But the cheaper price fix is also an incentive to the chefs and restaurateurs involved in the promotion.  Sure the PR will put more butts in seats but the price ceiling is an incentive for chefs to present less than they normally might to a diner.  Of course this is to be expected to some degree.  After all, there is no such thing as a free lunch.  So the foie gras doesn’t make it onto the Restaurant Week menu.  But this downward pressing incentive can be taken too far, chefs seeing this as an excuse to ‘phone it in’ as it were, and present a mediocre meal that they otherwise would not serve.  I have experienced such Restaurant Week meals.  And reviewed them.  As I have here.

This negative incentive for chefs to shovel uninspired food to the deal-seeking eaters I find to be a real bummer of a product of the Restaurant Week formula.  I am not sure if these offending chefs of which I speak realize – maybe they do but just don’t care – is that some of us Restaurant Week diners are avid food enthusiasts and are taking the opportunity to try two or three different restaurants instead of just one (hey, not all of us have unlimited budgets) with the thought of returning at a later date for the full-ticket meal if we are wow-ed by what we ate.  But more often than not I leave a Restaurant Week meal disappointed and with more questions than answers.  ”Do they serve that to normal diners?”  ”Does that (insert menu item here) typically taste under salted and gummy?”  I end up wondering if it would be better that I just stay away from Restaurant Week dinners in hopes of staving off negative reviews of restaurants that I have not tried before and, after that lack-luster meal, will probably not ever try again.

So these are the thoughts that were running through my head when the boss said, “hey, Restaurant Week is starting.  Why don’t you look through the list and pick one or two.”  I started to sweat.  Not to mention that the start of the promotion coincided with my birthday.  I love birthdays in that they (mine or hers) are a great excuse to splash out on an amazing dinner at a seriously good restaurant.  No no, she assured me.  We have plans to go to Blue Hill Stone Barns next week so that will count for birthday splurge.  She just wanted something nice on the actual day.  Bless her.  Not to mention that she quickly pointed out that Dovetail was on the Restaurant Week list.  I started to sweat more.  We had been to Dovetail when it first opened a couple years ago and really enjoyed it.  I was worried that a Restaurant Week visit might ruin my estimation of it.  But… what if…  I couldn’t resist. We made a reservation and went.

And I am happy to say that I am glad that we did.  In one fell swoop Dovetail and chef John Fraser’s food have restored in me the hope that good food can be found in the jungle that is Restaurant Week.  Our meal at Dovetail was very very good.  The squid and melon salad was a sea-tinged mix of sweet and savory.  The gnocchi were comforting yet light, bathed in a delicious corn veloute. The braised veal had been coaxed to a superbly tender finish.  Evidence that traditional cooking methods, when done correctly, can yield food just as good as anything to come out of a sous vide bath.  And the hake dish was a deftly handled play on subtlety, the fish light and well cooked, the tomato ’stew’ adding a touch of acidity and the delicious shrimp giving a briny highlight to the ensemble.  Very nice.

A quick side note…  The dining room at Dovetail, designed by architect Richard Bloch, is nice.  Though a little stiff and hard edged.  Not quite as ‘luxurious’, maybe, as the food that it is meant to showcase.  Details such as the stainless cables the curtains are hung on feel more ‘architecty’ than fully thought out in terms of the bigger picture.  And the Dovetail logo, as nice as it is,  has always given me pause.  The ‘V’ looking a little more mutated and ‘grabby’ than visually expressing the concepts of craftsmanship, precision and expert pairing that I feel the name ‘Dovetail’ might be trying to express.  But, overall, Dovetail is a warm and handsome restaurant and a nice backdrop for its food.  To which we shall now return…

Sure the Restaurant Week menu was less extravagant than Dovetail’s typical tasting menus.  No duck or dungeness crab.  But the food that chef Fraser conceived for the promotion I think was a fitting representation of what Dovetail can do.  Our dinner showed a thoughtfulness of conception and an expert execution that I remember from our last full tasting meal there.  This, I think, was a great example of how the Restaurant Week promotion should be handled by the chefs involved in it.  Taking a long view, being creative with the dishes that are served to the price incentivized diners now, with the hope that they will enjoy their meal enough to tell others about it and to come back for all the fireworks the kitchen is capable of in the future.  If the chefs succumb to their incentive to not put any effort into what they serve for Restaurant Week, they risk loosing possible customers forever.  I know there are a couple such places that I do not feel the need to return to…

Chef John Fraser is to be commended for taking the time and the care to conceive of a great Restaurant Week menu.  We had a lovely time and really enjoyed the food.  Not to mention the added bonus of being able to chat with the chef himself as he walked through the dining room.  Imagine that – a chef that cooks in his own kitchen.  And during Restaurant Week no less.  We will definitely be back to Dovetail in the near future.

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