3 Per Se
Thomas Keller’s extravagantly hyped establishment gets four stars instead of five because, well, it’s not quite like dining at the French Laundry, his famous restaurant in Napa. It’s a somewhat stagy version of the prototype, which means the whole scene feels vaguely solemn, like a studious California version of what a first-class New York restaurant should be. There’s nothing solemn about the food, however. Keller has a special facility with luxury items like caviar—try his famous “Oysters and Pearls”—and lobster tails, which he paints with vermouth, or beets, or vanilla essence. If you get caught up in one of his prolific tasting dinners, you may struggle at first, but in the end, all resistance is futile.
In cooking, as in the other arts, New York is an international bazaar, a place where great chefs come from around the world to display their skills. Wylie Dufresne is that rare thing on the New York cooking scene—a home-grown talent. In his industrious culinary atelier down on Clinton Street, he produces some of the most cutting-edge cooking in New York or anywhere else. Who knew mayonnaise could be fried in little sugar-cube squares, or that the deep scarlet color of venison complements the soft, creamy green of edamame ice cream? The room and location don’t necessarily merit four-star status, but factor in the cost of a meal—a nine-course tasting costs less than a third of what you’ll pay at Masa—and you have the best, and certainly most interesting, multi-star deal in town.
Tom Colicchio is a fanatic for the integrity of fresh ingredients and simplicity in cooking, and this much-discussed, much-imitated restaurant is the extreme, almost priestly expression of his views. You may not like the conceit of building your meal one spare ingredient at a time (many food aristocrats I know actively hate it), but there’s no denying the quality of Colicchio’s sweet day-boat scallops or bluefoot mushrooms lovingly foraged in the piney forests of Oregon. Craft gets four stars for its huge influence on the way restaurant meals are conceived, presented, and eaten in this new Greenmarket era, and also for Karen Demasco’s impeccable desserts—toffee-steamed pudding bombed with fresh-made rum-raisin ice cream—which, for my money, are the best in town.
Mario Batali’s great achievement, among many, has been to turn animal viscera into the epitome of haute cuisine. Is this enough to make Babbo the sixth- best restaurant in all New York? Well, why not? Even after repeated, feverish tastings, I’m still not tired of his lamb’s-tongue vinaigrette, or crispy pig’s-foot Milanese, with its soothing thatch of arugula on the side. Batali has eclipsed most of the country’s effete French chefs in terms of notoriety, influence, and glossy-cookbook sales. After a glass of grappa or three, it’s even possible to argue that he is the Escoffier of our messy, Rabelaisian era. Despite an influx of celebrity diners from around the globe, Babbo still manages to achieve that elusive combination of style and comfort better than any restaurant in town.
7 Jean Georges
The boss is rarely home these days, but somehow the flagship establishment of Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s ever-expanding restaurant cosmos manages to retain its sense of magic and haute-fusion exceptionalism. On a recent visit to the gleaming, glass dining room, the table next to mine was occupied by a prosperous gentleman from Brooklyn. Watching your humble critic with a napkin tucked into his collar, devouring an order of foie gras brûlé, among other extravagant Jean-Georges creations, he observed: “You eat like my friends back in the old neighborhood.” You might take this as an insult. I take it as a sign that the great chef can still cook.
The overwrought, Vegas-like space is too big, and if you’re not recognized as a regular, you may find yourself, as I did not long ago, sitting by the kitchen doors, gazing from the mezzanine over the balding heads of the assembled fat cats. But Daniel is still one of the city’s great cooking polymaths, a master of refined French technique, and also a great innovator. Dishes like roast squab and black sea bass en paupiette remain classics, and his braised pork belly is still the gold standard in a city obsessed with such things. On a recent visit, I enjoyed a lamb chop of such ethereal quality—crusted with a Middle Eastern seasoning called zaatar, and flavored with yogurt—that I put down my fork and offered up a little prayer of thanksgiving.
It’s true that Marcus Samuelsson’s new home, on the ground floor of an anonymous midtown skyscraper, looks like the first-class waiting lounge of a new and prosperous Scandinavian airline. But the high-minded interpretations of Scandinavian cuisine that issue from his kitchen—order the duck breast, which is cured in lemons, or the salmon, sealed in a light brioche crust—are as excellent as ever. The bland new setting comes perilously close to knocking off a star, but addle yourself with glasses of esoteric aquavit and you’ll hardly notice.