Normally I don't even try to go to popular new restaurants on the Upper West Side, considering it an exercise in futility. I could never get a table at 'Cesca when Tom Valenti was cooking, and by the time I got to Aix, it could have been called "eh." It might be the Upper West Sider's uncanny ability to plan ahead - all that booking of Met and Carnegie Hall tickets - but here's another theory why, with apologies to Jessica Hagy of Indexed.

Dovetail aims to be a neighborhood place: the side street location on the ground floor of a limestone townhouse in the West 70's makes that clear. But this new place by chef John Fraser shouldn't be the property of neighborhood residents alone. Run, don't walk, to Dovetail before the entire city is flocking to the Upper West Side for this fantastic new restaurant.

The only things keeping this from N.F.P. status may be the decor. Sleek to the point of moody minimalism, done in shades of gray, brown, and browngray, Dovetail reminded me of a starkly decorated residence of a lifelong bachelor, the kind who would rather unplug and move one lamp from bedroom to living room rather than buy an extra lamp, much less artwork (true story). Muted moss green chairs are as exciting as it gets.

Canada, the Master Orderer, Marie Fromage and I were greeted with amuse bouches of caviar, fried capers, sour cream, and vodka gelee. Very decadent, like something out of the Master and Margarita, and the vodka added an intriguing, slightly bitter element to the salty-creamy mix.

As expected, the Master Orderer triumphed with his choice of the gnocchi with veal short ribs, foie gras butter, and prunes. The gnocchi were light and retained just a hint of riced-potato texture inside. Veal short ribs turn out to be a very meaty but elegant cut, not as fatty as beef short ribs. The sauce was significantly richened by the foie gras butter. Though the food here could be called "New American," Fraser's use of French technique significantly deepens the experience.

As with the veal short rib sauce, he often takes a familiar recipe and turns it up a notch by refining the key ingredients in the mix. Terrine was made not with pork but with rabbit - again a leaner, lighter meat that takes this countrified dish up a notch. Perfectly seasoned and ground, the terrine was also at the right temperature - not too cold, just slightly cooler than room temperature either. A too-cold country pate reminds me of leftover meatloaf straight from the fridge - not good.

The mildest of the appetizers, the brussels sprouts leaves salad, was lightly citrusy, an elegant winter salad with a nice crunch and a smattering of prosciutto and pears.

After the veal gnocchi, our other favorite appetizer was the pork belly, maitake mushrooms, kale, and egg, which the menu calls a "hen egg" (as opposed to a rooster egg?). I love a coddled egg, and here it was sandwiched next to kale that had been brought to the point of nori-like crispiness. Mixed with the succulent pork belly, the whole thing was a fabulous conflation of flavors.

Moving on, we managed to order all meat courses, though there are some excellent fish choices on the menu as well, including the requisite fish-n-bacon combo. The Master Orderer - we must always check in with this bellwether first - went for the roasted sirloin and beef cheek lasagna. Here's another food trend I'm liking: serving up the animal in various incarnations (apologies to Buddhists). In this case, the nicely aged and grilled sirloin was better than the lasagna, which was actually just mushrooms and beef cheeks stacked to resemble lasagna - gyp.

Each of our entrees - the sirloin, the grilled venison, the pistachio crusted duck, and the rack and leg of lamb - was notable for the quality of the meat itself and the wonderful sauces, which seemed to have a demiglace base. That night we didn't have the problem that Alan Richman had of the meat being dried out - quite the opposite. Too often now not enough attention is paid to the star player on the plate, and restaurants just hope you get swept up by the sides, as I sometimes do. But even without the chestnuts, tangy-sweet stewed cabbage, and cute little marshmallows that decorated the plate, the cut of slightly smoky, tender venison itself would have been a star.

"Now that's how venison is supposed to taste," Marie Fromage said.

"I don't get the marshmallows," Canada said. Indeed, they were cutesy.

But the Master Orderer said, "Marshmallows are always good."

The pistachio-crusted duck was flavorful and bird-y, not gamey, the dish a refined French preparation that involved lots of beautiful slow roasted vegetables like endive.

The menu description of "rack and leg of lamb" with "Indian spices, winter tabouleh, and yogurt" conjured up a very specific idea. A whiff of the exotic, plus the comfort of the known, with the enticement of tabouleh reinterpreted for a different season. One of the best things about Dovetail is that it delivers on your expectations and then some. The cut of lamb was so delicious and perfectly cooked to medium rare, the rub of spices so fragrant but unobtrusive, the hominy-like texture of the warm bulgur wheat tabouleh so good against the tang of yogurt. One bite and you're transported away, maybe not as far as India, but at least as far as Morocco.

Fortunately the portion sizes are not overwhelming, because we still had room for dessert. The best was Canada's order of the banana brioche with a bacon-flavored wafer. Don't be afraid: there's only a hint of bacon compared to the richness of the brioche. Delicious. Another good pick on that night's dessert menu was the cheesecake ice cream.

The only downfall of the night was weird little beet jelly petits fours presented at the end. Even if you were a beet fan. As Marie Fromage put it, "They're trying to challenge you, and at this point of the night you don't want to be challenged."

Prices were reasonable for this caliber of food, though the wine list does not feature enough bottles under $100. There's a $125 tasting menu, including wine pairings, which I would do on a second visit. Service was very attentive and smooth, though we did have to wait forever for the check, and I think I terrified the waitress when I whipped out a camera to photograph the food. God knows why, since I am just a blogger, and they'll probably have many more.

Afterwards we couldn't say enough good things about this place. Canada and the Master Orderer are going back "with friends." (What are we, chopped rabbit?!?) Let's hope John Fraser will be considered for the 2008 Food & Wine Best New Chef awards. In the meantime, diners from all over the city should head to the Upper West while this great new restaurant is still in a very exciting stage - when the star chef is in the kitchen, cooking.

103 West 77th Street between Columbus and Broadway
New York, New York