41 W. 46th St., nr. Sixth Ave.; 212-719-3474
Indian lunch buffets pop up in midtown almost as fast as Subways, and they’re often just as bland and soulless. Rangolé, though, earns its $7.95 all-you-can-eat tab with a nice spread that especially shines with its vegetables—small green gourds in a slightly sour, complexly spiced sauce, or fluffy lentil-flour dumplings bathed in yogurt. As satisfying (and filling) as the buffet is—not to mention the hot nan that makes frequent trips around the dining room—it’s tempting to order crispy dosas and sweet-and-sour Bombay chaats off the menu, too. The place is lively and popular, if a bit bedraggled—the seat cushions, in particular, have seen better days (and more than a few recklessly sloppy eaters).
81 Lexington Ave., at 26th St.; 212-679-0204
If you can’t tell your poriyal from your pachadi or your koottu from your special kuzhambu, you’re not alone. Our waiter was at a loss, too, but that didn’t detract from our enjoyment of the subtly spiced variations-on-a-dal theme of the south-Indian thali at Saravanaas, the new Curry Hill branch of an international vegetarian chain. Thalis, round metal trays ringed by an assortment of small metal bowls, are the ultimate combination plate, and a great way to experience the spartan restaurant’s satisfying vegetarian fare. Dosas are another: seasoned crêpes made from fermented rice and lentil flours, filled with mashed spiced potatoes and onions, or raisins and nuts. The starch theme extends to golden lentil griddle cakes that put our sad flapjacks to shame. They’re served with the unrefined lump sugar, called jaggery, instead of maple syrup, and a helping of delectable mung-bean-and-vegetable stew.
513 E. 6th St., nr. Ave. A; 212-228-2775
Like any good classically trained chef with a couple Spanish stages under his belt, Jordy Lavanderos has taken the highly malleable notion of tapas and run with it. His—inspired by stints at El Bulli and Arzak—are complex combinations of flavors and textures, all served in small portions at equally small tabs. But the ideas behind them are impressively big: tempura zucchini flowers oozing with sharp, tangy cheese and garnished with the sweet-salty counterpoint of chorizo-date chutney and serrano-ham “nibs.” Ostrich with purple potatoes and a pomegranate reduction. Cucumber slivered into “spaghetti” and set atop a refreshing salad of pickled fruits. Most of this experimentation pays off, and is greatly enhanced by enthusiastic service and a moody room that seems built for culinarily adventurous first dates. Check to see whether the liquor license has arrived; if not, bring your own.
116 Smith St., nr. Pacific St., Boerum Hill, Brooklyn; 718-488-6269
By remaking the old Pier 116 fish shack into a new-fashioned Japanese restaurant, chef-owner Adam Shepard might have just hit upon the culinary concept Smith Street lacked most: inventive Asian. The dishes emerging from his bustling open kitchen are creatively presented (a banana-leaf-tied stack of spicy-sauced chicken wings, for instance) and packed with deeply harmonious flavors. Roasted maitake hand rolls are seasoned with garlic confit; charred long beans are blanketed in sesame miso and crushed tofu. Although Shepard lards his house ramen Momofuku-style with rich Berkshire pork and smoked bacon, the menu more often veers to light and fresh flavors, like the refreshing medley of peas, beans, citrus, and olives that accompanies the silky konbu-cured black cod. In a place where sake cocktails abound, wine often gets short shrift, but the two bottles Shepard has selected—a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc and an Aragonese Garnacha—do his impressive food justice.
144 W. 19th St., nr. Seventh Ave.; 212-924-3335
A generous hand with the Wetnaps at this chicken-centric Japanese fast-food shack is the tipoff. Delicious deep-fried wings—the specialty of the house—are not the type of snack you eat in your fancy dude suit. They’re expertly seasoned with soy, salt and pepper, and a sprinkling of sesame seeds, and will make you think twice the next time the craving for Buffalo wings strikes. An eight-piece order makes a fine, greasy prelude to the meatier items on the menu: remarkably juicy strips of chicken breaded with panko then skewered and deep-fried, or an equally juicy deep-fried breast tucked into a soft, squishy bun with a scoop of slaw. If you have the appetite, tuck into all three at the cramped dining counter, your dozen or so Wetnaps at the ready.
205 Tenth Ave., nr. 22nd St.; 212-675-8805
Skinny as a toothpick and often as packed as a tin of sardines, this year-old tapas bar has already become as much a part of the West Chelsea landscape as Empire Diner across the street. You’ll find all the Iberian staples here—a smooth, refreshing gazpacho, potato-salad-stuffed piquillo peppers sprinkled with oil-marinated tuna, zestily spiced patatas bravas—but pay close attention to the blackboard specials, which change daily and veer boldly into the realm of inventive international cooking. Impressive presentations, reliance on seasonal ingredients, and confident seasoning make the place as much a destination for serious dining as for an impromptu pit stop on a cava-fueled night on the town.