the underground gourmet

Roasty Mushrooms, $13 Cocktails, and Even More Affordable Sushi

12 big takeaways from 2023.

It was the year of the quickie omakase. Photo: Hugo Yu
It was the year of the quickie omakase. Photo: Hugo Yu

As my first year on the Underground Gourmet beat comes to an end, I find myself left with advice, memories, and some last-minute decrees that didn’t fit — for one reason or another — cleanly into a weekly column. I couldn’t end 2023 without sharing these dozen takeaways.

1. I’m still thinking about the bagel I ate on New Year’s Day.
A chewy, sourdough bagel with charred-scallion cream cheese from Wheated in Ditmas Park lingers in my mind. The pizzeria had only just started getting into breakfast, and in the past year has expanded into regular weekend offerings of bagels as well as thick biscuits.

2. Meat is out, mushrooms are in.
Thanks to the increased availability of locally cultivated fungi, every restaurant seems to offer at least one dish that’s best described as “mushroom-forward.” Of course, & Beer made a whole menu out of the idea, including a meaty centerpiece that I consider my favorite roast of the year: a Smallhold Farm blue-oyster mushroom, seared and sauced with a sticky, concentrated mushroom jus.

3. My favorite ice cream of 2023 was dairy-free.
The soft serve at Morgenstern’s Bananas — offered in a rotating lineup  of fruity flavors — was the best frozen dessert I ate all year, although I have to give an honorable mention to some watercress sorbet with strawberries and apricot liqueur that I ate at Margot in the spring.

4. I didn’t get a chance to talk about all the soups I loved.
My first column of the year was about soup, but I’ve enjoyed more since then: spinach veloute at Bar Mario, a snazzy Italian restaurant that opened in Red Hook; chicken orzo soup at Tacoomar, home of my favorite burrito; and the lamb broth from the Green Province, a Yemeni restaurant in Gowanus.

5. You can still find good cocktails for less than $20.
The best dive-bar drink of the year was a $13 fresh-squeezed Paloma at 320 Club, which is hidden inside the Williamsburg Super Burrito, so it’s possible to drink it alongside a Dankwrap.

6. The most underrated pizza topping of the year was potato.
Here are three pies that prove this theory: the “hot potato” from Decades in Ridgewood, a full-size white pie topped with crushed potato, nduja, provolone, and Pecorino; the Abruzzo at Farina, which incorporates saffron into the spoonful-size mounds of mashed potato, scattered with fresh sausage and smoked provola; and the “couch potato” at Stretch, topped with tender chunks, not mash, of fingerling, along with bacon, scallions, and sour cream.

7. Chickpeas were everywhere.
I have already extolled the virtues of Café Chelsea’s panisse, but I enjoyed hot chickpea fritters at some other spots, too: At One Fifth, batons were dusted with fennel pollen and kind of tasted like pepperoni, while Le Garage in Bed-Stuy serves them with a spicy aioli. Amuni in Bay Ridge makes its panelle flat, in the traditional Sicilian fashion, and offers it stuffed into a panini with ricotta.

8. Yes, there was even more sushi to love.
With all the new fast-omakase and hand-roll joints, few places are making a case for maki rolls, but I loved the fresh fish and variety from Daigo Sushi Roll Bar. The slim cardboard packaging makes it feel like opening a box of chocolates.

9. The one thing everyone should go eat right now is …
The stuffed pepper at Selo in Astoria, which comes surrounded by mashed potatoes. Order it to go, stay there, and order a bottle of Eastern European wine for less than $50. It’s everything you need for the season.

10. Neeloo is the restaurant I’m most excited to revisit.
I stopped into Neeloo in Williamsburg shortly after it opened this fall. It was some of the best French food I’ve had outside of France — especially Camembert-broiled oysters and perfect potato puffs— but the restaurant was so new the liquor license hadn’t yet come through. Yet this is the kind of cooking that only gets better with the right glass of wine.

11. And Raoul’s is the restaurant I never need to visit again.
It’s true: I had never been to Soho’s most famous brasserie until this year. So on a Monday evening in August — when the city is all but empty — I was able to find a bar seat as a walk-in. As expected, the vibes were impeccable, but not enough to justify an overcooked steak.

12. The one meal I would recommend to anyone is …
Lunch at Gramercy Tavern, specifically the $29 soup-and-sandwich combo that changes monthly and is always made from fresh Greenmarket produce. That, plus one of pastry chef Karen DeMasco’s desserts.

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The Underground Gourmet’s 12 Biggest Takeaways From 2023