10 Blue Hill
This may be the best low-profile restaurant in town. Dan Barber is a master of the gentle arts of poaching and braising, and much of his best material—pasture-raised turkeys, non-stressed Berkshire hogs—comes from the biodynamic farm and restaurant he and his brother run at an old Rockefeller complex upstate called Stone Barns. Although not as extreme or innovative as Craft, Blue Hill is the city’s other seminal Greenmarket haven, so expect a certain amount of hushed reverence here, a certain amount of ecstatic whispering about the quality of the summer peas.
11 Gotham Bar and Grill
If Jean-Georges is the multitalented Willie Mays, and Batali is Babe Ruth, then Alfred Portale is the Lou Gehrig of the city’s dining world. While other chefs have branded themselves out of existence or wigged out and gone to Vegas, the innovator of toppling vertical cuisine delivers the same, steady performance day after day, year after year, decade after decade. His food may not be as varied or flashy as some other diva chefs in town, but we give him a star each for quality, longevity, and overall class.
This modest, neighborly restaurant is named for the Austrian hometown of its chef and owner, Kurt Gutenbrunner. It’s possible that in this mountain hamlet you can obtain slow- cooked lobster with your spaetzle, or light, improbably flaky strudels stuffed with portions of perfectly cooked salmon, though I doubt it. Austrian fare? No. 12 on the list? People forget that the Austrians had their own empire once, and their cuisine has a diverse lightness and sophistication to it. If you’re tired of France, like everyone else, and searching for classic cooking in a great European tradition, this is the place to find it.
In a town where chefs wander the culinary landscape like Japanese ronin, David and Karen Waltuck have made a virtue out of constancy, quality, and general good sense. The pretentious, hand-scripted menu has a fusty, decades-old feel, and the room looks like it was last decorated around 1932. But the Waltucks earn three stars for their cooking, which is still pleasing in an opulent, old-fashioned way. If you don’t believe me, order the duck, or the oysters, which are touched with caviar and sauerkraut, and finished with a spoonful of the sweetest country cream.
14 The Modern
In the great Danny Meyer tradition, this new restaurant built into the newly renovated MoMA manages to be all things to all people, almost all of the time. Dinner in the main dining room, looking out at all the expensive modernist statuary, gets multiple stars for pageantry and ambition alone. Then there’s the food: clean, modernist dishes like roast duck with black-truffle marmalade and cod crusted with little rounds of chorizo. For something less high-toned, visit the bar room. That’s where the Alsatian chef, Gabriel Kreuther, loosens his collar a little and experiments with the comfort foods of his youth, like baekeoffe stew, a delicious tarte flambée, and braised pork cheeks with sauerkraut.
15 Sushi of Gari (East Side)
Sushi snobs are an imperious bunch, but mention the name Masatoshi “Gari” Sugio in their midst and they begin squealing like a bunch of boy-band groupies. At this small, uniquely Japanese establishment on the Upper East Side, Gari marinates his raw fish in sake, spikes it with creamy tofu mayonnaise, and singes it with his trusty butane blowtorch. Such three-star innovations are widely imitated these days but rarely equaled. When you’ve finished your sushi, do what I do and indulge in a bowl of tempura-fried ice cream.
16 Union Square Café
Yes, the rooms are a little cramped, and after twenty years, those scrawled murals on the wall look like some early Martha Stewart experiment gone horribly awry. But consistency and good cheer are the keys to Danny Meyer’s perennially popular, Zagat-approved restaurant. Great dishes like Michael Romano’s lobster shepherd’s pie also help. I know patrons who’ve committed his blue-plate specials to memory (Monday is the lobster-shepherd’s-pie day) the way devout nuns memorize the Stations of the Cross.
17 Café Boulud
Although longtime chef Andrew Carmellini recently departed, this remains the most intimate restaurant in the continually expanding Daniel Boulud empire, and arguably the most enjoyable. The multi-sectioned menu veers around the globe (you can enjoy Hungarian goulash with your lobster “Chiang Mai”), but for the best results, do what Mrs. Astor and the rest of the locals no doubt do. Begin with the foie gras terrine sweetened with port, proceed to the duck, which is glazed with honey, and conclude, for dessert, with the chocolate soufflé.
Why the high rank for this glorified neighborhood joint? Because Tom Valenti’s cooking is an almost perfect marriage between elegant style and messy trencherman goodness. Because it’s the only place in town where you can watch a ball game at the bar while you enjoy a decent bowl of tripe. Because if I had to choose one restaurant to have around the corner from my home, it would be this one.
Three stars for a faux–French brasserie? It is the dominant restaurant genre of our era, after all, and despite the unceasing and bitter attacks by Keith McNally’s many detractors, the world headquarters of McNally-land is the best brasserie in town. The mood in the manic, glittering room changes by the hour, so pick your spots. Our favorite is late at night, for a helping of duck shepherd’s pie or the impressive boudin noir, or early in the morning, for a serene breakfast croissant and a fishbowl-size dose of restorative café au lait.
Before David Pasternack set up shop near this barren, restaurant-challenged stretch of Ninth Avenue, the average New Yorker’s conception of Italian seafood was a stuffed clam and a serving of rubbery calamari. Now, thanks to Pasternack, we can enjoy densely rich branzino, which arrives at the table caked in its famous crust of salt, or linguine tossed with clams, hot-pepper flakes, and bits of pancetta. And then there’s the crudi, of course. Thanks to some strange alchemy, and Pasternack’s obsessive quest for perfect fish, raw fluke seems to taste better here than anywhere else.
The tall, windowless room here has a chameleon-like quality, which makes it equally pleasant for a starchy business lunch, clubby late-night dining, or an early-morning breakfast. Chef Geoffrey Zakarian’s flashy, seemingly effortless cooking achieves a similar effect. Our perfect day might begin with a wheel of lobster hash for brunch (or, if we’re feeling reckless, coddled eggs with crisped short ribs), lobster bisque and a bite of crisped skate wing for lunch, and for dinner the chef’s signature escargot risotto. The chocolat beignets—filled with molten chocolate and served with white-chocolate ice cream—is one of the city’s great desserts.
22 Café Gray
Of all the self-important dining establishments populating the arid upscale food court at the Time Warner Center, this one is probably the most fun. Gray Kunz’s menu is chock-full of old Lespinasse-style favorites, like the lightly creamy lobster chowder, bowls of classically dense mushroom risotto, and tender, blocky short ribs braised down to their rich, beefy essence. But the star of the show is the room itself, with its panoramic views of Columbus Circle, and the great open kitchen, which stands before the rows of white-tops like a Broadway stage.
With its low-slung chandeliers and walls covered in musty pink linen, Terrance Brennan’s flagship establishment looks 50 years older than it is. But don’t let the frumpiness fool you. It’s carefully calculated to appeal to the opera fanatics who have turned the restaurant, over the years, into their personal party venue. In fact, Brennan’s menu is full of surprises. He flavors his John Dory with grapes and truffles, and serves wheels of panna cotta spiked with sea urchin and caviar, and if you order the snails Grenobloise, it comes with truffles and pleasing shavings of serrano ham. As you pat your tummy, call for the famous cheese cart, which, as any opera nut can tell you, is worth an extra star all by itself.
The “wine portfolio” contains an astonishing 80,000 bottles, which is why Cru has become the latest gathering spot for the city’s ever-growing population of wine geeks. But if you’re wise, you’ll save some of your money to spend on the food. Shea Gallante is a refined, painstaking chef who builds flavors on the plate with a kind of painterly precision. His crudi are models of that overworked genre; he cooks sturgeon (with black-truffle sauce), duck (with braised onions and Swiss chard), and pike quenelles with equal facility. If you’re looking for just the right something to go with your $1,100 bottle of ’00 Coche-Dury Grand Crû, try the lobster, flavored with barely perceptible nuggets of pork belly.
By nature, I’ve observed, seafood chefs tend to be subtle, retiring types, but Cornelius Gallagher seems to be the exact opposite. Since taking over the kitchen of this venerable expense-account fish house, the young Bronx-born chef has indulged in all kinds of madcap experimentation—halibut soaked in pork juice, caramelized scallops spritzed with apple cider. Some dishes work better than others, but we give him three stars for bringing talent and imagination to the stolid gray-suit world of midtown dining.
Beefy, rustic grub is the rage in Italian circles these days, but at Scott Conant’s well-appointed, consciously highbrow establishment in Tudor City, you’ll find lobster scented with rosemary, mini-pillows of sweetbreads set over bows of farfalle, and agnolotti stuffed with braised duck and foie gras. Conant is one of the city’s most talented young chefs, and here he demonstrates his trademark style—taking strong, heavy flavors and infusing them with a kind of delicate grandeur.
The small, tastefully appointed room here is conducive to all sorts of intimacies. A variety of sweet champagne-based cocktails are available at the bar, along with a selection of wines by female vintners. No wonder certain women I know consider Annisa to be a restaurant calibrated almost exactly to their tastes. It helps that the Asian-fusion menu, produced by co-owner and chef Anita Lo, contains some of the most consistently interesting food in the city, including Shanghai soup dumplings stuffed, in high New York style, with foie gras.
The Indian chef duo Hemant Mathur and Suvir Saran have a habit of changing kitchens every year or two. But wherever they go, the city’s Indian-food aesthetes follow. At this gauzily decorated restaurant in the Flatiron district, they cook up a whole smorgasbord of regional Indian delicacies, like jellied veal brains scrambled with quail eggs and green chiles (a Muslim breakfast treat), halibut cooked Parsi-style in coconut sauce, and delicious Manchurian cauliflower, which resembles a crispy vegetarian version of sweet-and-sour pork.
29 Sushi Yasuda
The room looks like the interior of a giant bamboo bento box, but the sushi here is of the highest quality and prepared by-the-book. The fish is flown in daily from faraway places like Alaska, Nova Scotia, and the Sea of Japan, and the freshest items are marked on the menu in the chef’s own hand. It’s possible to enjoy four varieties of yellowtail in one sitting, and eel prepared five different ways, and on good days chef Naomichi Yasuda’s highest-grade o-toro tuna belly has a pale bubblegum pinkness to it, and leaves a pleasing slick of richness on your tongue.
The city’s original wine-geek club has only 3,000 bottles on its list. But compared with the aggressively refined Cru, it’s an amiable, even cozy place, where the excellent clubhouse cook, Scott Bryan, churns out a dependable roster of wine-friendly food like well-braised short ribs, a good deconstructed rabbit ravioli, and delicious pork belly in wintertime. Plant yourself at the bar, where you can fritter away your cash on glasses of the house Burgundy, while sucking up to the assembled wine millionaires swilling down their bottles of Comtes Lafon. If you’re lucky, one of them might give you a sip.
31 David Burke & Donatella
If Wylie Dufresne is the earnest downtown artist toiling in his studio, then David Burke is his expansive uptown counterpart, a chef who spikes his spicy Cajun lobster on flower holders, slathers pieces of salmon with fishy Cantonese XO sauce, and infuses his foie gras terrine with kumquats. It’s all on display at this theatrical little restaurant down the street from Bloomingdale’s, where it’s a pleasure to watch the restaurant’s staid Upper East Side clientele gawk at Burke’s decorative and generally delicious creations as they go by, like spectators at some loony Dr. Seuss fashion show.
32 Tabla and Tabla Bread Bar
Floyd Cardoz does for Indian cuisine what Yo-Yo Ma does for aged Chinese folk ballads. Or something like that. Aside from the obvious quality of the cooking—lobster rolled in a coating of puffy rice, cones of frozen condensed-milk kulfi tipped with gold leaf—the key here is the downstairs Bread Bar, with its attendant tandoori grill. As a result, Tabla is one of the few haute cuisine establishments I know that actually smells like good food.