New York City. Is it the best city to eat in America? You bet; it’s diversity of available cuisines, pursuit of the highest of standards, convergence of multiple cultures and ethnicities, plus extreme levels of competition makes this THE city for culinary tourism. Those living there, with a passion for food like myself must be going nuts in trying to keep up with so many new restaurant openings, private events, pop-ups, guest chefs, and changing menus. For out-of- town folk like myself, it pays to do a little bit of research, as I did back in April, to screen the thousands of restaurants down to a reasonable watch list. I feel so sorry for the tourists that lack this drive and end up eating in Times Square, but then again, everyone gets what they deserve, so to speak.
I distributed my first 2013 visit to the Big Apple as evenly as possible between brand new restaurants, classics I hadn’t been in a while, and “best of 2012” pack as per some of my most respected sources. I managed to squeeze in 14 restaurants in total, out of which I only had one or two disappointing meals and left of course with a greater To-Do list. As I have done for my visits to Paris, San Francisco, and Chicago, the following are my impressions on each restaurant, ranked in the order of how I liked them the most. Happy reading, and if you end up in NYC soon, happy eating. The links on the titles of the restaurants take you to the pictures on flickr of the dishes consumed.
1. Atera: Atera belongs to the new breed of restaurants that aim to offer you the benefit of the highest standards in cuisine and service in a more laid back, relaxed atmosphere, just like Saison in San Francisco and Next in Chicago. Long gone are the days of stiff, cold, intimidating, quiet dining rooms where you had to borrow a blazer at the door and your smartphone camera was forbidden. U2, Guns n’ Roses, Pink Floyd play in the background as the highly concentrated and sophisticated team of chefs and servers led by Matthew place in front of you a fascinating march of small plate courses, almost 25 in total. After a few bites, which included a savory macaroon filled with caviar and a few sun choke cream filled mini cannoli, I knew I was in for a different, special kind of meal. Of course I waited until the very end, since in some instances similar tasting menu experiences have impressed up front but had failed towards the end, to draw my conclusion which I tweeted: this is the best restaurant in America. Of course nobody will agree with me, everyone has their own favorite, and this is the beauty of taste: everyone’s is different. And of course I haven’t been to every restaurant in the country, so my opinion is based of my culinary resume. It may change, if I ever dine at Manresa, or Alinea, or Minibar, none of which I have been to. But I still think Atera has a great chance of staying at the top of my list, and if not at least close to the top.
I had never personally been greeted by a restaurant’s chef at the door, which sets a nice precedent for the intimate dining experience that follows. Atera seats only 12 people along a U shaped bar, making you feel you are actually at Lightner’s place and he’s cooking for friends. A downstairs lounge allows you to reflect upon your experience while sipping on your aperitif of choice, and even chat with chef a bit more. The menu is absolutely flawless, only creating space for puzzlement around how could such dish have been accomplished? And stretches your palate’s memory to places it has never been before.
The relative calmness surrounding the process in the kitchen, as present in San Francisco’s Saison is probably thanks to the intensive level of preparation that goes towards the menu. Cleverly hidden plastic containers, small pots and other kitchenware hide the magic portions behind each course. The trick of course and the amazement comes from the creative process behind each dish, and this is where Lightner excels and explains why Atera has received the praise it has. Creativity does not guarantee success in the restaurant industry, but creativity around new combinations that make sense and are obtained through the utmost quality in ingredients and technique, can go a million miles. Every course at Atera screams to this fact, with power in flavor and texture present at all times. His quail egg recreation, where the yolk is replaced with creamy aioli makes you want to be able to order a whole carton, or at least be able to steal your neighbor’s. A marrow bone recreated from palm heart included a sweet, tangy filing carefully burnt. The seafood courses got progressively better, a slice of swordfish belly benefited from some kind of oil derived from animal fat; a mountain of slivered almonds, garlic and razor clams fooled you to figure our which was which, and the creamy Uni became even sweeter thanks to sweet potato and edible flowers. A highlight for me was the delicate sliced of Sepia placed on top of the creamiest whipped potatoes, a pleasant, light, superb dish.
The show goes on and tries to amaze you if it hasn’t done so yet, with a black dried beet that looks as though they left it in the over for too long but tastes like no other beet you have ever tasted and comes with Roe and creamy Lobster emulsion. The two main carnivorous courses, where other tasting menus had disappointed in the past, exceled and catapulted the experience into a whole new category. Squab breast, perfectly seared and seasoned came with various takes on peanuts, including peanut shaped foie gras. And the thick slice of lamb rack, needed practically noting else to be enjoyed, and was moist and juicy beyond belief. Before you have time to try and conclude that perhaps the sweet courses may be weak given the strength in the savory ones, they start to arrive and one by one amaze, both in flavor, presentation, and diversity, all the way from the wildflower sherbet to the walnut sundae. A cracked egg ice cream, probably an Atera staple by now, is impressive and speaks to the high level of sophistication behind Its kitchen. If you’re a fan of food and want a first hand experience of cutting edge cuisine at the highest possible standards, this is it. Move those phone lines no matter what it takes and book yourself at this magical U shaped bar in downtown Manhattan. And please say hi to Matthew for me.
2. The Nomad: The transformation story of Eleven Madison Park by chef Daniel Humm and general manager Will Guidara is one of the most encouraging and fascinating stories from the restaurant industry in recent years. It’s no surprise that their second project together, a restaurant inside the brand new The NoMad hotel, was set to be equally impressive, despite its dialed down offering compared to the three star cuisine at EMP. From the day it opened and from various reviews read, the dish that stuck out like a sore thumb was the chicken. Not a soul that had visited The NoMad had come out not praising the poultry dish, which I understood included foie gras, brioche and black truffles. I don’t like to investigate much further about dishes prior to visiting restaurants since it sort of spoils the surprise element for me, so I had no further idea around it’s presentation or anything else.
I can safely say the chicken dish is by far, the best chicken dish I have ever tasted, and one that made for our visit to The NoMad one of the highlights of the trip. The animal is beautifully presented whole roasted to you table side, a work of art in its own right, and then carved behind the scenes for enjoyment. Two breasts are served individually, on a bed of silky puree, jus and asparagus. The dark meat from the legs is separated and then placed on small casserole where it has been cooked with morels and mixed with a creamy hollandaise. The brioche, foie gras and black truffles are not visible as I was expecting, but I don’t care. They are delicately ground and mixed together into a sublime stuffing that is placed between the bird’s skin and the breast meat, making every single bite of your half breast joyful and only meriting the phrase “I wish this would never end”. Our schedule had no room, but we were close to cancelling an existing reservation to make room for a repeat of The NoMad’s chicken. Yes, it’s that good. In the end we opted for leaving it for the next trip, but I’m sure it will be the first stop right off the plane.
3. Del Posto: Those who have followed my dining adventures in the US and abroad know I love to take advantage of the more accessible, cheaper, but equally great in quality lunch menu deals that the fine dining establishments offer. This allows for room in the schedule to be made for other restaurants that are dinner only, and I have found that in most cases they are some of the best value for money deals out there. Don’t get me wrong, a 10ish course tasting menu at Jean Georges would be fabulous, but if I could go for their 38$ lunch fix prix instead of the $198 full on experience, and leave room for another place that has dinner only, that’s how I like to play it. Of course it’s fewer dishes and of course it’s a limited experience, but who wants more that amuse-bouche, bread + butter, a starter, a main course, dessert and petit-fours for lunch? Del Posto, by the Batali/Bastianich empire is one of such restaurants that offer a relaxed version of their high end dining experience for 39$ during pranzo hours.
There are no visible restrictions versus the full blown dinner counterpart, only perhaps in quantity and diversity of course. The service is as impeccable, and that night we were happy to find out they were actually awarded with the James Beard Award in that category. The food was equally impressive, particularly desserts, for which they also won the coveted award that night. The amuse bouche consisted of a warm shot of cauliflower veloute, a melt in your mouth chicken salad mini sandwich and equally creamy but crunchier version. First courses included a Vitello Tonnato, the famous veal + tuna dish which is taken to it’s highest level through a combination of thinly sliced meat and creamy, cured tuna based aioli. Capers and “burnt” bread added the perfect touch. An “Insalata Primavera” was a true work of art on a dish, resembling the prettiest edible garden you can imagine. Main courses of sashimi quality swordfish and beautifully pink pork loin, each paired with vegetables sautéed to perfection made for the 39$ a true steal. Not to mention the gorgeous desserts, which made most other sweet courses during the trip seem amateurish at best.
Why this establishment carries only one Michelin star is beyond me, just like Babbo lost its only one, it begs the question, does the institution have something against Mr. Batali? Who knows. And who cares, Del Posto is a three stars as they get and their lunch deal is a steal.
4. Eleven Madison Park: By now everyone in the industry knows and celebrates how this once simple yet acclaimed modern American restaurant went from a casual New York staple to being named recently the best restaurant in America and fifth best in the world by San Pellegrino, all thanks to a great team led by Daniel Humm and Will Guidara. Not only that, it has joined the ranks of Daniel, Jean Georges, Per Se, Le Barnardin and Chef’s Table at Brooklyn Fare as the group of most awarded restaurants in New York City by both local and global critics.
This is a restaurant that indeed merits taking out half a day from your New York City schedule and book the whole shebang, i.e. the Chef’s Menu, a multi-course journey through the best Manhattan has to offer for $195 and which will take you between 3-4 hours. Given the restaurant’s popularity and the short notice with which I booked the trip, a reservation was impossible to come by BUT even if it would have, I still think going to the bar on a Thursday, Friday or a Saturday at lunch time as I did and sample a few of their a la carte dishes is still a pretty good deal and something worth not missing. I must confess I enjoyed my Del Post lunch more only because it was more complete, had better desserts and the service was also better. At Eleven Madison Park, all the focus is (obviously) on the main dining room and it’s actually a pleasure to watch from the bar area the impeccable, Broadway-esque show servers and chefs put on table after table, with utmost attention to detail and including the odd secret signs to each other here and there.
At the bar, you get no white table cloth, no amuse bouche, and no petit fours, just bread (the most succulent hybrid between a roll and a croissant you can imagine), butter (one of them made of beef fat), your first course and main course and your dessert choice. Even though it therefore is not as good a deal as was Del Posto, the food is indeed, astonishing, and only leaves you lamenting you were not able to guarantee a reservation for the main event. A foie gras terrine with black truffles and the most small, delicate asparagus ever witnessed felt as though it had been made by robots given how perfectly shaped it was and how soft and tasty. My main course, pieces of wood roasted ribeye with crunch from Amaranth and bitterness from dandelion greens made me think, bite after bite, how can such marbling be obtained thorough normal processes. Why? Why such a difference with regular pieces of meat.
The secret lies in the relentless pursuit of only the best ingredients, in the fashion of Thomas Keller, most of which are exclusively sourced from the State of New York, as I later found out reading their book “I Love New York”. It may not have been my favorite dining experience of this trip, but I believe San Pellegrino may be on to something with their assessment, and I’m sure I probably will to once I allow myself to surrender completely to Humm’s carte blanche.
5. Pearl & Ash: Pearl & Ash fell under the category “brand new” and I kept in in my watch list without a formal appointment. I did notice it opened until very late (2am), which is a rarity, and I knew this would come in handy. Well come in handy it did, as we continued stumbling upon closed restaurant after closed restaurant on a Saturday night after a bar crawl. “I know a place” I told my party, and of course at the end of the night I became the hero, since never had anyone had such fine food at such a late time, usually reserved for a greasy slice of pizza or a doner kebab. Every dish we ordered packed tremendous flavor and carried a decent level of sophistication that makes Pearl & Ash a worthwhile place to have under any New York City’s culinary trip.
Soft pork cheeks, charred tender octopus with sunflower seed “hummus”, pork meatballs with shaved bonito and shitakes. There are plenty of raw dishes to also choose from, and various meat/fish dishes. I absolutely love these type of places, that offer simple uncomplicated dishes in a laid back atmosphere with impeccable execution and use of high quality ingredients. A perfectly grilled cod came nicely nested on top of a spread of white bean paste and tomato, black olive tapenade on top, giving it a strong Mediterranean feel. Hopefully Pearl & Ash will stand the test of time, but on first impression I place it under my low key/great food category in the company of Septime in Paris, Longman & Eagle in Chicago and Rich Table in San Francisco. “The fab four”.
6. Il Buco Alimentari & Vineria: I had been hearing constantly about this place and I’m glad I finally got to try it. I have a weakness for Italian / Mediterranean food, and the name itself drew me since day one. The place is quite big, and hosts not just two floors of dining space “The Vineria” but also a very well stocked shop “Alimentari” carrying breads, charcuterie, house made pastries and pastas, and countless delicacies. The food we ordered impressed us all, all the way from the creaminess of the ricotta, the crispy crunch of the fried artichokes and the flawless Pasqualina, a spinach tart usually made carelessly in other parts of the world and therefore sending it to a secondary level. Not the one at IBAV.
Pastas were cooked to perfection and both the red sauce one with black olives and octopus and the cream based one with fava beans and shaved pecorino left us begging for more. But the true highlight was with a slow roasted short rib and gorgonzola Panini that winked at me the second I opened the menu (short ribs are my weakness as you may have figured out by now if you have followed me since day one). Crunch, tender meat, ooze from the cheese, all in one bite with uniqueness tough to replicate. The sweet courses, a gorgeous rhubarb crostata with vanilla ice cream and biscotti de la cassa (one chocolate, one almond) complemented our lunch beautifully. A must stop if casual, trattoria style Italian fare is your thing.
7. Hanjan: Another great place under the category “brand new”, it was impossible to browse a New York City restaurant source over the past few months and not read about chef Kooni Kim and his rapid success with Danji and now Hanjan. The place is gorgeous and it’s built as to give you the impression you are dining in a casual, middle of nowhere Korean family home. The food wowed us right of the bat with a squid and spring onion “pancake” that was actually tempura style with a great soy based sauce for dipping.
The kimchi duo included root and cabbage versions, the latter in the form of lasagna and perfect for peeling off the cabbage layers one after the other. Sweet skewers of pork belly made my day given my affection for that animal’s gut but what really elevated the dining experience to a whole new level was the King Mackerel, grilled and presented whole with a mountain of shredded radish next to it. If you like Mackerel, you need to stop reading this and book yourself on a place to NYC to eat this dish. Bits of flesh fall apart as you approach with chopsticks, and the charred skin and succulent meat make it one of the best dishes of the trip.
8. Carbone: My obsession with Torrisi Italian Specialties isn’t well documented since I was not a food blogger or photographer when it opened back in 2010, but if I recall correctly this is the restaurant I have been to the most in NYC, I believe in fact maybe 5-6 times. I actually recall a 4 day period in 2011 when we did it twice. In the early days, when Torrisi only took reservations for the same day with a tablet for those first to line outside, I used to be the first one there, usually around 3pm, just like those die-hard fans that start camping outside theaters before movie premiers to get a glimpse of their favorite movie stars. The tasting menus I had at Torrisi remain to this day, some of the best if not the best Italian food I have ever tasted, and I have been a fan of Rich Torrisi and Mario Carbone ever since. Been to Parm of course at least twice, for their ridiculous meatball hero sandwich. This trip to NYC coincided with the opening of Carbone, their new restaurant and homage to classic Italian cuisine.
It was of course the first reservation I made when I found out the dates of the trip “I’ll take anything between May 2-6” I blared over the phone. And yes, of course it was an incredible meal. The parmiggiano piece at the beginning, their classic soft focaccia inside the bread basket, the “Godfather” feel to the dining room, the unparalleled carrot cake at the end. My pasta course, angel hair A.O.P. (al olio pepperoncino) was impeccably cooked at dente with muted slices of hot pepper and garlic cloves, all blended with the perfect amount of extra virgin olive oil. Simply sublime. A Delmonico steak was great, but in all honesty was simply a well cooked rib eye steak , with it’s secret melted butter on top and a few crispy shallot rings on top. I would go back to Carbone any day of the week, but the “wow” factor from Torrisi, the magic from that tiny place on Mulberry Street, wasn’t there. I’d rather go dine at Torrisi in all honesty, and maybe go back to Carbone for that carrot cake for dessert.
9. Pok Pok: I guess the only reason Pok Pok is so low on my list is because the expectations where so high. This place for Thai food and Mission Chinese for it’s genre have created unparalleled buzz and excitement for Asian cuisines in New York City, not seen since the birth of the Momofuku empire more than five years ago. Pok Pok is originally from Portland, and Andy Ricker is its father. He won a James Beard award in 2011 and the food is “what you would find in pubs in Southeast Asia, predominantly in Northern Thailand”. Of course it was fantastic. There’s a no reservations policy in place so we showed up early to avoid a large line.
We got there 20 minutes before opening time on a Sunday and there were already 20 people waiting!. The place is small, although it has been expanded and now boasts a larger dining area behind the main restaurant. The drinking water, after you sip it, begs the doubt around its origin. It tastes dense, rarely sweet, almost as if they have dropped a few shots of coconut water in the jar. It happens to be flavored with Pandanus leaf, giving it a level of distinction not found anywhere else in town, at least with respect to the house water. The food is really, really good. Curries are fragrant and strongly spiced; so if hot food is not your thing, stay away. Papaya salad burns and crunches in your mouth with wet hints from citrus and fatty balance from the peanuts. It’s perfect. Herbs are omnipresent, as side dishes and as garnishes. I almost felt like a cow chewing on grass at one stage, since I didn’t want to miss out on the experience and went all in with respect to everything that was served on the table. Undistinguishable fragrances lept from those green mouthfuls, a true delight.
My favorite, a strong pork belly and pork shoulder curry, brown in color from tamarind and strong in flavor from garlic, curry powder, turmeric and ginger, was heaven in every slurp. I still drool when I go back and see the pictures of this dish. Another curry dish was creamy from coconut and had perfectly cooked vermicelli and sweet, braised pieces of white flaky catfish. Another winner. There was a special dessert on the board made of simply sticky rice, mango slices and cream of coconut; one of the most perfect combinations ever. Big fan of the Pok Pok.
10. Chez Sardine: I’ve been meaning to get to a Gabriel Stulman restaurant for years now, but simply hadn’t managed to do so. Perla has been on my To Do list since it opened, but always kept being kicked off the list at the last minute. I finally made it to one of his empire, the newly opened Chez Sardine, which is neither French nor includes sardines on the menu, but rather a quirky take on Japanese food, with a menu made up of small sushi bites and larger, creative mostly seafood dishes plus a pork belly dish and a grilled cheese sandwich with foie gras! How’s that for a diet breaker. The sushi bites were actually pretty great, not just rice with a slab of raw fish on top, but with a bit of creativity here and there, a bit of burnt around the rice, a rare oil or sauce on the fish or perhaps a delicate crumble of sorts.
Maybe Jiro from the movie “Jiro Dreams of Sushi” would puke at the sound of all that, but if it tastes great who cares and who says there are rules? I would go Omakase on these guys any day of the weeks with pleasure. The other plates on the other hand didn’t quite work for me. A tempura roll was too big and no different than the ones you would find at your local pan Asian place. Pancake dishes, with tempura flakes and the typical pink sauces and various forms of fish both raw and cooked felt messy and immature. The goodbye dessert, on the house, was actually a very pleasant combination of maple pudding, syrup and puffed rice, a very pleasant bite. I will gladly try Mr. Stulman’s places any day of the week, and specially Perla I’m looking forward to.
11. Motorino: Motorino, Motorino. Everytime you try to find out where to eat the best pizza in New York and add “-Brooklyn” to the search, this is the place that keeps popping up. So for an impromptu, “I’m hungry but I’m not that hungry” evening that crossed with realizing the famous pizza joint was a few blocks away from the hotel, it was a no brainer. Yes, the pizza is great! If you haven’t got a chance to go to Brooklyn to Di Fara, Lucali or Roberta’s, head to Motorino. Specially if you’re in the East side of the village because if you’re in the West, I would go to Keste, still my personal favorite.
12. Alder. Chef Wylie Dufresne is one of the most respected of the NYC circuit. His innovative cuisine at wd-50, his flagship Manhattan restaurant, has gained him critical acclaim, a Michelin star, respect among peers and most recently, one of the most coveted wards in the US restaurant industry: a James Beard Award for best chef, New York City. I was very excited when I found out he was behind a recently opened Gastropub in the East Village, Alder, since I have always been looking forward to his food and I haven’t had a chance to dine at wd-50. Even though I enjoyed the food and experience, I was expecting more, especially in terms of creativity, presentation and flavor. Pigs in a blanket, small pieces of Chinese sausage wrapped in a thin crust and surrounded by drops of sweet chili sauce and mustard tasted great, but could have been hotter in temperature.
The new England clam chowder had great flavor and was elevated when you threw the oyster popcorn inside. The quail dish lacked the gamey taste of such bird, and wasn’t helped by the banana and broccoli puree. The fried cauliflower I was looking forward to, expecting a crispy version of the vegetable but was actually charred and not very tasteful. My favorite dish was the pork ribs, cubes of tender, fatty meat that came in a bowl with saffron spaetzle and green apple-celery root hash. My favorite bite and a bowl which I almost finished all by myself, much to the demise of my guests. A rye pasta dish was nothing special and the noodles lacked seasoning, dessert wasn’t great either. I will definitely go to wd-50 at my next chance, and I look forward to it, but Alder I perhaps consider it done.
13. La Vara: We headed over to La Vara with great excitement after reading so many great things from the recently opened Spanish place. Spanish and Mexican seem to be two of the cuisines that have flourished the most in New York City in recent years, and although I’ve been hesitant to dwell into these places since I have feared they have been too twisted by American chefs, it’s always good to try new things. We chose brunch for our meal at La Vara, which I was later regretting since brunch is perhaps not the best way to try a new place, but then I remembered the fantastic brunch I had at Trenchermen in Chicago and realized that if it’s available, it’s meant to be backed up by the kitchen. But in the case of La Vara it seems the chefs take Sunday off and hire a few Denny’s cooks to complete the egg driven menu on Sundays.
Most dishes had eggs on them, but they were not all well cooked. The peppers, croquettes, and patatas bravas I’ve had better at low key tascas in Caracas and elsewhere. The lamb burger’s patty was dense and lacked flavor, and an artichoke/fava bean dish felt like it was assembled from jars. Nothing else was special, not even the squid and morcilla dish, a combination that could have saved the day. Thank God for the churros! They were indeed amazing, and fatter than the usual ones. Great sweet ending to an unfortunately not very good meal.
14. Empellon Cocina: Finally, my biggest question mark from the entire trip. Probably highest on my list with respect to expectations. What could this chef be putting on this Guacamole? On these tacos? To cause such a stir and to make every critic name him the best thing to happen to New York City in 2012 next to Mission Chinese? Well, after a first visit I don’t get it, and am looking forward to a second visit sometime this year to see if I can dig deeper into the menu and find out what I’m missing.
Yes the Guacamole is great, but it’s just avocado, some herbs, and tiny pieces of pickled onions and green peppers. The tacos lacked seasoning, particularly the shrimp one. Should I have added the seasoning with one of the salsas? The waitress never suggested this. The pastrami taco was ok, but nothing to write home about. And finally, a dish I ordered from the regular section was plainly horrible. What seemed like whole-wheat noodles tasted like the ones I buy at wholefoods when I need to loose weight, (I hate them), the slices of zucchini at the bottom were not seasoned at all and drops of cheese were barely present.
After my dinner there I spent some time online trying to figure out what I had missed? And it does seem part of the magic is in those other dishes which I only had the chance to try one off, but to my mind, if a restaurant is a great as everyone says it is, all dishes should be if not magnificent, at least decent. Not the case with my experience at Empellon Cocina.
That’s it! Hope you enjoyed my post and find it useful if you’re ever up in La Gran Manzana.
Until next time, Gj