Turning the page on eating out in NYC

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.

Sweetbriar

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.

Truffle Jjajangmyeon, Jua

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.

Cardamom roll, Caneles and Croissant, La Cabra

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.

Bulgogi Cheesesteak Bao, Umma

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).

Eat up!

My favorite New York restaurant

When folks hear that I write a food blog, their first reaction is always one of shock and surprise. (Notice how I said “shock and surprise” and not “shock and awe?” That’s because there’s nothing that awesome about writing a food blog. It’s just something I happen to do.) After that, the most popular request that gets volleyed my way is to “name my favorite restaurant”. Then for some bizarre reason I become as tongue-tied as a toddler.

(You know that moment when you have just bitten through a slice of toasted baguette, but the generous slither of prosciutto refuses to be halved by your incisors, your canines, your molars or even your wisdom teeth? And so it stretches out of your mouth like a celebrity red carpet between the piece of toast on your tongue, and the piece you were hoping to return to your plate. Then, despite the fact that you are in public, you override good manners and decide to shove the entire thing into your pie hole anyway – not realizing that if the prosciutto wasn’t easy to chew when your beak was empty, it’s going to be darn near impossible now that it’s full.  And so, with cheeks puffed and lips stretched beyond their endurance with a corner of toast already crowning, someone asks you a question.)

That’s exactly how it feels when people ask me…that question.

So, as an attempt at answering it once and for all, I’ve decided to lay out a menu of all of my favorite dishes and where they are served around the city, as though this were to be my very last meal on earth. (Clearly in my case there would have to be a temporary stay of execution just to get through them all – but hey, what a way to go!)

SNACKS

I’d probably start with a greedy handful of House roasted red peanuts with chilies from Pok Pok NY, and then help myself to at least 3 light, fluffy and utterly devourable amuse bouche Cheese Puffs from Benoit before anyone notices they’re missing.

Then I’d tear off a couple of chunks of Nur’s Jerusalem Sesame Bagel before dipping each into that heavenly Lima Bean and Za’atar mouse. Next, I’d use a piece of crispy Italian country bread to scoop up the puddle of olive oil in the middle of Locanda Verde’s smooth and creamy house-made Sheep’s milk Ricotta, while saving some room for a bite or two of the splendiferously yummy Grilled Nueske’s Bacon with peanut butter and Jalapeño jelly from Quality Eats West Village.

APPETIZERS

While I have a lengthy list of establishments that hand chop a great Beef Tartare, (Estela covers theirs under a forest of yummy crispy sunchoke chips, and Cote serves theirs with equally crispy chimichurri-like puffs), only the incomparable Gabriel Kreuther serves a staggeringly delicious and audacious Lobster tartare. I’ll use any excuse to go to Le Bernadin for Eric Ripert’s perfectly circular Yellowfin Tuna Carpaccio, dotted and dashed with all sorts of interesting nic-nacs like pickles, Iberico ham chutney and olive oil. And speaking of which, you can’t deny me at least a few bites of Il Buco’s magnificent olive oil Fried Artichokes.

I’m always up for a few slithers of sea urchin speckled Crab Nachos with a rich aioli “queso” from Empellón, or I could grab a handful of Indian Accent’s butter, pepper and garlic baptized Crab Claws to accompany a floret or two of the most delectable of all Indo-Asian fried cauliflowers called General Tso’s by Babu Ji.

Something noodley? It would be hard for me to pass up a nice coil of Han Dynasty’s Dan-Dan Noodles served with ground pork and chili oil, or (because I have such a proclivity for the theatrical) I’d wait and stare while someone heaves and twists the vintage duck press at The Grill to flavor their immaculate Pasta a la Presse with duck, pheasant, squab, bacon and vegetables.

If you know me at all, you’re probably wondering why there are no chicken wings on this list yet. Well, wonder no more: Ike’s Vietnamese Fish Sauce Wings at Pok Pok NY always do it for me. And one size up from chickens, at least one of those finger-licking-salty-lemony Crispy Duck Wings from Justin Smillie’s Upland shall forever have my name on it.

For fresh risotto, nothing can touch the light and creamy Barley Risotto with Baby Clams from Narcissa, and when risotto makes its second-time-around appearance, I’m all about Nick Anderer’s adorable pesto flavored Arancini from Marta.

David Chang does two app’s that I could eat at just about any time of day: his Spicy Pork Sausage and Rice cakes from Momofuku Ssäm, and the absolutely ocean-stopping Sea Urchin with fermented Bean paste from Momofuku Ko.

The mere thought of a few strips of Sesame Beef Jerky with a healthy dunk into the fermented Laotian chili paste from Khe-Yo makes me about as weak at the knees as the pure, simple and garlicy red shrimp Carabineros with preserved lemon at La Vara.

And to round it out with a super spicy, lip-numbing Sichuan peppercorn dish, it would either be one bite of Danny Bowien’s Thrice Cooked Bacon and Rice Cakes at Mission Chinese Food, or one of the scaldingly hot Thai Papaya Salads from Somtum Der.

MAINS

My main course favorites come in two basic categories: Roast chicken, and everything else. While some might think there’s nothing more ho-hum than a piece of rotisserie foul, very few can do it as crispily, tenderly and succulently as Le Coq Rico, Dirty French, Le Turtle or chef Jonathan Waxman who honed his poultry skills for years at Michael’s before turning me into a broken record about his astounding Roast Chicken with Salsa Verde at Barbuto. And you can’t blame me for having a very soft spot for Pinch Chinese’s garlic-blasted Wind Sand Chicken. But the king of them all has to be The Nomad’s Roast Chicken stuffed with brioche and foie gras served two ways after being paraded around lavishly like a trophy hen. The other piece of poultry that gets – and rightfully deserves – its own parade is the magnificent and mysteriously shoe-leather-brown Honey Lacquered Duck from Legacy Records.

Moving from roasted to fried, I would have to have one final bite each of the shatter-crisp Fried Chickens from Perry Street, The Dutch and Blue Ribbon – in that order. And it’s a toss-up for who makes my favorite Chicken Kiev between Mari Vanna (who serves it Russian-style with buckwheat) or The Clocktower (who serves it inside an adorable miniature credenza).

I definitely skew French when it comes to seafood and believe that no-one can die before they’ve tried Eric Ripert’s much lauded Paupiette of Sea Bass, which is wrapped inside the thinnest skin of crispy potato scales at Le Bernadin, and Le Coucou does a wondrously faithful and nostalgic Sole Veronique. But if you’re looking for a cavalcade of shellfish flavor, Alain Ducasse whips up twin Quenelles de Brochet at Benoit that are as light and fluffy as pike meringues.

This city is drowning in amazing pasta palaces, but I’ll have anything fresh from Osteria Morini or Café Altro Paradiso’s Garganelli with chicken Ragu, not to mention the stunning Saffron Linguine from Boulud Sud, or Locanda Verde’s dreamy Paccheri with Sunday night Ragu. And while some can’t live without Yesterday’s 100 layer Lasagne from Del posto (don’t get me wrong, I can’t either), I couldn’t imagine a world without Rita Sodi’s sensational Lasagna a Sugo at the nearly-impossible-to-get-into I Sodi.

If I were to choose one last hamburger before leaving the planet, it would probably be the delectable beef patty smothered with Comte cheese inside John Fraser’s Piedmontese Burger at The Loyal, with thanks in large part to the “22-step tomato” that covers, smothers, decorates and elevates it beyond all others in its class, unless I happened to be in the mood for April Broomfield’s Chargrilled Lamb Burger with feta at The Breslin.

I’m still busy wading my way through the morass of Ramen joints across the city, but the one that felt the closest to a real Tokyo train station broth bowl with pork and veggies was the ridiculously creamy and insanely flavorful Tonkotsu Ramen from Mu Ramen in Long Island City.

Before progressing to beef, I’d have to include both of my favorite breaded veals: Wallse’s outstanding Wienerschnitzel, and the most memorable (and expensive) Veal Parm in town at Carbone.

The last two entries will have to be a cut of The Grill’s Prime-aged Ribeye smothered in a green Peppercorn and cognac sauce, and the insanely delectable Beef Tenderloin Stir Fry in the darkest, richest, garlicky, soy and oyster sauce, smothered in fries and accented with chilies, avocado and crema, and served in a chive crepe at Llama Inn.

DESSERTS

Just like the mains, I have 2 categories for desserts: those that have something to do with meringue, and those that don’t. I don’t know what it is, but when egg-whites and sugar get beaten into a foamy froth, it makes me abort every attempt at a diet without conscience. And it doesn’t matter what state it’s in either. Dominic Ansel Bakery uses meringue to cover his sublime Frozen Smores on a stick, while Enrique Olvera smashes 2 of them in his transcendent Husk Meringue at Cosme. The Musket Room somehow manages to shape it into a hollow tube that gets filled with cream and a tangy curd in their Passion Fruit Pavlova masterpiece, and vegetarian hotspot Nix spikes meringue with toasted almonds as a topping over their (off-menu) Grilled Pineapple Wedge.

I’m not much of a pie person, but my arm can be twisted without resistance by the meringue snake that gets torched on top of Llama Inn’s unsharably wondrous Graham Cracker Lime Pie. And I can’t decide between my two favorite alcohol flambéed Baked Alaska’s, (so I have to have both) – the classic one from The Grill, or the one called Omelette Norvégienne with pistachio ice-cream from Le Coucou. Neighborhood bistro Olmsted’s Lavender honey Frozen Yoghurt isn’t technically a meringue, but when they manage to whip it into a shaving-foam delight, it makes my list as something familiar, yet unique and spectacular. But the be-all and end-all of meringue desserts has to be L’Ile Flottante from Le Coq Rico, which is a pink pistachio and burnt sugar crusted island of fluff that is set adrift on a pond of vanilla custard crème.

As for the rest, I’d have to grab one more mouthful of those irresistibly hand-made Honey Butter Chips from Oiji – with or without ice-cream, and it’s a toss-up between Alex Stupak’s Avocado which is a sublime air-brushed recreation out of lime-flavored pudding, or his equally Instagrammably delicious Corn Taco Ice-cream – both from Empellón.

So next time someone asks me what my favorite New York restaurant is, they’ll just have to contend with: “It depends!”

https://pokpokny.com/

https://www.benoitny.com/

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https://www.qualityeats.com/west-village/

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http://www.standardhotels.com/new-york/features/narcissa

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https://www.pinchchinese.com/

https://www.thenomadhotel.com/new-york/dining

https://www.legacyrecordsnyc.com/

http://www.perrystrestaurant.com/#!/about-perry-street/restaurant/

http://www.thedutchnyc.com/

https://blueribbonfriedchicken.com/

http://www.marivanna.ru/ny/

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https://www.lecoucou.com/

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https://www.altroparadiso.com/

https://www.bouludsud.com/

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https://www.kurtgutenbrunner.com/restaurants/wallse/

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