Photographed by Henry Leutwyler
Choosing New York’s best chefs sounds like a great gig. Until, that is, you realize how spectacularly blessed this restaurant-obsessed town is with kitchen talent, and how uncompromisingly passionate, bordering on belligerent, colleagues can be when it comes to reaching a consensus about something as subjective as food. We could happily devote an entire issue to all the inventive, artful, satisfying meals we ate on our quest, but in the end, we had a job to do: recognize the nine New Yorkers who contributed the most to the city’s culinary life this year—and who made 2003 just a little more delicious. So here you have it: the young guns making their stunning debuts; the seasoned veterans finding new inspiration; the driven empire builders; and the temperamental iconoclasts, answering only to their own internal—and toughest—critic. We salute them all, for their energy, their commitment, and their brilliant craftsmanship.
There’s never been a more notorious oyster than the one on WD-50’s opening menu. Pounded, pancaked, and dressed up with diced apple and pistachio purée, it’s much more than a dish. It’s a litmus test for where you stand on modern cooking—to the probable bemusement of its creator, Wylie Dufresne, who sprung to culinary stardom seemingly overnight (but really, over several years of anonymous toil, seven under Jean-Georges Vongerichten). A breakout success at 71 Clinton Fresh Food, where he won acclaim for his dashing originality, Dufresne refused to rest on his laurels. “I think that our ideas started to be bigger than the space,” he says. Just seven months into WD-50, his edgier creations, along with those of innovative pastry chef Sam Mason, have given some pause. But to our taste buds, reports of a subversive streak are greatly exaggerated. Plain and simple (even if his food is not), Dufresne is a remarkable chef. Experimental, yes. Challenging, absolutely. But also capable of conceiving unusual flavor combinations that work magic and, upon further reflection, don’t seem quite so bizarre. Like his foie gras–anchovy terrine. “At the end of the day,” he says, “that one’s really just surf and turf.”
DESIGNING HIS OWN FUTURE IN FOOD
Architect by day, chef by night, Michael Huynh juggles equally demanding careers. “They’re similar,” says the chef-partner-designer of Bao 111 and its casual spinoff, Bao Noodles. “When I design something beautiful and people like it, it makes them happy. It’s the same with cooking.” Huynh has been making people happy since he was 11, cooking alongside his mother at her Saigon restaurant before fleeing the country by himself at 16 to lay the groundwork for his family’s subsequent emigration. He spent his teen years in the Catskills, where he worked at his foster family’s Italian restaurant. Then came architecture school, and enough restaurant clients to entice Huynh back behind the stove, at a small East Village restaurant he built himself. After shedding its original name and Pan-Asian identity, the fun, funky Bao 111 has become an epicenter of what Huynh calls modern original Vietnamese food, like tender, exquisitely flavored slices of marinated short rib molded onto lemongrass stalks, and lime-dressed lobster-and-lotus-root salad. According to Huynh, no one’s doing food like that in Vietnam—yet. The tireless chef dreams of opening a Bao in Saigon, serving the ultimate ethnic crossover cuisine: New York–style Vietnamese.
THE PASTRY QUEEN
Craft, Craftbar, ’Wichcraft
It can’t be easy keeping up with a restless boss like Tom Colicchio, but pastry chef Karen DeMasco does so with wit and style. Even after Craft, Craftbar, and ’Wichcraft, “Tom has a lot of big plans,” says DeMasco, who did stints at Chanterelle and Alison on Dominick but really came into her own under Claudia Fleming at Gramercy Tavern. “Claudia was like a mentor,” she says. “Working for her was when I began to see pastry more as cooking—using seasonal ingredients and having everything be very à la minute.” Her desserts at Craft and Craftbar complement Colicchio’s minimalist aesthetic without sacrificing comfort. Her chocolate tart is a knockout, soul-satisfying apple fritters celebrate the fruit as much as the fritter, and even freebie shards of peanut brittle elicit whoops of joy. At ’Wichcraft, she applies the seasonal approach to an ecstasy of inner-child-pleasing snacks and breakfast pastries—amazing fig muffins, buttery blueberry scones, luscious lemon bars, ganache-filled cookies, and a summertime fresh-mint ice-cream sandwich that could bring the Good Humor man to his knees, weeping. “I’m having so much fun at ’Wichcraft,” she says. “I’m trying to get Tom to start a bakery for me.” Now, that ought to be easy.Try this: Karen DeMasco’s Chocolate Custard Tart
Andy D’Amico first grabbed our attention at Sign of the Dove, where his French-inspired, modern American cooking transformed what had become a fusty tourist attraction into a serious dinner destination. Two decades later, after overseeing the long runs of Arizona 206 and Yellowfingers, and a Pan-Latino detour at the underappreciated Bolivar (where his Argentine hamburger stole the show), the veteran chef has resurfaced across the park at the instantly packed Nice Matin, another power player in the West Side’s culinary explosion. D’Amico’s courting the neighborhood this time, channeling potent Provençal flavors into crowd-pleasing fare cannily tailored to contemporary appetites and budgets. Aromatic pistou is true to south-of-France form; aïoli and anchoiade abound. Main courses like hearty short-rib daube and sea bass luxuriating in an olive-oil-artichoke stew are part Provence, part New York, and pure comfort. He’s even unabashedly concocted a Provençal-inspired burger to rival the one at Bolivar. “Plenty of foodies come in for the burger,” he says. “But the sweetbreads sell, too. The menu’s built the way I like to eat.” Us, too.Try this: Andy D’Amico’s Salt-Cod-and-Tomato Stew
“The first thing you want is a tasty dish,” says Bronx-born, 31-year-old Cornelius Gallagher. “Then you look at trying to be original.” How do you do that? If you’re Gallagher—who’s done stints at Daniel, Bouley, and Lespinasse under Gray Kunz, not to mention Spain’s El Bulli—you paint a visually stunning streak of espresso butter over the top of a ridiculously pristine chunk of halibut. You instinctively stuff skate with pastrami and then lavish it in a pork-and-huckleberry jus. Or you introduce loup de mer en croûte to tamarind and wasabi and serve it on a bed of coconut-laced basmati rice. Promoted to executive chef a year ago after Rick Moonen’s replacement made a speedy exit, Gallagher has quickly brought color and excitement to that staid ship-shaped room. The fact that he makes it look easy must make Oceana’s owners feel a little like the coach who discovers his third-string QB is a hero during the fourth quarter of the last game of the season. “I’ve lived in New York all my life,” says Gallagher, “and I think I have a pretty good grasp on what people like to eat, so I just go with my own tastebuds.”
REASON TO MOVE TO THE UPPER WEST SIDE— PART TWO
It’s one thing for Tom Valenti to have given the Upper West Side the great gift of Ouest. But now with ’Cesca only a lamb shank’s toss away, East Siders and downtowners are beginning to feel neglected. The warm, glowing room with its laid-back bar and cheery open kitchen is the type that makes everyone feel instantly at home. And was there ever a doubt that Valenti’s gutsy, stylish take on southern Italian would be anything less than revelatory? The answer is in the hordes clamoring for a taste of wood-oven-roasted sardines with soft egg, and lush potato gnocchi with braised duck and crisp garlic. “I don’t want to say this too loud,” Valenti confides, “but a lot of my regular customers from Ouest have come up to me and quietly said, ‘We like this even more.’ ” Who’d have thought that living outside the baby-stroller zone would ever be considered a culinary handicap? Thanks to Valenti, that day has arrived..Try this: Tom Valenti’s Meatloaf with Mushroom Sauce
CARRYING THE HAUTE-FRENCH FLAME
Is it any wonder that Gabriel Kreuther has made a resounding splash at Atelier, the elegantly subdued, ultracivilized restaurant at the Ritz-Carlton? The Alsatian chef wasn’t exactly plucked from obscurity, after all, but from nearby Jean Georges, where he’d spent two years as chef de cuisine. The pedigree shows in his food, which has only gotten better and better, its modern-French focus enlivened by an emphasis on exotic herbs and gossamer sauces. Kreuther doesn’t stint on luxury—big spenders can gobble caviar and gorge on foie gras to their heart’s discontent—but he revels in unexpected combinations and eye-catching presentations, like the Muscovy duck that arrives encased in clay, only to be whisked away, precisely plated, and moistened with an intoxicating jus. With the occasional rustic touch puncturing all that refinement— a crayfish-and-wild-mushroom “bakeoffe,” a sort of lidless Alsatian potpie—he scores points for not forgetting his roots, just embellishing them.
The Biltmore Room
Gary Robins is a great chef, but he’s also a bit of a tease. After making an inventive Asian-inflected name for himself at Aja in the mid-nineties, he abruptly embarked on a game of musical kitchens, ricocheting from Match to Mi, from Miami to L.A., global spice rack in tow and despondent diners in his wake. When we heard he was returning to town to open the Biltmore Room, our enthusiasm was tempered by more than a touch of skepticism. Would he last? Would it work out this time? And most important, would we get another crack at his luscious noodle-wrapped prawns with mango-mint salsa, or his chili-tinged, miso-marinated black cod? The answer, so far, seems to be a resounding yes on all counts. The wayward chef has dug in his heels—so he says—the only foreseeable change being on his menu (less Asian, more European, but still embracing equatorial flavors). “I’d love it if we were here for twenty years,” says Robins, on the brink of doing the unthinkable: settling in.
Call Richard Sandoval a reluctant, if accomplished, Mexican chef. Born in Mexico City and trained at the Culinary Institute of America, he returned to Acapulco to open a restaurant. An Italian restaurant. Then he moved to New York to launch Savann, an Asian-accented French-American bistro. Finally, all the culinary wanderlust out of his system, he embraced his roots at Maya, where he couldn’t resist fusing sophisticated French technique with authentic Mexican flavors, painting plates with flavored oils and quashing culinary stereotypes. But at Pampano, Sandoval’s reinvention of Plácido Domingo’s beleaguered midtown restaurant, the chef wholeheartedly embraces the taste memories of his Acapulco boyhood. His seafood-centric menu is an elegant, exuberant celebration of a side of Mexican cooking seldom seen before—coastal, modern, and refined. Lobster tacos and red-snapper quesadillas are Sandoval’s bright idea of street food, octopus is glazed with ancho chile, and swordfish is smoked and turned into a dip compelling enough to render guacamole irrelevant.