80 Tía Pol
This diminutive Chelsea tapas bar is possibly the best traditional Spanish restaurant in a town curiously devoid of such things. The food is Basque, to be precise, and includes crunchy, creamy croquettes (which change daily), skewers of lamb marinated in garlic, little pyramids of batter-fried shark, and endless varieties of cod. Everything is modestly priced and modestly sized, so if you don’t like one dish, do what the tapeadores do and order three others.
The Italians, those geniuses of casual comfort food, haven’t quite mastered the kind of elegant bistro dining practiced by the French. Leave it to Jonathan Waxman, that well-traveled savant, to do it for them. He’s created a relaxed French-style café, with enviable pastas and risottos and comfortable Italianate amenities like a cappuccino machine and a wood-burning brick pizza oven thrown in.
Chinese fusion was one of the more unfortunate restaurant trends of 2005. Thankfully, the really good dishes at this new Upper East Side restaurant are reliable old Chinese favorites like crispy-bottomed potstickers, messy Cantonese egg noodles stacked with cracked lobster, and wood-cooked Peking duck carved at your table by actual Peking-duck chefs from Peking.
The name means “oven” in Arabic, specifically the ancient stone contraptions used to bake toasty flat bread. The Middle Eastern fusion menu is satisfying and refined (excellent meze, beef cheeks braised with chickpeas, oxtails rolled in little cigars), but the bread, which is piping hot and pooled with oil, is reason enough to visit what is arguably the best restaurant in Hell’s Kitchen.
84 Pure Food and Wine
This high vegan establishment smells vaguely of pulped cabbage, and the wistful glossy pictures of happy ducks and smiling sheep induce annoying pangs of guilt in carnivores like myself. But chef Scott Winegard’s recipes—zucchini-and-yellow-tomato lasagne, trumpet-mushroom “calamari”—win two stars for innovation alone. Even more surprising, they’re generally delicious.
If you’re wandering around the Upper West Side and crave a really good helping of braised-goat moussaka, you’ll find it here. The self-taught chef and owner, Michael Psilakis, also stuffs his traditional Greek manti dumplings with puréed chestnuts and a hint of bone marrow. If anything, the desserts are even more extreme—a good thing in a neighborhood not generally known for culinary experimentation.
86 Bao 111
Among the hipsters and lounge lizards who frequent this glitzy little establishment on Avenue C, you’ll often find serious food professionals commenting on the authentic qualities of the pho or Michael Huynh’s iron-pot chicken. Huynh peppers his traditional recipes with all kinds of inventive touches, like fattened short ribs wrapped around sticks of lemongrass, and cubes of filet mignon prepared Saigon style with frizzled shallots, garlic, and peppercorn sauce for dipping.
87 Nice Matin
Andy D’Amico’s beef daube is made with giant Americanized short ribs (sweetened with a whiff of oranges), and the locally famous “five-napkin burger” comes topped with aïoli instead of ketchup. It isn’t quite Nice, but for a traffic-clogged corner of West 79th Street, it will do.
For reasons known only to himself, Arnaud Erhart located this classic artisanal brasserie on Van Brunt Street, in the wilds of Red Hook, Brooklyn, next to an old funeral parlor. This does not affect the pleasures of his prix fixe menu, however, which is dotted with excellent examples of classic French dishes—steak tartare, fresh oysters, charcuterie—and costs just $25.
The proprietor of this excellent Brooklyn bistro is Laurent Saillard, a veteran of Balthazar, among other places. His chicken-liver schnitzel is the best in Fort Greene, or anywhere else, for that matter. If you’re looking for an excuse to explore the glories of DeKalb Avenue, it’s worth a special trip.
Gabrielle Hamilton’s insight was to find her own tiny, out-of-the-way space and to cook for her customers the kind of straightforward, generally delicious food she preferred to cook for herself—soft-shell crabs in season, fried sweetbreads with capers, grilled rib eye doused with butter. So started a trend among accomplished chefs, which continues to this day from Clinton Street to Fort Greene. The bar food—deviled eggs, shrimp toast—is some of the best in town.
Tony Liu, formerly of Babbo, has a knack for lightening inherently rustic dishes while preserving their essential goodness. The tarte flambée here has a kind of elevated creaminess to it, glazed pork shank comes with a sprinkling of healthful pea shoots, and the excellent orata is grilled whole and doused with a melting mixture of citrus, olive oil, and fresh herbs, just like they do on the coast of Sicily.
92 Al Di Là
Anna Klinger and her husband, Emiliano Coppa, bring a touch of the Veneto to their perpetually mobbed restaurant in Park Slope. If you manage to fight your way through the door, pay special attention to dishes like braised rabbit with black olives and polenta; fat Venetian malfatti (Swiss-chard gnocchi); and the hanger steak, which is tinged with balsamic. Klinger’s desserts, especially the gelati, are the best in this increasingly restaurant-happy corner of Brooklyn.
Gennaro Picone’s industrious enterprise on the upper reaches of Amsterdam Avenue has morphed over time into the de facto Italian neighborhood joint for the entire Upper West Side. This is good, honest food, fairly priced. Be prepared to pay cash for your stinco di agnello (lamb shank braised in red-wine sauce) or your fresh gnocchi drenched in cream and basil, and to smile indulgently as other people’s children roll about under your knees.
94 The Grocery
If you wish to chart the beginnings of haute Brooklyn cuisine, this is the place to begin. The Greenmarket menu—country sausages with apricot mustard, blinis with smoked trout—is straightforward and satisfying. But, sadly, the prices don’t feel like Smith Street anymore; they feel like Soho.
This casual, generally mobbed restaurant on Rivington Street is the Lower East Side capital of small-plate dining, Italian style. There are antipasti, tramezzini (a kind of Viennese equivalent of small plates), bruschetti (or something close to it—try the one hollowed in the middle, like a toad in the hole, and filled with egg, truffles, and Fontina cheese), and, of course, panini of all kinds. If you can secure a table, you’ll have a front-row seat on the nightly promenade up and down Rivington.
Marc Murphy’s Tribeca bistro seems designed, perhaps a little too ambitiously, to be a steakhouse, a trattoria, and a late-night brasserie rolled into one. But the wines are only marked up roughly 30 percent above cost (instead of 100 percent), and the boudin noir is a world-class example of that vanishing specialty.
Any self-respecting New York restaurant ranking must include a pizza parlor. At this excellent Flatbush Avenue establishment, you can peruse the pedigrees of the various toppings (oregano from Stokes Farms in Old Tappan, basil from Claverack, etc.) while waiting for your delicious and rigorously organic pie to arrive.
98Grand Sichuan Eastern (Second Avenue)
The popular Grand Sichuan empire is a shadowy land characterized by many restaurants of varying quality and rotating cast of chefs. The famous West Side outlet on Ninth Avenue is highly regarded, but word is the most accomplished of the newly arrived Sichuan chefs now resides here. Try the formidable Chungking pepper chicken, chunks of spicy chicken wreathed in a crown of chile peppers.
The specialty at this popular, ingeniously realized niche restaurant is dessert and dessert only. Most of the action takes place behind the bar, where the pastry chef and co-owner, Chika Tillman, and her assistants whip up their creations—sorbet floating in sparkling wine, melting wheels of fromage blanc “cheesecake” on great blocks of ice—with the diligent intensity of world-class sushi chefs. On weekend nights, the line can snake out the door and down the block.
100 Café Sabarsky
It’s easy to forget, in this era of plastic cups and lattes to go, that coffee is a luxurious, old-world drink. A single cup at this high-minded Viennese café on upper Fifth Avenue costs $5 and comes to the table on a silver tray. There are excellent Viennese specialties like sausages, goulash, and a whole selection of strudels and chocolate tortes, but the coffee’s stimulating effects will stay with you throughout the day.
101 Momofuku Noodle Bar
A plate of pork dumplings costs $6, and the steamed Chinese buns cost $7 or $8, depending on whether they’re stuffed with roast chicken, shiitakes, or sweet slabs of pan-seared Berkshire pork belly. Ask the off-duty chefs lined along the bar whether they’d trade these dishes for an haute cuisine dinner uptown, and they’ll do what I do when I repair to this great East Village restaurant after too many rich, expensive meals in too many fancy restaurants. They’ll call for another plate of pork buns, and tell you to get lost.