140 West Houston Street
A fountain gurgles in the back room, the banquettes are sexily backlit, and a hip clientele convenes in the lounge to sip exotic neon cocktails. Despite all that, the kitchen is serious, the menu exciting, and the chef imported straight from Shanghai. Lozoo rebels against aesthetic and culinary stereotypes alike: The look is more Soho than Chinatown, and the kitchen bravely eschews soup dumplings for less familiar aspects of refined Shanghai cuisine. Deep-fried escargot are sheathed in crispy tofu skin ($8); lettuce leaves make crunchy wrappers for delicate minced bass, pine nuts, and pomelo ($8); and spears of garlicky eggplant and molded sticky rice are almost indistinguishable until the first surprising bite ($15).
1262 Amsterdam Avenue, near 123rd Street
Before there was Max SoHa—the uptown branch of the cheap Italian chainlet—there was nothing to eat on that particular Morningside Heights block. The hit trattoria blazed a trail for Kitchenette Uptown, a new pizzeria, and now Max’s own rustic spinoff, a homey café meant for all-day snacking, Italian-style. That means crusty crostini slathered with artichoke or chicken-liver pâtés ($3), salads festooned with figs and bresaola ($6), mortadella panini with asiago and avocado ($7), and two dozen antipasti, from smoked trout to speck ($4 apiece). The owner’s messianic allegiance to southern Italian wines makes for an offbeat, affordable list.
96 Second Avenue
This “clam shack built by a beatnik,” in co-owner Jimmy Bradley’s words, has a lot more going for it than littlenecks, however delectable ($7 a half-dozen). A New Englandy front room, a cozier rear, and an adorable garden fill nightly with East Villagers stuck in the city but hungering for the shore. Chef Mike Price dishes it up in the quasi-retro form of blue-crab-and-baby-spinach dip ($12), fried oysters ($10), and spaghetti with shrimp, scallops, and calamari ($15). Every bottle of wine is priced a miraculous $15 over cost, and dessert (chef’s choice) is on the house.
Mexican Sandwich Company
322 Fifth Avenue, Park Slope, Brooklyn
Technically a misnomer, the name of this high-concept cantina refers not to the traditional Mexican torta but rather to creative, multicultural takes on double-decker quesadillas. We’re partial to wild plum and brie with double-smoked bacon, caramelized red onion, and lavender-chili honey ($8), and barbecued duck confit with Cheddar, spicy mango salsa, and blood-orange-chili purée ($9). But that’s just us. If you prefer, you can keep it simple by customizing your own with add-on delicacies like pickled jalapeños, chorizo, and chipotle shrimp.
28 Watts Street
Two couples joined by marriage—plus a restless mother-in-law who can’t stay out of the kitchen—give this comfy Pan-Asian canteen a conspicuous family feel. With its retro-diner décor, off-the-beaten-track address, and $4–$8 price range, it’s a Soho anomaly where everything is made with care and served with a welcoming smile. It’s also a wellspring of savory sandwiches, salads, and snacks like springy wontons stuffed with snow-pea greens, sweetly spiced chicken wings, and delicate, exceedingly fresh jícama-stuffed spring rolls.
Nick’s Restaurant and Pizzeria
1814 Second Avenue, at 94th Street
No way could we stroll into this new Manhattan branch of the excellent Queens pizzeria and summon up the superhuman willpower necessary to resist one of Nick Angelis’s perfect pies—light and fragrant, expertly charred, and mottled with creamy mozzarella that seems like it was pulled fifteen minutes ago. But now Nick has larded the menu with family-style portions of toothsome orecchiette with sausage and broccoli rabe ($16), superfresh grilled fish, and an eggplant parmigiana ($11) that could make somebody’s mamma the star of her own reality show. Normally, the stuff in pizzerias that isn’t pizza should be ordered only under duress or during a crisis—like when the pizza oven blows up—but here it’s nearly as good as the pie, and better than most of what passes for Italian on the Upper East Side.
158 Ninth Avenue, near 19th Street
The sleek successor to Nam in Tribeca shares its precursor’s understatedly stylish aesthetic, not to mention most of its menu. It’s possible to find cheaper Vietnamese food, but none sparked with such consistently fresh, clean flavors and served in such casually chic environs. We seldom pass up the lemongrass-crusted tofu ($4), but the diced monkfish and peanuts on a rice cracker ($8) and the five-spiced baby back ribs ($8) are both eminently worthwhile. The skill of the kitchen is most apparent in the selection of rolls, noticeably lighter and more delicate than most of the rice-paper-wrapped competition.
Otto Enoteca Pizzeria
1 Fifth Avenue
Pizza, antipasti, and wine is the perfect low-budget formula for these penny-pinching times, and the very sharp Mario Batali knows just how to tweak it, keeping things fresh with seasonal variations, a lively, informal ambience, and a smart staff. We love the quiet refuge of a mortadella-panini bar breakfast, the house-cured meats ($8 a plate) and exquisitely garnished cheeses ($9 for three), and the daily fritti ($8) that so delectably bookmark the week (calzones on Monday, fried chickpeas on Sunday). Seasonal ingredients infiltrate the roster in subtle ways: asparagus bumping Swiss chard on the goat-cheese pizza ($13), a spring-pea sformato displacing the acorn-squash custard ($4). The heartbreaking disappearance of the gianduja hot chocolate—yanked prematurely, we thought—was ameliorated by a stunning fresh-mint gelato. But only just.
Parish & Co.
202 Ninth Avenue, near 22nd Street
A superb if undersung disciple of the small-plate school, this smart, globally inspired kitchen makes it easy to eat well and inexpensively, provided you dodge the odd pricey pitfall or two. Almost everything comes in tasting and sharing portions; stick to the former, tack on some warm ricotta crostini ($5) and grilled flowering chives ($5), and you’ve got yourself a feast. The tahini-dressed cabbage salad ($6), sesame-seeded soba noodles ($7), and luscious double-cut lamb rack ($14 for a chop you won’t want to share) merit unqualified praise, and the fluke seviche gets its unique brand of tart heat from grapefruit and horseradish ($10). The menu’s all over the map, but the farmstead cheeses are all American and first-rate, especially Cypress Grove’s award-winning Midnight Moon.
124 Fourth Avenue
What a radical concept: a bright and shiny slice joint that could pass a surprise white-glove inspection by Colin Cowie. And lest you think that cleanliness is not next to pizza godliness, the 21 variously adorned pies are terrific, thin and crisp, made with good-quality ingredients, custom-snipped by a friendly scissors-wielding crew, then weighed and rung up, depending upon topping, from $6 to $12 per pound.
915 Third Avenue, at 55th Street
After a meticulous yearlong restoration, the old gin mill is back in business. Some things, we suspect, aren’t what they used to be: When asked about the chili one afternoon, the perky young waitress responded, “I wouldn’t really know. I’m a vegan.” Well, no one ever came here for the food, but that’s no longer the kitchen’s fault. Shared ownership with Docks accounts for the chipper shucker at the new raw bar and the unfailingly fresh fish and chips ($15.80). Oysters, with their Old New York connotation, don’t seem out of place in a joint like this, but sprightly salads, like the one with spinach, beets, and feta ($6.80), do. And sides like sautéed broccoli rabe ($4.15) suffused with garlic cloves just might lure regulars away from the house half-and-half (creamed spinach and mashed potatoes,$4.75). There’s a fancy new dining room upstairs, but the classic New York experience is still found downstairs with a Boddingtons and a $9.30 bacon cheeseburger.
72-19 Roosevelt Avenue, Jackson Heights
A funny thing happened when we visited this anomalously slick Thai joint in Jackson Heights, a distant (but recognizably related) cousin of Manhattan’s Spice chainlet. When the solicitous waiter asked how we wanted our food, we said “spicy,” with the usual resigned skepticism, and we got spicy: tear-duct-activatingly, nose-clearingly, cheek-flushingly spicy. But tingly lips didn’t stop us from plowing through pungent pork larb ($6), fiery green-curry fried rice ($6), and deliciously crisp, fatty duck in basil sauce ($12). Hurts so good, indeed.