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Where to Eat 2008


The New-Chef Parade

In the fraught, high-stakes world of big-time restaurants, tempers are short, strife is common, and armies of bedraggled chefs are always on the move. Lately, the chefs’ carousel has been spinning at warp speed, and several of the city’s grand establishments have benefited from an infusion of new talent in the kitchen. After perfecting his Haute Barnyard techniques with Dan Barber at Blue Hill at Stone Barns, the great Slow Food impresario Michael Anthony arrived a year or so ago to restore Danny Meyer’s Gramercy Tavern to its former greatness. Anthony is a master in the gentle art of poaching and braising, and he’s imbued the formerly tired, predictable menu with servings of smoked lobster, pork belly with baby turnips, and tight little ballotines of braised lamb shoulder soft enough to eat with a spoon. My friend the Barbecue Loon recommends the pulled-pork sandwich (dressed with apples and Savoy cabbage) on the revamped Tavern menu up front, and if you have a taste for country desserts, you won’t find anything better than the chocolate bread pudding, served with candied cherries and a scoop of vanilla ice cream spiked with anise.

Midtown’s newest kingpin of haute Italian cuisine is Michael White, who has succeeded the talented Scott Conant as the executive chef at L’Impero and Alto. At the Tudor City branch of L’Impero, White serves up elevated trencherman specialties like twirling housemade fusilli poured with a creamy, cheese-laced pork-shoulder ragù, and the grandiose controfiletto di manzo, a grilled sirloin heaped over fried potatoes and roasted mushrooms. But the prolific Rabelaisian cook reserves his most inspired new creations for Alto, on 53rd Street, where members of the starchy expense-account set are arriving in droves to gorge themselves silly on opulent pasta dishes like cream-soaked agnolotti stuffed with ground Piedmontese beef, fresh-made quills of garganelli covered with Piave cheese and little sticks of smoked Tyrolean prosciutto, and the superior house risotto, which, the last time I checked in, was laced with Parmesan, acorn squash, and spoonfuls of duck fat.

Oceana’s new chef, Ben Pollinger, recently won that posh midtown seafood palace its third-consecutive Michelin star, and at Fiamma, in Soho, the flamboyant out-of-towner Fabio Trabocchi has stocked the fancy new menu with ornate creations like Kobe-beef carpaccio and an inventive, aristocratic interpretation of that tricky peasant dish baby goat. But perhaps the most impressive kitchen overhaul of all has taken place at Le Cirque, where Sirio Maccioni’s latest chef, Christophe Bellanca, has expanded the pricey, formerly stolid menu to include a whole variety of sophisticated, radically pricey new treats. The grandly impersonal room underneath the Bloomberg tower remains filled with the usual collection of grimly smiling contessas and aging plutocrats tottering to and fro in their pin-striped suits. But when I dropped in not very long ago, there were an impressive nine specials of the day on the menu, along with all sorts of newfangled entrées: dim-sum-size ravioli swollen with foie gras, carefully deboned portions of squab crusted with crushed walnuts, and ribbons of chestnut-flavored pappardelle decked with braised pheasant, which the plutocrats merrily supplemented one night (for a $185 fee) with shavings of white truffle shipped direct, via Maccioni’s fabled connection, from the hills of Alba.

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