Even after an "expansion," this tiny BYOB café is as cramped as a car on the subway line it's named after, populated by a mellow mix of Columbia students and Upper West Siders communing over French-Caribbean-accented small plates with equally small price tags ($6–$10). There's a fiery kick to the escargots with cilantro-chili butter, and the hot grilled avocado with a dollop of spinach mousse where the pit used to be is a nutty experiment that works, smooth as butter in a puddle of shiitake-sesame vinaigrette.
947 Columbus Ave., at 106th St.; 212-531-1643
The pressed hanger-steak slider on a bialy and the flaky pork empanada with cilantro-and-collard-green relish are just two of the reasons this multicultural snack shop remains our favorite place to eat on Clinton Street, despite the proliferating competition. There's also the eclectic wine list, the refreshing house cocktails, the relaxed, hospitable vibe, and the fact that only two dishes (the $13 "bigger hot plates") cost more than $8.
49 Clinton St., 212-979-6096
Chef-owner Siggy Nakanishi used to cook for the Japanese ambassador to the West Indies, which accounts for freaky fusion rolls like spicy tuna with fried banana. But fanciful sushi isn't all you'll find at this brick-walled aerie four stairs removed from the West 4th Street hubbub: There's also the daily roster of off-the-wall specials, every bit as inventive as menu staples like the eel napoleon with fried tofu and mashed pumpkin ($7) and the salmon-mozzarella-and-basil summer roll with a tiny gravy boat of balsamic sauce ($8).
181 W. 4th St., 212-989-5440
We love this three-stool, no-frills Lebanese-Syrian takeout spot, not just for the tastiest, tidiest falafel sandwich in town, and not just for owner Mouhamad Shami's pride and commitment to keeping everything fresh. We love it for dishes you rarely find in other Middle Eastern joints, like a spicy vegetarian kibbeh stuffed with Swiss chard, mint, and parsley -- not to mention occasional specials courtesy of Mrs. Shami, like kafta bil-saniyeh (a casserole heaped with potatoes, tomatoes, and minced lamb, $12) and a deftly spiced vegetarian moussaka ($7.50).
150 Fulton Street, 212-528-4669
Hovering somewhere between aKa Cafe's glorified bar food and 71 Clinton Fresh Food's pricier productions, this nouvelle bistro serves creative comfort food to a hipster clientele. Chef Scott Ehrlich treads on hallowed Gus's and Russ's territory with Lower East Side–inspired dishes like a pickle plate and smoked sable, but he leaves the Zip Code far behind with crispy-crusted duck confit ($8), hanger steak with Yorkshire pudding, and smoky shrimp with a wild-rice pancake (both $18). The wine list is short, diverse, and user-friendly; the doughnuts served with their cream-stuffed holes are adorable; and despite what common sense dictates, avocado tastes great with crème brûlée.
76 Clinton Street, 212-505-5011
Ever wonder how the ingredients that go into a typical banh mi -- crunchy veggies plus all those mysterious pork products -- would work piled on something besides French bread? Between two slices of Wonder bread, say? Not so well, we imagine, texture being half the appeal of this great French-Vietnamese fusion sandwich. That's why we're so enamored of this Sunset Park snack shop's $2.50 "special" banh mi, which has all that wonderfully weird lunch meat plus homemade pâté, pickled carrots, cukes, cilantro, jalapeño, and gobs of thick mayo, all carefully wedged into a superior crusty baguette. Plus, the owner's daughter pours a mean Vietnamese iced coffee, and on weekends, Mom turns out an admirable duck soup.
5424 Eighth Avenue, at 55th Street, Sunset Park, Brooklyn; 718-972-2269
Marcus Samuelsson's menu for the cafeteria-style AQ Café features scrumptious Swedish meatballs ($9.50) and herring plates ($7) for a pittance. And you can buy the stylish cutlery and glassware at the gift shop next door.
58 Park Avenue, near 38th Street; 212-847-9745
Arunee Thai Cuisine
The secret to great Thai food is the artful intermingling of flavors -- hot, sour, salty, sweet. The secret to great tom kha gai -- that restorative chicken-and-coconut-milk soup -- is to cram it with flavor-enhancers like galangal and lemongrass, both of which are underrepresented in New York Thai restaurants. Not at this tin-ceilinged Jackson Heights standby, though, where the same attention to detail is applied to the refreshingly zesty salads (or "yum," $4.25–$9.95) and Thai classics like panang curry ($7.95), tantalizingly redolent of basil and kaffir-lime leaf.
37-68 79th Street, Jackson Heights, Queens, 718-205-5559
At lunch, the public is welcome at Astra, Charlie Palmer's fourteenth-floor party space in the D&D Building. First-rate salads, sandwiches, and pastas run $8 to $14, and the terrace views? Priceless.
979 Third Avenue, near 58th Street; 212-644-9394
Bar @ Etats-Unis
The Bar @ Etats-Unis shares a kitchen, a wine list, and a pastry chef with the fancy flagship. And the sautéed tiger shrimp with mango and cherry tomatoes sells for $15.
247 East 81st Street; 212-396-9928
Tasting portions of Verbena appetizers plus sumptuous tidbits like skewered croque monsieur come on tiered trays ($12–$20, for two) at first-date nirvana Bar Demi, pictured at left. Great half-bottle list, too.
125 1/2 E. 17th St., 212-260-0900
Easily the most stylish panini bar in town -- and, happily, bearing no stigma from last month's visit by a gun-wielding madman.
175 Second Avenue; 212-260-3200
BB Sandwich Bar
The sole menu item here is a lip-smackingly great Philly-style cheese steak ($4) -- daringly served on an untraditional kaiser roll with a fistful of caramelized onions and a fancy red-pepper relish -- that's as neat as a cucumber sandwich. Unfortunately, to keep up with demand, BB has started making them ahead of time and keeping them warm in the oven. Under normal circumstances, that might be cause for alarm. Here, it's only a minor -- and we hope temporary -- setback. In any case, these babies are so damn good we'd eat them cold.
120 West 3rd Street, 212-473-7500
Beyoglu is simply the best Turkish cooking in town, and if you don't believe us, chef-owner Orhan Yegen will tell you so himself. His steely-eyed braggadocio, delivered tableside in a perfect soft-spoken Bond-villainese, almost seems intended to cast some sort of hypnotic spell. You are getting hungry, very, very hungry. Have a kebab. Yegen's discourse, though, is no match for his kitchen's minty yogurt soup; tantalizingly good meze ($3–$8.50); and succulent doner kebab made from lamb and beef ($12.50), the only entrée available and perhaps the only version of this dish you may ever settle for again.
1431 Third Avenue, at 81st Street, 212-570-5666
Bistro St. Mark's
Every Monday night, chef Johannes Sanzin composes a four-course tasting menu for $25, a spectacular bargain when you see what tasting portions look like in Brooklyn. (Skip lunch.) Sanzin, an alumnus of Bouley, inherited that kitchen's way with fish and the perverse knack of its ultrarich potato purée, which came one night alongside seared black bass with littleneck clams. He revels in unexpected touches, like toasted walnuts and Asian pear in a woody mushroom salad, and a summer succotash of limas, tomato, and corn with the rack of lamb. The high-ceilinged space is an echo chamber, and the staff gets stretched thin, but nothing seems to faze the multicultural clientele of brownstone renovators, bam-goers, and the upstairs neighbor making a solitary dinner of oysters and beer at the bar.
76 St. Mark's Avenue, near Flatbush Avenue, Park Slope, Brooklyn, 718-857-8600
Borobudur is worth a trip just to slurp down the sweet Indonesian drinks: There's susu soda gembira (condensed milk, a sweet red syrup, and club soda), which tastes like an Indonesian egg cream; es teh Borobudur, iced tea with a cinnamon-clove bite as sharp as ginger beer; and es teler, an iced Pepto-Bismol–pink concoction made with coconut milk, syrup, basil seeds, and Gummi Bear–size pieces of sugar-palm fruit. The food here is equally intriguing: Don't miss the sensational batagor, crispy-skinned deep-fried tofu with dueling Indonesian-soy and peanut sauces ($4.50); rendang padang, briskety beef in a hot, murky coconut sauce ($8.95); and superb satay ($8.95), that dish being to Indonesian cuisine what the shish kebab is to Turkish. Hot, sweet ginger tea makes a fine finale.
128 East 4th Street, 212-614-9079
All that can be crammed between two slices and deliciously smooshed in a sandwich press.
20 Spring Street; 212-334-1015
Floyd Cardoz channels the home-style Indian food of his childhood in dishes like tandoori leg of lamb marinated in black pepper, cardamom, and ginger ($17).
11 Madison Avenue, at 25th Street; 212-889-0667
Brick Oven Gallery
If there's a certain nostalgic quality to this off-the-beaten-track Williamsburg pizzeria, it comes from the 119-year-old brick oven. So do the crisp, flavorful thin-crusted pies ($7–$12), the wood-fired chicken panini with roast tomatoes and goat cheese ($8), even the extra-thin, herb-crusted flatbread used to scoop up "Brooklyn caviar" (a smoky melange of eggplant, peppers, and tomatoes, $6). A sidewalk table on the preternaturally quiet block is an unpretentious oasis in the midst of hipsterville.
33 Havemeyer St., near North 7th St., Williamsburg, Brooklyn, 718-963-0200
Solid Village panini shop.
110 Thompson Street; 212-334-6604