Shun Lee channels Yangzhou, Sichuan, and Shanghainese cuisine.
When it comes to dining on the Upper West Side, one must acknowledge that it’s an older neighborhood, whose charm is in the sustain, not the attack. And so it is with its best restaurants, which rely on a sense of history and place rather than innovation.
The Absolute Best
1. Shun Lee West
43 W. 65th St., nr. Columbus Ave.; 212-595-8895
It’s been 35 years since Michael Tong opened this Lincoln Center offshoot of his upscale Upper East Side Chinese restaurant, Shun Lee Palace. The sense of time is both seductive and deceiving. There can be little doubt that the restaurant — with its bow-tie-and-vested waitstaff, glowing dragons, and elaborately folded napkins — speaks to another era, when knowledge of Chinese regional cuisine was limited by the fact that most Americans weren’t aware China had regions. At the same time, even in 1981, Tong was channeling the much more ancient flavors of Yangzhou, Sichuan, and Shanghainese cuisine and those delicate balances found in the push-pull of hot-and-sour soup, for instance, or the mellow sweetness of red-cooked short ribs, Hanghzhou style.
2. Cafe Luxembourg
200 W. 70th St., nr. Amsterdam Ave.; 212-873-7411
Ever since Tom Valenti’s Ouest shuttered last year, seriously good French food has been hard to come by around these parts. Haute cuisine it isn’t, but Lynn Wagenknecht’s excellent bistro belongs to the proud lineage of Upper West Side French spots like La Caravelle and La Poullailer (and Le Quercy and too many too long gone to name). The 90-seat restaurant is everything a neighborhood bistro should be. The menu reads like a Sondheim revue of bistro classics, but the greatest hits here are truly great: a perfectly executed steak-frites with an exoskeleton of char, a silky au poivre sauce, and salty fries; garlicky moules marinieres; and a crock of French onion soup that, like the aproned waiters, has a warm heart under a crusty exterior.
2588 Broadway, nr. 98th St.; 646-861-3604
Lucknow, the capital of Awadh, the state in Uttar Pradesh from whence Gauruv Anand draws culinary inspiration, is like the Upper West Side of India: ancient, elegant, and refined. In the 18th century, Lucknow was the seat of the Nawabs, an aristocratic bunch whose love of luxury was so great they lost all of their teeth, which — good news for us — resulted in the development of the galouti kebab, a patty of leg of lamb, minced six times and then tenderized with papaya and mixed with masala. Awadh, the bi-level restaurant on Broadway, is the only place to get true galouti kebabs in the city. Among the other revelations at Awadh is dum pukht, a genre of cooking wherein the protein is sealed under a layer na’an, immersed in clarified butter, and cooked slowly. What goes on under there is alchemy, as dishes like Sufiana murgh biryaani, a mixture of creamy chicken and aromatic basmati rice, handily prove.
4. Boulud Sud
20 W. 64th St., nr. Broadway; 212-595-1313
The Lyonnaise chef Daniel Boulud is a shape-shifter: stuffy on the Upper East, cool on the Bowery, transactional in midtown, and here, in the Upper West Side, pure comfort. The space at Boulud Sud — gently curved ceiling, colorful banquettes in Harlequin stripes, white tablecloths — radiates monied calm. The menu, which spans Arabic flatbread to Ibérico ham, is like a Carnival Cruise calling on all Mediterranean ports. Executive chef Travis Swikard is as at ease with the muscular flavors of octopus a la plancha as he is balancing the subtle flavors of a spring-pea risotto with Maine lobster and lemon verbena.
5. Absolute Bagels
2788 Broadway, nr. 108th St.; 212-932-2052
And then there’s Absolute Bagels, the only bagel store worth the line. Let the fancies have Black Seed or Sadelle’s. Absolute Bagels is a filthy little store with sublime bagels. Owned by Sam Thongkrieng, who emigrated from Bangkok in the 1980s, Absolute channels the recipes of yesteryear (Thongkrieng learned his craft at Ess-a-Bagel) to form bagels of both ineffable softness and satisfying crunch. Their outsides are substantial but ultimately yielding. Their interiors are soft and voluptuous. As for the coffee — the Abbot to a bagel place’s Costello — it is widely understood as a waste of time. Go with a Thai iced tea and a fresh egg bagel.