29 Ave. B, nr. 3rd St.; 212-228-0599
Cantina taps into the increasingly popular trend of channeling Old Havana as restaurant muse. Here, it’s manifested in mismatched plates and chairs, a big family table, breeze-beckoning French doors, and, generally speaking, what designer Jason Volenec is calling his “ghetto hodgepodge” aesthetic—kind of Alphabet City yard sale meets the Buena Vista Social Club. Consulting chef Jason Neroni’s menu is a bit of a hodgepodge, too, covering a range of Pan-Latino small plates, from a daily changing tortilla de España to empanadas to braised chicken thighs with black beans and rice. There’s even a nod to the late, great Latin-inflected Clinton Street restaurant aKa Cafe, in the form of a lamb’s-tongue-and-almond-butter sandwich (pictured), this time around served with membrillo on ciabatta.
647 E. 11th St., nr. Ave. C; 212-777-3355
What do you get when a Tuscan chef marries a Mexican one? In the case of Matilda, a quirky new Alphabet City restaurant, you get wood-burning-oven-baked focaccia with your guacamole, prosciutto and basil in your quesadilla, and filet mignon alla Fiorentina in your tacos. Those fusion dishes and more, like the epazote-stuffed orata and cranberry-bean posole, are the Tusc-Mex handiwork of Maristella Innocenti and Esteban Molina, who met cooking at I Coppi. The chocolate-brown, pink-trimmed restaurant, more sleek than rustic, is named for the couple’s 3-year-old daughter, who happens to be the inspiration for her parents’ all-natural gelati and sorbetti, made with organic milk and sweetened with honey collected by a friend. Cash only.
143 Grand St., nr. Lafayette St.; 212-431-7999
Since severing ties with Bao 111 and Bao Noodles, chef Michael “Bao” Huynh has been building a bi-coastal empire. Last year, he opened Mai House with Tribeca titan Drew Nieporent, and last month he established a West Coast presence at Hidden, the multiculti Santa Monica restaurant that’s partly bankrolled by musician Warren Cuccurullo, formerly of Missing Persons and Duran Duran. Next year, Cuccurullo and Huynh plan to open Bao323 in West Hollywood, but in the interim, they’re focusing on Bun, a narrow nook of a Vietnamese small-plates spot opening this week in Soho. Huynh designed the 45-seat space himself, replete with a 60-foot dining counter, bamboo booths, and artwork and beaded light fixtures imported from Vietnam. Huynh and his wife and co-chef, Thao Nguyen, collaborate on a $12-and-under menu of dishes like caramelized sweetbreads with Asian pear, Mission fig, and persimmon purée, and herb-poached black chicken with fennel, grapefruit, and ginseng broth. The iconic Vietnamese noodle soup pho comes four ways, from Saigon style (with rare beef and brisket) to a New York variation, distinguished with sliced strip steak and a one-hour-poached egg.
AND… Alberto Tartari used to run a restaurant near Lake Iseo in Italy’s Lombardy region, an area known for its clean air and stunning natural beauty. So who knows why he packed it all in for a corner spot in Hell’s Kitchen called Il Melograno. His menu covers the basics—salads, pasta, and panini—and offers a $9.95 lunch special (501 W. 51st St., at Tenth Ave.; 212-757-9290).