34-08 31st Ave., Astoria; 718-626-0087
You might flit by this frumpy storefront, dismissing it as just another cupcake parlor. That would be a grave mistake. Inside, past the muffins, baby bundt cakes, and “Insane Homemade Brownies,” the delicate art of panini pressing is practiced almost clandestinely and with a high degree of finesse by Darren Lawless, who worked at Oceana and Lavagna in the East Village. In addition to panini, which runs the porcine gamut from coppa to prosciutto, there’s a wide range of snacky items, like a juicy tomato stuffed with tuna confit and preserved lemon, and an egg-salad crostino judiciously drizzled with truffle oil. At night, they dim the lights and place candles on the tabletops like a BYO Astoria version of ’ino.
78 Rivington St., at Allen St.; 212-529-3901
Whenever a newfangled Asian restaurant opens in this town, the dismissive foodie temptation is to compare it first with the inevitably cheaper and arguably more authentic competition in Chinatown, and then with the beloved and original Momofuku. Neither comparison is truly apt for this handsome communal-tabled noodle bar, where chef-owner Ratha Chau offers his fresh, flavorful, and well-spiced interpretations of Cambodian street food. He swaddles grilled corn in coconut-chile mayo, garnishes cold egg noodles with a chicken-and-egg omelette and an incendiary red-pepper sauce, and even has the audacity to concoct such vegetarian-friendly fare as a Cambodian-style crêpe with shiitakes, soybeans, and butternut squash. Does a plantain num pang (the Cambodian version of bánh mì) even exist on the streets of Phnom Penh? Well, it does here, and with its pickled red cabbage and pungent ground peppercorns, it makes a delicious case for inauthenticity.
128 First Ave., nr. St. Marks Pl.; 212-228-4805
When we asked Turgut, our Turkish-born cabdriver, whether he knew of any good restaurants, he unhesitatingly advised us to head to Kebab Garden in the East Village ASAP. Our policy being always to follow blindly the advice of Turkish cabbies named Turgut, that is precisely what we did. And what we found was an all-night cafeteria, outfitted with prefab suburban diner-style furnishings, kitschy plastic fruits hanging from the ceiling, and a glum, mostly male, potentially taxi-driving clientele shoveling various foodstuffs into their maws like coal into a steam-locomotive firebox. We also found some surprisingly tasty, inexpensive grub, like eggplant moussaka, hot and cold dolmas, chickpea stew, and countless other spreads and salads, all priced to move at $5.99 a pound and self-served from a buffet table that nearly runs the length of the dining room. A paltry $7 buys a hefty kebab or shawarma plate, grilled to order or sliced off the spit and served with rice and salad. As good as everything is, Turgut reserved his highest praise for the pastries, which come directly from the famed Gaziantep-based bakery Güllüoglu and can be found near the checkout counter. “Make sure they are fresh,” our cabbie friend advised. “And tell them Turgut sent you.”
222 W. 79th St., nr. Broadway; 212-873-0200
Onera’s conversion into Kefi late last winter was one of the best things to happen to cheap eaters in ages. Not that we had anything against Michael Psilakis’s elegant, inventive approach to Greek dining, his daring offal-tasting menu, or his Greek take on crudo. It’s just that with Kefi, he’s given the Upper West Side—all of New York, in fact—a wonderful source for homey, delicious, rustic yet refined Greek cooking, at wallet-friendly prices (even so, not accepting credit cards is just a nuisance). It’s impossible to choose among the meze, and sometimes we don’t, preferring to make an entire meal of the pungent spreads, the rusk-enriched meatballs, the garlicky crispy cod, and the anchovy-topped, caper-strewn warm feta with its brash smack of saline. The pastas are lush, the pork souvlaki succulent. The plain, windowless room never matched Psilakis’s grand intentions, but for the comforting Kefi, it’s a perfect fit.
705 Ninth Ave., nr. 48th St.; 212-974-6012
With its serene cocoon of a dining room, its meticulously plated confections, and its Japanese flavor palette, Kyotofu puts its own distinctive spin on the dessert-bar trend. Silky housemade tofu is a particular specialty, but many of the sweet and savory plates are stealthily infiltrated with soy in many unexpectedly delicious guises, from the teriyaki-grilled chicken meatballs to a sake-infused, sesame-crusted cheesecake. The cocktail and wine lists are well worth exploring, and if you find it impossible to choose among the refined sweets, do the only practical thing and order the $15 kaiseki prix fixe, dessert in three leisurely, demure courses.
133-43 Roosevelt Ave., Flushing; 718-939-7788
Haunted by the brow-mopping ghost of Spicy & Tasty, the Sichuan bastion whose original location it now occupies, Little Pepper has still managed to make a name for itself in Queens’s bustling Chinatown (two, actually—its proper name is Xiao La Jiao). Despite the restaurant’s relative youth, a few dishes have already become signatures, and the eagle-eyed manager will helpfully attempt to foist them upon you: the cumin-rubbed spicy lamb, for one, and the magnificent shriveled green peppers in a sauce the menu calls “salt and sour.” Resistance is not necessarily advised, but Little Pepper is the type of place that rewards experimentation. Where else will you get the chance to light your mouth on fire with diced rabbit in red-chile sauce and bullfrog with Sichuan pickled hot pepper, and then douse the flames with crunchy cubes of garlic-slicked cucumber?