A Meal for Every Occasion
Twelve short months ago, members of the city’s restaurant cognoscenti were still huddled in poky little rooms, picking at warmed-over barbecued ribs and platters of frites, gamely singing the praises of neighborhood restaurants and comfort food. Not anymore. The great restaurant boom that began in the nineties but fizzled out at the beginning of the new millennium has exploded all over again. Overnight, the meatpacking district has blown up into a chaotic gastronomic version of Bourbon Street. Grand old French restaurants have been replaced by baroque new corporate venues, extravagant wine bars, and Pan-Asian food palaces as big as bus depots. Out in Brooklyn, little mom-and-pop joints are serving foie gras and salting their dishes with black truffles, and in Manhattan, diners can blow $180 on a single entrée of Kobe-beef “Châteaubriand,” and $13,000 for a magnum of 1899 Château Lafite-Rothschild. Organic food is big business in the city these days, fancy Shanghai banquets are all the rage among Chinese connoisseurs, and down on the Bowery, the hot new restaurants are doing what the fancy uptown joints do: They’re serving an elaborate champagne brunch.
The Big Splurge
I’m not normally in favor of spending $350 on a single meal, but if you have a fat year-end bonus to blow, take the elevator up past the Aveda store to the fourth floor of the Time Warner Center, bow politely to the security guard patrolling the area, and take a seat at the glowing blond Hinoki-wood bar at Masa. If you find yourself face-to-face with a wry, middle-aged, vaguely monkish-looking gentleman, don’t lift a finger—Masa Takayama will do the rest. yama will do the rest. Maybe you’d enjoy a bowl of truffled uni risotto, or tuna rolls stuffed with milky pink tuna belly, and it’s perfectly permissible to close your eyes in quiet ecstasy when you take your first bite of Masa’s “Foie Gras Shabu Shabu.” But if by chance you don’t see Masa at the bar, or if they try to seat you at one of the small, dimly lit tables, do what my wife did when she first glimpsed our bill: complain bitterly, and threaten to turn on your heel and go spend all that cash at the Bose store downstairs.
Next door, at Per Se, the décor is pristine in an icy sort of way, the service is immaculate, and even if Thomas Keller isn’t actually in New York that day, he’s always connected to his palatial East Coast kitchen via videophone. The specialty of the house (following a bowl of truffled popcorn at the bar) is a profusion of small, preciously wrought, archly named dishes, many of which might be considered pretentious if they weren’t so damn delicious. Try the “Bacon and Eggs” (bits of braised calf’s head molded in a cake, with a poached quail egg wobbling on top), a sinful fat man’s treat called “Chaud Froid” (soft foie gras confit, apple purée, brioche croutons, and sweet cipollini onions), and anything you can find containing lobster, scallops, or snails.
If you tire of murmuring waiters and pious, fat-cat connoisseurs, then ride the escalator down to the third floor and join the party at Café Gray. Gray Kunz’s long-awaited second act is notable for old Lespinasse-style favorites like the lightly creamy lobster chowder, bowls of classically dense mushroom risotto, and tender, blocky short ribs braised down to their rich, beefy essence. But the real star of the show is the room itself: a sparkling, mirrored fun house, with a swanky bar area and a long, open kitchen that spreads before the rows of white-topped tables like a Broadway stage. Beyond the kitchen is a wall of windows looking out over Columbus Circle and Central Park. Suddenly, you don’t feel like you’re dining in a glorified corporate food mall anymore. You’re back, again, in glittering New York.
“I don’t know about you,” one of my food-professional friends whispered the other evening, “but I grow weary of raw fish.” Or edamame, he might have said, or friendly Caucasian waiters dressed in ill-fitting samurai outfits, or any multisyllabic cocktail name containing the word geisha. It’s all on display at the city’s new wave of Japanese restaurants, plus much, much more. At the mammoth EN Japanese Brasserie, on Hudson Street, the specialty is freshly made tofu, ladled from lacquer boxes with big wooden dippers, along with an ingenious “miso sampler” served with a pile of iced-cabbage crudités. On the opposite end of the spectrum, there’s Megu, in Tribeca, where Kobe-beef addicts can sit in the shadow of a giant dripping Buddha ice sculpture and addle themselves with Kobe-beef meatballs stuffed with foie gras ($5 per piece), Kobe-beef short ribs, and, for a cool $180, decorous cuts of Kobe-beef “Châteaubriand” finished with soy butter and exotic black sesame seeds jetted in from Kyoto.
The glittering Fiji-stone sushi bar is the place to sit at Geisha, on 61st Street, where I spent a hectic evening, not long ago, nibbling on decent though unspectacular sushi, and watching silent anime splatter films projected on the wall, next to a wild-eyed Upper East Side matron clutching a fur-lined purse. With its great vaulted dining hall and long, runway-style sushi bar, Matsuri, in the bottom of the Maritime Hotel in Chelsea, is still the most elegant of the new big-box Japanese establishments. Though Jeffrey Chodorow’s latest culinary-theme-park, Ono, has similarly impressive, mothlike paper lanterns suspended from the ceiling; addictive shot-glass shooters composed of Kumamoto oysters, ponzu sauce, and a single raw quail egg; plus the services of Sakiko, the very knowledgeable “sake sommelier.” Best of all, though, is the fully automated Japanese push-button toilet (on the second floor), complete with pop-up lid; a subtle, expertly aimed blow-dryer; and a whole range of cleansing water-jet options, including Regular, Oscillating, and Pulsating.
You’ll find no such gizmos uptown at Sushi of Gari, where the city’s most discerning sushi monks still stampede the tiny bar to taste Gari’s inventive, much-imitated raw-fish creations. The cramped modernist bar at Riingo is my favorite spot in midtown for Kobe beef sushi. But whenever I’m loitering around downtown and feel the need for a shot of pure protein, I’ll duck into a new restaurant called Hedeh, on Great Jones Street, for a bite of tuna belly or, perhaps, a helping of the lightly caramelized house foie gras, before ambling down Second Avenue to the tiny new Jewel Bako outlet called Makimono. This closet-sized establishment is hidden behind a discreet façade of brushed cement, and if you bring your uptown expense account with you, you can sample three generally superior grades of toro (o-toro for $12, chu for $8, aka for $4); an elegant, Atkins-friendly salad made with quail egg, tuna sashimi, hijiki, and red plum; and an almost perfect “inside-out” maki roll made with bay scallops and creamy avocado, spiked with yuzu, and speckled on its exterior with crunchy, golden caviar.
In these politically correct times, you’re not a self-respecting member of the foodie aristocracy unless you know who Carlo Petrini is (he’s the founding father of the ever-expanding Slow Food sect), what “self-sustaining” means, or the true definition of that hazy term biodynamic. And if you pass the test, chances are you’ve also made the pilgrimage up the Hudson to Blue Hill at Stone Barns, where the industrious Barber brothers (Dan and David) have set up (with the help of the fine chef Michale Anthony and generous amounts of Rockefeller cash) their own fully organic Shangri-la amid the rolling hills and meadows of the old Rockefeller country estate in Pocantico Hills, New York. In season, you’ll find several varieties of asparagus on the menu, and all eggs are produced, in time-honored Slow Food tradition, by the restaurant’s own flock of hyperorganic chickens. Even the nourishing, exceptionally porky-tasting pork comes from a band of Berkshire hogs who feed in a stand of acorn trees near the restaurant, where they are attended, during visiting hours, by crowds of thankful, slightly mournful-looking gastronomes.
Next stop on the rickety Greenmarket bandwagon is Galen Zamarra’s stylish, faithfully organic restaurant Mas, in Greenwich Village, where the glowing little room has been painstakingly constructed to resemble the inside of a (very rich) peasant’s farmhouse in the south of France, and even the rigorously seasonal menus are tied together with bits of twine. After that it’s on to Better Burger, for a bite of the leathery ostrich burger (with a spot of curry-flavored “Karma Ketchup”), before we decamp to Quartino Bottega Organica, in the East Village, to sit on one of the chaste wooden pews along the wall and sip cups of pomegranate juice, while picking at helpings of wholly organic pesto or brittle, supremely healthy slices of whole-wheat pizza or, best of all, the superior house focaccia, shot through with slabs of melted Stracchino cheese.
You won’t find any cheese at all at Pure Food and Wine, in Gramercy Park, where the room smells vaguely of pulped cabbage, and wistful, glossy pictures of happy ducks and smiling sheep adorn the orange walls. Nothing on the all-vegan menu is cooked to over 118 degrees, which doesn’t keep the summery tomato tartare from looking uncannily like tuna tartare, or the impressive raw-food lasagne (made with tomatoes, strips of raw zucchini, crushed basil, and pistachio pesto) from tasting uncannily like a cooler, healthier version of the real thing. The same is true of the non-fish but curiously fishy “Cape Cod Cakes” (they’re tofu-based) available at Counter, in the East Village, which I enjoyed one placid evening while sipping on a glass of biodynamic Pinot Grigio from Slovenia, and smugly observing the parade of unenlightened sad sacks trooping in and out of the very large McDonald’s across the street.
When we called to secure a table at Spice Market, the kindly voice on the other end of the line suggested the wait would be five weeks. Next, we joined the great roiling meatpacking-district mob and attempted to batter our way into the joint. After intense negotiation, we secured a couple of seats at the long cantilevered bar, where, to our vast surprise, Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s street-food fusion menu lived up to all the outlandish, possibly even insane, hype. Maybe you’ll begin your little gastronomic tour like we did, with chicken wings drizzled in a sticky, sweet chili sauce, followed by white bowls of curried duck or pork vindaloo (laced with long red chilies, cumin, garlic, and cinnamon), before progressing to the short ribs, which are softened in a mass of garlic and green chilies and served, for delicate eaters, with a pair of silver tongs.
My other favorite meatpacking-district destination is the chaotic townhouse dining room at Ninth, where, on select evenings, Zak Pelaccio serves up his ingenious “pork fries” (tender pork strips rolled in bread crumbs, then fried) with a sweet chaser of bourbon. Glittery fusion establishments like Jefferson, and Bao 111 continue to pack in crowds of revelers, but for a slightly more soothing, feng shui–approved brand of trendiness, this year’s choice is Kittichai, where a pod of auspicious goldfish guard the narrow entrance, and lucky coins are taped under many of the tables. The food, by the accomplished Thai chef Ian Chalermkittichai, is generally auspicious, too, particularly the shiny little baby pork ribs lacquered with chocolate, the bowls of cool, peppery beef salad dusted with crunchy rice powder, and the braised loin of lamb tossed with tiny round Thai eggplants and melting, very un-Thai-like cubes of foie gras.
Further uptown, my demure, usually unflappable mother has stopped agitating for her annual luncheons at Swifty’s or The Four Seasons’ Grill Room and demands to be taken instead to the glass-walled dining room at Asiate, high in the sky over Columbus Circle at the new Mandarin Oriental Hotel in the Time Warner Center. If that’s all booked up, we’ll pay our $20 to get into the refurbished MoMA to get a peek at Danny Meyer’s fancy new museum canteen, The Modern, which opens later this month for dinner. After that, we’ll make a beeline for davidburke & donatella, where it’s always amusing to watch the local neighborhood swells chattering in their colorful gowns and dark charcoal suits while fighting for tastes of Mr. Burke’s foie gras terrine (sweetened with kumquats), his bristling “Crisp and Angry Lobster Cocktail” (a whole lobster rolled in Cajun spices and spiked on a flower holder), and the simple baked salmon, which is piled with ginger and sweet Chinese sausages and served with a tall shot glass brimming with the kind of spicy, fishy, freshly made XO sauce you rarely ever see in the vicinity of Bloomingdale’s.
The Return of the Tasting Menu
Jaded, semi-corpulent restaurant critics like myself usually consider tasting menus to be an overly mannered, overpriced waste of time. But the new mania for small plates has made every dinner a tasting event, and the city is brimming with so many inventive chefs that the only way to track their endless experiments is to submit, now and then, to a gut-busting, marathon meal. Take Sumile, in the West Village, where Josh DeChellis offers a multicourse omakase feast containing, among other things, little rounds of Dungeness crab capped with caviar and yuzu gelée, a pod of crunchy, Chiclit-size duck tongues (served with smoked trout), and an impossibly smooth thimbleful of panna cotta flavored with chamomile tea. Then there’s Dévi, in the Flatiron district, where the well-traveled Indian chefs Suvir Saran and Hemant Mathur manage to turn a pile of ordinary vegetables into a multicultural tasting extravaganza (seven courses for $95, with wine pairings) replete with tall spicy thatches of crisp frizzled okra, fat rice puffs called poha and soaked in mint curry, and a delicious Indo-Chinese cauliflower dish smothered, like some ethereal version of sweet-and-sour pork, in a tangy tomato sauce.
Compared to the numerous big-ticket items in the impressive 65,000-bottle wine “portfolio” at Cru, chef Shea Gallante’s $75 tasting menu is a relative bargain. My recent dinner there began with a whole rainbow of à la carte crudi (arctic char tipped with vanilla, tuna spiked with espresso, etc.); progressed through a variety of choice gnocchi (with oxtail), risottos (with uni), and pastas; and then, before the wine obliterated all memory, reached a grand finale with a perfectly cooked piece of sturgeon laced with a crème fraîche and caviar sauce. At Wylie Dufresne’s restaurant wd-50, the mad genius of Clinton Street shuffles foie gras with slivers of caramel-covered nori, decks his venison tartare with scoops of deliciously smooth edamame ice cream, and serves up thin ribbons of beef tongue with dice-size cubes of fried mayonnaise, which melt in the mouth in a most pleasing way. Then there are Sam Mason’s pyrotechnic desserts, like tequila-flavored ice cream served with wedges of pineapple. My menu indicated the pineapple had been smoked in tea, but when I sampled this curiously addictive dish (it was on the summer menu), the pineapple wedges tasted somehow stronger, more bracing, and more interesting than that, as if they had been soaked for a week, and possibly longer, in a particularly potent form of bong water.
The Brooklyn Boom
I confess i used to be one of those Manhattanites who quietly turn up their noses whenever their Brooklyn friends begin babbling about the beautifully articulated pork chop they’ve just enjoyed on Smith Street, or the quaint little wine bar that’s just opened on their block. But the steak tartare at 360, on Van Brunt Street in Red Hook, is still the best I’ve tasted in the city. The clean, well-lit Haitian establishment Kombit, on Flatbush Avenue, wins this year’s prize for the best fried goat in town (they also serve an exemplary dish of fried pork called grillot, with big smashed plantains). And if you’re craving an old-fashioned infusion of jerk chicken or medallions of hot, jellied oxtail poured over rice and a pile of butter beans, I suggest you hail a taxi and direct your driver to a diminutive West Indian joint on the northernmost fringes of Polish Greenpoint called Bleu Drawes Café.
In a borough known for its pizza meccas, Franny’s, on Flatbush Avenue, is the latest big thing. The pies are charred in a wood oven, of course, and you can peruse the Greenmarket pedigrees of the various toppings (oregano from Stokes Farms in Old Tappan, basil from the Farm at Miller’s Crossing in Claverack, etc.) on the menu while you wait for your order to arrive. The pizzas are superior, particularly the one covered with four cheeses (mozzarella, ricotta, Gorgonzola, fontina) and the one covered with nothing much at all (olive oil, rosemary, and garlic only), but if you’re wise, you’ll save room for appetizers like rigorously organic piles of mashed chicken liver heaped on rounds of crostini, or long strips of soft, vaguely charred eggplant drizzled with pine nuts and flakes of ricotta cheese.
An unlikely bistro called Ici serves the best chicken-liver schnitzel in all of Fort Greene—or anywhere else, for that matter—and if you happen to drop by when the braised pork shoulder is on the menu (it’s served with Brussels sprouts folded with bits of bacon, and a pile of the most refined organic grits from South Carolina), you should order that too. Pork is also one of the specialties at Applewood, newly opened on a quiet, leafy street in Park Slope. The room was filled with smiling children on the night I visited, which didn’t detract from the quality of the spoon-soft pork belly or my short ribs, which were wrapped in a rich layer of caul fat, or my wife’s special sturgeon, which was crisped on top and flavored, in the new Brooklyn style, with a hint of truffles.
Like racing jockeys and opera stars, food critics are doomed to a succession of diets. I endured a lengthy stretch of abstinence recently, and while I sat in grand restaurants gnawing on carrot sticks and gently pushing dessert plates aside, I passed the time hallucinating about meals that might have been. I dreamt of bellying up to the bar at Casa Mono, near Gramercy Park, and hoovering down towers of salty, charred lamb chops, and Andy Nusser’s special sweetbreads, which are fried and rolled in crushed almonds. I fantasized about the puffy, fresh-made bread at Taboon, and bowls of the steamy, sweet shrimp-and-corn risotto served with all sorts of other southern delicacies at the East Village bayou joint Natchez. I dreamt of barbecue in all its forms, particularly the greasy cuts of brisket at Blue Smoke, and the Texas beef chili sold in cups at my local Daisy Mae’s BBQ USA cart (it’s on the corner of 39th and Broadway), which I used to supplement, during the course of long-ago binges, with sandwiches of Carolina pulled pork tasting faintly of citrus.
During my bleak days of no snacking, I also pondered fat Niman Ranch hot dogs from the new East Village branch of Westville; the wet, gravy-infused, uncannily tender roast-beef sandwiches at the new Manhattan outpost of Roll ’N’ Roaster; and the impressive “Fourth of July Picnic” (cole slaw, fried-chicken strips, and bourbon-flavored mayonnaise squeezed between a messy baguette), which is just one of the inventive creations available at a clean little shop called Carve Unique Sandwiches, on a raffish corner of Eighth Avenue and 47th Street. I imagined devouring a brace or two of toasty, compact pork-chop banh mi (sweet pork, pickled carrots, mayonnaise, and cilantro stuffed in a hot, crunchy bun) at Nicky’s Vietnamese Sandwiches, on the Lower East Side, before creeping uptown to demolish the great, toppling “Skyscraper Burger,” the most formidable of several pleasing burger options at the bustling lower Park Avenue outlet of New York Burger Co.
Speaking of hamburgers, I’ve whiled away long abstemious afternoons pining for Tom Valenti’s structurally impressive new Ouest Burger, served at lunchtime only, at Ouest, or the zeppelin-sized roquefort cheeseburger at The Spotted Pig, which is best enjoyed, for maximum caloric damage, with a bowl of pillowy gnudi (little ricotta dumplings rolled in semolina and drowned in brown butter) and several dizzying tankards of very fattening Old Speckled Hen Ale. The burger at Danny Meyer’s seasonal fast-food boutique, Shake Shack (try the Triple Shack Burger when the restaurant opens again in the spring), is pretty good, too, although what I craved most of all as I tossed and turned in bed, listening to the unhappy sounds of my gurgling belly, was the four-dip, four-topping, frozen-custard extravaganza called the “Shackapalooza” (Valrhona-chocolate chunks, hot caramel sauce, and coconut macaroons, please), presented with proper ceremony in a decorous pail, with a plastic shovel.
As the revelers celebrating the 150th anniversary of the great McSorley’s Old Ale House can attest, dining at the bar is an ancient New York custom. But what began as the preference of a few solitary gin hounds seems to have blossomed into a full-blown culinary fad. The highbrow simplicity of Craft gave birth to Craftbar, which, late last year, produced Hearth. Former Craft chef’s Marco Canora’s East Village restaurant has plenty of tables, but the best seats in the house are at the narrow three-seat bar overlooking the kitchen. All sorts of fine food (consistently good house gnocchi, braised pork, olive-oil cake) is available from the regular menu, but that’s where eager downtown gourmets gather each evening like seagulls on a wharf, jockeying for delicious scraps (pork ends, little morsels of monkfish wrapped in pancetta) thrown up from the stove by the busy cooks.
If you don’t feel like dropping a month’s wages at Masa Takayama’s flagship restaurant, you can take a seat next door at Bar Masa and order a bowl of truffle-and-uni-laced risotto for a mere $68. At the long bar at Alta, in Greenwich Village, you and your friends can order the entire menu for $300 (called “The Whole Shebang”) and receive a tsunami of tapas-style dishes like sweet dates wrapped in bacon, lamb meatballs with yogurt sauce, and tender little pieces of hanger steak rolled in a spicy mix of crushed chilies from Aleppo. The whole menu at the superior noodle bar Momofuko, in the East Village, costs around $130, and whenever I repair there I like to blow another $20 on a nice bottle of sake, followed by plate after plate of the deliciously steamy Chinese buns stuffed with crisp chicken (with shredded cucumbers and greens), or deposits of sugary Cantonese braised pork.
Ham, in all its thinly sliced, multitudinous Eurocentric forms, is the main theme at Bar Jamón, where the Lilliputian-sized, fourteen-stool room gets so crowded on weekend nights that plates of Serrano ham or wedges of the excellent Tortilla Catalan get passed around over the heads of the diners, like at some raucous frat-house event. And if you want to expand on this Iberian-bar-food experience, the place is Tia Pol, in Chelsea, where on any given evening you’ll find legions of artsy-looking eaters balanced on little bar stools, taking prim bites of pork-loin sandwiches, perfectly tender calamari simmered in their own salty black ink, golden croquettes laced with slices of ham, and thin coins of red-hot chorizo served on slices of bread spread with chocolate.
The Indestructible Brasserie
As the town’s old, grande dame French restaurants continue to expire, the city’s great classically trained chefs are frantically hedging their bets. Along with Daniel, a neighborhood café (Café Boulud), and a distinguished midtown burger joint (DB Bistro Moderne), the Boulud empire will soon include a new restaurant in that superchef’s Valhalla, Las Vegas. Jean-Georges’s original flagship has more international outlets these days than the Hong Kong Shanghai Bank, and Mix in New York, the poor cousin to Alain Ducasse’s woefully overpriced Alain Ducasse at the Essex House, recently began serving a new bistro-oriented menu containing a newfangled version of banquette du veau. But the most conspicuous downmarket transformation has taken place on 55th Street, where La Côte Basque has morphed into Brasserie LCB, an agggresively casual establishment with rustling potted palm fronds and yards of brass railings all polished to a glittering sheen in the fashionably faux, Balthazar style. Luckily, there’s nothing fake about Jean-Jacques Rachou’s menu, which contains old La Côte Basque favorites like cassoulet plus an impressive roster of hearty old-fashioned dishes like calf’s-liver Lyonnaise, tournedos Rossini, and an exceptional rendition of tripes à l’Armagnac, cooked in veal stock and brandy and served with all the grandness it deserves, under a great silver warmer.
Frogs’ legs are my favorite dish at Gavroche, newly opened on a clamorous stretch of 14th Street, and if you don’t like the sound of rumbling buses, and if weather permits, you can eat them alfresco, in a shaded little garden covered in flagstones. Dave Pasternack, the resident seafood expert at Esca, also turns out to be a closet Francophile, and his new Batali-backed restaurant, Bistro Du Vent, attempts to replicate the simple culinary glories of old Provence, like socca (a kind of chickpea pancake); a thick, bone-sticking version of pistou; and even salade Niçoise. For full-on French immersion, however, I like to travel down to Le Quinze, on Houston Street, where it’s a curious pleasure to slouch at the little round café tables with the rest of the louche downtown café lizards and puzzle over back issues of the sports paper L’Equipe (the owners are former French rugby players) while sampling the chunky foie gras terrine, cannelloni stuffed with monkfish, and, if it’s lunchtime, the most illustrious croque monsieur in the city, stuffed with big flaps of ham and covered in melted Gruyère cheese.
The great rustic-Italian-food binge, which began with the superb Batali-Bastianich restaurants Babbo and Lupa and reached a thundering crescendo last year with the opening of Tom Valenti’s ’Cesca, on the Upper West Side, seems to have abated. But if you’re still salivating for multiple varieties of risotto or six kinds of pasta, Pace, in Tribeca, is the new place to go. For more dainty eaters, there’s also Abboccato, recently opened on the old 55th Street restaurant row, where numerous fat-man Italian staples (tripe, suckling pig, veal cheeks) are reproduced in a most civilized uptown way. My order of trippa grigliata turned out to be little ribbons of grilled calf’s stomach served with croutons of polenta and a mild mint salsa, and the veal cheeks I sampled were scented with perhaps too much vanilla. But the suckling pig had a soft, candied quality (it’s simmered in milk and hazelnuts), and the actual desserts (pomegranate panna cotta, buffalo milk-ricotta torta with honeycomb, Friulian dumplings filled with crushed nuts) seemed to have descended from some great Italian pastry chef in the sky.
They don’t serves frites yet at Barbuto, or profiteroles smothered in chocolate sauce, but with its clean, streamlined café chairs and scruffy fashionista clientele, Jonathan Waxman’s latest restaurant threatens to become something new to the world of dining: an Italian brasserie. It hasn’t taken much time for the talented, itinerant chef to master the art of the brick oven, so try his crackly-skinned chicken (covered with spoonfuls of lemony salsa verde), or, if you crave pasta, order the spaghetti carbonara flecked with bits of guinciale. Hot pressed panini in all its forms is still what my wife and I order whenever we find ourselves wandering by ’Inoteca, on the Lower East Side. And whenever we feel the desperate need for an infusion of hipness, we rush to Bivio, on Hudson Street, to squint through the nightclub gloom at the wall-size chalkboard scrawled with elegant house specials like duck-confit salad and the formidable beef-ragù lasagne, which is served piping-hot and spread, like a chocolate-cream cake, with layers of oozing béchamel sauce.
I haven’t detected béchamel sauce yet on any of Mario Batali’s ingenious pizza creations at Otto Enoteca Pizzeria, but the last time I checked, the mercurial Vincent Scotto was putting pumpkin on his grilled pizza a couple of blocks away at Gonzo. A mind-boggling 40 toppings are available at the new thin-crust-pizza outpost on lower Second Avenue called Posto, so it was a relief when my gregarious waiter insisted I put down my menu and order the “Shroomtown,” an excellent concoction of shiitake, portobello, and button mushrooms all spritzed with white-truffle oil. You’ll find no spritzing of pies at Una Pizza Napoletana, or slicing of pies, or even, God forbid, pies baked to go. The owner, Anthony Mangieri, is a pizza scholar of the most severe Neapolitan school, and to give his pizza dough the proper attention, his East Village parlor is open only four days a week. He bakes only four kinds of pies in his perfectly calibrated wood-fired brick oven, the best of which is the superbly chaste pizza bianca, blooming with pools of melted buffalo mozzarella flown in specially from old Napoli.
During the course of the long, tired Atkins boom, chefs of the highest distinction have busied themselves tinkering with the profitable steakhouse formula. So it’s no surprise that Jean-Georges himself has been spotted in the kitchen of his baroque new establishment V Steakhouse grimly broiling gourmet lamb chops and great hunks of prime (though overpriced and indifferent-tasting) porterhouse steak. Former seafood wizard Laurent Tourondel does a better job massaging all this beef into something new and interesting at his own midtown restaurant BLT Steak. His steak tartare has a smooth, dessert-like texture, as do soups like cream of mushroom and clam chowder. But the real key, it seems, is to serve all sorts of things besides plenty of good steak, like Dover sole poured with brown butter, rose-colored lobsters the size of puppy dogs, and crispy roasted chicken, served in a cast-iron pot, with savory deposits of bread crumbs and rosemary stuffed under the skin.
Among neighborhood joints, Ian, on the eastern fringes of 86th Street, is home to the estimable “Dirty Drunken Ribeye” (a tender, deboned piece of meat soaked in sherry, soy sauce, and garlic, rubbed with spices, and glazed with honey), and Landmarc, in Tribeca, produces a very fine version of boudin noir, along with a whole potpourri of other trencherman’s products. For the grandiose Manhattan-steakhouse experience, I’ll still take the New York strip at Sparks, or a few slabs of the porterhouse served by Wolfgang Zwiener and his band of Peter Luger’s apostates at Wolfgang’s, on lower Park Avenue. The room is about four sizes too small, especially on Friday nights, when members of the city’s red-faced steak-house fraternity gather four-deep at the bar. But the steak sauce is an almost exact Luger facsimile, and the serving platters are suitably scuffed around the edges from incessant cooking and tipped forward at the table, in the classic Luger way, to showcase all the sizzling juices. Then there’s the fat, corn-fed, decidedly un-organic steak, which is baked to a proper salty crunch and comes with rafts of creamed spinach, thatches of onion rings, and boats of venerable fried German potatoes tossed with sweet onions.
Until Anita Lo (Annisa) opens her long-awaited Rickshaw Dumpling Bar on 23rd Street later this month, Dumpling Man, in the East Village, is the place for a whole variety of inventive pot stickers made by tag teams of reassuringly surly dumpling ladies (good dumpling ladies, in my experience, are always surly) from locations as distant as Shanghai. Jean-Georges’s 66 is still my favorite place in town for a bite of antiseptic, highly inauthentic, perfectly tasty Sunday-morning dim sum, and for a fancy Shanghai feast, this year’s choice is Shanghai Pavilion, on the Upper East Side. My discerning banker friends always call the day before to order the Beggar’s Chicken, although when I wandered in off the street not long ago with a friend from Shanghai, a feast materialized before our eyes. It was composed of an opening salvo of soup dumplings, followed by tender pieces of carp belly served up in a slightly peppery red sauce. There were nuggets of sugary, crispy-fried baby chicken, that great Shanghai specialty, sautéed snow-pea leaves, and, for dessert, a bite or two of fried soup, made with cubes of jellied water chestnuts, which look like candy but turn to liquid as they dissolve in the mouth.
“I enjoy the pig’s-blood cakes and chives, but I don’t think you will,” piped the sweet lady who took my order at the old Queens standby Spicy & Tasty, which recently reopened in fancy new digs on a quiet back street in Flushing. She was right, although my dish of cold chili-soaked rabbit was good enough, as were the wontons, poured with a strangely sweet chili sauce infused with mouth-numbing amounts of the famous Sichuan pepper called ma. The fractious Grand Sichuan International empire has a new East Village branch, although my favorite outlet is still the one on Ninth Avenue between 50th and 51st Streets. If you work close to midtown, however, and desire a quick fix of sinus-clearing tripe loaded with fresh cilantro, I commend Szechuan Gourmet, the new Manhattan outpost of another well-known restaurant in Queens. There’s a separate menu for devotees of obscure local specialties like duck tongues in chili pepper or sliced fish with pork blood pudding, so squeamish diners should stick to old standards like spicy lamb and delicious ribbons of twice-cooked pork tossed with fresh scallions in the classic Chen Du style.
If you’re one of those people who’ve had their fill of precious, exorbitantly priced servings of crudo, then I’m afraid you’re out of luck. The movement’s new high priest is Scott Conant, who’s taken time out from his labors at the fine Italian restaurant L’Impero to open Bar Tonno, a diminutive, stylish bar and restaurant off Lafayette Street. The menu is devoted entirely to the cult of what the chef reverently calls “Italian sashimi.” On the evenings I visited, the crudo hounds sat at the long, elegant bar in contemplative silence, taking finicky bites of bay scallops touched with olive oil, pink slices of red orata (sea bream), and mounds of admittedly fine Maine lobster painted with a thick Sicilian tomato sauce. If this doesn’t sound like much food, do what I did and just keep ordering. The entire menu costs roughly as much as a single (very good) ticket to the opera.
The crudo craze has spread all the way up to 79th Street, on the gastronomically challenged Upper West Side, where raw meze items (uni and beets, scallops with yogurt and anise) have insinuated themselves into the big, jumbled menu at the ambitious new Greek restaurant called Onera. Raw fish is also featured at Lure Fish Bar, the swank new nautically appointed fish palace in Soho. With its polished-teak walls and beamy white leather banquettes, the place looks like some billionaires’ boat club in Cap Ferrat. The crudi I sampled were perfectly okay, particularly the arctic char and the lobster, served on buttery squares of garlic bread. There are also oddly successful skewers of Hamachi, foie gras, and grilled pineapple and a whole range of simple, surprisingly fine fish dishes, particularly the Dourade (marinated in country herbs) and a fresh, perfectly grilled piece of red snapper balanced on a pile of spinach with a wedge of lemon on the side.
Curried-eggplant-and-lobster soup and something called a “Crispy Cod Dog” (deep-fried cod, served with a lemon-caper rémoulade) are just a few of the tasty new dishes at The Mermaid Inn. From a pure price-to-pleasure ratio, the best piece of fish I had anywhere last year was a whole orata, doused with a mixture of citrus, olive oil, and herbs, and baked in a brick oven, at August, in the West Village. Among the regal midtown fish parlors, the fancy Mexican seafood at Pampano is still almost as good as the fat shrimp burritos and spicy fish tacos sold at the restaurant’s tiny taqueria out back. rm seems to be going strong despite the momentary absence of Rick Moonen (who’s opening a new restaurant in Las Vegas), and at Le Bernardin, Eric Ripert continues his ethereal seafood experiments with dishes like “Hamachi Tandoori” (lightly seared yellowtail rolled in tandoori spices) and something called “Lobster Choucroute,” poached lobster and bits of bacon folded in a delicate net of champagne-braised sauerkraut.
Downtown Brunch Fever . . .
Once upon a time, weekend brunch was the official province of dazed yuppie couples and the vast roaming baby-stroller hordes of the Upper West Side. These days, however, my raffish downtown friends all agree that the best time to visit Schiller’s Liquor Bar is on weekend mornings, when Keith McNally serves fruity Pimm’s Cups to his bleary clientele, plus fresh-made dollar doughnuts and a thick hazelnut waffle doused in bourbon-flavored maple syrup. At Public, in Nolita, the excellent weekend brunch includes bowls of freshly baked muffins along with novel delicacies like corn, saffron and blueberry pancakes and tea-smoked salmon covered in spoonfuls of hollandaise spiked with yuzu. And then there’s Freemans, the suddenly chic cubbyhole of a restaurant at the end of a narrow street called Freeman Alley, on the Lower East Side. The Rum Swizzle (Haitian rum, lime juice, syrup, bitters) is one of the finer cocktails in town, but if you don’t feel like battling for one during the raucous evening hours, do what I do and order one (or two) on a peaceful Sunday afternoon, along with a bowl of the stewed plums (with Greek yogurt and vanilla syrup), a slab or two of excellent wild-boar terrine, and a fat lamb-sausage patty served with watercress salad, two poached eggs, and thick slices of sourdough.
There are myriad trendy brunch options up in the West Village, but my choice is Snack Taverna, on Bedford Street, where the lovely waitresses dress all in black, like sorrowful Greek widows. This doesn’t detract from the quality of the puffy bourekis (minced lamb in phyllo pastry), the grilled loukaniko (country sausage), or the fine avga me hirino, which, in case you didn’t know, consists of two poached eggs served with braised pork and a mess of cranberry beans. Similar Mediterranean brunch delicacies are on display in midtown at the newly renovated San Domenico NY, where every table is stocked with a pitcher of orange juice mixed with Prosecco, and the aggressively priced menu includes clouds of whipped baccalà served over polenta, and giant cotecchino pork sausages swimming in lentils. And if you feel like braving the Upper West Side brunch scrum, take a number and go to the end of the line outside Nice Matin, where I like to supplement my Sunday-morning pissaladière (the Provencal tart made with sweet onions, anchovies and black olives) with a bite of healthful Swiss-chard frittata, followed by a platter of scrambled eggs tossed with a generous crumbling of spicy merguez sausage.
… And a Few Favorite Desserts
“Dad, it’s yummy” is the ultimate compliment my 5-year-old daughter bestows on any dessert. I haven’t exposed her yet to the supreme chocolate fondant at Asiate (served with a raspberry granita and fromage blanc in a ceramic Japanese teacup), or the excellently dense apple-walnut strudel produced (with maple ice cream and a spoonful of schlag) by the Austrian pastry wizards at Wallsé. When I took her and a few of her nursery-school classmates for a farewell dinner at Le Cirque 2000, they were struck mute when a tray of towering Napoleons arrived, and refused to lift their spoons until the waiters produced a communal bowl of vanilla ice cream. The same thing happened at the pocket-sized, perpetually crowded, dessert-only establishment ChicKaLicious, in the East Village, where we presented our coats with the coat-check man, took our seats at the glossy white bar, and watched in silent wonder as the two industrious lady proprietors whipped up an elegant apple pudding cake (with Granny Smith–apple sorbet) and a batch of sweet figs steamed in parchment paper, with a sidecar of port-wine ice cream.
Next stop on the great father-daughter dessert ramble is our local downtown branch of the Cold Stone Creamery, where on busy evenings, the line of rotund, eagerly salivating ice-cream fanatics spills out the door onto the sidewalk. The specialties of the house are elaborate “mix-ins” like Oreo Overload (cream-flavored ice cream, chocolate fudge, double-size Oreos, chocolate chips) or the profound Cookie Don’t You Want Some (vanilla ice cream, chocolate chips, cookie dough, fudge, caramel), all prepared to order on a frozen granite stone. From there, we’ll nip around the corner to our neighborhood Beard Papa Sweets Café, the eccentric Japanese establishment where the preparation of excellent cream puffs (a warm choux-pastry shell injected with custard folded with vanilla beans hand-picked in Madagascar and dusted with powdered sugar) has been raised to the level of wacky performance art. And, at long last, we’ll conclude our annual sugar binge at Jacques Torres Chocolate Haven, the cavernous new chocolate factory recently opened at the bottom of Hudson Street by the city’s own Willie Wonka, Jacques Torres. Through the tall glass windows, my daughter observed the making of chocolate fruit drops and batches of Love Potion No. 9, before proclaiming her favorite treat of all: a simple graham cracker, covered in chocolate. “It’s really yummy,” she announced between earnest chipmunk-size bites. “Now, where can we go next, Dad?”
The Best of 2005
Best Famous MealWorth the Price
Prix Fixe at Per Se
The atmosphere’s a little stilted,but Thomas Keller’s cooking sure is good. If possible, begin with “Oysters and Pearls,” and be sure to save room for the“Coffee and Doughnuts” dessert.
Best Way to Impress Your Boss
The Wine List at Cru
Peruse the restaurant’s vast 65,000-bottle “wine portfolio,” and pretend you’re familiar with the ’85 Chambertain Grand Crus from Chateau Leroy ($1,950) and the rare magnum of 1899 Laﬁte Rothschild ($13,000). Be sure to mention the food’s pretty good, too.
Best MealUnder $10
The BBQ Pork Buns at Momofuko
The trendy new East Village version of the Wimpy burger. They’re pocket-size, portable, and good for breakfast, lunch, or dinner. Eat five in one sitting, or maybe ten.
Best Tasting Menu
Who knew that lambsweetbreads went with chocolate powder, or that fried mayonnaise tasted good? Wylie Dufresne is the city’s most inventive homegrown chef, and his eponymous restaurant is as good as it’s ever been.
Franny’s Tomato and Mozzarella
The unadorned pie (extra-virgin olive oil, rosemary, and garlic) is a classic of its kind. If it’s cheese you desire, order the “Quattro Formaggio.”
Crisp and Angry Lobster Cocktailat Davidburke & Donatella
at long last, a New York lobsterdish that requires our full attention and respect. Tackle this spicy monster with your hands and a bib tucked under your collar.
Best NouveauxSteak Dinner
Porterhouse at BLT Steak
Laurent Tourendot cuts this 40-ounce piece of beef lengthwise and serves it in a cast-iron pot. There are myriad newfangled sauces to choose from, but you still can’t go wrong with béarnaise.
Best New Bistro Dish
Chicken Liver Schnitzel at Ici
The kitchen produces plenty of ﬁne food at this sleek little French bistro in Fort Greene. If you’re a liver connoisseur, this dish alone is worth the trip.
Best Highbrow Dessert
Chocolate Fondant with Raspberry Grantie at Asiate
This decadent, soothing, andbeautifully presented dish is a perfect compliment to the restaurant’s dazzling views of Central Park.
Best Meal, Period
Omakase at Masa
Chef Masa Takayama’s fusion masterpieces like “UniRisotto” and “Foie Gras Shabu Shabu” give new meaning to the oft-used foodie adjective melting. Unfortunately, you’ll have to pay $350 for a taste.
PHOTOGRAPHED BY KENNETH CHEN.
The Overrated List
Adam Platt’s least-favorite food trends.
Speck The prosciutto of the new millennium, only milder, more leathery, and less appetizing.
Edamame Paying $8 for a plate of gourmet lima beans gets tired after a while.
The Boisterously Jolly Japanese Salute In Japan, it’s quaint custom. In jumpy Manhattan, having eighteen Japanese guys yell at you when you walk in the door can be a little unsettling.
Fancy Tea Menus Who knew you could get Sencha Reserve organic tea at Le Bernardin? Who cares?
Wagyu Beef The poor cousin of Kobe beef, which, as everyone knows, ascended to the overrated Hall of Fame several decades ago.
Really Tiny Kitchens If you can see an electric range and the whites of the chef’s eyes, the drinks had better be really good, because the food probably isn’t.
Small Plates The current haute-restaurant term for price-gouging.
Wine Pairings The current sommelier term for price-gouging.
Romanesco This year’s version of ramps.
Cocoa Nibs If you don’t know what this exotic dessert item is, you’re not alone. What ever happened to chocolate chips?
Unisex Bathrooms Like chicken coops and airplane toilets, they promote messiness, overcrowding, and confusion.
The Communal Hand-Washing Moat This fashionable new feature makes washing your hands at a glamorous restaurant feel perilously close to scrubbing up after a day at the dairy barn.