Every now and then (out of pure nostalgia) I re-read some of my older restaurant reviews. But lately I’ve been rather astonished by how many of them have unsurprisingly fallen victim to the palaver of the pandemic. I could certainly dedicate a tribute to the tragic demise of New York’s most beloved dining rooms – where bold dishes launched global careers of talented toques, or I could wallow and grieve over how their narrow doorways once buckled under the clogged throngs of noisy hopefuls willing to trade their offspring for a 4-top, are now replaced with soundless 3-foot “For Lease” signs, but I’d rather dedicate this blog to those supremely brave entrepreneurs who defied the writing on the wall (or perhaps looked the other way while capitalizing on new rental incentives) and opened some of the most exciting eateries this city has seen in ages.
While kitchens have been born and re-born all across the length and breadth of Manhattan, the Gramercy/Flatiron neighborhood has been dished up a disproportionate embarrassment of new dining riches. Former Betony star-chef Bryce Shuman opened a sizable space inside the Park South Hotel with his new trendy venture Sweetbriar – a wood-fired spin on American classics underscored by an 80’s nostalgia soundtrack of Springsteen, Men at Work, Duran Duran and Billy Joel. His unassuming but ridiculously more-ish and curiously cheese-less Mangalitsa Ham pizza, topped with pickled chili and honey all but outshines his (now famous) gooey, sticky, heavenly Smoked black pepper Duroc maple glazed ribs with slaw. A finger-licking, chin-smearing, toothpick-requiring, napkin-staining delight.
Who can forget the media hullabaloo around the opening of Priyanka Chopra and Nick Jonas’ Indian hotspot Sona a few doors down from the (thankfully) ever-enduring Gramercy Tavern? But beyond the hype and the over-Instragrammed dining-room artwork, the kitchen delivers handsomely. I still catch myself drooling over the wondrously tart and umami Stuffed Chicken Wings spiked with a Tangra curry and a lemon aioli dip – the perfect precursor to a pair of succulent and sublimely smoky Tamarind Barbecue Lamb Chops.
And right across the street, the 9th descendent of Tokyo’s Horii family opened the newest branch of their 233 year-old udon noodle franchise Sarashina Horii. Aside from their über-authentic (surprisingly white) Japanese buckwheat noodles which are the unparalleled main attraction, one of the standout hot appetizers is an elegant Miso Roasted Eggplant – about as delectable as it is surprising with hints of deep, dark and earthy sweet & sour thanks to the Mirin, Saki and who knows what else… But dipping that birds-nest tangle of shatter-crisp Shrimp tempura into a steaming bowl of hearty bone broth is where dark winter’s night memories get made.
Replacing the shuttered Simon and the Whale from the corner spot at the Freehand Hotel on Lexington Avenue is a reincarnation of the 2012 Greenwich Village pan-Latin hotspot Comodo. The menu reads like a “best-of” Peruvian, Brazlian, Mexican and Argentinian hit parade with big, bold flavors and a wide variety of meat, fish, poultry and veggie options in a super-chill, apres-ski-chalet-like environment. The Trout Ceviche Tostada is a mouthful of contrasts: smooth & crispy, sweet & tart, mild & hot. The hockey-puck-sized Wild mushroom al Ajillo Tacos deliver a smoky combination of at least 6 different mushrooms in a dark but approachable chili, and the wondrously moist and picante Achiote Chicken is perched on top of a creamy, dreamy herb-rich Latin Risotto.
Long before chef Hoyoung Kim was able to launch his long-awaited tasting menu at Jua, the 8 tidy tables nestled into the turning lane on 22nd street served as his a’ la carte springboard for yet another example of sensationally meticulous Korean gastronomy. Not only did Kim succeed in opening his new shop just a few weeks after lockdown ended, but his 7-course $150 menu (which varies from week to week) earned him the neighborhood’s most recent Michelin Star.
Further afield, the East Village has also become a fertilized sprouting ground for a bevy of new kitchens including Shenarri Freeman’s sensational vegan micro-menu at Cadence. With influences from her upbringing in Virginia, she upends traditional dishes with multi-dimensional tastes using local and seasonal vegetables and ersatz non-protein meats. Here’s what I mean: Instead of yet another rendition of the overplayed crab cake, she whips up a Palm Cake patty of similar texture from creamy hearts of palm and chunky chickpeas and serves it with a smoky-spicy slaw. And instead of a square stack of layers of pasta and sauce, her Southern Fried Lasagne is a crispy manicotti curled around a vegan bolognaise with pine nut ricotta, which makes for the ultimate symphony of crispy, tangy, rich and fabulous.
In and amongst the sordid selection of mediocre dumpling, falafel, bubble-tea, tattoo and piercing bars along St. Mark’s Place, the Da Shan group must have spent half a dynasty creating the magnificently photogenic Shanghainese palace CheLi. With an ornate menu as long as the waiting line outside, steaming dishes of semi-translucent Longjing Shrimp and the bamboo boxed and edible-ink stamped Song Dynasty steamed bun elicit shrieks of delight and nostalgia from the Chinese expats who relish the authentic tastes from the Jiangnan region.
Even though East Village coffee shops can easily out-number CVS drugstores, the coffee maven team behind La Cabra have imported their connoisseur bean-and-brew expertise from Aarhus, Denmark. The intimidatingly fastidious, white lab-coat-wearing, super-serious baristas who use scales and thermometers and “aeropresses” to pour carefully crafted cups of Joe are a jolting reminder that we’re not in line at Starbucks anymore, Toto. But all that painstaking brewmanship is almost entirely over-shadowed by the remarkable in-house bakery under the supervision of former Brooklyn Bien Cuit pastry sous chef Jared Sexton. The Butter Croissants are entirely beyond question or debate the absolute best that this city has to offer (and I have done 10 years of very exhaustive research in this arena. Blog to follow.) Amongst the 8 other oven-fresh or pre-baked (and mostly unfamiliar) Danish pastry items is the Cardamom Bun. A tangy, sweet, syrupy, cinnamony, soft twist of sticky dough knockout – guaranteed to postpone any carb-free new year’s resolution until Easter.
I suppose relocations shouldn’t really count as “new” restaurants, but I am nonetheless grateful that David Chang found a new (and rather glitzy) spot for wildly popular Momofuku Ssam in the South Street Seaport, and after shuttering Barbuto in SoHo in 2019, Johnathan Waxman reopened in a much airier space in the West Village where I can still get my all-time favorite Roast Chicken with salsa verde, and the crispiest roast Potatoes in the Western hemisphere. Similar kudos to Dominic Ansel who launched his newest outpost Dominic Ansel Workshop on the edge of Madison Square Park. Not quite as tirelessly prolific as his West Village original (which still commands a steady stream of out-of-towners anxious to bite into their first Cronut), but a slam dunk answer to the “what shall I bring for dessert?” question.
After shutting down Noodlelove for a few months, Philadelphia-born toque Natalie Camerino re-conceived her fast-casual Asian menu to include a few comfort-food mash-ups as a tribute to her Umma (mother). And while a Bulgogi Cheesesteak Bao might summon images of a Korean tourist stuck at the Philadelphia Greyhound station, just one ever-so-scrumptious familiar – yet unfamiliar, spicy, sweet-and-sour bite is all it takes to wonder why no-one ever thought of this before.
Other newcomers still high on my “To try” list:
British seafood bistro Dame’s classic Fried Fish, Danny Meyer’s Veal Milanese at his new far-west outpost Ci Siamo, Brooklyn’s Gage & Tollner who apparently make a Bone-in rib-eye and Baked Alaska to platz for, pretty much anything on the menu at Semma and Dhamaka, and whatever “shaker-inspired food” might taste like at the two-month-old Commerce Inn, from the Jody Williams and Rita Sodi dreamteam (who brought us super-hits Bavette, I Sodi and Via Carota).