Once upon a time, gentlemen wore hats, ladies dined on chocolate souffles, and the stately rituals of haute cuisine were settled, sedate, and written in stone. But these days, everything about the restaurant world is helter-skelter, topsy-turvy, upside-down. While the city’s superstar chefs spend half their time out of town, launching spinoffs in places like Miami and Shanghai, all the hot new restaurants are being opened by out-of-towners, parachuting in from London, Paris, and other world capitals. Barflies and hipsters are congregating in ever-more-leviathan dining palaces, while small groups of worshipful gastronomes are jamming into tiny, dimly lit dining bars. Even the most retrograde steakhouse carnivore is now acquainted with Greenmarket-era buzzwords like “pasture-raised” and “self-sustaining,” and if you want good dim sum, you’re more likely to find it in some half-restaurant–half-nightclub than down in Chinatown. These days, New York restaurateurs are more apt to imitate Vegas than Paris, and Italian grub, once the most accessible of cuisines, has become high-minded, self-conscious, even effete.
On the following pages, you’ll find our annual summation of the city’s best places to eat right now. The restaurants we recommend are not necessarily the most popular (Zagat’s will give you those), or the most venerable (you can go to Luger’s anytime), or the least expensive (we save those for our summer “Cheap Eats” issue). They are what we consider to be the newest, most fabulous, possibly the most incandescent dining establishments in town, grouped, for your reading pleasure, into categories that reflect what we consider to be the newest, most fabulous, possibly the most incandescent culinary trends of the moment. These are the places we might go if a visitor from Tokyo, say, or Dubai asked to be taken on a gastronomic ramble around this, the restaurant capital of the world. As a bonus, we offer our selections for the best new restaurants of the year; the best up-and-coming chefs; and the best places to take a client for dinner, propose marriage, and enjoy a fine, properly virtuous vegan-friendly feast. And entering this New Year of 2007, what do most of these venues have in common? Money, glitz, and glamour, of course. Some things change in the big city, some things don’t.
Vegas on the Hudson
Who says size doesn’t matter? As the meatpacking district continues to morph into some bizarre culinary version of the Vegas Strip, restaurants have gotten ever bigger, glitzier, and more outrageously glamorous. But before Buddakan came along, it was hard to imagine anything quite so monstrously vast, or weirdly entertaining, as Stephen Starr’s behemoth new dining palace. With the help of designer Christian Liaigre, Starr has transformed a former Nabisco cookie factory into a giant faux–Mandarin mansion. It’s close to impossible to navigate the labyrinth of rooms without the help of one of the cheerful, Sherpa-like wait staff, but if you manage to survive the long trek to your table, you’ll find the menu is stocked with inventive, nontraditional Asian delicacies like lightly crunchy, toro-tartare spring rolls, and minced pork “Taro Puff Lollipops,” plus several traditional ones (sticky, melting spareribs and crackly skinned tea-smoked chicken), which might cause a minor stampede if they were ever served in the poky little restaurants in Chinatown.
To appreciate the full impact of Starr’s carefully orchestrated invasion of restaurant Manhattan, walk around the corner to Morimoto, where the renowned Food Network Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto presides behind the glittering sushi bar in his flowing robes and samurai ponytail. The Stygian downstairs bar space resembles any other meatpacking-district hellhole, but the combination of glass partitions upstairs and the wavy, whitewashed walls exude a peaceful, Zen-like calm. The best dish on the occasionally erratic menu is Morimoto’s inspired homage to Peking duck, comprising a crunchy duck leg, a duck egg, and a sliced duck breast sandwiched not with scallion pancakes but in a foie gras–infused croissant. The real specialty, however, is the Iron Chef’s omakase tasting menu, which included, on the evening I sampled it, a chaste bowl of truffle-flavored tofu, portions of batter-fried blowfish called “Kentucky Fried Fugu,” and for dessert, a dainty ball of persimmon, flash-frozen in liquid nitrogen and eaten with a tiny silver spoon.
Similar elaborate courtesies are bestowed across the street at Mario Batali’s giant new Michelin-approved (two stars) restaurant, Del Posto. The huge, Goliath-size room looks like the Vegas version of some elaborate New York hotel lobby, circa 1922, and if you’re used to the intimate, rock-and-roll hustle and bustle of the other great Batali-Bastianich outlets like Esca, Lupa, and Babbo, it can be confusing, at first, to sit at the polished marble bar, listening to the tinkling cocktail piano with a roomful of expense-account swells and the occasional wiseguy in his ill-fitting suit. But there’s no denying the quality of the food, particularly the calf’s liver (with velvety polenta and a scattering of frizzled baby leeks), the pastas (try the simple spaghetti folded with crab and jalapeno), and Batali’s strangely addictive pumpkin-and-lardo risotto, which is served, with a kind of worshipful old-world flourish, from a shiny chafing dish.
In this hectic, globalist era of international spinoffs and jet-setting superstar chefs, ultra-high-end restaurant outlets seem to be proliferating around town like Pizza Huts. If you don’t believe me, hop in a taxicab to the Four Seasons Hotel and hunker down with the rest of the gratefully murmuring food aesthetes at the new Manhattan location of Joel Robuchon’s haute cuisine dining chain, L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon. As any McDonald’s addict will tell you, however, franchising has its benefits. Robuchon’s pointy, pocket-size baguettes alone are almost worth a special trip, and once you’ve puzzled your way through the overly complicated menu, you can’t go wrong with “La Langoustine” (a perfectly cooked langoustine, bound in a crunchy, origami-like crust), “L’Oursin” (lobes of uni set in an opulent lobster gelee), or “Les Ravioles,” consisting of moon-shaped ravioli, lightly stuffed with foie gras and floating in a warm chicken broth, like some medicinal potion.
The other high-profile Euro chef to parachute into town this year is that famous London screamer, Gordon Ramsay. But there’s nothing feisty, or confrontational, or all that different, really, about the modestly named Gordon Ramsay at the London, which opened several weeks ago on West 54th Street, in the newly remodeled London Hotel. The dishes I sampled on an early visit (pigeon pot-au-feu, roast chicken with foie gras sauce, black bass with spicy nuggets of chorizo) were confident, smoothly executed, and possibly even ethereal. Still, with its compartmentalized, Jean Georges–style dining rooms (an elite twelve-table space and a larger grill room serving a tapas-style menu) and its icy, haute department-store decor, this restaurant (look for the next Gordon Ramsay outlet in Miami) seems like a lot of the other gourmet franchises in town.
That’s not the case at Masa Takayama’s Masa, where the city’s greatest out-of-town Japanese chef now charges a cool $400 (up from $350) for his truffle-and-foie-gras-filled sushi menu. That other great culinary emigre, Napa Valley’s Thomas Keller, now charges $250 for his carefully articulated nine-course tasting meal next door at Per Se. But if you can live without exotic Keller creations like “Elysian Fields Farm’s Carre D’Agneau,” followed by spoonfuls of “Flowering Quince Sorbet,” then do what I do and take the escalator down to Mr. Keller’s newest Time Warner Center outlet, Bouchon Bakery. Connoisseurs of the genre consider the tuna sandwich (tartine of tuna nicoise, $13.25) to be the best in town. Personally, I’m happy to sit under the giant, glowing Samsung sign at lunchtime and scarf platters of the classic salmon rillettes or the pork-tonnato sandwich (ribbons of pink pork loin, pickled onions, and tuna aioli on toast), followed by a couple of Keller’s addictively creamy, gourmet Nutter Butter cookies for dessert.
It’s always a pleasure, in the big city, to find good food in unexpected places. So if you tire of chasing all the hot new restaurants downtown, I suggest a restorative trip up to the otherwise innocuous, traffic-clogged corner of Lexington and 92nd, where Ron Suhanosky and his baker wife, Colleen, opened the New York branch of their Nantucket restaurant, Sfoglia, several months ago. At this unassuming little mom-and-pop, it’s not unusual to find ravioli stuffed with inventive combinations of zucchini and mint, platters of risotto studded with wild mushrooms and blueberries, and bowls of handmade pasta folded with nuggets of fresh uni. The Suhanoskys’ menu has a seasonal, farmhouse quality to it, so pay attention to the simple things, like Colleen’s salty, crunchy fresh-baked bread (a combination of focaccia and ciabatta), and the fat dessert tart, which was filled with plums on the evening I sampled it and big enough for three.
The Little Owl is another small, neighborly place (this one on Bedford Street, in the West Village), where the high quality of the cooking is out of all proportion with the room’s unassuming style and pint-box size. Chef Joey Campanaro produces the kind of rich, crowd-pleasing bistro specialties that his mentor, Jimmy Bradley (the Red Cat, the Harrison) is famous for, like fat scallops sunk in bowls of cheese-rich risotto, grilled New York strip steak muffled in piles of sauteed radicchio and pancetta, and sizzling, fennel-scented pork chops, served with heaps of Parmesan-soaked butter beans. Alex Urena’s great teacher was David Bouley, and at Urena, on a scruffy stretch of 28th Street, in the Flatiron district, the prize student faithfully reproduces a series of reasonably priced, Bouley-style dishes, like gently cooked lobster with vanilla puree, soft blocks of pork belly dabbed with plum sauce, and chicken poached to a delicate tenderness and wreathed, in the precious Bouley manner, with a foie gras foam.
My preferred time to dine on the excellent beef tenderloin at Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s spare neighborhood canteen, Perry St., is lunchtime, when all the spindly models have cleared out and the mood in the severe Richard Meier space turns soft, even vaguely contemplative. In our own neighborhood, Bellavitae is my wife’s choice for a quick infusion of artisanal Italian treats like Sardinian figs wrapped in pancetta, or bulbs of radicchio, picked by hand in the hills of Treviso. For something a little more substantial, we repair to the long, beer-hall-style space at Blaue Gans, in Tribeca, where Wallse chef Kurt Gutenbrunner turns out a variety of rib-sticking specialties from his Austrian youth, like plump “Spinat Knodel” (spinach dumplings) swimming in butter, disks of “Blutwurstgrostl” (blood sausage) delicately flavored with nutmeg, and for dessert, a log or two of cherry strudel flavored with mint, and spoonfuls of the imposing Salzburger nockerl, made with real huckleberries and clouds of meringue.
Not so long ago, brick ovens were all the rage in boisterous Italian dining circles, and rustico was the word on every fatso chef’s lips. But these days, whenever my Upper East Side mother asks where to go for the latest in Italian culinary fashion, I direct her to Dona, just off Third Avenue, in midtown, where the choice banquettes are occupied by uptown matrons sporting $300 hairdos and the gentlemen clustered around the bar in the evenings tend to be dressed in sharp Italian suits. Donatella Arpaia calls the food at her glamorous new venture “southern European,” and her hypertalented chef, Michael Psilakis, happens to be Greek-American. But the best stuff on the elaborate, always evolving menu is resolutely Italian, like inspired crudo combinations of uni, crushed fava beans, and burrata cheese; little half-moon mezzaluna raviolis stuffed with chestnuts and duck; and the plump, Florentine gnudi, a dish so rich in butter and truffles that it caused the assembled gastronomes at my table to clap their fat little hands with glee.
Andrew Carmellini made his reputation the old-fashioned way, toiling with a bunch of volatile Frenchmen in the kitchens of the venerable uptown restaurant Cafe Boulud. Now he brings all of this Escoffier-approved training to bear at his high-design Italian restaurant in the Flatiron district, A Voce. It’s a curious, retro pleasure to swivel around in the restaurant’s posh Eames chairs, while bolting down bowls of simple ravioli (the recipe belonged to Carmellini’s grandmother) and helpings of fresh-made pappardelle smothered in a rich, slightly minty beef Bolognese and scoops of ricotta. But in accordance with the new Haute Italian style, the most successful recipes tend to be the more refined ones, like roasted squab on crostini loaded with diced mushrooms and foie gras sauce, carne crudo (steak tartare, with a dainty shot of truffle sauce on the side), and little platoons of duck meatballs, mixed with foie gras and ground pork, and served on parsnips, pureed, in the old French way, with several pounds of butter.
No tour of fancy Italian cuisine would be complete without a visit to one of Scott Conant’s posh restaurants. So we’ll drop into Alto, for a bite of his signature Alpine ravioli bombed with more truffles, before journeying down to Falai, the new epicenter of Italian chic, on Clinton Street. Iacopo Falai, who learned all about high style during his stint as the pastry chef at Le Cirque, has hung crystal chandeliers over the bar of his snug little establishment and decorated the walls with big floral designs delicately painted in shades of white and gray. If you order ravioli, chances are they will be stuffed with a savory mash of short ribs, and the closest thing to traditional red sauce on the menu is a rich venison ragu. The risottos have that luxurious, creamy quality you find in the big expense-account joints uptown, and if it’s simple pasta you want (and truffles are in season), do what the downtown high rollers do and order the $45 plate of fresh, eggy fettucini, tossed with butter and shavings of white truffle from Alba.
To the city’s growing roster of country-themed, supplier-obsessed, increasingly expensive dining establishments, like Peasant, Hearth, Blue Hill, and Craft, let’s add ,Telepan, where the former king of the midtown power lunch, Bill Telepan, has introduced crowds of grateful Upper West Side burghers to the righteous glories of Greenmarket cuisine. In accordance with prevalent Haute Barnyard motifs, the rooms of this West 69th Street restaurant are colored in hues of mossy green, and the walls decorated with photographs of giant, dewy farmer’s fruit. The menu is dotted with earthy favorites like hen-of-the-woods mushrooms (stuffed in a lunchtime panini) and Heritage pork (cooked four different ways), and to accommodate the settled grazing habits of the locals, Telepan lays out an impressive weekend brunch, which includes scrambled eggs mixed with gravlax and smoked whitefish, blintzes filled with sheep’s-milk ricotta, and a delicious gourmet construction of coddled eggs, balanced on crispy squares of scrapple.
As far as I know, scrapple hasn’t shown up yet at Cookshop, in Chelsea, although the restaurant’s habit of scrawling the names of its favorite farm suppliers on a prominent blackboard has spread to Haute Barnyard establishments far and wide. You can get your rabbit roasted on a spit here, just like in the hills around, say, Lexington, Kentucky, and all the beef on the menu is resolutely grass-fed, including my brunch-time burger, the slight chewiness of which was successfully obscured by thick slabs of twice-smoked country bacon and chunks of melted Cheddar from Vermont. All meals at Cookshop should begin with copious bowls of the deep-fried spiced hominy, and the meat of choice is the Berkshire pork chop (it costs $14 less than the grass-fed New York strip), which is brined, charred to a satisfying crispiness on its exterior, and served with a tasting of country pork sausages and a bit of healthful rapini.
Pork is one of the latest obsessions of that obsessive Italian chef, Cesare Casella, whose personal herd of organically raised hogs usually ends up as delicious grilled salsiccia, served with cannellini beans, at his spaghetti-Western-themed restaurant, in the West Village, Maremma. Pork is also one of the specialties at the new location of The Tasting Room, in Nolita, a place so virtuous that even the cocktails are made with artisanal ingredients like house-made bitters and home-brewed ginger beer. My friend the pork hound is addicted to the pulled-pork shanks (piled over mashed sweet potatoes), and to the pork crackling, which chef Colin Alevras sprinkles like candy over helpings of handpicked, though egregiously pricey ($34), lobster mushrooms. For the ultimate in barnyard chic, try the desserts, like peach cobbler, topped with peach-leaf ice cream, and brioche pudding, which is decked with slivers of fresh Honey Crisp apples and splashed, in grand country style, with a shot of Calvados.
RUB, in Chelsea, is still the Manhattan barbecue joint I repair to for a bite of smoked pork and a burnt-ends sandwich or two whenever I grow weary of the rusticated pretensions of the Haute Barnyard crowd. But if you’re in the market for a full-blown, yuppie pig picking, book a table at the new wing of Daisy May’s BBQ USA, on 46th Street and Eleventh Avenue. Four hundred eighty dollars buys an entire barbecued hog, shipped in from hog country in Iowa, plus rubber gloves for picking, plastic bibs, and a boatload of chef Adam Perry Lang’s gourmet side dishes (creamed corn, candied sweet potatoes, cooling mustard slaw), and a big, country watermelon for dessert. Sweet-potato pecan pie is the dessert delicacy to order at The Queen’s Hideaway, a quirky little establishment buried deep in the backwoods of Greenpoint, Brooklyn. Every evening, Liza Queen scrawls out her dinner menu on a piece of paper, puts an old LP on the house Victrola, and serves up home-cooked delicacies like spicy venison and duck gumbo, Brussels sprouts and nuggets of smoked sausage poached in sweet pear cider, and the aptly named “Lap of Luxury,” a nourishing stew of slow-cooked chicken smothered in a creamy mash of garden vegetables, with big blocks of battered cornbread “French Toast” on top.
For a real dose of unadorned, down-home cooking, however, visit the tiny kitchen at Pies-N-Thighs, under the Williamsburg Bridge, in Brooklyn. Eight bucks gets you three pieces of chef-owner Steve Tanner’s superior golden fried chicken (it’s brined, the way his grandmother used to do in Albany, Georgia, in salt, soda water, and a pinch of sugar), and for a few dollars more, you can tuck into a wedge of fresh-baked apple pie, while you listen to Lynyrd Skynyrd blasting from the boom box in the corner. You can also satisfy your urge for fried food back across the river, at Rack & Soul, on 109th and Broadway, where the crack fry operation is run by the great fried-chicken wizard himself, Charles Gabriel. “Mr. Charles,” as the friendly girls behind the counter call him, cooks his chicken the proper way, rolled in seasoned flour, then sizzled in a bubbling iron skillet. The lightly salty catfish is similarly prepared, but if you desire something with a little more heft, order a rack of the sugar-sweet baby-back ribs, or a mess of country oxtails, fixed in a rich, glutinous pool of flour gravy and served with a bag of home-baked biscuits, sweetened with a touch of honey.
Gourmet Bar Food
I always get the feeling these kinds of places are built for elves,” my rotund, un-elflike companion declared, as we bellied, ever so delicately, up to the tiny dining counter at Degustation, the latest addition to Jack and Grace Lamb’s mini dining empire (Jewel Bako, Jack’s Luxury Oyster Bar), on East 5th Street. I told my friend to get used to it. These days, miniature, bar-centric restaurants are taking the city by storm. After we’d ingested our single, tiny, delicious sweetbread (dipped in tangy yogurt sauce) and mini roast-beef sandwich (dabbed with mayonnaise on a round of buttered toast), we were still feeling a little peckish, so we continued on to Tia Pol (for the croquettes), Casa Mono (for a platter or two of grilled lamb chops), and Bar Carrera (the exceptional chorizo sandwich), before concluding our late-night tapas binge at Boqueria, which opened a couple of months ago in the Flatiron district. The co-owner of this terminally popular new establishment happens to be French and the chef owner is Irish-American, but the paella is served in big cast-iron salvers, the way they present it in Valencia, and it’s also made with properly Spanish Calasparra rice. The tapas-accented menu is good all the time, but go in the middle of the week for a taste of the suckling-pig special, which the chef roasts to a proper Iberian crispiness and serves with roasted apples and cardoons. Pork sausages are my favorite dish at the swanky new Soho restaurant and wine operation Centovini, where you can bolt down your glass of, say, Friulian Ribolla, then scamper next door to the establishment’s wine store to buy a bottle or two of the stuff to imbibe at home. You can’t do that (yet) with the Speckled Hen ale at The Spotted Pig, although there’s still no better bar in town for a platter of Beau Soleil oysters, followed by several large bites of April Bloomfield’s magisterial new interpretation of the Cubano sandwich (melted Gruyere, pulled Berkshire pork, and scattering of pickled jalapenos, pressed between slices of toasty ciabatta), which is served—for the time being, sadly—at lunchtime only.
Similar fresser specialties are available on the bar menu at the new Le Cirque, where it’s always enjoyable to hunker down on wintry afternoons and dine on classic Sirio Maccioni favorites, like crisp rolled pig’s trotter and decorous pots of tripe a la armagnac, while watching the aged plutocrats totter around the great canopied room. For a slightly more updated, late-evening bar feast, I like to waddle downtown to Parea, in the Flatiron district, for a taste of Michael Symon’s sweet, charcoal-finished lamb ribs and several helpings of the fluffy zucchini dumplings, called “keftedes,” which are shaped like little zeppelins and designed to be dipped into bowls of soothing, lightly whipped Feta cheese with lemon zest. If that doesn’t fill you up, then join the rest of the discerning Beatnik fatsos at David Chang’s oddly conceived Momofuku Noodle Bar offshoot, Momofuku Ssam. The polished, strangely antiseptic room is empty most of the time but comes alive after 9:30 p.m., when Chang’s after-hours menu includes a wealth of pork-centric delicacies, like steamed buns with hoisin and thick slabs of pork belly, little baguettes filled with headcheese, fresh coriander, and slabs of pâté, and, if you call in advance, the impressively massive, $180 “Bo Ssäm,” comprising an entire Berkshire pork butt, gently braised for seven hours in flagons of sugar, soy, and rice wine.
In this fickle, fashion-obsessed era, big-money restaurants change their looks as quickly as runway models at the Paris shows. To my wife’s quiet chagrin, the small, elegantly cozy room at her favorite Union Square restaurant, Tocqueville, has morphed into a vaulted, slightly sterile, double-height space, replete with gray silk curtains and a discreet, fine-dining skybox for private parties. This does nothing to diminish the quality of chef Marco Moreira’s fashionably rusticated compositions, however, like roast chicken with parsley-root puree and truffled Parmesan grits. At Eleven Madison Park, Danny Meyer has done away with the towering topiaries and giant medieval chandeliers and brought in a young chef named Daniel Humm to introduce the local corporate barons to the virtues of fancy European-style emulsions and foams. There are sweet Hawaiian prawns on the menu now, poached in butter and truffles, and delicate squares of foie gras squeezed between layers of crushed cherries, but if you order one thing, make it the suckling pig, which the chef pulls from the bone, simmers in duck fat, and presses into a Heath Bar–size mini-confection, filled with such crackly, porky flavor that you just might want to order it again.
Aquavit has an excellent new cafe menu (vodka-soaked herring, Swedish meatballs, blueberry cobbler), but the regulars who’d grown accustomed to the grand old Rockefeller townhouse that used to house Marcus Samuelsson’s great restaurant are still adjusting to the sleek, modern, and slightly claustrophobic room on the ground floor of a windswept skyscraper off Park Avenue. But that’s nothing compared with the traumas being suffered by the legions of opera loons across town at Picholine, where Terrance Brennan has done away with the restaurant’s timeworn motifs (thick brocade curtains, dark oil paintings, frumpy orange wallpaper) and painted everything in snappy tones of lavender and mauve. Brennan has streamlined his menu, too, adding inventive interpretations of old-style favorites (mashed choucroute garni packaged in servings of skate, great pouches of chicken Kiev filled with liquid foie gras) and introducing a radical new bar menu for the after-opera crowd, stocked, in accordance with the culinary fashions of today, with delicious, cutting-edge Spanish treats, like spring rolls stuffed with paella, and glasses of sherry-flavored sorbet stuck with plumes of crisp baked serrano ham.
Wagyu,” “pasture-raised,” and “grass-fed” are just a few of the righteous buzzwords circulating like wildfire among the city’s beef-eating community. To experience this artisanal-beef revolution in all its variegated, slightly ridiculous (and ever more expensive) forms, visit the big, boxy dining hall at Craftsteak, where you can gnaw on corn-fed beef aged for up to 56 days; virtuous, though slightly gnarly, slabs of grass-fed steer from Hawaii; and eight varieties of grilled and roasted Wagyu, culminating in the pinkish, alarmingly fatty grade-eleven Wagyu, from Miyazaki, Japan (it costs a whopping $30 an ounce). My choice for the best artisanal cut of the year, however, is the spicy, beautifully charred, Cajun-rubbed rib steak, at Michael Lomonaco’s Porter House New York, which opened, not long ago, on the fourth floor of the great Time Warner Center food court. This $41 rib steak comes from Brandt Farms, in California, famous, among carnivores, for its herd of fat, corn-fed Holsteins. For maximum caloric effect, supplement your chop with Lomonaco’s oyster pan roast (a luxurious amalgam of poached oysters, smoked bacon bits, and tarragon-flavored cream) and a vat or two of cheesy, crisp-topped gratine potatoes.
Sparks Steak House is still my personal choice for a traditional beef feast in midtown Manhattan, but if you’re in the mood for something slightly newer and more radical, book a table in the polished, walnut-covered dining room at Quality Meats, on West 58th Street. At this racy new Alan Stillman outlet, corn creme brulee and bowls of buttered edamame (with mint) have replaced the usual appetizers, although the house specialty remains an impressive, Rabelaisian-size 64-ounce double-cut rib steak, carved tableside into thick dinosaur slices, for two. The equally monolithic, beautifully aged “Tomahawk Chop” is the only reason to visit Texas chef Tim Love’s otherwise gloomy new Flatiron establishment, The Lonesome Dove Western Bistro—but it’s reason enough. Jeffery Chodorow’s new Kobe Club, in midtown, features absurdly expensive tasting “flights” of properly tender (though not always sizzling) Wagyu beef and lots of samurai swords dangling from the ceiling, though if you’re searching for a nightclub-style steakhouse that your girlfriend might possibly enjoy, that place is STK, in the meatpacking district. The different cuts of beef come in petite packages (six ounces of skirt steak for $18); the menu is stocked with decent, even artful non-steak options (skate topped with shiitake and brown butter, lamb chops glazed with mint); and as you pick at your dinner, you might even catch a glimpse of Jessica Simpson (a rumored patron on one of the evenings I was there), sipping her evening pot of herbal tea.
In recent years, sushi and edamame have been the dominant food groups at big-box hipster establishments around town. But don’t tell that to the aged Mr. Chow refugees congregating at Philippe, in midtown. The dish to get here is the golden-skinned, almost goose-size Peking duck, which is carved tableside by elderly gentlemen wearing little plastic gloves and is almost worth its $65 (for two) sticker price.
Whenever my Sinophile father craves a proper Chinese banquet, I tell him to gather ten of his food-scholar friends, and call Shun Lee West, where Michael Tong’s lavish new special-order Shanghainese feast includes esoteric offerings of “red cooked eel” tossed with soft bulbs of garlic; “black dragon” sea cucumber speckled with shrimp roe; and pig’s knuckles, marinated in rice wine for two days, steamed for ten hours, and dusted with the lightest coating of ground corn. For a less formal Shanghainese feast, the Platts repair to Liberty View, on the southern tip of Manhattan. On temperate weekend evenings, it’s a pleasure to sit outdoors, under the plane trees, and watch the boats steam around, just like they do on the great gray rivers of China. The specialties of the house are resolutely Chinese, too, like plates of crisp fried eel and shrimp tossed with yellow chives; big, baseball-size pork meatballs called “Lion’s Heads”; and platters of crackly roast chicken, poured with a special sweet brown sauce, which the chef concocted himself, back in old Shanghai.
Annisa chef Anita Lo’s Rickshaw Dumpling Bar is my daughters’ favorite venue for non-Chinatown dumplings, although lately they’ve been dragging me to the newly opened branch of the Queens dumpling shop Roll & Dough, on West 3rd Street, for stacks of flaky sesame “shao bing,” stuffed with spicy pork, and plastic plates of steamy Fujian-style dumplings, filled with pork and scallions. For something a little more spicy, we like to sneak off to our local neighborhood Grand Sichuan International, on St. Marks Place, for furtive helpings of cold tripe smothered in pepper sauce and coriander, soothing strings of raw potatoes dunked in rice-wine vinegar sauce, followed by sizzling helpings of double-cooked pork with green peppers the size of carrots, all washed down with pitcher after pitcher of cooling Tsingtao beer.
The Great Lunch
The grilled Cheddar burger on the new lunch menu at Prune probably isn’t quite as good as the perfect cheeseburger at Shake Shack, but you can dine on it indoors, in the midst of winter (with a small tub of tripe Milanese, perhaps, and a wedge of cherry pie), and you don’t have to stand on line for hours to get a taste of it. My other favorite noonday sandwiches are the copiously large BLT at my neighborhood bistro, Marquet, and the toasty, Swiss-style pork sandwich (spread with horseradish mayonnaise, sauerkraut, and melted Gruyere), served at Ralf Kuettel’s neighborly new restaurant in Chelsea, Trestle on Tenth. For a properly greasy midday feast, however, I like to sneak into Fatty Crab, for servings of Zak Pelaccio’s slow-cooked pork ribs, a plate or two of brined, crisp fried fatty duck, and finally, a bowl of Malay chile crabs, which are dunked in a rich chile sauce and served with big chunks of toast for mopping.
Le Bernardin is my choice for the ultimate, discerning, $57 prix fixe luncheon in midtown, although the Grill Room at The Four Seasons is still the place to go if you wish to observe the city’s great bull elephants gathered for their ritual midday meal. But if you grow weary of shelling out $65 for a few meager slices of Kobe-beef sashimi, or $56 for a bite or two of sole meuniere, then join the mob of secretaries, riotous stock touts, and assorted other Wall Street pizza hounds who line up outside Adrienne’s Pizza Bar, down on Stone Street, in the financial district, for a taste of Nick Angelis’s excellent “old-fashioned” pizza pies. Angelis bakes his pies in great, crispy-edged squares bubbling with cheese. But the key to their strange, almost primal goodness is the bountiful toppings, like buttons of fresh zucchini, crumblings of sweet Italian sausage, and the thin, crinkly wheels of eggplant, which bake into the cheese in a delicious, almost confectionary way.
Whenever I wish to soothe one of my kinetic, bonus-obsessed corporate friends, I take him to lunch at Cafe Gray, where we nibble on Chef Kunz’s baroque constructions of baked halibut or steak tartare, while gazing out over the chef’s toques at the soothing treetops of Central Park. The slick, perpetually mobbed barroom at The Modern remains the favorite lunchtime haunt for many wise-guy editors I know, but whenever I’m in the mood for a real slap-up daytime meal, I’ll take them a few blocks south, to Bar Americain, where lunch is the only time you can get a taste of Bobby Flay’s big-city rendition of the Kentucky Hot Brown. This calorie-laden monster is composed of a slab of French toast, piled with fat peppered slices of turkey breast, strips of smoked bacon, and a segment of roast tomato, all liberally bombed with a thick flour gravy. And if that doesn’t fill you up, you can always fortify your luncheon with tasting plates of artisanal ham, or the squash blossoms, when they’re in season, decorously stuffed, in high chowhound style, with deposits of barbecued pulled pork.
No culinary safari through the wilds of Brooklyn would be complete without stops at all the recently gentrified watering holes, like Franny’s, on Flatbush Avenue, iCi, in Fort Greene, and Applewood, in Park Slope. But lately, the local chowhounds have been congregating on the empty sidewalks of Van Brunt Street, in Red Hook. After you’ve enjoyed a serving of the wine-braised short ribs (with smoked bacon and orange zest) at the great neighborhood bistro 360, you can stroll down the block to the eclectic mom-and-pop fusion establishment (he’s American, she’s Korean-American) called The Good Fork. The beamy little room is covered with wood molding, like the cabin of a ship’s, and in clement weather, the rickety garden out back is strung with lights and you can dine under the stars on bowls of slow-braised pork stew (with creamy polenta), crunchy-bottomed pork-and-chive pot stickers, and a superior marinated skirt steak served, Korean style, with an egg on top.
Williamsburg is being steadily overrun by all kinds of new dining establishments, but the serious-minded swells in the neighborhood seem to be congregating at Dressler, where the beautifully appointed room is worthy of any new restaurant in Manhattan, and the prices are, too. The proprietors have imported the famous hamburger from their nearby dining bar, DuMont, and laid on fancy-pants dishes like grilled rib eye, and shreds of smoked sturgeon piled with creme fraiche on a crunchy potato galette. But the real draw is the space. The softly lit room is adorned with intricate lattice trimmings that look like paper cutouts and make the whole place glow in the evenings, in a very decorative, un-Brooklynlike way.
The Farm on Adderley, which opened not long ago amid the clutter of 99-cent stores and bodegas on Cortelyou Road in far off Ditmas Park, is where my pioneering Brooklynite friends go to experience the joys of Haute Barnyard cooking. But the rest of the borough’s high-foodie aesthetes are clamoring for a table at Porchetta, on Smith Street, where the ambitious young chef Jason Neroni recently arrived to take over the kitchen. Neroni, who trained under Alain Ducasse, has a gift for imbuing old-fashioned Italian cooking with a kind of cutting-edge, Manhattan flourish. On one evening I dropped in, the tiny, harried kitchen was turning out bowls of deconstructed ravioli (filled with butter-cooked market mushrooms, shavings of Parmesan, and a single gently poached egg), chewy bricks of braised pork belly candied with dates and prunes, and a gourmet preparation of short ribs (sprinkled with sugared black olives and a mustard-greens-and-Gorgonzola fondue) that tasted as fine as any short-rib equivalent across the river, but, at $17, cost half as much.
If I’m wandering around the Upper West Side at brunch time, I still can’t resist dropping into Ouest for a plate of soft scrambled eggs with house-smoked sturgeon, and Balthazar remains the place to be if you wish to begin your day in a proper Frenchified way, with a fresh croissant and a great fishbowl-size vessel of the excellent house “Chocolate Chaud.” For a dose of real Gallic raffishness, however, head down to Zucco: Le French Diner, on Orchard Street, and take a seat at the small dining counter, next to the assorted groggy musicians, solitary poets, and pretty girls reading their fat paperback novels between sips of cafe au lait. The coffee is served in blue-rimmed porcelain bowls, properly chipped around the edges, and don’t ever ask the excitable proprietor, Monsieur Zucco, for ketchup for your frites, because he hates the stuff. You’re safe with the fat, sugary slices of French toast, though, or flattened baguettes filled with salty ham and cornichons, or the stately “Le Steak Hache a Cheval,” which is a fat charbroiled burger, served on a boat of mashed potatoes, with a fried egg on top.
From there, it’s on to Egg, in Williamsburg, where the sleepy-looking neighborhood hipsters begin lining up at 7 a.m. to gobble great, crunchy buttermilk biscuits sunk in bowls of pork-sausage gravy (or vegetarian mushroom gravy if you wish), platters of “Eggs Rothko” (poached eggs, sealed into a chunk of brioche with melted cheddar), and the superior country ham biscuit, stuffed with melted Grafton Cheddar, slices of chewy salty Colonel Bill Newsom’s ham from Princeton, Kentucky, and spoonfuls of homemade fig jam. For a bang-up English breakfast, my brunch-time choice is 202, set amid the jumble of coatracks on the ground floor of the Chelsea Market. And if you wish to complement your plate of scrambled eggs and bangers, or Bubble and Squeak, with another dish or two, sprint around the corner to the new Chelsea outlet of Tom Colicchio’s rapidly multiplying ’Wichcraft chain, and shell out $4 for a little paper tub of stone-ground grits, bombed, on top, with smoked ham and melted Cheddar.
Breakfast is now served daily at Lynn Wagenknecht’s new, excessively ladylike West Village hangout, Cafe Cluny, where my wife dines on the organic omelette, my daughters order the French toast, and I call for the superior gourmet version of short-rib hash, decked with two poached eggs and bearnaise sauce. My other favorite West Village brunch delicacy is the brick-oven-baked Alsatian eggs “en cocotte” at August, made with sweet onions, chunks of Alsatian ham, and creme fraiche. Whenever I’m in the mood for something completely different, however, I’ll bundle the family off to Crema Restaurante, on 17th Street, for baskets of warm tortilla chips with great spoons of fresh guacamole, flour tortillas filled with scrambled eggs and guajillo chile, and Julieta Ballesteros’s great “Chilaquiles Verdes y Rojos con Huevos Poche,” made with chicken and shredded tortillas and two kinds of salsa, mixed with melted Chihuahua cheese, fresh cream and fresh cilantro, and a single, wobbly poached egg.
So you’ve never knocked back a Pegu Club cocktail (very dry London gin, orange curacao, several kinds of bitters, fresh lime juice), the beverage of choice of British officers near Rangoon, Burma, circa 1892? Then get yourself to the Pegu Club, in Soho, where the latest retro cocktail craze sweeping the city is in full bloom. The bar offers 25 varieties of gin and a whole roster of ancient, anthropologically correct cocktails, plus much better bar food (the profoundly tasty “Sloppy Duck” sandwich, for example—deviled eggs mixed with smoked trout, curried mayonnaise, and a hint of chutney) than they ever served in Queen Victoria’s day. The Ginger Smash is still this boozehound’s favorite old-style libation at Employees Only, and if I’m still sober enough to eat, I’ll order a platter of the surprisingly decent steak tartare, mixed with precise amounts of chopped filet, raw egg, and truffle-infused capers. For maximum pleasure, dine at the bar, where you can observe the dashing, retro bartenders, dressed in their spotless mixologist smocks, though don’t go on weekends, when the bridge-and-tunnel crowds invade and the whole joint descends into chaos.
You need a reservation to gain entrance to the small, impossibly chic Lower East Side bar Milk and Honey, although it’s worth it to get a taste of the Moscow Mule, made with real muddled ginger. It’s also worth braving the crowd at that other chaotically hip downtown establishment, Freemans, if only for a sip of the Yankee mint julep (made with rye instead of bourbon and poured over crushed ice in a frosty silver cup), or the great rum-infused Dark and Stormy (mixed, on the evening I sampled it, with a swizzle stick plucked from a real swizzle tree in Martinique).
The maestro of the cutting-edge cocktail is Jose “Juice” Miranda, who serves inventively lethal concoctions like the green, frothy Tequila Pepino (Suazo gold, cucumber juice and foam, and sugar water) at the bar at Wylie Dufresne’s WD-50. But if you wish to mingle with members of the boozy literary set, the place is Graydon Carter’s clubby new hangout, The Waverly Inn. The only vaguely bookish type I spotted in the tiny, troll-size bar was the disgraced fake memoirist James Frey, loitering hesitantly in one corner of the room. But twelve bucks buys a decent whiskey sour, or an even better iced Negroni, and if you can’t abide the upscale British boarding-school food on the menu (lamb chops, chicken potpies), you can always gobble fistfuls of the salty, compulsively edible deep-fried chickpeas, served in little copper pots at the bar.
And Finally, For Dessert…
Of all the retro dining pleasures available in the baroquely appointed upstairs dining room at Geoffrey Zakarian’s newest restaurant, Country, the one I like best is the classic French puff pastry called the “pithivier.” This great, hubcap-size confection is more of a pie than a pastry, and it’s baked fresh in Zakarian’s kitchens daily, stuffed with a dense mixture of sugar and almonds, and piled with rich spoonfuls of whiskey sauce. No. 2 on the list of golden-oldie desserts are the old-fashioned blintzes, available now, amid the shining gold samovars and swooping imperial eagles, at the newly reopened, surprisingly enjoyable Russian Tea Room, on 57th Street. These timeless calorie bombs are arranged two to a plate (one blintz is filled with sour cream, the other with sugared cherries) and brought to the table just like in the days of the czar, by waiters dressed in black frock coats, with rows of golden buttons.
In the murky, ever-evolving world of cutting-edge downtown dessert bars, the newest rival to that excellent, perpetually mobbed East Village institution Chikalicious is Will Goldfarb’s Room 4 Dessert. When I set up at the long, moodily lit bar, the loquacious Mr. Goldfarb was having his picture snapped by a group of adoring Japanese food groupies. But he found time, in between disquisitions on Paco blenders and the origins of saffron, to whip up strange, esoterically conceived tastings of chai-flavored parfaits, cups of whipped-cherry gelee, and a bracing creation called “Little Jack Horner,” made with vaporous clouds of litchi and crystallized plumb confit, all chased down with a shot of Jell-O spiked with Red Bull.
I did not detect Red Bull in any of the slightly bizarre but perfectly tasty Asian-accented flavors available at Sundaes & Cones, my discerning 7-year-old daughter’s new favorite ice-cream parlor, which is conveniently located just two blocks from her school. Jane would like everyone to know that she also enjoyed her swirl of plain-vanilla yogurt with blueberries, Fruity Pebbles, and Captain Crunch at the Manhattan outlet of the L.A.-based girlie frozen-yogurt chain Pinkberry and a bite of warm chocolate mini miso cake from the bakery at another new Asian dessert bar called Kyotofu. But in this, the year of the glitzy Vegas restaurant, it’s no surprise that her idea of absolute dessert nirvana is a slice of chocolate pizza and a bowl of warm chocolate soup, at the ludicrously large, aggressively marketed dessert chain Max Brenner: Chocolate by the Bald Man. “I love it,” she cried as her bald daddy surveyed the chaotic, barn-size room, jammed with harried-looking parents and hordes of their sugar-crazed, chocolate-smeared kids. I took one hesitant bite of her chocolate pizza, then another. I’m compelled to report that it wasn’t half-bad.