Oh, dear God, not another cheeseburger,” my friend the Food Aristocrat said with a sigh, as we sat examining the menu at one of the new restaurants in town. In soothing professional tones, I told her to get used to it. Opulent Parisian-style cuisine was on the ropes even before the investment houses and hedge funds began toppling. Now the trickle of upmarket hamburger joints, careering food trucks, and twee downtown dessert bars has turned into a veritable flood. In the corporate dining halls of midtown, bread pudding has replaced molten chocolate cake as the iconic power dessert. Among the city’s community of snooty Japanese-food freaks, simple bowls of soba and ramen noodles are all the rage, and in Italian-dining circles, the recent obsession with tuxedos and overpriced finger foods has mercifully disappeared, replaced by a return to good old-fashioned simplicity and largesse. On the stylistic front, so-called “speakeasy chic” has become the dominant theme of the trendiest joints downtown, and in a truly bizarre twist, the city’s hottest new dining neighborhood isn’t Nolita, or Fort Greene, or even Tribeca; it’s that perennial culinary wasteland, the Upper West Side.
Are foie gras and truffles gone forever? Of course not. We’d argue, in fact, that for the serious New York eater, the opportunities for a first-class dinner have never been better. Top chefs are feverishly reinventing their menus, bargains are plentiful even in the most august establishments, and in outlier culinary regions like Williamsburg and Central Park West, new dining establishments are proliferating like rabbits.
On the following pages, you will find our annual guide to the best new restaurants in New York. As usual, our recommendations are the product of countless hours spent ingesting heart-stopping delicacies at grandiose expense-account establishments, peering at menus in dimly lit noodle bars, and swilling cocktails with antic strangers in clamorous downtown gin joints. Also as usual, we’ve broken down our survey into a hodgepodge of sections designed to reflect everything that’s current and new in this trend-obsessed restaurant town. Read on, and you will discover where to procure the best artisanal steak in town, the best reasonably priced Sichuan feast, and the best English-style treacle pudding. You’ll also find our usual highly subjective compilations of the ten best new restaurants in New York, the best new young chefs, the most elaborately lethal cocktails with which to addle yourself during these anxious times, a few trends we’ve seen enough of, and, last but not least, the single best dishes in the city for a deliciously economical ten bucks.
With pricey, ambitious restaurants pulling in their horns and formerly posh clients dropping like flies, how does a talented young chef avoid getting caught in the great restaurant downdraft of ’09? If you’re John Fraser, you find a cheap little space to call your own, in a prosperous neighborhood starved for good food, and you commence, quietly and diligently, to cook up a storm. These days, if Upper West Side gastronomes want a taste of cutting-edge Greenmarket cuisine, they don’t have to book a table at chic downtown establishments like Blue Hill or Craft. They can fight for a seat at Fraser’s elegant little townhouse restaurant, Dovetail, where the ever-evolving seasonal menu features breaded lamb’s tongue, fillets of locavore-approved striped bass stacked over creamy polenta, and, of course, pork belly, which the chef sweetens with shallots and serves with a single barely poached egg. Lately, Fraser has laid on an elaborate brunch for the local burghers featuring duck goulash, among other country delicacies, but if you’re eating dinner, save room for the ultrarefined bread pudding, decked in high farmhouse style with a sweet coating of bacon-flavored maple syrup.
The Internet-only reservation system at David Chang’s latest experiment in upmarket East Village dining, Momofuku Ko, is harder to crack than Fort Knox, and once you get inside, the hushed, overly reverent atmosphere among the assembled food geeks can have a stifling effect. But the cost of the inventive, seasonally evolving multicourse dinner is only $75 to $100, compared with $450 at the city’s other great omakase restaurant, Masa. All things considered, that’s a small sum to pay for a taste of wickedly delicious Changian creations like frozen foie gras shaved over pine-nut brittle and Riesling gelée, or the intensely flavorful mirin-braised then deep-fried short ribs, or the sweet, plum-size scallops I enjoyed one evening, smothered in a rich, smoky vinaigrette gently infused with bacon, of course.
Another great gourmet bargain in this suddenly thrift-conscious town is the one being offered by that wily restaurant veteran Drew Nieporent at his sleek new Tribeca restaurant, Corton. The old-world clutter of Nieporent’s original flagship restaurant, Montrachet, has been swept away, replaced by rows of linen-covered tables and clean white walls embossed with sylvan images of butterflies and trees. This peaceful, palate-cleansing whiteness is complemented by the refined, surprisingly understated cooking of the English wunderkind Paul Liebrandt. For a relatively modest $76, your three-course dinner might include dense veloutés capped with tempura mushrooms, candied chunks of sweetbreads decked with tuiles made from brown butter, and old-world delicacies like red-legged partridge flavored with quince. Is this grub too studied for the casual diners of today? Maybe. But if you’re a fan of innovative, high-wire cooking, catch the show while you can. Liebrandt seldom stays in one place for long, and it is a rare thing in the big city these days to see a world-class chef working in such intimate surroundings at the top of his game.
The city’s community of haughty Japanese-food snobs used to idle away their time at refined sushi institutions like Morimoto, Soto, and Sushi Zen, debating the merits of different grades of fatty tuna belly. But now, in these rapidly downsizing times, noodles are all the rage. Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s latest restaurant, Matsugen, is conceptually muddled and ridiculously overpriced, but if you’re a dedicated soba hound, it’s worth visiting to get a taste of the “Matsugen Soba,” made with a cool tangle of buckwheat noodles, fresh shiso, scallions, and a soft-poached egg. When my daughters and I want a more robust noodle feast, however, we commandeer one of the spacious white leather banquettes at Ippudo NY, on Fourth Avenue, where the girls like to visit the basement to observe the noodle makers, in their white noodle-maker hats, diligently spinning out long strands of fresh ramen. But the real draw at this popular Japanese ramen chain are creations like the “Shiromaru Classic” and the generous, pork-rich “Akamaru Modern,” which come with huge porcelain spoons designed for slurping copious amounts of the restaurant’s addictively creamy ramen broth.
Many of the shell-shocked sushi freaks I know are descending into the cozy, bomb-shelterlike space at Sushi Azabu, in Tribeca, for furtive bites of authentically esoteric seafood delicacies like rare “red” sea urchin, which is jetted in from the Sea of Japan and costs about $12 a bite. That’s roughly the price of a full lunch, with all the trimmings, at Curry-Ya, on East 10th Street, where I like to repair on cold winter afternoons to sit at the polished, fourteen-seat marble bar and gobble spoonfuls of the bracingly spicy Japanese-style “extra-hot” filet mignon curry, served by a team of chefs wearing jaunty black caps. For an equally economical though slightly more elevated meal, take a seat at Youngsun Lee’s diminutive East Village restaurant, Persimmon, where $37 buys a four-course seasonal dinner of refined Korean-fusion creations like fluke “salada” tossed with ginger sugar, and that great pork-belly specialty bo ssäm, which the Momofuku alumnus serves in small, un-Changian slices with intense house-made kimchee and a single, minimalist napa-cabbage leaf.
For dim sum, the Platt family’s default neighborhood choice remains Chinatown Brasserie, where a mere $17 at lunchtime buys an impressive assortment of imaginative dumpling creations by the Michael Jordan of local dim-sum chefs, Joe Ng. When we’re in the mood for an outer-borough excursion, we pack up the car and head to Lucky Eight, in Brooklyn’s Chinatown, where my friend the China Expert’s current favorite dish is a concoction called “steamed chicken and mushrooms,” scattered with crumblings of cured pork. For all other things Chinese, however, we visit the little pink-walled band box of a dining room at John Zhang’s new Grand Sichuan Seventh Avenue outlet, on the corner of Leroy Street. Zhang’s inspired new menu is a mix of authentic Sichuan and Hunan country favorites, like crunchy, cumin-scented beef, soft chunks of “red cooked” pork tossed with chestnuts, and that old favorite, kung pao chicken, wreathed in a satisfying crown of chile peppers. No dish is over $20, and many cost much less than that, including the crunchy, wafer-thin green-scallion pancakes, cubes of sweet, crispy-edged boneless spare ribs, and, for a reasonable $2.25, that Chinese dessert classic “Sticky Rice Ball Soup,” made with little packets of rice paste bursting with black sesame.
My 8-year-old daughter, Jane, used to agitate on Saturday afternoons for excursions to famous pasta or pizza outposts like Lupa or Otto. But in this burger-obsessed age, her favorite new venue for a communal family feed is Five Napkin Burger, in Hell’s Kitchen, where the giant house specialty (ten ounces of freshly ground beef with melted Comté cheese and caramelized onions between a toasted brioche bun) looks like a pie plate in her tiny hands. For a slightly less messy and more elevated burger outing in the same general vicinity, her father prefers the lunchtime burger at Telepan, up on 69th Street, which chef Bill Telepan dresses with “house brined” pickles and an impressive volcano of sourdough onion rings. If you’re craving a burger at dinnertime, join the rest of the knowledgeable burger hounds crowding the bar these days at Irving Mill, near Union Square Park, where that master of meathead cuisine, Ryan Skeen, has recently taken over the kitchen. Skeen’s elegant little beef bomb is made with bavette, beef cheeks, and pork fatback, and adorned with a slab of melting Cheddar. If you’re feeling reckless, do what my friend the Burger Loon does and complement it with bites of crispy deboned pig’s trotter from the chef’s legendary “charcroute plate,” or squares of sinfully delicious deep-fried “pork toast” topped with regal spoonfuls of caviar.
The lunchtime business hordes in midtown are still stampeding into the great neo-Greek restaurant Anthos for a taste of Michael Psilakis’s fabled lamb burger, but when I’m in the mood for a more traditionalist lunchtime power burger, I repair to the bar at the Lever House, where the restaurant’s new chef, Brad Thompson, stacks his elegantly restrained $22 deluxe burger with layers of tangy baked tomato, more farmhouse Cheddar, and a mound of sweet onions softened in red wine and balsamic vinegar. But the blue ribbon for the best burger in town goes to Joey Campanaro’s perpetually bustling flagship establishment in the West Village, The Little Owl. Campanaro’s bacon cheeseburger is available on the new lunchtime and brunch menus, and it features all the elements of the new deluxe burger revolution, including a blend of brisket and short ribs from the gourmet-beef suppliers Pat La Frieda, twirls of maple-smoked bacon, and brined pickles from Gus’s. But the thing that really sets this epic creation apart from worthy neighborhood competitors like BLT Burger and the Spotted Pig is the bun, which is baked each morning in the restaurant’s own ovens and laced, according to my spies, with the faintest—and most addictive—little trace of molasses.
Once upon a time, a New Yorker’s ideal barbecue meal consisted of a few gnarled pork ribs and a gas-saturated sausage or two. But as the great pit-smoking revolution continues to march on, more and more upmarket chefs are incorporating down-home cooking techniques into their repertories. If you don’t believe me, take a seat at Bar Q, in the West Village, where Annisa chef Anita Lo’s latest culinary theme is the eclectic world of Asian barbecue. The recently redesigned West Village space looks more like a Sex and the City destination than a barbecue joint, but there are properly messy Korean- barbecue-style “pork wings” on the menu, and if you’ve never had tuna ribs, you’ll find that they can be quite palatable when rubbed with yuzu. Pig freaks will enjoy the crackly spit-roasted squares of pork belly (designed to be folded, David Chang style, into a steamed wheat bun), but the most sloppily satisfying barbecue-centric dish of all is the sweet baby back ribs, which Lo slathers in hoisin sauce and ketchup and tops ingeniously with a little tower of crunchy Japanese daikon sealed in a delicate tempura crust.
Asian barbecue is also the theme of Zak Pelaccio’s eagerly awaited Williamsburg smoke joint, Fatty ’Cue. Until that long-delayed project comes on line, join the rest of the hipster barbecue hounds at Fette Sau, on Metropolitan Avenue, and graze on house-made regional delicacies like baked beans stirred with brown sugar, and the great house pastrami, which the scruffy chefs serve Texas style, on broad sheets of butcher paper. The city’s resident Texas brisket genius, Robbie Richter, has left Hill Country, in the Flatiron district, for Pelaccio’s restaurant, but on special occasions Richter’s capable replacement, Pete Daversa, supplements Hill Country’s delectably fat-saturated “soft” beef brisket with esoteric stacks of wild-boar ribs, which I like to wash down with soothing quantities of sweet iced tea served the way they do it in Texas, in an industrial-size pickle jar. The city’s best smoked chicken, for my money, can be found way up in the Bronx, among the chop shops and food warehouses in Hunts Point, at Mogridder’s BBQ, and if it’s high-volume, party-style barbecue you want, you could do a lot worse than a platter of the decorous “Denver Cut” lamb spare ribs at Stephen Hanson’s new big-box juke joint on lower Park Avenue, Wildwood Barbeque.
For years, ambitious young chefs like WD-50’s Wylie Dufresne have turned their backs on big-money midtown establishments and set up shop in cheap, out-of-the-way dining rooms, where the rents are more reasonable and they can conduct their culinary experiments in peace. But lately, this migration of uptown talent to cramped kitchens in unlikely downtown locations has turned into a downright stampede. Whenever I crave a top-notch Continental-style dinner in a swanky Eurotrash setting, I sneak into one of the miniature disco-white banquettes at Bar Blanc, on 10th Street, for a taste of the crispy house sweetbread salad, and the scallops, which the new chef, Sebastian Zijp, serves with curried carrots and a decadent hint of house-cured lardo. For an equally accomplished if slightly more traditional European feast, the choice is Allegretti, on a darkened stretch of 22nd Street in Chelsea, where the Le Cirque 2000 alumnus Alain Allegretti turns out carefully rendered Provençal treats like rich, steamy bouillabaisse-style “Provençale” soup served with house-made rouille and helpings of crispy, coral-colored rouget, which taste like they’ve been beamed in from one of the more glamorous seaside hotels in Nice.
For the best paella this side of Valencia, I like to visit the tiny, perpetually jammed Socarrat Paella Bar, on 19th Street in Chelsea, where the delicious house specialties (try the superb “paella de carne,” made with duck, pork, chicken, and sizzling bits of chorizo) are hoisted to the table in giant cast-iron salvers, just like at a festive Sunday dinner in Spain. If it’s high-minded brasserie cooking you’re after, then join the rest of the glittering mob at Montrachet alum Tony Zazula’s popular back-alley restaurant Commerce, in the West Village. The tiny wooden booths feel like they’ve been designed for parties of hobbits, and the bar area in the crooked little space turns into a mosh pit on weekend nights. But the talented chef and co-owner, Harold Moore, has worked at Jean Georges, among other hoity-toity establishments, and stocks his menu with all sorts of improbably polished uptown treats, like “hand cut” steak tartare dressed with pickled ramps and crème fraîche, oysters served in a delicate stew of leeks and Champagne, and an impeccably cooked roast chicken for two served over butter-laced whipped potatoes, with a crunchy bread stuffing infused with foie gras.
Simone Bonelli is the name of the newest boy-wonder pasta wizard in town, and his laboratory is a little East Village hole in the wall called Perbacco, where the small, sparsely appointed room was crowded, one recent evening, with legions of pasta loons eagerly gobbling down helpings of weirdly flavorful basil ravioli stuffed with mascarpone and tomatoes, and bowls of perfectly articulated agnolotti filled with a delicious mash of crushed melon flavored with mint. Similar rococo creations are available at Olana, on lower Madison Avenue, where another young Italian chef named Al Di Meglio cooks up fat crespelle pancakes stuffed with chestnuts and clouds of lemony ricotta, and a roast rabbit so delicately constructed that even the lunatic bunny lovers at my table pronounced it a success. And if you’re in the mood for comforting trencherman recipes cooked with a light, gourmet touch, make your way to 10 Downing, on a darkened corner of lower Sixth Avenue, where the peripatetic young chef Jason Neroni produces feathery mounds of pork-belly rillettes flavored with apples, an elegant cocktail-size duck cassoulet made with duck meatballs, and a cut of curiously tender bison hanger steak, served with the best patatas bravas in town.
In these lean times, the nourishing, properly utilitarian Waverly Burger is my meal of choice whenever I dine among the caterwauling media celebrities at Graydon Carter’s semi-private dining club, The Waverly Inn. But if you can’t get past the dour doormen, I suggest you follow the rest of the would-be hipsters to the unmarked basement entrance of that other West Village faux speakeasy, Bobo. The kitchen of this stylish hot spot is still a shambles, but it’s a pleasure to sit at the pocket-size upstairs bar and anesthetize yourself with posh cocktail creations like Bobo’s Meade, made with Plymouth gin, lime, and lavender-infused honey. From there, our Village pub crawl proceeds to Rusty Knot, Taavo Somer’s raffish yuppie dive bar, near the banks of the Hudson River. Late in the evenings, the nautically themed space can be chaotically crowded, but $20 buys a whole array of rib-sticking bar-food specialties, like good Depression-era meat-loaf sandwiches made with ketchup and white bread, baskets of pork ribs gently simmered in Coca-Cola, and, for $4, the best salty fresh-baked pretzel dog in town.
The Zombie Punch is the name of my favorite mind-bending libation at Akhtar Nawab’s little 8th Street restaurant, Elettaria, although to my dismay, the combination of absinthe and three varieties of rum is so potent that the bartenders limit their customers to one drink per sitting. Happily, that’s not the case at the granddaddy of all retro speakeasy joints, Freemans, where raucous crowds of revelers were, on my most recent visit, knocking back a dizzying new cocktail called Death in the Evening (Cointreau plus Champagne with an absinthe wash) between bites of surprisingly good rabbit rillettes and platters of deliciously smoky pork stew cooked up by the restaurant’s talented new chef, Michael Citarella. There are also plenty of decent bar snacks available at Madam Geneva, the spacious, dimly lit gin joint in the back of the new Anglo-Asian restaurant Double Crown, in the East Village. Order the steamed buns laced with ground duck, or the little canoes of sizzling bone marrow streaked with miso, then chase them down with a strangely addictive house specialty cocktail comprising Plymouth gin, orange-juice spritzer, and a spoonful of cardamom-spiked marmalade.
The geniuses behind Employees Only serve up similar faux East-West treats at their ornate new speakeasy hot spot, Macao Trading Co., in Tribeca, and if mezcal is your drug of choice, then perch yourself on one of the lime-green stools at Junior Merino’s cheery Latin-themed barfly destination, Macondo, and commence knocking back glasses of the signature velvet-thick avocado-and-mezcal creation, mixed with Cointreau, agave nectar, and a teaspoon of honey. If you prefer to get blotto in luxurious speakeasy style, book a table at Apothéke, which opened not long ago behind an unmarked dungeon door on Doyers Street in Chinatown. With its decorative curtains and glowing marble bar, noted Viennese “cocktail chef” Albert Trummer’s new lounge-lizard venture looks like the stage set for a cockeyed, slightly threadbare production of The King and I. But there’s no doubting the potency of egg concoctions like the Mata Hari (rye, egg whites, Indian bitters, absinthe, lime) or the cool, smooth, gin-infused Seven Herbs, which tastes way better than absinthe and packs a similarly devastating punch.
Big, Fat Italian
It used to be fashionable, in certain highfalutin Italian circles, to mix risotto with a flourish in silver chafing dishes in the dining room, and have waiters perambulate your food around on trolley carts, the way snooty Parisians do. But these days, frippery is out and good old-fashioned gusto is back. To experience this feeding frenzy firsthand, try squeezing into Michael Psilakis and Donatella Arpaia’s latest midtown restaurant, Mia Dona. The sparely appointed little railroad space on 58th Street is routinely jammed with assorted portly pasta fiends, merrily pounding down generous Psilakis creations like chitarra heaped with Manila clams and strips of zucchini, and the famous house gnudi, which the chef drenches with truffle-butter sauce and ribbons of crunchy speck. The real house specialties, however, are the rustic carnivore dishes like delicately fatty lamb ribs, which Psilakis cakes in a rich layer of beet “gremolata,” or if you’re feeling brave, try the Bunyanesque sliced pork chop, which is plated over a huge thatch of frisée and crowned with a single fried egg.
The great hubcap-size veal alla Milanese is my favorite dish at Joe and Jason Denton’s trendy new establishment, Bar Milano, and whenever I’m wandering around the upper reaches of Lexington Avenue, I like to drop in to the inspired mom-and-pop joint Sfoglia, for a taste of the baccalà-and-ricotta-filled crespelle drizzled with leeks, raisins, and a touch of honey. Similarly filling delicacies are available at Scott Conant’s popular new downtown restaurant, Scarpetta, on the western end of 14th Street. The former uptown chef turns out bowls of his famous “creamy” polenta made with industrial amounts of Parmesan, a delicious spaghetti with basil and fresh plum tomatoes, and Conant’s formidably excellent baby-goat entrée served with an avalanche of summer peas and chopped fingerling potatoes. If you want to end your meal with a touch of lightness, try the coconut panna cotta for dessert, which is topped with melting coconut sorbet and a pool of sweet orange quince.
Michael White’s Alto is still the sophisticate’s choice in midtown for a decorous, upmarket Italian feed, and if you’re feeling nostalgic for the gilded era of big-city dining and have $175 to blow, you can’t do better than Mark Ladner’s impeccable, constantly evolving “Grand Tasting Menu” at Del Posto, down in the meatpacking district. But for authenticity and inventiveness combined with relative thrift, nothing beats Michael White’s $59 four-course prix fixe dinner at the newly refurbished Tudor City restaurant Convivio. Begin your banquet with a skewer of grilled quail with sweet onions, and a bite of the faintly boozy chicken-liver crostini made with onions sautéed in Marsala wine, then proceed on through the blizzard of pastas (fusilli smothered in braised pork shoulder, “tortelli di Amatrice” ingeniously stuffed with pork jowl) and generous entrées, like swordfish involtini filled with pine nuts and sweet currants, and the squab, which White somehow imbues with the crackly sweetness of Peking duck. Finally, if you’re still standing, chase it all down the way serious eaters in Sicily do, with the sturdy house version of “affogato al caffé,” made with several scoops of vanilla ice cream and spiked with bracing shots of fresh-brewed espresso.
The New Brooklyn Cuisine
To the honor roll of sainted outer-borough dining destinations like Franny’s, Dressler, Applewood, and Egg, let’s add Char No. 4, on Smith Street. On rainy evenings, I like to slouch at the long, tobacco-colored bar with the rest of the scruffy bourbon scholars and contemplate the impressive display of esoteric bourbons and ryes, including a bottle of Jim Beam Distiller’s Masterpiece Port Finish, which costs an astonishing $100 per shot. But the real reason to visit this deceptively nondescript storefront operation is the cooking of Matt Greco, who fills his reasonably priced menu with an assortment of elegantly rendered, homey treats. The classically trained chef uses crushed cornflakes to bread his fried oysters, brines shoulders of lamb into delicate, candy-pink ribbons of pastrami, and produces a diabolically delicious BLT made with pickled tomatoes, a melting slab of braised, fried pork belly, and fresh romaine. If you have room after your plate of smoky Texas-style beef links and a helping or two of heart-clogging “fried pork nuggets,” don’t forget the butter-pecan ice cream, splashed with a shot of bourbon, of course.
The latest downmarket hot spot in restaurant-mad Williamsburg is La Superior, on Berry Street, where the tiny space was packed, the last time I dropped in, with crowds of local taco fiends clamoring for a taste of authentically messy Mexican-street-food specialties like plump corn-cake gorditas filled with chorizo, and the massively nourishing, impressively economical $7.50 “torta ahogada” made with spicy chile de árbol and vats of gently stewed pork poured over a layer of pleasantly soggy sourdough bread. If you wish to dine like a true midtown swell, however, sprint around the corner to Walter Foods, on a semi-darkened stretch of Grand Street, where it’s a relief to sit in the dimpled black leather banquettes with the rest of the local gentry and sip sophisticated Manhattan-style concoctions like the pleasingly anesthetizing Diablo (tequila and honey), while snacking on helpings of pepper-crusted filet mignon and the inspired local version of pigs in a blanket, made not with hot dogs but with Mexican chorizo wrapped in a buttery pastry crust.
For a properly rustic dose of what my perceptive “Underground Gourmet” colleagues have called the New Brooklyn Cuisine, take a seat at The General Greene, on the corner of DeKalb and Clermont Avenues in Fort Greene, where the bar is made of polished butcher block, the bar stools are fashioned from dented old tractor seats, and the former midtown pastry chef, Nicholas Morgenstern, plies the neighborly mob of farm-to-table converts with barnyard staples like deviled eggs and bacon-wrapped dates, along with enticing fusion recipes like slow-baked pork ribs dressed with creamy aïoli, and blocks of bread pudding leavened with ham and melted Gruyère cheese. All sorts of high-end barnyard creations also adorn the menu at Bussaco, on Union Street in Park Slope, but if you’re wise, you’ll conclude your ramble through the gastronomic wilds of Brooklyn with one or two of the restaurant’s deceptively artful desserts. The seasonally changing treats have included platters of fresh-baked chocolate-chip and peanut-butter cookies and an elevated version of crème caramel touched with maple. But the dish my confection-starved food friends in Brooklyn can’t stop nattering about is the densely creamy, icy-smooth panna cotta, which is served with wedges of grapefruit or roasted strawberries and decorated with a dusting of vanilla beans.
The Upper West Side Renaissance
Not so long ago, smug downtown critics (like me) considered the Upper West Side to be a culinary disaster zone, where the restaurant-starved inhabitants wandered the bleak landscape gnawing on gristly shards of General Tso’s chicken, and formerly promising chefs crawled off to die. Not anymore. With the arrival of the polished, shockingly spacious Shake Shack across from the Natural History museum, local burger junkies don’t have to travel downtown for their Shack Burger fix. Italian-salumi addicts will find all sorts of esoteric imported sausages and hams available at Salumeria Rosi, Cesare Casella’s new small-plates Italian tapas bar next to the Jacques Torres outlet on Amsterdam Avenue, and if fancy French charcuterie is your thing, you’ll find the best selection in the city across from Lincoln Center at Bar Boulud. Daniel Boulud’s newest dining venture is riotously noisy in the evenings, and the standard brasserie items on the menu can be slipshod. But rustic specialties like the smooth, house-made boudin blanc, and the tantalizing array of saucissons and luxurious Parisian pâtés and terrines, are worth a special trip.
Tom Valenti’s Ouest, on upper Broadway, is still where all my fatso fresser friends in the neighborhood like to go to inhale crispy portions of quail stuffed with ground sausage, and platters of the chef’s patented braised short ribs, dressed, the last time I checked, with baby beets and spoonfuls of creamy, rich horseradish sauce. But if you can’t stomach this kind of unrelenting excess, then wander a few blocks south to Valenti’s new brasserie, West Branch, where there is a whole range of more modestly priced (and portioned) trencherman dishes, like confited duck leg sunk in bowls of buttery choucroute, and a special hot pressed pannino stuffed, in the traditional Valenti manner, with dainty deposits of mashed short ribs and melted cheese. Similarly, the little bar at Terrance Brennan’s great restaurant Picholine is still my favorite venue north of 63rd Street for a decorous gourmet dinner, but if the little shoe-box-size space is overrun in the evenings with opera fanatics from Lincoln Center, then make your way uptown to Ed Brown’s ambitious new restaurant, Eighty One, off the lobby of the Excelsior Hotel on West 81st Street. The restaurant has its own cache of black truffles from Provence and Osetra caviar from the Caspian Sea, but the best dishes on the veteran chef’s varied Greenmarket menu tend to be the simplest ones, like little wheels of fresh Montauk calamari tossed with garlic chips; oysters simmered with leeks and bacon; and a great, truncheon-size braised veal shank, which Brown serves, in contemporary barnyard style, with a helping of velvet-smooth organic grits spooned from a shiny silver pot.
The traditionalist $17.50 platter of scrambled eggs and lox is my breakfast choice whenever I visit the new location of 2nd Ave Deli, on 33rd Street, and for a more rough-and-tumble morning feed, I like to take a seat at the mercifully uncluttered new Shopsin’s outlet, in the Essex Street Market off Delancey Street, where the foulmouthed Kenny Shopsin and his lunatic son, Zack, rain down imprecations on their long-suffering patrons while turning out a dizzying variety of toothsome griddle specialties, like the “Juju” (Reuben hash, eggs, rye toast) and the fearsome “Castles,” made with three of Kenny’s patented hamburger sliders and buttressed with a small mountain of scrambled eggs.
One of my favorite brunch-time libations is the weirdly refreshing “Milwaukee Champagne Cocktail” (Miller High Life beer, Angostura bitters, a splash of orange soda) at Market Table, on Carmine Street. But for a truly elaborate, upscale market-restaurant feed, the choice is BLT Market, in the Ritz off Central Park South, where the enjoyment of Laurent Tourondel’s carefully rendered locavore treats like wild-mushroom egg frittatas and golden pieces of Amish chicken is only enhanced by the native barnyard smells coming from the assembled horse carriages lined up across the street. If delicately rendered, crêpelike galettes are your thing, Bar Breton, the new Fleur de Sel spinoff, serves five morning-time varieties, including an elegant version delicately stuffed with over-easy eggs and chorizo. If you want to partake of the latest in Spanish-style breakfast fads, follow the fashion-conscious mobs to the new Boqueria Soho outlet, for specialties like truffled lamb sausage and lentils, and the delicious “revuelto pinotxo” (scrambled eggs and rock shrimp on brioche). Or, for Italian morning fare, head to Keith McNally’s new early hot spot, Morandi, where it’s a pleasure to dine in the snug, raftered room on faux-Italian brasserie specialties like “pizza occhio di bue” (grilled pizza topped with a fried egg) with a side of boar bacon, or the delicious “fagottino con prosciutto,” made of two butter-topped crêpes folded in neat triangles around strips of salty ham and Fontina cheese.
On lazy Saturday mornings, my wife and daughters like to wander over to The New French, on Hudson Street in the Village, to nibble the toasty baguettes slathered with strawberry-rhubarb jam and admire the yellowing, delicately wrought Bemelmans-style mural on the wall, while their father noisily inhales the excellent brisket sandwich dressed with hearty amounts of red-pepper chutney and mustard aïoli on fat slabs of ciabatta. In the proper weather, the outdoor garden at Elizabeth, in Nolita, is a pleasant place to sit among the neighborhood hipsters and sip the strangely bracing house Bloody Mary tipped not with Worcestershire but with spicy Thai chile peppers. For an aggressive post-hangover feed, I recommend the huge, crispy-edged oyster omelette served weekends only at Zak Pelaccio’s Fatty Crab. Or, for a similarly restorative feast, try Kingswood, off Sixth Avenue, where you can plop yourself down among the scruffy, half-dazed Aussies and order the “Kingswood Fry,” which is composed, as every self-respecting pub crawler knows, of two eggs, a rasher of Commonwealth-style bacon and bangers, and a wedge of thick, properly greasy fried bread.
Good Old Steaks and Chops
When my friend the Steak Loon wishes to recapture the grandeur of bull-market Manhattan, he straps on the old feed bag and heads to Jeffrey Chodorow’s brand-new retro chophouse, Center Cut, in the Empire Hotel near Lincoln Center, where he likes to sit in the cream-colored, heavily fortified leather seats and dine in regal solitude on standard beef-eater favorites like steak Diane and steak Oscar, made with choice cuts of meat from the famous Brandt Farm in California. Stephen Hanson’s cavernous beef palace, Primehouse, meanwhile, still offers the most impressive selection of all-natural boutique meat downtown, and if you’re planning to blow $46 on a single flap of prime rib eye from Creekstone Farms in Kansas, I recommend you spend an additional $8 for a rasher of crispy brown “old school” hashed-browns, dripped, according to ancient steakhouse custom, with sizzling bacon fat. Buttermilk onion rings and a king-size helping of “Mr. Pete’s” bacon-topped creamed spinach are my favorite artery-clogging side dishes at Michael Lomonaco’s Porter House New York, in the Time Warner Center. And whenever I grow weary of this kind of ritualized steak-parlor excess, I wedge myself into one of the elf-size tables at Shorty’s.32, in Soho, and call for the simple but generously cut $30 New York strip, which the kitchen serves with a little roasted garlic and a modest squirt of lemon.
The best non-steakhouse steak dish in the East Village remains the imposing, dry-aged rib eye from Four Story Hill Farm in Pennsylvania, which the dedicated nonvegetarians at Momofuku Ssäm Bar serve with a few token spoonfuls of sweet shallot confit. My beef-eater friends in Tribeca are obsessing over the colossal, improbably tender boneless rib eye that Marc Forgione serves amid the carefully gathered flea-market knickknacks at his nouveau-barnyard establishment Forge. And whenever they’re in the mood for something a little lighter, they trundle over to The Harrison to feast on new chef Amanda Freitag’s beautifully charred hanger steak, supplemented, of course, with bowl after bowl of the restaurant’s legendary duck-fat fries. For a veal chop prepared in a properly regal uptown style, my choice is Park Avenue Winter, where the Smith & Wollensky–trained grill masters cook their meat to a perfect pinkness, then bury it in drifts of crunchy green garlic-bread crumbs. And if it’s a relatively light Mediterranean-style red-meat meal you’re after, you’ll find it at my discerning Upper East Side mother’s favorite new neighborhood restaurant, Persephone, where the rafters in the cozy little room are painted in colorful stripes to resemble a seaside taverna in Greece, and the rustic little lamb chops are served over sautéed escarole and a pile of mercifully healthful wild greens.
In the olden days, ambitious restaurants used to update their looks in all sorts of exotic and attention-grabbing ways. But as the no-frills Greenmarket sensibility continues its inexorable march across the fine-dining landscape, menus are being simplified, waiters are dressing down, and rococo red-and-gold color schemes are being replaced with muted grays and browns. At Alain Ducasse’s stripped-down new venture, Adour Alain Ducasse, at the St. Regis New York hotel, for instance, the waiters wear brown suits, not tuxedos, and when you ask for a pour of non-bottled water, it’s dispensed with minimal ceremony from what looks like a handcrafted porcelain milk jug. The formerly baroque dining room in the St. Regis has been refashioned in soft tones of burgundy, and the compact, two-page dinner menu reads like Monsieur Ducasse has just returned from an earnest listening tour of upstate farm stands. There’s no denying the impeccable country freshness of the foie gras terrine, or the technically perfect, Greenmarket-approved Berkshire-pork tournedos, plated here with pork belly and a wheel of loose, freshly made boudin noir.
The gold medal for the most outlandish new design of the year goes to the Belgian restaurant chain Rouge Tomate, which has recently turned the former Nicole Farhi boutique in midtown into an elaborate two-level dining space complete with waitresses dressed in tomato-colored outfits and towering backlit photographs of trees. And if you never made it to Dubai during the boom years, join the rest of the jet-lagged business travelers at Kerry Heffernan’s giant, mosquelike dining establishment, South Gate, in the Jumeirah Essex House, where the “Meat and Fowl” section of the menu contains a good, if pricey, selection of boutique farm meats, and the excellent chocolate mille-feuille dessert is flecked, in nostalgic high-roller style, with shavings of gold leaf. For a slightly more sedate experience, my wife and I like to visit that old plutocrat watering hole Daniel, where the designer Adam Tihany has recently scrapped the room’s pompous, retro-Vegas look for an elegantly muted color scheme of beige and brown. On our most recent visit, the potted palm next to our regular table by the kitchen door had been mercifully removed, so we could gaze out at the new room, with its acres of brown carpet and new pearl-colored chandeliers. If you have the cash for the $105 three-course prix fixe meal, you can’t go wrong with executive chef Jean-François Bruel’s sleek renditions of classics like the crunchy-topped tête de veau and the ivory-colored block of slow-baked Dover sole, which my wife enjoyed between sips of a newfangled mixologist cocktail called the Dr. Stormy, made with house-brewed ginger beer and Rémy Martin cognac infused with Lapsang Souchong tea.
The city’s legions of big-spending gourmands may be in a momentary funk, but restaurant prices have been slowly sinking for months, and there are still plenty of venues in this food-mad town where you don’t have to spend like a king to dine like one. The jewel-box dining room at Jean Georges was jammed with the usual assortment of ogling tourists and business sharpies when I treated myself, the other afternoon, to an elaborate $28 lunch featuring soy-glazed short ribs stacked with sticks of green apple, and an appropriately chaste dessert of chocolate petits fours arranged on a simple silver tray. When my big-shot wino friends don’t feel like springing for thousand-dollar Burgundies at the usual posh oenophile hangouts like Veritas and Cru, they sneak over to Jody Williams’s snug new “gastroteca,” Gottino, on Greenwich Avenue, where you can nurse relatively cheap glasses of Barbaresco while nibbling on the chef’s selection of reasonably priced, constantly evolving Slow Food–style specialties like baked apples stuffed with cotechino, and platters of artichoke tossed with Pecorino and mint.
If you don’t feel like shelling out a day’s worth of wages for Thomas Keller’s superb tasting menu at Per Se, then join the rest of the working stiffs at the great chef’s elegant soup kitchen, Bouchon Bakery, where a mere $12.75 buys the finest grilled-cheese sandwich in town, made with fat triangles of pain au lait and melted Gruyère and Fontina cheese, along with a cup of nourishing, lightly creamy tomato soup. Sixty-eight bucks is a fair price to pay for the elaborate five-course pasta tasting menu at Marco Canora’s accomplished midtown restaurant, Insieme, but for roughly $50 less you can enjoy a similarly diverse meal at the chef’s closet-size East Village wine bar, Terroir. If you get there during the five o’clock happy hour, you get a free glass of respectable Spanish sherry, which you can supplement, for six or seven bucks more, with wedges of the excellent house crostini topped with chicken liver, or a chiffon-like spread of whipped lardo, followed by a helping or two of the house-made lamb sausage rolled in bread crumbs and packets of frizzled sage.
The cheap-eats deal of the century on the Upper West Side is the $16.95 three-course dinner at Michael Psilakis and Donatella Arpaia’s expanded new-Mediterranean-comfort- food destination, Kefi, on Columbus Avenue, and if you’re a starving fat cat down on his luck, you’ll find solace at the casual wine lounge at the latest iteration of Le Cirque, where $21 purchases a platoon of uncommonly delicious gourmet mini-burgers with ornamental toppings of sautéed mushrooms and Comté cheese. The best bargain by far in the sprawling Danny Meyer empire is the $14 soup-and-sandwich deal at Gramercy Tavern, anchored, on the afternoon I dropped in, with a giant open-faced sandwich comprising ribbons of maple-smoked ham, melted Manchego, and two perfectly cooked eggs. For a truly grandiose and economical feed, however, I like to line up at eleven in the morning with the rest of the pork hounds at Porchetta. The noted Tuscan expert Sara Jenkins sprinkles giant wheels of crackly pork with rosemary, fennel, pollen, and sage, and serves it in generous helpings for $14 a platter, with a mess of sautéed greens. If that doesn’t satisfy your cravings for pig, plunk down an additional $9 for one of the ethereal, pork-stuffed sandwiches, and I guarantee you won’t have to eat anything for the rest of the week.
And Finally, for Dessert
“Daddy, you don’t have to eat every single thing,” whispered one of my horrified daughters as she watched her portly father chomp his way through a mammoth, triple-layer wedge of excellent dulce de leche cake, a slice of gooey, pretzel-topped candy-bar pie, and several plutonium-dense, barely digestible “Compost Cookies” at the Chang empire’s new dessert outlet, the Momofuku Bakery & Milk Bar. My daughters didn’t think the Momofuku treats were nearly as remarkable as the chocolate sundae or the marshmallow-topped s’mores cupcakes available at Dessert Club, ChikaLicious, down on 10th Street, but their father would like to state, for the record, that Momofuku’s savory breakfast foods—the two-fisted pork-and-egg sandwich and the bacon-larded neo-knish called “the Volcano”—are both worth a trip, especially when washed down with a flagon or two of the patented Cereal Milk, which pastry chef Christina Tosi flavors with a hint of Corn Flakes and plenty of sugar.
Among the many pleasures of April Bloomfield’s new gastro-seafood restaurant, The John Dory, is the selection of bountiful English desserts, like fresh-baked Eccles cakes and a golden, gently steaming dome of treacle pudding for two, which the chefs cut with lemon zest and pour with a velvety custard sauce. If you wish to enjoy bread pudding in regal, big-city style, join the crowd of merry parishioners and puzzled-looking business folk at the new congregation hall turned haute-barnyard destination Inside Park at St. Bart’s, where pastry chef Miran Shim scatters this stout country dessert with candied pecans and sets it in a pool of opulent, faintly eggy crème anglaise. For a slightly more elevated haute-barnyard dessert experience, however, my discerning pastry-snob wife prefers the caramel brioche at Corton, which the resident pastry genius, Robert Truitt, dresses with an orange, yolklike spoonful of passion-fruit cream, little diaphanous slips of caramelized banana, brioche ice cream, and a tiny cube of Stilton cheese.
For pastry prepared in the classic uptown style, you won’t do better than the honey-crisp apple strudel that is on the new menu at Mrs. Astor’s favorite Upper East Side neighborhood joint, Café Boulud. And if you wish to experience the vanishing pleasures of gilded Manhattan one last time, take a cab to the multi-starred Michelin restaurant Gilt, in the Palace Hotel, order a glass of Champagne, and ask pastry chef David Carmichael to whip up his special creation, toasted-hazelnut-ricotta panna cotta. You will notice that the ricotta gives this naturally light dish some depth, and that the hazelnuts give it a pleasing, smoky crunch. And if you beg politely, the waiter will bury this delicate confection, the way the old hedge-fund high rollers used to do, in drifts of freshly shaved white truffles.