In the fickle, helter-skelter world of New York restaurants, food fashions and trends tend to come and go like the weather. But these days, as your dutiful critic lumbers around town on his endless gastronomic rounds, the weather feels a little different. This was the year, after all, when, led by Danny Meyer, more and more prominent New York restaurateurs and chefs began to turn their back on the ancient and byzantine custom of tipping. Thanks to ever-rising rents and the generally crushing cost of doing business in the city, this was also the year that many of the transitory restaurant fads we’ve recorded in the past — tiny gourmet tasting rooms, comfort-food madness, bar dining, the reliance on old-school meat-and-potato dining formulas — stopped feeling like fads and began to feel like the normal way of doing business. Over the last several months, funky “natural” wines have also begun to replace more classic, old-fashioned (and, yes, often wildly overpriced) vintages as the posh drink of choice in certain cutting-edge wino circles, and centuries from now, when scholars record the history of this turbulent culinary time, they may well conclude that after decades of obsession over pork belly and giant cuts of beef, this was also the year that the Age of the Carnivore officially gave way, among big-city burger addicts, breakfast aficionados, and gourmet diners alike, to the Age of the Vegivore.
You’ll find plenty of research to back up these debatable assertions in this, New York’s annual guide to everything that’s new, interesting, and generally excellent to eat in this great, sprawling, food-mad town. As usual, your critic has burned through countless expense-account dollars (and countless tabs of Rolaids) to provide you with an informed road map of where to find the best pub burgers, the best breakfasts, and the best New Age pizzas, as you embark on your own culinary rambles around town. We’ve swilled countless goblets of cloudy “orange” wine to find our favorite nouveaux wine dens, endured endless mind-numbing multicourse dinners in search of this year’s finest omakase feast, and gobbled hundreds of warmed-over quinoa patties to bring you our absolute favorite veggie burger, in this suddenly veggie-loving city. For your debating pleasure, we’ve also compiled the usual highly subjective lists of all the things members of the culinary community love to chatter about this time of year. Check back later this week to discover our favorite restaurants of the year, our favorite new chefs of the year, and, last but not least, all the annoying quirks, large and small, that drive your cranky critic to distraction as he calls for the menu, tucks a giant napkin under his frayed collar, and waits fitfully for his next meal.
The New Old School
Innovation has never been a hallmark of this meat-and-potatoes dining city, but now more than ever, as rents continue to rise into the stratosphere and profit margins fall, restaurateurs around town seem to be falling back on ancient, time-tested formulas to make a buck. In fact, in certain fancy-dining precincts around town, it almost feels like you’re traveling aggressively backward in time — to the days when the walls of the finest dining establishments were plastered with oil paintings, the swell clientele talked among themselves in hushed, clubby voices, and to get a decent table you needed to know “a guy,” provided you could get a table at all. Exhibit A in this nostalgic trend is Ralph Lauren’s popular new dining club, The Polo Bar, which has been mobbed with an endless cavalcade of fashion folk, celebrity watchers, and assorted high-society nabobs ever since it opened last January on 55th Street and Fifth Avenue, in one of the catacombs beneath Mr. Lauren’s flagship store. Not surprisingly, the subterranean dining room looks like some strange, Disneyfied mash-up of an old London sporting club and the set of Lord Grantham’s smoking room, although you won’t get decorous little bowls of fried olives like the ones served at the very good bar upstairs to go with your predinner cocktails at Downton Abbey, not to mention a refined, upmarket rendition of that old bar-mitzvah favorite pigs in blankets, which the chefs at this professionally run establishment roll in buttery tubes of puff pastry and plate with a little pot of mustard. Devout Anglophiles can order a decent, $62 facsimile of ye olde English Dover sole in the dining room downstairs, but if you’re wise, you’ll stick to the favorite restaurant foods of the great tastemaker himself, like Ralph’s Corned Beef Sandwich, constructed with melted Swiss cheese, thick slabs of corned beef, and toasted rye, and a scoop or two of Ralph’s Coffee Ice Cream for dessert, which is served, just like in an old-fashioned gentlemen’s dining club, in a simple porcelain bowl over a white paper doily, with a couple of chocolate shortbread cookies on the side.
Similar retro pleasures are available at Stephen Starr’s lavish restaurant The Clocktower, in the new Edition Hotel off Madison Square Park, where the dining-room walls are covered with neo-Edwardian knickknacks and the barroom tends to fill up in the evenings with a rabble of Hooray Henrys swilling bottles of Champagne from frosty silver buckets and toasting each other at the top of their lungs. I didn’t enjoy the flowery, aggressively priced cooking of Michelin-starred London chef Jason Atherton as much as some of my colleagues did, but you can’t go wrong with the more heavily English-accented specialties, especially the gourmet version of fish and chips and mushy peas (lunchtime only), or the dainty, dumpling-size pigeon pie, which is smoothed with a stealthy infusion of foie gras and garnished with a little pile of properly traditional Waldorf salad. Michael White and his excitable partner, Ahmass Fakahany, have opened numerous clunkers around town in recent years, but my parents, like lots of their Upper East Side neighbors, have nothing but kind words to say about their new Park Avenue venture, Vaucluse. The menu includes old-fashioned French delicacies like slabs of jellied pâté en croûte, a smooth, fluffy-crusted lunchtime quiche Lorraine, and an inventive (and, at $46 per person, not inexpensive) version of duck à l’orange, which White and his legions of cooks age for several days, crisp to a kind of sweet, papery Peking-duck consistency, and carve onto the plate in crunchy lozenge-size bites.
I’m sad to report that such classic dishes have not made an appearance yet on the menu of the grandly appointed dining room at Gabriel Kreuther, which landed last summer at the bottom of the venerable Grace Building on 42nd Street, amid the hubbub of midtown. When I dropped in, the well-traveled Alsatian chef’s menu included a faintly gamy piece of squab bundled en croûte in the old haute cuisine style, along with a mannered version of that fine-dining favorite frogs’ legs, fried in a tempura-light batter and brought to the table on a crystal pedestal over a bed of polished stones. If you’re not on an expense account, however (or even if you are), I suggest you take a seat in the restaurant’s bar lounge, where, for roughly half the price of dinner in the somewhat stuffy dining room, you can purchase a veritable feast of old-school comfort delicacies, like thin, crackly squares of Kreuther’s famous tarte flambée (with mushrooms, bacon, or, for an extra fee, caviar and uni), plump Alsatian pork sausages with tangy helpings of sauerkraut, and little pots of softly braised tripe gratiné, which I like to complement, if I still have room in my expanding belly, with baskets of the classic house beignets, which are scattered with drifts of powdered sugar and served with a racy scoop of beer sorbet.
This town has always been a melting pot and mecca for international cuisines, but lately an unusual number of talented chefs seem to have set up shop here from around the globe, and they’re translating their local recipes for New Yorkers in unique and tasty ways. I don’t know if Hawaiian food is technically an international cuisine, but if that great island delicacy Spam is your particular thing, I suggest you book one of the pint-size tables at Noreetuh, in the East Village, where, on my visits earlier this year, the former Per Se cook Chung Chow stuffed this versatile meat product into little pouches of fresh-made agnolotti and garnished them with hon shimeji mushrooms and curling bonito flakes from Japan. Chow is a Chinese-American who grew up in Hawaii, so it’s not surprising that he has a special facility with pork, that other island specialty, which is served cool, in jellied terrine form, at this pleasing little restaurant, or fried in bountiful round kalua croquettes (pay attention to the barbecue-style katsu sauce sweetened with applesauce), and as a classic pork-belly entrée, braised to a sticky softness in pineapple juice and soy.
Korean home cooking is the theme at the excellent, strangely named new restaurant Oiji, which opened across First Avenue from Noreetuh in a space once occupied by the old East Village standby Dok Suni. Like Chow, the co-owners, Brian Kim and Tae Kyung Ku, are accomplished young cooks who’ve done time in the city’s great kitchens, and also like Chow, they specialize in turning out high-minded iterations of the comfort foods of their youth, like fried chicken (sizzled in a light coating of tapioca instead of the usual greasy clouds of flour), bowls of slow-cooked oxtail, and a buttery version of the rice-and-beef dish jang-jo-rim, which was so good I ordered it twice. Instead of the usual giant haunch of pork butt, the ssäm at this sophisticated little establishment consists of a vegetarian spiced-tofu option along with a bowl of shredded pork, but whatever you do, save room for the “honey butter chips,” which, as any self-respecting Korean-food gastronaut will tell you, are an addictive concoction involving freshly fried potato chips, melted butter, and a finishing drizzle of honey.
I’m not wild about the cobbled-together room at George Mendes’s fine new Portuguese-themed gastropub, Lupulo, but short of hopping a plane to Lisbon, you won’t find a better example of the magisterial, multilayered bacalhau-and-potato casserole, which he and his cooks construct here with layers of thinly sliced creamy potatoes and chunks of codfish in a cannonball-size cast-iron pot. If you’re pining for a little slice of the Amalfi Coast now that winter is closing in, you could do an awful lot worse than a bite or two of the great cecina (chickpea pancake) at Team Torrisi’s new Meatpacking District restaurant Santina, which the festively dressed wait staff serve along with a whole blizzard of Mediterranean creations: pepe rice tossed with guanciale; spaghetti and blue crab; a scrambled-egg-and-melted-Fontina breakfast sandwich.
Gonzo, nose-to-tail Sichuan-style cooking remains the main theme at Danny Bowien’s much-improved reboot of Mission Chinese Food, which now occupies a more commodious space on East Broadway. But thanks to the Filipino-American executive chef, Angela Dimayuga, who has a knack for imbuing her cooking with a particular combination of lightness and heft, you can complement the fire-breathing Bowien classics (thrice-cooked bacon, the lustrous heritage-pork mapo tofu) with a whole array of slightly lighter, more playful dishes: green-papaya salad dressed with peanuts and fish sauce, segments of crispy Hainanese-style fried chicken served with a special lemony sauce to cut the richness, and chewy char sui pork cheeks, which the kitchen glazes in healthful vats of beet juice.
Jessi Singh came to New York in a roundabout, globe-trotting way, from the Punjab via Melbourne, and like Mission Chinese, the menu at his popular downtown Indian restaurant, Babu Ji, is filled with a whole grab bag of unexpected flavor and ingredient combinations. Ask for a beer at this convivial Alphabet City establishment and the wait staff will happily direct you to the cooler in the back of the room filled with bottles of Singha from Thailand and Tusker from Kenya. You can enjoy your beer with scallops from Long Island poured with coconut curry; traditional tikki (potato croquettes) stuffed with Maine lobster; or whole rainbow trout, which Singh and his cooks char to a tender crisp in a traditional tandoor oven and sweeten with honey. The thing Ms. Platt keeps going back for is the butter chicken, made with chunks of all-natural bird, which she and the girls order with little mountains of fluffy basmati rice and baskets of fresh naan pooled with puddles of butter. The dishes I can’t get out of my head, however, are the classic Indian desserts, like the sweet, spongy gulab jamun cakes soaked in more honey, and the slim, cooling kulfi Popsicles, which the staff make with a mix of condensed milk and crushed pistachios and serve, just like on the hot plains of the Punjab, out of frosty metal molds.
Gourmet Pub Crawl
To the endless list of top-flight pub burgers popping up at reputable drinking establishments all around this burger-mad, booze-addled town, let’s add the new downtown version of that great uptown classic the JG Melon cheeseburger, which is available now for lunch, a late-afternoon snack, or dinner at the Macdougal Street outlet of the famous Third Avenue bar. The new Melon’s is slightly roomier than the uptown original, but the tables are covered with the same green-and-white-checked linen, the menus are written in the same clipped, no-nonsense ’70s-era script, and while you contemplate your perfectly sized, medium-rare burger (and your bowl of perfectly round, perfectly crisped cottage fries), you can even gaze at the golden metal plaques of old uptown regulars from the bygone glory days, which have been dutifully affixed above the bar.
The gently aged, suet-rich Cheddar burger at The NoMad Bar is still my favorite newfangled pub burger above 14th Street, and whenever I’m in the mood for a quick lunchtime infusion of protein-rich beef fat at the office, I like to sneak off to the bar at the fine new bistro Houseman on Greenwich Street, where Ned Baldwin and Adam Baumgart build their impressive double-decker burger with two artisanal-beef patties from Vermont, melted Swiss mingled with a confit of onions and mushrooms, and a toasted Martin’s roll. Similar pleasures are available at The Happiest Hour, on 10th Street in the West Village, whose four California-style burgers all have comforting names like Bacon Deluxe and All American Cheese, but the place to enjoy them is the small Art Deco speakeasy downstairs called Slowly Shirley, where the bartenders pour a fine roster of classic cocktails and you can enjoy your messy, two-fisted bar burger in relative peace. For many months now, my uptown boozehound friends have been blearily extolling the virtues of the opulent, triple-crème-covered mutton burger at Seamstress on East 75th Street. There’s a comfortable dining room at this unexpectedly elegant watering hole, which sits at the bottom of an old gray building off First Avenue, although the best place to sample the exceptional house cocktails is the snug, ten-seat front bar, which was filled, when I dropped in not long ago, with members of the local mixologist cognoscenti gobbling pieces of deep-fried smoked Yardbird chicken drizzled with a spicy honey sauce, and a strangely intoxicating version of oysters Rockefeller finished with drops of absinthe. If throwback Tex-Mex cuisine is your particular addiction, washed down with wave after happy wave of frosty Hemingway daiquiris, inebriating Zombie cocktails, and tall, neon-colored punches, you’ll briefly attain a kind of nirvana at El Cortez, which the great Brooklyn dive-bar impresarios Stephen Tanner and Chris Young opened this past summer in a whitewashed two-story building among the old graffiti-covered footwear factories of East Williamsburg. For something slightly more refined to go with your carefully crafted bourbon cocktail, the choice is Grand Army, the highly civilized neighborhood bar on the edge of Boerum Hill, where the Long Island oysters are portaged to your table in hubcap-size salvers heaped with crushed ice and served with four different sauces fashionably poured into tiny eyedroppers. The new Macdougal Street bar The Up & Up is where I like to retreat, on steamy summer evenings in my own Manhattan neighborhood, to drink myself slowly blotto on a well-crafted version of that beautifully named, martini-style drink the Archangel, which, if you ask politely, the bartenders make with muddled cucumbers and a whisper of Aperol instead of vermouth. For the ultimate in cocktail bliss, however, there’s no better new destination in the city these days than Bar Goto, which the former Pegu Club bartender Kenta Goto opened several months ago on Eldridge Street just north of Chinatown. Goto’s comfortably sleek little wood-paneled room feels like an homage to the famous bars of his hometown, Tokyo, which means the Umami Mary is laced with miso and shiitake mushrooms, and the smooth house martini is garnished seductively with a single diaphanous cherry blossom. But what separates this discreet little saloon from the other trendy new gin joints around town is the selection of refined drinking snacks: decorous stacks of celery speckled with sesame seeds, bowls of miso-caked chicken wings topped with freshly cut scallions, and that great fried cabbage-and-egg comfort dish okonomiyaki, which comes stuffed with five different fillings (try the melted cheese or the pork-belly-filled Classic) and is decorated on top with waves of Bulldog-style sauce and Kewpie mayonnaise, like some exotic, savory form of umami pastry.
The Nouveau Wine Bar Revolution
Legions of stodgy dining institutions have been upended during the course of the great postmillennial dining revolution (coffee bars, breakfast joints, even Chinese restaurants), and now, it seems, it’s the wine bar’s turn. In fact, let’s not call The Four Horsemen, which the music entrepreneur James Murphy opened several months back in a boisterous little space on Grand Street in Williamsburg, a wine bar at all. Let’s call it a wine-centric restaurant, one with a trim three-sided teak bar in the front of the bright little room and a small dining area in back decorated in clean white and wood tones, like the café area of an upscale Nordic health club. This nouveau non–wine bar also has its own coffee program, a robust choice of craft beers, and a menu of carefully rusticated treats put together by the Franny’s veteran Nick Curtola to go with your cloudy glasses of old-fashioned orange wine from Italy, say, or Austria, or even the rocky, properly biodynamic vineyards of Slovenia. The 17-page wine list is an education in the new generation of funky, drinkable, weirdly satisfying natural wines, although after several glasses of Susucaru rosé, from the slopes of Mount Etna, the thing my guests couldn’t stop yammering about was the fresh-baked house bread, which we devoured with helpings of tajarin pasta scattered with spicy rock shrimp, plates of crisped potatoes and roasted sunchokes, and slabs of exceptional pork and duck terrine garnished, in high Williamsburg style, with pickled green tomatoes.
With its impressively long white marble bar and its scholarly, 94-page wine list, the new Nolita oenophile hangout Rebelle is actually reminiscent of a ye olde wine bar, albeit one the size of a small warehouse, complete with a state-of-the-art open kitchen and an additional separate dining room in the back. If you have the resources, you could spend many happy evenings at the bar up front, delving into every wine-geek trend of the last half-century (garagiste, new world, natural, high-roller trophy bottles), but in the end, what raises this establishment above other, more formulaic vino-centric joints is the cooking of chef Daniel Eddy, who comes to New York from the renowned Parisian neo-bistro Spring and has a knack for taking stodgy recipes from the ancient French canon and transforming them in clean, subtly inventive ways. The tender house chicken is deboned, pan-roasted, and finished in tarragon butter; the tartare I sampled was made with lamb instead of the usual beef and folded with olives and bits of green chickpeas; and if you order the duck breast, you’ll find it’s touched with quince and watercress instead of the usual glop of sweet orange sauce. The desserts are exceptional too, but if you’re on a serious wine binge, stick with the Comté cheese, which tastes like it’s just been hand-delivered to the kitchen door from one of the better fromageries in Paris.
There’s a nice selection of Saxelby cheeses available at Jeremiah Stone and Fabian von Hauske’s excellent Orchard Street wine restaurant Wildair, where the small, accessible list of non-sulfate-saturated wines includes tart glasses of Muskadig Breizh (the ye olde term for Muscadet in Brittany, in case you didn’t know) and bottles of fruity and drinkable Mendall Tempranillo made in accordance with ancient vintner techniques by a former IT wizard in the hills of northeastern Spain. Stone and von Hauske run the cutting-edge tasting-menu establishment Contra down the street, which means you can enjoy these wines with a variety of well-crafted dishes like slices of toasted sourdough piled with choppings of littleneck clams and lardo, puffy cuts of pork Milanese garnished with gribiche sauce, and a wonderful version of fried calamari seized in a masarepa-based batter as thick as ribbon candy and garnished with lemons. Add a few slugs of a satisfyingly obscure Italian digestif, the deceptively elegant desserts (try the tart made with chocolate and buckwheat), and we’re not talking about your father’s favorite little wine bar anymore. We’re talking about a restaurant that, for its size, serves some of the best new food and, yes, wine in the city.
Age of the Vegivore
Vegetables have been a trendy boutique item for several years now, although lately this passing fad seems to have morphed into something much more profound. If you don’t believe me, join the mob of lapsed beef lovers, recently converted “daytime vegans,” and other reformed carnivores who gather outside Brooks Headley’s tiny East Village vegetarian joint Superiority Burger, on a more or less daily basis, to clamor for a taste of his famous vegetable burger. It seems there are billions and billions of veggie burgers available these days in the Naked City, including a surprisingly palatable one that the short-order chefs make with beet ketchup and a “tempeh-lentil-chai-walnut patty” at the even more insufferably mobbed new vegan hangout By Chloe on Macdougal Street. But what separates Headley’s ingenious creation from the rest of the faux-burger rabble is its uncanny similarity to the real thing. The former Del Posto pastry chef builds his nicely proportioned burger with a Martin’s potato roll, like they do at Shake Shack, and garnishes it with flaxseed mayonnaise, a scrim of roasted tomatoes, and a beef-burger-style strip of iceberg lettuce instead of the usual thatch of alfalfa sprouts. But the key is the perfectly weighted quinoa-and-mashed-carrot patty, which is folded with crushed nutmeg to provide a just-off-the-griddle crunch and gets denser and more delicious as you eat it, just like a real burger should.
There’s an exceptional old-school beef burger available lunchtimes in the bright, pleasantly buzzy dining room of Andrew Carmellini’s vegetable-centric Tribeca establishment Little Park, although let the record show that the Cheddar-topped beef is grass-fed. If you’re feeling virtuous, you can complement it with six sophisticated, rigorously seasonal vegetable dishes (try the beetroot tartare, or the crispy Brussels sprouts doused with apple cider), along with several bites of the house MLT, made with fat country mushrooms, aïoli, and toasted sourdough. Lunchtime is also my favorite time of the day to browse through bountiful non-meat options at Danny Meyer’s upscale, soon-to-be-tip-free restaurant Untitled, which opened its doors several months ago on the ground floor of the new, downtown Whitney Museum. The room itself isn’t much to write home about, but it quickly fills up with reflected sunlight, and if you sit at one of the back corner tables, you can see a slip of the mighty Hudson as it flows down to the sea. The vegetable-heavy menu is overseen by Michael Anthony, that great master of Slow Food cooking, and his talented chef de cuisine, Suzanne Cupps, and as the seasons turn, it also fills up with all sorts of wonders, like roasted beets touched with buttermilk, caramelized cauliflower poured with coconut curry, and, on my last visit, a spiky medley of leeks seared to a kind of brûléed crunchiness, touched with oranges, and arranged on the plate in a decorative symmetrical pattern like one of the art pieces upstairs.
For a less delicate though possibly more crowd-pleasing all-vegetable feast, the choice is Amanda Cohen’s new version of her groundbreaking vegivore establishment Dirt Candy, which now occupies a much larger space on Allen Street just above Chinatown. I won’t be reordering the messily bizarre “corn boil” anytime soon (in which corncobs are substituted for crabs, and patrons are required to wear a plastic bib), but when they’re in season, dishes like Cohen’s famous tomato cake are worth a trip, the classic cocktails are refreshingly unpretentious for a potentially pretentious vegetarian joint, and the restaurant’s no-tip policy gives the illusion, as service-included bills often do in this tip-mad city, that you’re getting your healthy meal for cheap. The same is true at the cozy little Michelin-approved tasting atelier Semilla in Williamsburg, where the modestly priced roughage-filled tasting menu costs less than a large cut of a côte de boeuf for two in one of the grand steakhouses across the river. The former Per Se cook José Ramírez-Ruiz and his pastry-chef partner, Pamela Yung, are justly famous for the sourdough-bread service, which takes two days to prepare, but they’ve also worked little miracles with Carolina Gold rice (whipped into rich risottos), spring onions (rolled into a delicious, Chinese-style onion pancake), and mushrooms of every kind (buttery morels, on my last visit, served over ramp toast with a drizzle of maple syrup). Whatever you do, however, save room for Yung’s tiny, polished plates of dessert, which featured tastes of fluffy lemon cream touched with chamomile on the evening I dropped in, along with tart servings of candied rhubarb sweetened with Earl Grey–tea–flavored ice cream and dissolving crumbles of meringue.
When I mentioned to several food-mad friends, not long ago, that I’d spent several exhausting (and expensive) days gorging myself on endless marathon dinners at the latest crop of discreet new dining bars and tasting rooms around town, one of them asked hopefully whether I was planning to write the obituary of this seemingly immortal trend. It pained me to inform the poor gentleman that the great omakase craze, which began nearly a decade ago with the opening of David Chang’s influential tasting bar Momofuku Ko, and has accelerated ever since, seems to be more popular now than ever before. Witness the rebirth of the even more ambitious Ko, which Chang and his growing legion of cooks opened last year in a much larger, more comfortable, if slightly more antiseptic space near the Bowery. Some Momofuku veterans will miss the familiar downtown terroir of the original restaurant (the new 15-course tasting dinner costs $175, compared to $85 when the restaurant opened in 2008), but there’s no doubting the range and quality of the new operation. The eclectic, ever-evolving menu, as overseen by the executive chef Sean Gray, is constantly being restocked with mysterious creations informed by Chang’s frenetic travels around the globe — trout roe mille-feuille dusted with matcha powder, chickpea macarons, soft scrambled eggs folded with Israeli caviar and crème fraîche — and if you have the resources, the wine (and sake and cider) pairing put together by the restaurant’s friendly and knowledgeable beverage director, Jordan Salcito, is one of the most interesting in town.
Whenever my fat-cat friends ask for advice on where to go for a cutting-edge, big-money Japanese omakase feast, I direct them to Nick Kim and Jimmy Lau’s posh little Union Square sushi-ya, Shuko, for a taste of immaculately procured sushi and a slice of the restaurant’s famous apple pie, and if you happen to have several hundred dollars burning a hole in your pocket and don’t want to wait for a reservation at the city’s more trendy sushi joints, I suggest you take a seat with the rabble of oligarchs and international gastronauts who wash up every night at Tim and Nancy Cushman’s old-fashioned sushi palace O Ya in the Flatiron District. With its sparsely appointed dining room and assembly line of blowtorch-wielding, Mao-cap-wearing sushi chefs, the Cushmans’ New York operation (the original O Ya is in Boston) looks a little like the kind of place you might encounter next to the gambling floor of a second-tier Vegas casino. But the Cushmans are experimental sushi maestros of the old Morimoto and Masa school, which means there’s nothing second tier about the quality of the uni or fatty tuna belly, both of which are flown in from oceans around the world, or their elaborately seductive sushi creations, which, on the evening I enjoyed my $300 dinner, included vividly orange slips of ocean trout topped with rosy bits of tomato confit; soft pats of freshwater eel flavored with Thai basil, among other things; and an opulent little vegetable-sushi creation made with slivers of Italian truffle and a single, carefully fried fingerling-potato chip.
Fried shrimp heads and sizzled bits of conger eel are just a few of the esoteric omakase delicacies available for an equally large three-figure fee at Tempura Matsui, which opened this summer at the bottom of a tall, anonymous apartment building on East 39th Street surrounded by traffic streaming in and out of the Midtown Tunnel. With its bamboo-covered ceiling and tiny dining counter lined with whispering Japanese salarymen dressed in their gray business suits, however, the little room inside feels like the kind of place you’d be invited to by your very formal host on a visit to Tokyo, and so does the mannered, highly stylized two-hour dinner itself, which is orchestrated with a kind of priestly seriousness by chefs who cook each carefully articulated tempura morsel in vats of shimmering oil with long silver chopsticks. Dollar for dollar, however, you won’t find a more pleasurable, unexpectedly inventive omakase dinner than the one the young ramen chef Yuji Haraguchi composes every weekend evening out of different odds and ends at his elegant little sandbox-size establishment Okonomi/Yuji Ramen in Williamsburg. The art of mottainai (utilizing every last bit of the ingredient) is this former pop-up chef’s particular specialty, which means you might taste tiny ramen agnolotti stuffed with monkfish liver one evening, and chilled mazemen noodles folded with puréed softshell crab the next. There are only two seatings each week, but if you don’t feel like fighting for an evening reservation, you can always drop in on weekday mornings, when Haraguchi and his staff cook up a classic Japanese fish, rice, and miso breakfast, which looks and tastes like something you’d encounter in one of the finer hotel inns of Kyoto but costs roughly a tenth of the price.
Not so long ago, the elements of the classic New York pizza were set, more or less, in stone, but thanks to the arrival of several newfangled pizza-centric establishments around town, this eternal local delicacy has — like the New York burger, the New York hot dog, and the New York bagel — been undergoing bizarre changes lately. Or so I thought to myself as I pondered an otherwise normal-appearing Neapolitan-style pepperoni pie that the young chefs at Bruno Pizza in the East Village had garnished, radically, with sprigs of fresh dill and a drizzling of their own housemade ranch dressing. At this spartanly decorated next-generation pizza joint, the flour is milled daily, which makes for an uneven crust, and although I didn’t mind the ranch-dressing pepperoni pie as much as some of my guests, certain toppings cohere better than others (avoid the random Market Greens in favor of the mushroom, as well as the excellent pie topped with lamb and roasted fennel). The wine list is exceptional for such a small operation, however, and when the elaborate non-pizza items are added in (seared scallops, baby eggplant with shishito peppers, the fluffy gelatos for dessert), the no-tipping policy will make your final tab feel suspiciously light. The classic margherita is still my pizza-loving daughter Penelope’s favorite thin-crust creation at Danny Meyer’s consistently excellent pizza palace Marta, in NoMad, although the new Roman-style pie her dad couldn’t stop gobbling on our most recent visit was the one Nick Anderer and his cooks dapple with leeks, scallions, and nuggets of bacon and Fontina cheese. The borough of Brooklyn is filled, as usual, with a whole range of pizza options, but if you grow weary of the great hipster pizza halls on Flatbush Avenue or out in Bushwick, then take a seat at the pleasant communal table at Pizza Moto, in Red Hook, where the Smorgasburg veterans Dave Sclarow and Anna Viertel pile their puffy-edged pies with all sorts of antic toppings (bacon fat, salsa verde, “clams and cream”), fire them in a restored baker’s oven from the turn-of-the-last-century, and serve them with a roster of surprisingly polished non-pizza items like logs of Caesar salad sprinkled with bits of smoked trout, a delicious deconstructed “meatball tartare,” and crunchy fronds of fried broccoli, which the local Red Hook burghers dip in dainty little pots of lemon curd.
For the ultimate combination of refined technique and comforting pizza goodness, however, there’s no better new restaurant in town than Laurent Tourondel’s Flower District production L’Amico, which opened not long ago off the crowded lobby of the Eventi Hotel on a noisy corner of Sixth Avenue and 30th Street. During the course of his long career, the versatile French chef has mastered every possible New York dining trend, from burgers to steaks to haute gourmet seafood, so it’s no surprise that the many elements of the trattoria menu — the cool slices of pear over toast spread with Gorgonzola, the veal-and-pork meatballs al forno, the smoked gnudi with shaved truffles — taste like they’ve been beamed in from some ethereal kitchen hovering halfway between Bologna, Arthur Avenue, and the Bay of Naples. But the specialties of the house are the pizzas, which combine the best elements of the durably crunchy, umami-loaded New York pie. All of them are good, but if I had to choose just one, it would be the refreshing sausage, onion, and shishito-pepper pie, which you can complement, if you need something to cut the richness, with a scoop of Meyer-lemon gelato, which is served inside a hollowed-out frozen lemon atop a little pedestal of ice.
The Breakfast Nosh
New Yorkers have always been breakfast obsessives, but for a whole variety of reasons — the hotel-restaurant boom, the continued fixation with comfort in all its edible forms, the return of the artisanal bagel — the opportunities for a proper morning-time feed, whether before noon, all day long, or during the sacred weekend brunch hours, have never been more plentiful. The expertly procured herring plate is still my favorite morning delicacy on the expertly procured menu at the Russ & Daughters Cafe down on Orchard Street, but if you wish to sample the diverse fruits of the city’s latest breakfast boomlet, I suggest you wander a few blocks south, to the expanded home of the West Coast–style café Dimes on the eastern end of Canal Street, for a taste of scrambled-egg tacos touched with mangoes and threads of melted Cheddar, and the superb breakfast sandwich made with more scrambled eggs, Sullivan St Bakery focaccia, and chunks of avocado. If by some miracle you’re still hungry, then waddle a few doors east, to the new Manhattan outlet of the great Brooklyn fatso institution Pies ‘n’ Thighs. On any given morning you’ll find a merry crowd of cops, hung-over musicians, and shopkeepers from the neighborhood lined up at the long Formica bar devouring southern-style hungry-man dishes like stacks of buckwheat waffles garnished with baked apples and fried chicken, platters of fried catfish mingled with fried eggs and Cheddar grits, and the magisterial, deceptively simple signature breakfast dish called “Rob Evans on a Biscuit,” made with scrambled eggs and a gorilla-size buttermilk biscuit, all smothered in a properly thick country gravy dappled with tasty little chunks of crumbled sausage.
I’m as weary as the next guy of sifting through fashionably healthy breakfast bowls piled with layers of chia seeds or fronds of kale or granola drowned in buckets of soy milk searching in vain for something substantial to eat, so the dish I always call for on my visits to the fashionably healthy
El Rey Coffee Bar & Luncheonette on Stanton Street is the poached egg and flatbread “Avocado Del Sur,” which works just as well for breakfast as it does for lunch, or even as an afternoon snack. And if I’m in the mood for something a little more substantial, I’ll stagger on down to Mario Carbone and Rich Torrisi’s grand new fresser destination Sadelle’s, which has been packed to the rafters with assorted downtown poseurs and bagel snobs ever since opening its doors several months back among the glittery boutiques of Soho. The last time I dropped in for a mid-morning snack, the elaborate, Keith McNally–style smoked-fish “tower” cost a cool $100, so my party and I subsisted on crispy soft egg-and-bacon sandwiches made with sizzled slices of challah and a scrim of mayonnaise, a more or less perfect, though pricey, salmon Benedict, poured with hollandaise, and a decent facsimile of that old deli warhorse salami and eggs, which works better once you wipe the strange decorative drizzle of mustard from its top. The real specialties of the house, however, are the bagels, which are carried through the room by members of the antic wait staff spooled on long wooden sticks, and the gratifying calorie-bomb pastry creations (the chocolate babka, the sticky buns, the dense slabs of chocolate-chip loaf) made by the talented ex-Roberta’s baker Melissa Weller, which are best enjoyed oven fresh at the table, or right when you get home, while standing over the sink.
I’m not one of the thousands of trend-conscious souls who’ve bought tickets seven weeks in advance for a taste of the evening tasting menu at Dominique Ansel Kitchen, but my daughters and I can vouch for the qualities of the great, pillow-size croque monsieur that the pastry chef serves every morning at his new Seventh Avenue South outlet. And whenever we’re feeling hungry on a weekend afternoon in the West Village, we like to drop in to Rita Sodi and Jody Williams’s pleasant, well-run trattoria, Via Carota, and call for bowls of buttered pasta (for them), and a helping of the scrambled eggs, chicken liver, pancetta, and French fries (for Dad), to go with the exceptional house Bloody Mary (also for Dad), which the waiters bring to the table on a polished silver tray. Similar nourishing brunchtime treats are available at Justin Smillie’s popular lower Park Avenue hangout Upland, where it’s a pleasure, on Saturday mornings, to sit at one of the café tables by the busy bar and call for helpings of eggs Benedict, plump baccalà cakes topped with fried eggs, and what is quite possibly the finest breakfast sandwich in this egg-sandwich-addled town, made with the restaurant’s famous roast porchetta, tangy hot peppers, and a freshly toasted ciabatta bun. For the ultimate in gourmet brunchtime pleasure, however, this year’s blue ribbon goes to Enrique Olvera’s fine Mexican restaurant Cosme. The Flatiron District dining room can be a madhouse during the evening service, but on Sunday mornings, the noise level calms down to a pleasant murmur, and the menu includes updated versions of classic Mexican breakfast specials like crisped chilaquiles heaped with strips of chicken and crème fraîche, and a soupy, purist version of huevos rancheros, which you can eat with stacks of warm corn tortillas and loose, buttery johnnycakes served with pots of red-currant jam. The crunchy, faintly eggy churros are world class too, as are the intoxicating Bloody Marías, which the drinks director, Yana Volfson, concocts with freshly muddled tomatoes and refreshing amounts of Siete Leguas tequila infused with just the right hint of chile pepper.
*This article appears in the December 28, 2015 issue of New York Magazine.