33 Alaine Ducasse at the Essex House
Tony Esnault is the restaurant’s third chef in five years, and although his clean, very Continental cooking hovers well above two-star status, you can’t help but think that Mr. Ducasse’s New York adventure is doomed. The room is gloomy and overwrought, the flowery menu feels suddenly dated, and the prices are, frankly, insane. Still, with grand French cooking in decline all over town, this is one of the few places where you can still obtain a proper soufflé or a shellfish veloute so rich and refined it seems to have been beamed straight from one of the chef’s more famous kitchens on the Côte d’Azur.
34 Gramercy Tavern
In a world divided between those who prefer Gramercy Tavern and those who prefer the Union Square Cafe, put me in the latter group. But Gramercy’s menu—roasted sweetbreads with bacon, braised-lamb-shoulder minestrone—remains impressive in its breadth, and occasionally inspired, even while chef Tom Colicchio is off tending his Craft empire. Yet I don’t necessarily like the nineties-era haute– Pottery Barn décor in the back room, and why do all the people eating out front, in the Tavern itself, seem to be having so much more fun?
Usually I’m averse to glittering, showy restaurants on the upper floors of aggressively pricey hotels. But at Asiate, the drama of the setting, atop the new Mandarin Oriental overlooking the vast greenness of Central Park, is worth multiple stars all by itself. Then there’s chef Noriyuki Sugie’s first-class fusion cooking: smoked black cod with foie gras miso sauce, suckling pig pressed in a crackly, square pancake. Dine slowly, so you can watch the lights of the city twinkle below your shoe tops.
At this high-minded new establishment in midtown, Scott Conant serves his specialized brand of Italian food in grand, obsessive style. The performance can be so high-minded that it’s sometimes hard to know whether it’s Italian at all. It helps to know that the restaurant is named for Alto Adige, an obscure, dumpling-rich region in northern Italy. Focus on the dumplings—like crisped ravioli filled with Swiss chard, or pouches of veal-stuffed agnolotti wreathed in Parmesan foam—and the food’s provenance will be the last thing on your mind.
37 Casa Mono
This is the place the town’s discerning trenchermen are all fighting to get into. Chef Andy Nasser, who served apprenticeships at Babbo and Po, has a fondness for robust, elemental flavors, which he shuffles together in deliciously ingenious ways. Duck eggs make regular appearances on the tapas-style menu, as does grilled steak with a nutty romesco sauce, and sweetbreads seized in a thick crust. There are tables in the tiny submariner’s space, but sit at the bar to experience Spanish food cooked “à la plancha,” or on the grill, in all its smoky glory.
This is the new uptown home of the young chef Josh DeChellis, who earned his reputation dabbling with effete fusion techniques at a West Village restaurant called Sumile. The room doesn’t merit three stars, but the food certainly does. DeChellis produces superior gourmet iterations of fat-man delicacies like braised short ribs, char-grilled bluefin tuna cheeks, and delicious little terrines of potted suckling pig. All he needs now is a larger stage.
39 Fleur De Sel
The walls of this thrifty, unpretentious restaurant in the Flatiron District are exposed brick, and the lighting is a little spotty. But $25 at lunchtime buys parsnip soup (floating with a ravioli stuffed with chestnuts and white truffles), a lozenge of perfectly poached halibut in red-wine sauce, and a white-chocolate-and-caramel ganache for dessert. The chef, Cyril Renaud, has the pedigree and skills of a three-star chef. If he were in a more elaborate (and pretentious) venue uptown, that’s exactly what he’d be.
This hallowed establishment still ranks among the 40 top restaurants in town in our estimation, but not by much. The great fusion chef Nobu Matsuhisa has done enough innovating to span several culinary lifetimes, and, more than most things cooked up during the nineties, his miso-marinated black cod, rock shrimp with spicy mayonnaise, and tuna tartare with a bed of crushed avocado all have stood the test of time. But the sushi has never been great, and with twelve Nobu outlets now scattered around the globe, it’s becoming clear that franchising has its costs.
41 Bouley and Bouley Upstairs
Some of the food here is still worth the high price of admission, but like a faded rock icon, David Bouley keeps returning, perhaps too often, to the fusion-mad eighties of his youth. For a more dynamic experience, cross the street to the great chef’s newest restaurant, Bouley Upstairs. There you can pay $38 for a bite or two of Bouley’s poached lobster (in a reduction of porcini mushrooms, red wine, and paprika), and perhaps even catch a glimpse of the master himself, clattering his pots and pans in the tiny open kitchen amid a cloud of steam.
42 Spice Market
Considering its location (in the middle of meatpacking-district hell), its ridiculous size (as big as a bus depot), and its strange hothouse décor (like the palace of an arriviste Balinese drug lord), it’s a wonder this restaurant works at all. But Jean-Georges’s take on the street foods of Southeast Asia works to surprising effect, and despite its eccentricities, Spice Market is just plain fun. If you can’t get a table (and even if you can), sit at the cantilevered bar upstairs, where it’s a pleasure to dine on chicken wings drizzled in a sticky-sweet chile sauce, or bowls of curried duck, or the short ribs, which are softened in a mass of onion and green chiles, and watch the party unfold.
43 Peter Luger
When I asked Masa Takayama to name his favorite restaurant in New York, he grinned and said, “Peetah Lugah.” This is still New York City’s greatest chop house, in the same way that the Met is our greatest museum. Lunch is the time to visit. The waiters are more genial, and you can order a hamburger. Or you have all afternoon to digest the fifteen slices of porterhouse you just devoured.
44 DB Bistro Moderne
The home of Daniel Boulud’s celebrated $29 foie gras burger also happens to be the home of other less well-publicized delicacies. If we gave out stars for satisfaction alone, we might rate this restaurant above the more showy Boulud establishments uptown. If it’s Friday, treat yourself to the bouillabaisse, which is as condensed and aromatic as any fish soup west of Marseille.
45 Jewel Bako
The glittering interior is probably worth the hike to the East Village (the name means “jewel box”), and despite the constant migration of sushi chefs, Jack and Grace Lamb’s unlikely restaurant remains the consensus choice among sushi snobs for the best sushi downtown. I tend to agree, even though it’s often impossible to find a space at the packed sushi bar.
David and Laura Shea run a mom-and-pop shop for the new millennium, complete with organic suppliers, a shiny modern kitchen, and their young preschoolers scampering around the room. In the winter, there’s a crackling fire; in warm weather, café tables spill out, in posh Park Slope fashion, onto the tree-lined street. On a good night, gourmet staples like short ribs, crunchy-topped cauliflower, or a creamy lobster soup are as good as anything in midtown.
Like Ouest, which earned Tom Valenti the eternal gratitude of serious eaters all over the Upper West Side, this hearty Italian establishment is designed to convey equal parts elegance, bonhomie, and sheer bulk. The stromboli served in the bar is the best in the city, and it’s always amusing to watch local celebrities like Yoko Ono wrestle with dishes like the formidable Valenti pork shank, a leviathan haunch of meat braised in flagons of wine.
48 Perry Street
The most consistently excellent items at Jean-Georges’s understated new personal canteen (he owns a condo upstairs in the all-glass Richard Meier building in the far West Village) tend to be simple favorites like country lamb chops, roast chicken, and very tender beef tenderloin smothered in a spinach-and-Gruyère sauce. Given the ornate quality of the chef’s recent productions, there’s something to be said for slight, subtle flavors and a dose of Zen-like calm.
I know plenty of pasta hounds who consider this perpetually mobbed Batali/ Bastianich trattoria to be the best restaurant in town. If you go on a weekday, at lunchtime, it just might be. That’s when the restaurant turns into an old-style neighborhood joint and you can enjoy your perfectly pitched, perfectly Roman bowl of spaghetti alla carbonara without being elbowed, New York style, in the nose.
Chef Marco Canora learned all about the sanctity of seasonal ingredients from Tom Colicchio during his time at Craft. At Hearth, in the East Village, Canora puts his own Italianate spin on this kind of highly mannered, Greenmarket cooking. The worst thing you can say about it is that it’s a kind of cut-rate version of Craft itself, which isn’t such a bad thing at all.
The menu’s loaded with baroque-sounding dishes, and the dim dining room looks uncannily like an overpriced and not very promising Chinese restaurant. But the re_ned, hearty food—suckling pig simmered in milk, salty, lightly eggy carbonara—at this Italian branch of the Livanos-family restaurant empire is always interesting, and often exceptional.
52 The Spotted Pig
This gastro-pub, which improbably received a Michelin star, is the only such place I know where you can get a plate of duck eggs at the bar, feathered with tuna bottarga. The gnudi are as good as everyone’s been telling you, and if you’re searching for an unusual chowder during these wintry months, they have an excellent one made with smoked haddock. Enjoy it before 6 p.m. After that, the mobs arrive and the wait staff turns brusquely efficient, like bouncers at a nightclub.
53 Mas (Farmhouse)
This is one of those mannered, dainty West Village restaurants that seem to send a certain type of discerning female diner into paroxysms of delight. The room is small and beautifully appointed, and the talented Bouley-trained chef, Galen Zamarra, turns out delicious high-organic recipes like steamed-razor-clam chowder, and squab baked in little pots of clay. Best of all, this is the only restaurant in town where you can procure Kumimoto oysters splashed with rosé champagne at 3 a.m.
54 5 Ninth
In the Disneyland environment of the meatpacking district, this townhouse restaurant seems almost quaintly discreet. But there’s nothing quiet about Zak Pelaccio, a young fusion chef with a big, Rabelaisian style. Pelaccio combines a knack for old-fashioned goodness (he’s a wizard with pork belly) with an instinct for eye-catching combinations using ingredients from far-off destinations like Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur.
The most intimate of all the Jean-Georges restaurants underwent a controversial makeover a few years ago and now looks like the interior of a stylish mortician’s home. This dents only slightly the pleasures of time-honored Jean-Georges chestnuts like roast chicken smothered in green olives, with the signature stack of chickpea fries.
56 The Four Seasons
There may be better places to eat in New York City, but this is the single greatest room. We specify the Grill Room, of course, and at lunchtime, not dinner. That’s when members of the town’s power menagerie gather along the banquettes like sea lions on a rock. Everything on the extravagant menu—$50 for a steak, $38 for crab cakes—tastes much better when you’re on an expense account. When in doubt, order the dependably sturdy bison burger ($36) and a Bloody Mary or two, then sit back and enjoy the spectacle.
57 Sparks Steak House
The prices are extreme here, too, and on a busy night (which is most nights) diners get pushed through the joint like pigs through a gate. But thanks to the quality of the New York strip, and the ghost of Paul Castellano hovering over the room, Sparks achieves that delicate balance between tradition and big-city chic better than any big-volume steakhouse in Manhattan.
58 Mary's Fish Camp
Two stars for this haute Village fish shack because, well, the food’s just awfully good. The seafood soups and stews are uniformly nourishing, and the estimable lobster roll is so bulky (it’s accompanied by a thatch of straw fries) it looks like it should be defused rather than eaten. Possibly Mary’s isn’t quite as good as Pearl’s, as many grizzled old salts in the Village insist. Then again, maybe it’s better.
59 Pearl Oyster Bar
This much-emulated restaurant expanded from its original confines to the space next door. So now twice as many people can elbow up to the bar on a bleak winter’s day and slobber down restorative bowls of clam chowder made with country cream and double-cured bacon. Then there’s the famous lobster roll. It may not have been quite as good as Mary’s the last time we checked, but it’s twice the size of anything you’ll find on the coast of Maine and, dare we say, twice as delicious.
Is this sophisticated, modestly priced little Italian joint in the West Village on the same two-star level as Monsieur Ducasse? Well, not really. Factoring in cost, satisfaction, and overall fun, you could argue that it’s an awful lot better. The kitchen produces the kind of straightforward, unfussy food that, if encountered at a trattoria in the hills of the Veneto, would send the average jaded New Yorker into paroxysms of tourist glee.
61 Otto Enoteca Pizzeria
The front room is designed to evoke an Italian train station, a place where you can stand at long marble counters and sip a glass of Barolo or an espresso. Inside, you can nibble wedges of Mario Batali’s lardo pie, or tuck into pastas like linguini with speck and toasted garlic or spaghetti Siciliani tossed with mint, chiles, and bottarga. The gelati—olive-oil, caramel, pistachio—are superb. If my daughters could name their personal five-star restaurant in New York, this would be it.
The notion of elevated Mexican seafood may come as a shock to New Yorkers who have subsisted for decades on a meager diet of margaritas and warmed-over nachos. A visit to Richard Sandoval’s establishment in Turtle Bay will set you straight. Two stars for the seafood meatballs (albondigas), which are served in a creamy orange sauce with a trace of truffles, and for the fish tacos, and for the fat, messy-bottomed tortas sold at the Pampano Taqueria, in the atrium of a nameless office tower next door, which are the best in town.
63 Artisanal Fromagerie and Bistro
I thought Terrance Brennan’s cheese-centric brasserie was contrived when I first reviewed it. Since then, Brennan and his cheese nerds have conquered the world, so I’ve made my peace. The cheeses come in endless forms and varieties—puffy cheese gougères, endless fondues, and rich tastings of Berkswell, Bitto, and Shelbourne blue. The classic brasserie menu has grown more assured over time, and the restaurant is my mother’s favorite place in town for a festive family brunch with her gaggle of grandchildren.
64 Brasserie LCB
Jean-Jacques Rachou’s solution to the death of grand French cooking was to rewire La Côte Basque with mirrors, potted palms, and a new brasserie menu. Luckily, this new menu contains an impressive roster of old-world dishes like calf’s-liver Lyonnaise, a crispy-fat version of roast duck, and tripe à l’Armagnac served with the respect it deserves, under a great silver warmer. There are older, more refined bistros on the Upper East Side, but for this kind of rustic Burgundian cooking, Brasserie LCB is the best place in town.
This clubby, increasingly raucous establishment, on the ground floor of the Rivington Hotel on the Lower East Side, is Kurt Gutenbrunner’s aggressive play for downtown hipness. The ambience can be loud and contrived, but Gutenbrunner is a first-class chef, and dishes like monkfish wrapped in Christo-like blankets of crunchy potato skin, or gently poached lobster with béarnaise sauce, are much more interesting than anything you’ll find at nearby Gus’s Pickles.
The elaborate Klimtian setting is still one of the prettiest restaurant dining venues in town, and it no doubt had an intoxicating effect on the Michelin judges, who honored David Bouley’s Austrian restaurant with two stars. So did the unquestionable quality of J. D. Hilburn’s near-perfect schnitzel. But the worn, unchanging menu, the spotty service, and the perennially drab expense-account crowd make the whole production feel frozen in time, like some dated bull-market Valhalla.
This is the most tasteful of the big new Japanese dining palaces that began their assault on the city a couple of years ago. The ceiling looks like the hull of an upturned samurai ship, and the bar is as long as a city block. You’d expect chef Tadashi Ono’s cooking to be elaborate and showy, but in fact it’s solid, sensible, and faithfully Japanese.
68 BLT Steak
Laurent Tourondel made his considerable reputation several years ago at a great though now defunct seafood restaurant called Cello. So it’s no surprise that he manages, at this original member of his ever-expanding BLT chain, to freshen the tired old steakhouse formula with all sorts of artful touches, like nine different steak sauces and every imaginable side. The beef is generally excellent, but Tourondel’s signature dish is the roast chicken, which is tender and crispy, with deposits of bread crumbs and rosemary stuffed under its crackly skin.
69 Bar Americain
This midtown enterprise is staid by Bobby Flay’s flamboyant standards, but if you’re searching for a decent place for a power lunch, you could do an awful lot worse. The Iron Chef traveled around the country looking for regional specialties, and came up with squash blossoms stuffed with pulled pork, tastings of artisanal ham, and shooters of cold crab salad with sweet corn and coconut. Do go at lunch, however. That’s when Flay rolls out his excellent version of the Kentucky hot brown, composed of French toast, slabs of baked turkey, thick strips of bacon, and a wedge of tomato, all drowned in a rich, cheesy, cream sauce.
Sit at the bar here and you may encounter groups of hungry priests from Emilia-Romagna or pasta-starved fashion buyers in town on junkets from Milan. The proprietors are from Ravenna, and although they’ve opened other successful restaurants around town in recent years, the original midtown establishment remains the showcase for their satisfying, eminently traditional brand of home cooking.
71 Fiamme Osteria
There are all sorts of restaurants to choose from in Steve Hanson’s sprawling fine-dining empire (Blue Water Grill, Ruby Foo’s, Dos Caminos), but this high-style Soho Italian osteria is probably the best. Chef Michael White earned three stars from the Times and one from Michelin for Fiamma’s little raviolini stuffed with braised rabbit, prosciutto-laced garganelli bombed with truffle butter, and wine-braised short ribs on pillows of celery purée. With its glass elevator and rows and rows of tangerine lampshades, it feels like a twenty-first century version of an Italian speakeasy run happily amok.
72 Oriental Garden
The staples of the classic Chinatown experience are all on display at this venerable Elizabeth Street establishment. You’ll find the standard menus, big round tables set with pink tablecloths, and milky fish tanks filled with dazed-looking fish. The usual arcane Cantonese dishes are available, but order from chef Wong Wong’s specialties— notably, the cracked lobster with eggs and scallions—and you can’t go wrong.
73 Payard Patisserie and Bistro
François Payard’s polished Lexington Avenue es- tablishment could be twenty spots higher, I suppose, but this critic doesn’t live on the Upper East Side, and he doesn’t eat many chocolate operas anymore. If you’re feeling wistful about the old French traditions, this is a good place to find them. Payard’s restaurant also excels in the vanishing art of high afternoon tea.
The Upper East Side party set still congregates in the tiny dining rooms here, and by the looks of things, they’re having a much better time than they used to back at Mortimer’s. If Wasps can be said to have their own ethnic cuisine, you’ll find it here: chicken hash, cheese soufflés, and chicken curry cooked in the pallid, retro-British manner, of course.
75 Mermaid Inn
Any one of Jimmy Bradley and Dan Abrams’s engaging, popular restaurants (the Red Cat, the Harrison) could make an arbitrary top-100 list like this one. At this East Village branch of their bistro empire, seafood trends high (arctic-char tartare) and low (fried clams, fish chowder) mingle in a happy, even artful way. Sit in the front if you can; the back room looks like a chowder house in some forgotten suburb of Boston.
At this swank establishment in Soho, the Bangkok chef Ian Chalermkittichai produces fusion delicacies like “chocolate-back ribs,” as well as old Thai favorites like white tuna buried in fragrant piles of coriander and basil. Their enjoyment is enhanced by a variety of feng shui–approved features, like live goldfish by the bar and a pond with floating candles in the middle of the dining room. This is Thai food elevated to multi-star level.
Rustic and brick oven are overused terms in Italian-food circles, but if you wish to trace them back to their roots, this bunker-like Nolita establishment is a good place to start. Everything comes out of the wood-burning ovens, and late at night, as the ovens roar, the pots clatter down on the table, and the food is passed to and fro, it feels like you’re taking part in a communal gourmet bacchanal.
The genial Tuscan chef Cesare Casella has made a reputation over the years as a kind of poor man’s Mario Batali. No wonder the best place to eat at this solid establishment is the capacious oak bar. This is a space designed for the serious, solitary consumption of hearty, unhealthful specialties like grilled sausages, messy Tuscan ribs, and the pleasingly greasy lemon-fried chicken, served over a mound of very un-Tuscan fried green tomatoes.
79 Blue Ribbon
I still recall, with a kind of eerie, adolescent clarity, my first taste of marrow bones at this groundbreaking bistro many years ago. Here was simple food raised to the highest level; artistic after-hours cooking for unfussy gourmands who love to eat. The Bromberg brothers have expanded the franchise in recent years, and their formula has been widely imitated, but as long as marrow bones remain on the menu, the charms of this seminal restaurant will endure.