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Where to Eat 2008

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Sorry, No Reservations


Momofuku Ssäm Bar  

Once upon a time, the poshest sort of people agitated for reservations at fancy uptown restaurants manned by haughty maître d’s dressed in shiny black dinner coats. But in this, the no-jacket-required era, the hottest tables tend to be located in out-of-the-way neighborhoods in tiny-roomed establishments, many of which don’t take reservations at all. If you don’t believe me, go mingle on a frigid Saturday evening with the rest of the doomed hoi polloi outside Graydon Carter’s semi-private dining club, The Waverly Inn. To gain access to the pleasingly raffish dining-room sanctum occupied by Carter and his chums, you’ll need a special phone number or e-mail address, or you’ll have to show up personally, then get on your hands and knees and beg. Is it worth it? Maybe. The seafood items (classically prepared Dover sole, fresh “plank-grilled” trout with spindly organic carrots) are surprisingly good, and so is the fat, $13 Waverly burger, which was curiously enlivened, on the evening I enjoyed it, by a partially obscured view of what might or might not have been the back of Gwyneth Paltrow’s head.

They don’t take reservations at Gemma, either, so if you can’t get a table at the new, high-decibel Italian joint in the Bowery Hotel, elbow your way through the mob of banker boys and fashion assistants to the bar for helpings of the excellent fried zucchini flowers (when they’re in season), fresh sea-bass crudo splashed with grapefruit, and little wedges of crostini piled with chicken-liver purée. Farther uptown, in the Flatiron district, the crowd of burger hounds and assorted Belgian-beer aficionados begins massing on the sidewalk outside Resto before 6 p.m. The hamburger at this elegant Belgian gastropub is considered by some members of the city’s fractious burger community to be better than the fabled monster at that other great no-reservations gastropub, The Spotted Pig. I thought it was underwhelming by the grandiose burger standards of today, although the peppery, honey-soaked lamb ribs were worth the hour-long wait. Ditto the deviled eggs, served on little postage stamps of crisp-fried pork, and the great vat of beef-cheek carbonnade, which my garrulous waiter suggested I wash down with a tall glass of an amber Belgian ale called Kwak.

The most popular Italian restaurant on the Upper East Side continues to be Ron Suhanosky and Colleen Marnell-Suhanosky’s accomplished, perpetually crowded mom-and-pop shop, Sfoglia, and if you wish to keep current with the fashionable downtown dining scene, travel to 13th Street in the East Village and battle for a seat with the rest of the scruffy pork loons at David Chang’s Momofuku Ssäm Bar. Despite his James Beard award and fawning write-ups in countless glossy food magazines, Chang doesn’t take reservations, either. It’s possible to circumvent this policy by preordering the sumptuously massive, $180 bo ssäm, which, as every downtown meathead knows, is an entire Berkshire pork butt slow-cooked in gallons of sugar-drenched soy sauce and wine. Otherwise, you’ll have to wait patiently in line with the rest of the meat-obsessed sophisticates for a taste of the thin-sliced, delicately jellied veal-head terrine, followed by a bite or two of lamb’s belly. Or slip over to the newly relocated Momofuku Noodle Bar and queue up there for a taste of the chef’s special honeycomb tripe, which is slow-braised with bacon, chile peppers, and carrots and served in a white bowl, like Texas chili, but with a porcelain Chinese spoon.


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