Where to Eat 2004

Room With A View: Asiate, in the Mandarin Oriental Hotel.Photo: Kenneth Chen

During the course of what I’ll call “The Great Post-Millennial Comfort-Food Stampede,” certain immutable truths emerged in the world of big-city dining. Brasseries are always in vogue, and any restaurant with the word barbecue in its name will get mobbed, at least for a month or two. In difficult times, rustic is the favored buzzword among Italian chefs, and casual spinoff is the term restaurant barons employ when they wish to sell lots and lots of profitable drinks. Some of these trends will hold true in 2004, but during my culinary perambulations around town, I’m beginning to detect a subtle turn in the weather. With the stock market on the upswing, high-end establishments are beginning to fill up again. Formerly baroque, unfashionable phrases like “Asian fusion” are suddenly fashionable again, and with the completion of the mammoth haute cuisine food court in the new Time Warner Center on Columbus Circle, a new wave of great chefs will soon be setting up shop in Manhattan. And in the meantime, as the city slowly comes back to life, sophisticated food continues to bloom all around town. Only it’s wrapped in modest packages and tends to be served in the most unlikely, out-of-the-way places.

Rockefeller Center: The famed oyster dish, "deconstructed" at Jack's Luxury Oyster Bar.Photo: Kenneth Chen

Four years ago, when Wylie Dufresne began producing his own brand of clean, high-level cooking downtown in the wilds of Clinton Street, he was considered a pioneer. These days, however, he’s just one of the crowd. Gourmet chefs are popping up in formerly abandoned tenements; tiny, crumbling brownstones; and even in the wilds of Red Hook, Brooklyn. Meanwhile, chef Dufresne’s newest Clinton Street venture, WD-50, has all the trappings of a polished, uptown establishment, complete with shiny new unisex toilets and fat-cat limousines idling outside by the bodegas. The menu is almost too worldly and experimental, but if you order just one meal, start with the white anchovies (dusted with unsweetened cocoa and served over a smooth tile of foie gras), followed by the pork belly (flavored with an eccentric sauce made with soybeans and star anise).Similarly ornate dishes are available at small, out-of-the-way establishments like JACK’S LUXURY OYSTER BAR, on 4th Street in the East Village, and SNACK TAVERNA, on Bedford Street. Jack’s (run by the proprietors of the equally fine sushi restaurant JEWEL BAKO) is located in a narrow brownstone, and on the evening I visited, the chef herself was serving guests pots of pig cheeks steamed in vinegar and a delicious “deconstructed” version of oysters Rockefeller. At Snack Taverna, the menu might be described as “High Greek,” which means bowls of creamy tzatziki to go with your exceptionally tender helping of lamb’s tongues, platters of braised pulled goat, or savory country sausages called loukaniko and a supreme, royal version of stuffed grape leaves resting on a bed of saffron and crushed almonds.Lamb’s tongues weren’t readily available in Brooklyn the last time I checked, but if it’s fresh-made pâté or a perfect steak tartare you crave, there’s no more satisfying place in the city than 360, on Van Brunt Street in Red Hook. I tacked around the Brooklyn waterfront for an hour or more before finding Arnaud Erhart’s small storefront bistro, which is located next to the neighborhood cremation consultant. All the confusion melted away, however, after a taste of the chef’s addictive composition of chopped beets, apples, and sweet bits of herring, followed by a smooth, cooling saffron soup loaded with mussels. The main course was a choice of onglet (French for hanger steak) or butter-sautéed monkfish, which you can enjoy (together with an appetizer and dessert) for the felicitous price of $20.

Quite A Stir: The French Mojito with champagne from Mix In New York.Photo: Kenneth Chen

In case you missed it, the trendy new tapas joint BAR JAMÓN is the latest addition to the ever-expanding Batali-Bastianich universe. In the beginning, however, there was BABBO, which in turn begat LUPA, which then, in a sideways manner, gave birth to OTTO ENOTECA PIZZERIA, where the faux-Italianate train-station bar drew throngs of adoring, Barolo-swigging customers from the night it opened, and the specialty pizza crust, when I first sampled it, tasted like aged, desiccated old taco shells. Happily, however, after much experimentation, Batali has made his pizza work. I like to visit at lunchtime, when the crowds are thinner and you can ponder a slice of the pure, sweet, unadorned pie in peace, followed, possibly, by one of the special pizzas (decked with swordfish or crunchy zucchini blossoms in the summer), before topping things off with a cup or two of the famous house gelato, infused with pumpkins or ricotta cheese or, best of all, swirling deposits of olive oil. If you’re ever in the mood for a $13 martini, the place to find it is at MIX IN NEW YORK, the curiously jumbled stepchild of RESTAURANT ALAIN DUCASSE in midtown. Unlike his spinoff-happy colleague Daniel Boulud at DB BISTRO MODERNE, Ducasse doesn’t serve a great American hamburger, although there’s a decent bison steak on the menu and a fine, sophisticated version of New England clam chowder, incongruously served in a Chinese clay pot. There’s also plenty of cross-cultural incongruity on display at the newest JEAN GEORGES spinoff, 66, where I always seem to find myself shuttled away from the famously lucent fish tanks and placed, with the rest of the walk-in hoi polloi, at the chilly, communal, postmodern mortician’s table in front of the room. I didn’t have the extreme reaction to the shrimp–and–foie gras dumplings that one of my esteemed British colleagues had (he called them “fishy, liver-filled condoms”), but the best things on Vongerichten’s menu by far are the simple, unassailably Chinese dishes like golden squares of shrimp toast leavened with chestnuts, or shrimp tossed with chili pepper and walnuts, or, if all else fails, plate after plate of the scallion pancakes, which are light as potato chips and stacked one on top of the other, like a tower of butterfly wings.

Well Bilt: Cocoa-dusted seared venison from the Biltmore Room.Photo: Joe Scafuro

Giant prawns in sarong is not a dish designed to bring comfort to my friend the food aristocrat, who, like many members of her snooty guild, considers the term “Asian fusion” to be a florid, passé, possibly vulgar phrase, on a par with hors d’oeuvre, say, or spittoon. So imagine my surprise when she took a tentative bite of this exotic composition (it’s sautéed prawns wrapped in crunchy egg noodles) during our visit to THE BILTMORE ROOM, in Chelsea, and pronounced it to be “quite okay.” Our spicy duck samosas turned out to be “quite okay,” too (actually, they were delicious), and so was the sweet, exceedingly soft piece of black cod, marinated in miso and served with pickled lotus root, red-pepper sauce, and a toppling arrangement of cold somen noodles. These recipes are the work of Gary Robins, a longtime Asian-fusion expert who has found sudden fame after wandering the food landscape for years like an errant Japanese ronin. Farther south, in the West Village, similar exotic dishes have been on display for several years now at ANNISA, although the hot new restaurant in my own Sixth Avenue neighborhood is JEFFERSON, where the chef-proprietor, Simpson Wong, serves up crisp fried lobster knuckles flavored with turmeric, fillets of red snapper ornamented with sweet persimmon, and, for dessert, a properly wobbly helping of chrysanthemum-scented panna cotta, which I enjoyed with a bracing pot of Nantou oolong tea.

Cross-Cultural: Crisp-skinned red fish with ponzu butter sauce at Jefferson.Photo: Rick Lew, ricklew.com

BAO 111 is not, strictly speaking, a fusion joint, although Michael Huynh can’t help peppering his inventive Vietnamese cuisine with short ribs (wrapped around sticks of lemongrass) and little cubes of filet mignon prepared Saigon-style, with frizzled shallots, garlic, and a sidecar of chili sauce for dipping. The artful Pan-Asian finger food at the diminutive KUMA INN, on Ludlow Street, is Japanese in spirit, although the best thing I had there was a little pyramid of sweet Chinese sausages, sautéed with caramelized onions, served with sticky rice and a little bowl of Vietnamese-style salsa verde. The genial proprietors of CHICKENBONE CAFÉ, in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, work similar wonders with Vietnamese sausage, which they serve crumbled, with cilantro and spoonfuls of creamy aïoli, in a French baguette. And if that doesn’t fill you up, do what I did and order a bowl of the nourishing house chicken stew (simmered in coconut milk and Thai curry), followed by a comforting hot pressed chocolate brioche sandwich for dessert.

So Sumile: Fresh Alaskan king crab with green-yuzu gelee.Photo: Rick Lew

If you’ve ever dined on chef Troy Dupuy’s inventive menu at LA CARAVELLE, or even visited the grand Boulud outlets like CAFÉ BOULUD and DANIEL, you know that Japanese influences have been seeping into classical gourmet cuisine for some time now. In 2004, however, this modest wavelet threatens to turn into an outright tsunami. In the West Village, crowds of food aesthetes are bull-rushing into the newly opened SUMILE, where chef Josh De Chellis serves up elaborate Franco-Japanese creations like Dungeness crab layered with yuzu gelée, coulis made from fresh uni (sea urchin), and decorous helpings of skate simmered with daikon and Japanese eggplant in a little porcelain pot. Elsewhere, the city’s clique of elite Japanese food connoisseurs are murmuring expectantly about AQUAVIT chef Marcus Samuelsson’s soon-to-be-completed “American Japanese” restaurant, RIINGO, opening this week in the Alex Hotel, as well as the arrival in town of the eminent Tokyo sushi chef Masa Takayama. Takayama’s expensive new restaurant, ASAYOSHI, is scheduled to open this spring in the Time Warner Center food court, where, according to one press report, a top-of-the-line dinner will cost a cool $500 per head. If you can’t wait to blow that kind of cash, then ride the elevator up to the 35th floor of the new Mandarin Oriental hotel, also in the Time Warner Center, and agitate for a window table at the pricey, overbooked, and impressively snooty new restaurant ASIATE. The chef is Noriyuki Sugie, who comes to New York by way of Sydney, and if you’re lucky enough to get a view, it’s a curious, almost nostalgic pleasure to contemplate his intricate fusion recipes for bull-market classics like lobster (cooked in citrus-shellfish broth) and Kobe beef (smothered in oxtail gravy) while the lights of the glittering city play at your feet.

Marks the spot: The sleekly designed dining room at Aix.Photo: Kenneth Chen

Like pro-football coaches, talented big-city chefs lead uncertain, peripatetic lives. They roam from kitchen to kitchen and sometimes vanish for years at a time, but when they return, it’s often in a blaze of glory. This year’s comeback award goes to Andy D’Amico, who began his New York career two long decades ago. Now, like his compatriots at AIX and COMPASS, he’s found fortune serving good food to the ravenous, restaurant-challenged masses on the Upper West Side. You can get all sorts of fancy, Provençal-inspired items for breakfast at NICE MATIN (try the scrambled eggs with spicy lamb sausage), and little baskets of beignets filled with squash blossoms for lunch. My fatso uptown friends swear by short-rib daube (flavored with citrus) and the grilled sweetbreads (served with merguez sausage, lentils, and a rosemary aïoli), and to top off a big trencherman’s luncheon, there’s no better dish on the upper reaches of Amsterdam Avenue than D’Amico’s colossal “five-napkin burger,” muffled in sautéed onions and a chewy layer of Comte cheese. There’s also a fine burger on the new menu at BOLO, where Bobby Flay seems to have returned to the kitchen, at least in spirit, after spending time tending to his scattered, ever-growing culinary empire. His new menu includes (for lunch) a fine example of that delicious, potentially disastrous dish, grilled octopus (it’s charred and served with grilled lemons), plus an array of inventive tapas like salty cod fritters in garlic sauce, skewers of pork and potato sprinkled with smoked paprika, and little cherry-size saffron rice cakes with a shrimp balanced on top. Tapas is also one of the many new themes at DJANGO, in midtown, where the talented, well-traveled new chef, Cedric Tovar, has scrapped the old unilateralist brasserie menu in favor of dishes like steamy spiced beef tagine, tuna tartare flavored with yuzu and green apples, and racks of lamb paired with lamb-shank moussaka. The tapas menu is available downstairs in the swanky, gypsy-themed lounge area, although if you ask politely, like I did, the waiters will bring a sampling upstairs (try the shrimp and calamari acras and, yes, the grilled baby back ribs), grandly arrayed on a long wooden tray.

Blue SmokePhoto: Kenneth Chen

Ever since Danny Meyer opened the doors at BLUE SMOKE, barbecue joints have been popping up around Manhattan like pods of cacti in the parched western desert. Mr. Meyer’s bustling establishment is still the place in Manhattan for a big-city approximation of Texas brisket or Memphis pork ribs, or a newfangled fusion confection called the BLG (bacon, lettuce, and fried green tomatoes), served at lunchtime, of course, at the bar. When I’m in Brooklyn, however, I waddle over to BISCUIT, on the upper reaches of Flatbush Avenue, where you can splatter three different varieties of vinegar-based sauces over the fine pulled-pork sandwich, or a messy confection called a Mr. Brown (composed of the browned tops of the pork shoulder). “Save the Cows … Eat a Pig” is the motto of this little storefront enterprise, which, when it first opened, held monthly communal Carolina-style pig pickings. These days, they’ll arrange a picking at your own home (one pig for $160 or so, depending on weight), and if you’re wise, you’ll order a batch of the excellent double-dipped fried chicken, whose exterior is the color of burnt sugar and thick enough to crack with a spoon.A spoon is about all you need to negotiate the tasty little cupola of spare ribs served nightly at IDA MAE KITCHEN ’N LOUNGE in the garment district. Chef Kenneth Collins’s ambitious restaurant isn’t a barbecue joint at all (try his fancy version of chicken and dumplings, and the gourmet pecan torte), but it’s a curious pleasure to taste mesquite sauce made from scratch and have your ribs deboned and served on a little pile of potatoes au gratin. The proprietors of DAISY MAE’S BARBECUE USA, over on Eleventh Avenue, bring a similar classic technique to the ancient smoky art, and while they serve a decent (by Manhattan standards) pulled-pork sandwich, and Oklahoma jumbo beef short ribs as big as cricket bats, their real specialties are side dishes like mashed sweet potatoes folded with vanilla cream, little go cups of creamed corn brewed in butter and melted cheddar, and thick baked beans (with burnt ends) that taste faintly of caramel.

Mcnally East: Schiller's Liquor Bar.Photo: Kenneth Chen

What began, not so long ago, with a few adventurous prospectors staking claims up and down Clinton Street has blossomed into a full-scale, helter-skelter restaurant gold rush. At least that’s the impression you get when you take a stroll down Rivington Street, where the greatest prospector of them all, Keith McNally, recently opened SCHILLER’S LIQUOR BAR. The room looks like the dining annex of an aged, not very commodious Russian bathhouse, but brunch is generally superior (try the lethal old–New Orleans dish eggs Hussard), and if you’re willing to brave the feverish late-night crowd, you might just catch a glimpse of Moby himself pondering a plate of McNally’s authentic (it’s made, among other things, with Stilton, melted Cheddar, and a dash of beer) Welsh rarebit. There are all sorts of otherworldly delicacies newly available on the Lower East Side, including an exemplary, after-hours version of beef Wellington served at SALT BAR, on Clinton Street. Across the street, at the snug, brick-lined room at CHUBO, $28 is all it takes to purchase an urbane prix fixe dinner of seared foie gras, miso-glazed monkfish, and a slice of sweet-potato cheesecake for dessert. And whenever my carnivore friends and I are marooned below East Houston Street, we repair to the appropriately smoky Argentine grill AZUL BISTRO for the impressively varied parrillada (marinated skirt steak, sweetbreads, baby lamb chops, and a fat blood sausage).For most things Italian, try ’INOTECA—dainty servings of tramezzini (a kind of tea sandwich), numerous varieties of panini, and little bruschetta, hollowed in the middle like a toad-in-the-hole and filled with egg, truffles, and melted fontina cheese. There’s a fine eggplant lasagne on the menu, too, and plates of giant prawns interspersed with crinkly strips of pancetta, and if you’re somehow still hungry after all this grub, sprint a few blocks south down to Orchard Street for a scoop or two of the highly digestible, supremely distinguished prune-and-Armagnac gelato, available until 6 p.m. at the best little ice-cream store in the city, IL LABORATORIO DEL GELATO.

High Steaks: The luxurious bar area at Terrance Brennan. Photo: Kenneth Chen

Diets are a necessary hardship for the food-obsessed, and no regime has captured the collective fat person’s imagination like the no-sugar, no-carbohydrate, all-steak-and-eggs program of the late lamented Dr. Robert Atkins. Like many of my corpulent colleagues and friends, I lost fifteen pounds on a modified Atkins plan not long ago, before promptly (and happily) gaining it all back. But I’ll return to the Atkins regimen one day, and when I do I’ll begin at BALTHAZAR for the new weekday breakfast featuring a very fine version of eggs cocotte, before sneaking up to CRAFTBAR for a chaste afternoon snack of the superior veal ricotta meatballs. The menu at CRAFT, next door, is filled with opulent, protein-rich delicacies like king salmon gently sautéed in butter, or the $78 rib steak, which is hoisted to the table on a great copper salver for two. A fine Indian restaurant like AMMA is a good place to go to break any protein fast (for the butter chicken, particularly, and the numerous crispy, hot kulchas and nans), although until then, a serving of the tender, yogurt-infused tandoori lamb chops will have to do. For a more traditional beef dinner, I’ll take the New York strip at SPARKS, the porterhouse at TERRANCE BRENNAN’S SEAFOOD & CHOP HOUSE, or the prodigious 50-ounce T-bone cut in thin strips and served with uptown flourish at PARISH & CO. in Chelsea. The stately, bandbox-size A.O.C. BEDFORD is where I’d go if I were on an all-suckling-pig diet. The place in town for roast duck is still ILO, and if you crave cheese for dessert, you won’t do better than ARTISANAL or PICHOLINE. For everything else Atkins, the place is OLA, in midtown, where you’ll find rows of formerly blimpish trenchermen eagerly chowing down on nuevo Atkins creations like “mystery meatballs” (made with Kobe beef) and chef Douglas Rodriguez’s fine lamb combo, consisting of lamb tenderloin over paprika-flavored rice with lamb sausage. Rodriguez also serves a boat-size portion of crispy Cuban pork, and seared tuna, sliced and served with calamari salad. This rich dish has a melting, ice-cream-like quality, and if you’re a true Atkins warrior, you might want to ignore the cheesecake (made with goat cheese) and the neatly prepared flan de cocoa, and order more tuna for dessert.

Over The Moon: The Shanghi wontons from Mooncake Foods.Photo: Kenneth Chen

My 4-year-old daughter still considers a bowl of the wavy, mustard-green-stuffed wontons at YEAH SHANGHAI DELUXE, in Chinatown, among the greatest foods in all of New York. When we dragged her down to the genial mom-and-pop operation MOONCAKE FOODS, on Watts Street at the bottom of Soho, she was politely complimentary about the crawfish wontons filled with shiitake mushrooms and the fusion family-style dishes like chicken wings glazed with honey and soy sauce. For a more basic Chinatown experience, I repair to CONGEE, down among the Bowery’s kitchen-equipment stores, for pots of simmering rice porridge loaded with Chinese sausage or slivers of thousand-year-old egg, heaping platters of salt-baked shredded squid with cashews, and deep-fried chicken with garlic-and-scallion sauce.If you’re still not satisfied, then join the lunchtime scrum at JOE’S GINGER RESTAURANT, the bright, tidy alternative to the tired old Joe’s Shanghai mother ship. There are soup dumplings, of course (we liked the ones stuffed with crab), but pay special attention to the pepper-skinned duck and exotic chef’s specialties like fried ginger shrimp, which are lightly breaded, flash-fried, and garnished with bok-choy leaf and sweet, ruby-colored ginger.

Even portly, overfed restaurant critics feel the need for a furtive snack now and then, so whenever I’m languishing between meals, I sneak into Tom Colicchio’s latest spinoff, ’WICHCRAFT, to stand in line with the rest of the reverent foodies for a morning bite of egg, frisée, and Gorgonzola on a ciabatta roll, or one of the several artfully flattened sandwiches on the menu, like braised flank steak, roasted onions, and Gruyère cheese, squeezed between pieces of grilled country bread. Later in the day, I might repair to a cozy slip of a restaurant in the East Village called the CARACAS AREPA BAR. Arepas, in case you didn’t know, are steamy corn buns with a pleasurably chewy density, and they’re served here like burgers, in a plastic basket, and stuffed with classic Venezuelan fillings like mashed chicken and avocados or the aptly named la palua (“the hairy one”), consisting of shredded beef with a topping of shaved Cheddar cheese. ZAITZEFF, down on Nassau Street, and BLUE 9 BURGER, in the East Village, are where I go when I want a more grandiose burger on the fly (all organic beef with horseradish sauce on a Portuguese bun at the former; a classically messy, fast-food double-decker leviathan at the latter), and the new hot spot for hot-dog hounds seems to be WESTVILLE, where $11 buys two perfectly articulated Niman Ranch dogs with a variety of toppings. For the ultimate cholesterol bomb, however, go straight to CARL’S STEAKS, on Third Avenue, where my friend Philadelphia perks up like an old beagle when he smells the familiar greasy funk rising from the grill. The sandwiches are tightly bound in wax paper, like torpedoes, and the available cheeses are American, provolone, or, more correctly, Cheez Whiz, ladled from a bubbling, viscous pot.

Margaritaville: Lucy Mexican Barbecue's version.Photo: Kenneth Chen

“They’re coming over the top, they’re carpet bombing us!” cried a small, desperate voice at the end of our table as the quesadillas and tacos and great barges of guacamole began cascading down around our heads. Wherever you go, supersize dining seems to be all the rage in Mexican circles. Take LUCY MEXICAN BARBECUE, the newest restaurant to grace the ground floor of ABC Carpet & Home, where the large, somewhat uneven menu is redeemed by beefy, elemental dishes like slow-roasted barbacoa of lamb shoulder folded in banana and hoja santa leaves, and by two varieties of pork ribs, one dunked in a sloppy guava-and-ancho-chili sauce, the other, more chaste, crispy variety touched with a healthful tomatillo-avocado purée. Before tackling a robust dinner of potato-and-chorizo quesadillas followed by chili-rubbed goat at SUEÑOS, in Chelsea, you might want to fortify yourself with the house “Double Secret Probation” margarita, which costs $30 and is almost worth every penny.

Tacos Swell: The city's finest Mexican treats at Pampano Taqueria.Photo: Joe Scafuro

For the finest tacos in New York City, go straight to the nameless midtown office tower at 805 Third Avenue, take the escalator to the below-ground atrium, and stand in line with the rest of the salivating lunchtime salary folk at PAMPANO TAQUERIA. You’ll find ten varieties of freshly made corn or flour tacos (try the ones rolled with hanger steak or chunks of shrimp and chile de arbol salsa), along with cheesy quesadillas filled with pieces of red snapper, and giant, wet-bottomed Mexican sandwiches (called tortas) loaded with shredded chicken and laced with creamy tomatillo salsa, or steamy ropes of pulled pork. These formidable creations are wrapped in yards of a silvery cellophane so you can consume them on the fly, in a messy lather, as I did, or surreptitiously in the privacy of your own cubicle.

Leverage: The power scene at Lever House.Photo: Joe Scafuro

Among members of a certain midtown set, the modular, honeycombed dining room at LEVER HOUSE RESTAURANT seems to have momentarily replaced THE FOUR SEASONS as the place to be seen eating your lunch. But I thought the tall, windowless room claustrophobic, even a little stuffy, and although my kinetic publishing friend professed to enjoy her very fine (and very low-carb) chicken paillard, my own pricey lobster dish (with herb spaetzle, wax beans, and cherry tomatoes) was strangely oversalted. The desserts seemed decent, particularly the apple beignets, although none of them was quite as satisfying as the baked Alaska I shared with my mother during our annual lunchtime pilgrimage to SWIFTY’S, where it was a pleasure to watch the diminutive Joan Rivers come sweeping through the door, her face obscured by a huge brown feather boa.Possibly Joan Rivers has made the late-night scene at HUE, in the West Village, although on the evening I dropped in, the two-tiered space was crammed mostly with youthful banker couples all barking into their cell phones. Ask for the “chim quay” (spiced quail), and if it takes too long to arrive, addle yourself with a lemon-basil martini at the bar. The white-truffle pizza is the thing to order if you find yourself marooned among all the hipsters who gather after dark in LA BOTTEGA in the new Maritime Hotel, in Chelsea, and if you crave lobster nachos after midnight, or a plate of button-size hamburgers, the place to find them is in the backroom lounge at POP BURGER, in the meatpacking district, where silent Loony Tunes cartoons play like shadow puppets along the walls and the waitresses all wear bright white undershirts to better exhibit their tattoos.If you can’t wheedle your way into the Soho House for a swank after-hours gourmet meal, may I suggest AMUSE, whose clamorous acoustics are made bearable by chef Gerry Hayden’s consistently inventive cooking. Or, if you have the financial resources, you can camp out at the long, glowing sushi bar at MATSURI, deep in the basement of the Maritime Hotel, where you can bolt down New Age sushi treats (seared toro dripped with pepper miso, fluke with plum purée, etc.), sip icy carafes of sake, and observe the late-night models and their consorts drift to and fro around the huge, nautical-themed room like exotic schools of fish.

Fresh, Exciting: The pan-roasted Atlantic codfish at Mermaid Inn.Photo: Rick Lew

If you don’t feel like jetting down to Acapulco for a fancy seaside dinner, then a quick visit to PAMPANO, in Turtle Bay, will probably do. Not that you’ll necessarily find anything in Acapulco quite as satisfying as Richard Sandoval’s seafood albóndigas, served in a creamy orange sauce with a trace of truffles and melted Manchego cheese or the steamed portion of striped bass, which comes bundled in a steamy banana leaf. Then there are the Mexican-accented desserts, like crème brûlée covered with faintly caramelized bananas, or chocolate flan, which you can enjoy while admiring the great stucco fish decorating the restaurant’s outer walls, or out on the stately townhouse patio under the great, glittering towers of Manhattan. If it’s haute lobster rolls and refined bowls of clam chowder you desire, PEARL OYSTER BAR and MARY’S FISH CAMP have the West Village pretty much sewn up. So leave it to chef Jimmy Bradley and his partner, Danny Abrams, to open their latest restaurant, THE MERMAID INN, in the East Village, where local fish fiends begin lining up in the early evening for a taste of exotic uptown foods like tartare of arctic char. The co-owners of THE HARRISON and RED CAT have a knack for producing (and marketing) elegant middlebrow cuisine, and you’ll find it here in the spicy, perfectly al dente version of spaghetti fra diavolo, containing shrimp and great golf-ball-size scallops served with a crown of arugula.My other favorite seafood pasta is the rich lobster tagliatelle served further uptown, at RM, although for an odd amalgam of high and low, nothing quite beats the skate at OCEANA, which chef Cornelius Gallagher constructs with layers of pastrami and cabbage and plates in a mustard sauce sweetened with huckleberries. At LE BERNARDIN, meanwhile, Eric Ripert has recently managed to make a piece of black bass taste remarkably like Peking duck (the skin is crisp, like candy, and flavored with a spicy duck bouillon), although for real culinary grandeur, try the urchin, which he serves to his rapturous bigwig clientele in a nest of thin linguine, with a large spoonful of pearly gray osetra caviar (for a bigwig supplement of $50), or seviche-style, with sweet bay scallops, over crushed ice, in a large, hairy sea-urchin shell.

Viva Valenti: The Parmesan fritters at 'Cesca.Photo: Kenneth Chen

Hefty chowhound establishments like BEPPE, VIA EMILIA, PEASANT, and GONZO have been all the rage in downtown Italian circles over the past few years. Now Tom Valenti brings elegant, formidably rustic grub to the Upper West Side with the opening of his elegant, formidably rustic new Italian restaurant, ’CESCA. It’s easy to make a pig of yourself in the bar area alone (try the calzone served in dainty slices, or the toasted pork panini), but when you wander back to the main dining room, with its fortified oak tables and rich, butter-colored walls, you might want to bring along a protective bib. You’ll find bowls of crispy Parmesan fritters and poached eggs wobbling atop a thin bed of speck. As at Valenti’s other restaurant, OUEST, you’ll also find dandified offal dishes like liver wrapped in pancetta and tripe served in a pot with garlic toast points, and whatever you do, save room for the superior bucatini (piled with more pancetta) and the mascarpone cheesecake, which is doused in lightly whipped cream and spackled with fennel seeds and bits of orange brittle. I don’t know if Sara Jenkins has perfected a tripe recipe yet, but I enjoyed a nice rendition of wild-boar ragù at her newest home, 50 CARMINE. For a more high-minded Italian feed, this year’s choice is SAN DOMENICO, or L’IMPERO for a pot of Scott Conant’s fricasséed mushrooms followed by a helping of the lightly creamy risotto, piled with little pieces of grilled quail. ESCA remains the Mount Olympus of Italian seafood joints, although for simple fritto misto, the salty, lemony, slightly tempura’d recipe on the menu at BREAD TRIBECA is one of the best Americanized versions of this dish I’ve ever had. And if you feel the need for a little culinary buzz in the middle of the day, make a beeline for ACQUA PAZZA, in midtown, and ask for a bowl of the superior tagliolini al caffè, made with rock shrimp and slices of porcini mushroom, all mixed in a tangle of freshly made tagliatelle tinged with ground coffee.

Dessert Storm: The bar at Chikalicious.Photo: Rick Lew

For old times’ sake, I’ll take one of the toppling, overpriced chocolate ziggurats at LE CIRQUE, and if I had to choose just one newfangled soufflé in town, it would probably be the banana-and-passion-fruit-flavored one at ATELIER (served with tiny chocolates), and for pure chocolate pleasure, I still like the Sacher torte at CAFÉ SABARSKY and the little molten-chocolate-filled beignets at TOWN, accompanied by a gianduja bombe. For simple, retro goodness, I’ll take pastry chef Lauren Dawson’s wonderful apple-cider doughnuts (served with fresh apple compote and maple cream) at Marco Canora’s newly opened HEARTH, and upon gentle prodding, my discerning, long-suffering, sweetly dyspeptic, suddenly press-shy wife hopes I won’t forget BLUE HILL, where the sophisticated $25 “dessert flight” might, on any given night, consist of deconstructed chocolate and pear beignets, mounds of chocolate bread pudding supported by scoops of vanilla and praline ice cream, and medallions of soft, ripe avocado topped with salted caramel and a spoonful of lime sorbet. My wife didn’t accompany me on my covert, quick-strike visit to the excellent JACQUES TORRES CHOCOLATE boutique on Water Street in Brooklyn’s Dumbo neighborhood. But if she had, I’m sure she would have joined the animated flock of (mostly female) chocolate fanatics who sipped their cups of “Wicked Hot Chocolate” (spiked with ancho and chipotle chilis) while nibbling intently on inventive Torres creations like chocolate-mint tea (dark-chocolate ganache coated in milk chocolate and infused with mint tea) and “Love Potion #9” (dark chocolate infused with more dark chocolate). In the evenings, you’ll find a similar sort of crowd bellied up to the marble bar at CHIKALICIOUS, the bustling, impeccably clean, white-trimmed, all-dessert space on East 10th Street. Two of the three proprietors are genteel, highly efficient female pastry chefs who, for $12, will whip up a three-course prix fixe gourmet dessert before your very eyes. Begin with a little taste of chocolate-flavored tea gelée with coconut sorbet and top it off with a fromage blanc island cheesecake.

Where to Eat 2004