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.