Like errant samurai, armies of cooks and kitchen slaves are always on the move during times of dislocation and upheaval. So it’s no surprise that during the Great Bust of ’09 talented chefs reinvented themselves all over town in a variety of unlikely, imaginative ways. Take that accomplished culinary chameleon Josh DeChellis, who, after stints cooking high-end Japanese fusion and haute Italian, is now turning out elegantly rendered tapas dishes at the swanky midtown revival of the sixties-era Joe Baum classic, La Fonda del Sol. The décor in this new restaurant next to Grand Central Terminal isn’t as feverishly inspired as the original’s, but DeChellis, who was born in Colombia, turns out to have a talent for infusing classic Spanish recipes with upmarket ingredients and impeccable technique. The best things on the menu tend to be the smallest ones (beef empanadas flavored with cinnamon, little tube-shaped croquettes filled with jellied veal terrine, the lunchtime pulled-pork sandwich dressed with pickled fennel), and the place to enjoy them is in the café, at lunchtime, where you can wash everything down with glass after glass of the excellent house sangria, served in little glass jugs brimming with fruit.
“This is the best food I’ve ever tasted at this restaurant,” intoned my elder-statesman father as he sipped a bowl of the velvety, lobster–infused chestnut soup that the new chef, Fabio Trabocchi, has added to the menu at The Grill Room at The Four Seasons Restaurant, that perennial fat-cat hangout. Trabocchi made his reputation as a pyrotechnic chef, first in Washington, D.C., then at the Michelin-starred Fiamma, Steve Hanson’s failed experiment in gourmet Italian cooking. But here, among the staid suits in midtown, his cooking has a mature, even stately feel. If you happen to have $36 in your pocket, my father recommends the elegant new lobster burger (served lunchtime, with pommes soufflés) and the imaginative new pastas, which include spaghetti alla chitarra (mingled with uni, crab, and hints of chile) and a properly decadent version of fusilli all’Amatriciana, which Trabocchi sprinkles with salty shreds of guanciale and rich spoonfuls of melted Pecorino.
Last year’s comeback-of-the-year award went to Paul Liebrandt, that famously temperamental kitchen diva who found redemption at Drew Nieporent’s polished gourmet establishment Corton. This year, former Veritas chef Scott Bryan has found a pleasant new home at the tiny, surprisingly excellent East Village restaurant Apiary, and Craig Hopson seems to have won the approval of the discerning, embattled gourmets at Sirio Maccioni’s polished old-world establishment, Le Cirque. But the 2009 blue ribbon goes to Andrew Carmellini, who, after months of wandering in the wilderness, has returned, in impressive fashion, to Robert De Niro’s raucous new trattoria, Locanda Verde. If you’re dining with a ravenous crowd, the dish to order during the crowded evening service is Carmellini’s bountiful garlic-crusted chicken for two, which is perfectly cooked and hoisted to the table on a platter over mountains of sautéed zucchini and fennel. But my favorite time to visit this mobbed, occasionally uneven restaurant is during lunchtime, when the decibel level drops by half and the menu includes a variety of inspired comfort-food dishes, like Carmellini’s ode to the classic Italian-American hero, which he constructs with roasted sausage, piles of sweet pepper and tangy broccoli rabe, and spoonfuls of housemade ricotta, all tucked in an overstuffed submarine bun.