As I reflect upon my third and potentially last visit of 2013 to New York City, a theme emerges, strengthened by my dining experiences elsewhere: the thinner the spread of a “celebrity-turned-entrepeneur” chef, the less I’m impressed by the dining experience. Could this be true or is it just a coincidence? I’m inclined to think it’s the latter, since the absence of the person who’s brand name is behind a restaurant shouldn’t mean the quality should suffer; after all, every kitchen and specially the higher profile ones should be manned with equally talented, if not at least with great potential, human resources.
So why did I enjoy Le Chateaubriand in Paris more than L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon? Why do I like Estela more than Jean Georges in New York City? Why is Il Buco Alimentari, in my opinion, light years better than Mario Batali’s Lupa?
My experience and opinion may differ from others, but I believe my decisions towards where to eat going forward will be heavily skewed towards the single chef-driven restaurants. Maybe 2 restaurants is the limit for a chef and definitely +30, as is the case with Mr. Vongerichten, is definitely a recipe for making sure you will never, ever eat anything cooked by him.
Specifically on this NYC trip, it yielded mostly outstanding dinners from known favorites and a few pleasant surprises from never before visited establishments.
My single favorite spot in NYC
Here are my notes, as always in order of preference. Clicking on each name will take you to its Flickr set.
After my second dinner at Atera I tweeted out, as I did after my first visit there back in May, that this was the best restaurant in America. Back then I got some shit for it, and though no one stepped out this time around, I should probably rephrase that: it’s my favorite restaurant in America. Best is impossible, since it implies a sample of totality, which I don’t have nor I believe I’ll ever have. But I’ve done my fair share of some of the ones considered the best by those who form opinion about restaurants for a living.
My feelings and opinion with respect to Atera don’t have to do with just the adventorous, though-provoking food. It has to do with the thick, deep metallic counter at which one eats sitting on high chairs. It has to do with the proximity to an army of chefs, including creator Matthew Lightner, assembling each plate that is put in front of you. It has to do with the other army of folks both in front of you and behind you orchestrating the flawless pace of the almost 30 different bites. And finally it has to do with the music, which I care deeply about and which at Atera, happens to be a collection of some of my favorite rock n’ roll tracks, by the likes of U2, Guns n’ Roses, Red Hot Chilli Peppers and The Black Crowes, to name a few.
Atera was recently awarded its second star by the Michelin guide, a fact that shows that some inspector somewhere is probably also a big fan of what Lightner & Co. are doing at the difficult to find premises located at 77 Worth street (there’s no sign outside to the office building like entrance to Atera).
One has to wonder how such amazing food is possible with such little actual “cooking” going on during dinner service, specially since very little of it consists of raw ingredients. The secret is a monstrous work kitchen located underneath Atera’s dining room, as part of a basement that also holds the Lounge (an intimate bar for pre/post meal drinks) and the Library (a small dining room for private events). This is where yet another army of unseen heroes arrive early every morning to do most of the prepping that goes into the culinary journey.
So given that only around 32 people dine at Atera on any given night (2 services and the room seats roughly 16), this is probably one of the restaurants with the highest ratio of staff to diner in the country. During service alone I counted at least 20 individuals and I would guess there’s at least a same amount involved in the underground/background operations. I mention this because it makes me realize that what may seem expensive to some people, at around 250$ per person, to me is actually cheap, specially since as you’ve probably seen in the pictures from my meal there, the ingredients are almost all premium and exclusive in nature.
My second meal at Atera included some of the items from my first meal earlier this year, which I was extremely glad to try again and which I would over and over again without getting tired; I won’t go into much detail into those as I already did back then; favorites included the opening beer and caviar macaroon and the lobster roll.
A new “snack”
Some items where similar but had changed somewhat, making them even better. The squab breast this time came with a quenelle of a tartare made from the bird’s offal, and some unique small fruits and threads of fennel.
New items included a beautifully arranged group of small matsutake mushroom slices on a toast smeared with hazelnut spread and jelly. Is this Matt’s take on the PB&J? Perhaps and who knows; it was fabulous. Another new winner was the thin slice of lardo placed on a puff crunchy pillow made from sweet potato. A smoked piece of beet was covered in beeswax, which made the impression upon first bite you were eating a candle… and then the wax melts and the sweet flavor escapes and combines with the beet creating an unprecedented texture and taste profile.
Chef Lightner is a big fan of foraging, perhaps picked up during his tenure at Noma, the restaurant in Copenhagen led by probably the greatest foraging chef: Rene Redzepi. Most dishes at Atera include a leaf, a flower, bits of a mushroom, which was probably foraged by Matthew himself somewhere upstate or in Maine. A combination of tomato puree with raw tuna had an array of such leafs on top, adding the texture and flavor impression of a mini nicoise; was Matthew trying to create his version of a salad nicoise? Probably; probably not. Another great new dish. He takes foraged mushrooms and slices them ever so thinly, and uses them to hide creamy foie gras paired with blueberries.
The final savory course, an impossibly soft and powerfully flavorful slice of lamb rack was covered in red pepper relish and very small spinach leaves from New Zealand. The dish is small but it should be: it would be a sin to eat larger amounts of such a generous dish.
The vanilla ice cream that accompanies the decadent slice of cheesecake at the beginning of the end is also covered with rare flower petals, giving continuation to the them mentioned above. A new impressive dessert was chef Matt’s take on milk and crackers through crispy squares of meringue topping berries and soft cream. His classic petit fours were a treat to try again, specially the bourbon ice cream sandwich.
Atera is the restaurant where I’ve experienced some of the best dining experiences of my life and is a place where I will be very happy to go back over and over again. The intrigue of finding out what new dishes Matthew has come up with combined with the joy of trying once more his staples is very strong. My absolute favorite in America.
My second favorite experience on this visit is a restaurant that absolutely blew me away the first time I visited back in May and which did exactly the same this time around. Why this place isn’t booked months in advance, why the New York Times failed to give it 3 stars and why Michelin failed to give it 1 star is beyond me. Chef Ignacio Mattos’s creative, bold, imaginative and incredibly flavorful dishes make it a standout amongst the restaurants in this space in this city, at least in my opinion. Every single dish I’ve tried there has impressed me, from the first bite of the raw scallop dish I had back in May to the last bite of the perfectly cooked steak I ate this time around, sitting on a puddle of melted cheese and covered in a mix of sweet sautéed onions and sardines.
Estela is the restaurant that if I could fly every person I know that appreciates great food, I would.
At least the peers are taking notice. Alain Ducasse was there recently nodding his head with every bite. A few of the New York City chefs I spoke with on this trip had been and are regulars, whenever they get the odd night off (Estela is open dinner only from Monday to Saturday).
What is chef Mattos’s secret? He’s a mad flavor profile genius. He tries and tries and pushes the envelope until he strikes gold. He won’t admit to this, calling it “just cooking”, but the spiced lamb ribs I tried there on this visit, with honey and cilantro, can’t “just be cooked”. It’s the work of a genius, and one I consider myself lucky to have been able to find and experience.
As with every meal I go to, whether in Miami, Chicago, San Francisco or New York, I always have the unconcious space in my brain for candidates that will end up in my 2013 top lists, which I will compile for the first time next year. I’m thinking of doing a Top 10 Meals of the year and a Top 10 dishes of the year. The funny thing is that I never have this in mind when I start eating. But sometimes, I bite into something and the reminder of the lists just pops up, out of nowhere. On this visit to Estela, a certain dish triggered the dishes of the year list: the blood cake on toast.
D O T Y
If I were to describe in detail this dish, or what I felt upon eating it, this blog post would start using profanity in excess, and although one is free to write what one wishes, I’d rather not have to give an R rating to my blog. Extreme richness, compounded when the egg yolk meets its destined death by cutlery, only reminded me how much I truly enjoy the pleasure of eating food that your cholesterol wouldn’t appreciate. The crunchyness of the toast, density of the blood cake, sauteed leaves beneath and egg on top combined made for what is probably the single best bite I’ve had this year. Amazing.
Everything else of course and as expected was delicious and only serve to remind me this is one of my favorite restaurants in NY right now. The steak, perfectly cooked as one would expect from a native of a beef-centric nation (Uruguay), benefited from a gooey cheese sauce and pungent flavor of a combination of sautéed onions and sardines. How can sardines and beef get along? They do in Ignacio’s mediterranean centric menu, and outstandingly well. Desserts at Estela are simple and unpretentious, but provide the perfect ending.
Estela is my second favorite restaurant in New York City right now after Atera, and the one I’m looking forward to always go back and back again.
3. Ichimura at Brushstroke
On my previous visit to New York I had the pleasure of dining at the Kaiseki focused restaurant by David Bouley Brushstroke, and as you may recall from my notes back then, it was a wonderful dining experience. However, when one dines at Brushstroke the intrigue around what the 8 people behind the wall to the right are experiencing is unbearable, since there is the corner where chef Ichimura serves his sushi Omakase two times a night, and it has been celebrated as one of the city’s finest.
I’ve never been to Tokyo, or for that matter to Los Angeles, where I understand the finest sushi on American soil is served. I’ve been to Yasuda in New York City and most recently to Neta, and of course to our local Naoe a few times. Those have been my finest sushi experiences to date. But the sushi I ate from the hands of chef Ichimura at Brushstroke this week was a step above anything I have ever tried before.
My fellow diners seemed to agree. I had never seen people banging their fists against the counter in excitement after placing a piece of nigiri in their mouths, which pretty much says it all with respect to the quality and diversity of the fish we ate.
As I said, I’ve never been to Tokyo but from the few videos I’ve seen I understand most great sushi places are like this: one counter, one man, no talking, no noise. Ritual-like. The only sound at Ichimura are the very soft spoken descriptions of the fish coming from him, which are many decibels below average and of course in Japanese. And since of course I was interested in the detail behind everything I ate (mostly to be able to tag the pictures correctly), I sometimes had to embarrassingly ask over and over again. Next time I’ll just tag all the pictures as “best in class sushi”.
The meal starts off with a narrow vertical plate containing 6 small bites of some seafood item paired with a pickled vegetable, or a leaf, or some delicate puree. It included sea urchin, monkfish liver, clams and fatty tuna. An impressive way to let you know this is not your average sushi joint. It follows with a dish of sashimi, each piece extremely tender and soft, and including fluke, red snapper and more fatty tuna.
And then of course, what we all came for. Ichimura turns around and reaches up in the refrigerator behind him and takes out a rectangular metallic box, opens it, and carefully lifts a piece of paper covering the flesh of the fish we are about to eat in nigiri form. He then proceeds to slice the invididual pieces and places them in front of him, goes in the back to fill a basket with rice and begins his ritual. He makes each piece and places it in front or each diner, making for a truly exceptional sushi eating experience. It was like eating candy! Each piece melted in your mouth; who knew? I though only Toro melted in your mouth. The fish we experienced in sushi form that night included Hirame, Isaki, Kibinago, Aji, Kinmedai, Katsuo, Sanma, Konoshiro, Iwashi, Shima-Aji, Uni, Toro, Ikura and Anago. After the traditional feast, chef Ichimura reaches out to each of us to ask which piece would we like to repeat. I went for the Katsuo or Bonito, which had similar look and feel as tuna, but tasted different, sweeter.
To watch Ichimura work, with his precision, meticulosity, focus and impeccable order on its own is worthwhile the trip. The Omakase meal was truly exceptional and probably one of the best in New York, if not the country.
Ever since Lincoln opened I’ve been wanting to visit it. Italian Michelin quality restaurant led by a chef which spent 6 years at the helm of Per Se? I don’t understand why I hadn’t gone here sooner. Better late than never, and after the light, casual Saturday lunch we had there I can say that this is probably one of the best places in town for lunch, and if there’s a better Italian restaurant, it’s probably Torrisi Italian Specialties.
Chef Benno’s experience at Thomas Keller’s restaurants permeates. I could watch from my table as he oversaw every detail of dishes going out, as well as asking sous-chefs for adjustments on preparation he deemed not perfect. You could tell he has become as much of a perfectionist as Chef Keller. Of course this is all to the benefit of those eating there. The lamb ravioli I had was indeed the work of a person obsessed with detail, the flavor inside each piece strong and rich. The “strozzapreti”, thickish worm like pasta came with seafood ragu made from lobster and shrimp. Delightful and also perfectly cooked “al dente”.
For the main course I had to have more pasta, and ordered the lasagna. Round shaped, creamy and piping hot, the absolute perfect dish for a crispy Autumn day. It was one of those ” I wish this would never end” dishes. The tortelloni di yucca (pumpkin), another winning pasta dish benefited from hazelnuts, sage and brown butter.
Dessert was a magnificent Autumn take on cheesecake, with a pumpkin layer and toasted pumpkin seeds. A concord grape sorbet helped balance it perfectly.
All I can say is that I’m looking forward to dinner at Lincoln, and to the full tasting menu experience. If this casual lunch was so magnificent, I can only imagine what the full offering from Chef Benno has in store. Something to look forward to.
I’ve never been to a Spanish restaurant in Manhattan because I guess until Boston’s Toro arrived, there weren’t really any restaurants in that space that had caught my eye. My experience at Brooklyn’s La Vara was disastrous, so I had concluded, as I did with Empellon Cocina, that New York hadn’t been able to crack the cuisine of spanish speaking countries.
Toro, an import from Boston by chefs Jamie Bissonnette and Ken Oringer, has made me change my mind. Powerfully flavored dishes, creative in parts and respectful of the tradition in others, made up for a wonderful dinner that turned Toro into an instant favorite.
The space is breathtakingly gorgeous and spacious, which you would never guess from the small red entrance on the corner of 11th Avenue and 15th Street. The menu is extensive and includes a variety of pinchos, tapas and paellas that would require at least 5-6 visits to try them all (and believe me, that’s the feeling you leave with). Cauliflower is grilled with kohlrabi and packs the flavor from anchovies and red pepper, balanced with raisins and pine nuts. They stuffed sage leaves with chicken liver are lightly battered and fried; amazing bite and one of the the favorites of the night. Another winner was a spoonful of “eggs” containing a yolk, uni and caviar, which had to included of course for added richness tender iberico ham bits. Creamy scrambled eggs met crunchy shrimp and were covered with white truffle shavings. Bite after bite, each “tapa” at Toro made us want to order more and more.
The paella was flawless. Al dente grains of calasparra rice with generous amounts of seafood, well stuck to the pan but free to be lifted, as it should be. The best dish I tried though, was the carrots. Charred black and seeming inedible but at the same time impossibly sweet and placed on a dish with spreads of harissa and buttermilk with dill; mint made for the perfect topping. Amazing.
If only I were a NYC food critic! Which would require me to go back multiple times until I’ve tried every dish. I would actually lie to my boss in order to make myself go back and try each dish twice, with the excuse that food from outside the country needs to be tried twice to appreciate it.
I’m looking forward to going back, and by the way Miami folks watch out: I understand these guys are doing a pop-up at Harry’s Pizzeria early next year. I’ll be first out that door!
6. The Elm
The Elm is a new restaurant in Brooklyn inside the King & Grove hotel. The chef behind it is Paul Liebrandt, one of the most celebrated chefs of New York City. There’s a documentary about him available on Netflix called “A Matter of Taste: serving Paul Liebrandt” and until recently he was heading the kitchen at Corton, where he received two Michelin stars.
I never had the chance to dine at Corton and it’s unfortunate. For some, including food critic Ryan Sutton, it was one of the best dining establishments in the city. The Elm isn’t as audacious as Corton; the offering is “classical yet forward thinking French fare”, and includes four categories: raw, sea, land and shared.
Although not French, there’s fish n’ chips on the menu, as well as a burger. I saw many burgers walk by me and am sorry I didn’t order it (I almost ordered it for dessert, as one should); but I couldn’t pass the opportunity of trying my favorite cut of meat cooked by Chef Liebrandt: short rib. It was magnificent, and came with couscous and vegetables such as carrots in various textures. The fish n’ chips were also ordered and who couldn’t? Chef Liebrandt was raised in London so he should know; the batter was exceptional; it included an extra flavor which I couldn’t identify but that elevated it from the rest (I lived in the UK 4 years and had my fair share of chippies).
And then, after a terrific meal, a dessert arrived at our table that single handedly merits a trip to Brooklyn: the popcorn mille-feuille. A work of art, beautifully presented, and without doubt a perfect one: this is the benchmark for mille-feuille.
As with my the restaurants above visited for the first time, I’m looking forward to going back. Specially since there’s a bar facing the kitchen where I was told soon they will be premiering a tasting menu offering.
7. Il Buco Alimentari
I had lunch again this time around at Il Buco and it reminded me why it’s one of my favorite places in town: the casual, rustic Italian fare they serve is a delight. Al dente spaghetti “bottarga” with a creamy, lemony sauce at the bottom; fresh ricotta with sardines and cucumber; and group of crispy lettuce leafs seasoned with red wine vinegar and add crumbs for crunch. Even the bread in this place, dipped in their proprietary olive oil, is phenomenal.
Even lettuce tastes great at Il Buco
The environment is always lively and the service attentive. There’s plenty of options in the front of the house for you to purchase and take home if you want. A great place which I’m glad I went back to.
Every time I visit New York there are two or three recently opened restaurants that are the talk of the town. This will always be the case and although it’s often wise to give restaurants a few weeks or months of breathing space, the curiosity of trying out brand new spots is always there. Piora in the West Village is currently a hot commodity, specially after last week when food critic Ryan Sutton dropped a 3 star review on them. I sneaked in for an early dinner and tried a few dishes which merit all the credit is has gotten and probably will get.
The chef is Italian and his partner co-owner is Korean, and the menu reflects their partnership. The space is gorgeous in a minimalistic kind of way, perhaps it’s because everything is still brand new but you can tell people of very fine taste were involved in the design of this restaurant.
The opening bites from the house made “Monkey bread” were a great precursor of what was to come; warm soft and accompanied by seaweed butter and whipped lardo. Not your average bread and butter. The first dish was a truly genius take on market vegetables: possibly the widest range of textures I had ever had in a single dish. Raw, pickled, roasted, grilled, sautéed, and possibly more variations of different vegetables neatly organized as to hide the amount of work that went into it. Every forkful from this was a different experience of tremendous flavor. One of the best dishes of the trip.
Complicated culinary greatness
The following two protein dishes were slightly disappointing, and perhaps because the market vegetable dish had set the expectations so high. Octopus was a bit mushy and not tasty. A scallop dish was ok, nothing special. The final course though, a perfectly cooked duck breast slice, got us back on track. Combined with black garlic, dates and farro, it provided a perfect ending.
Piora only ended halfway down the list due to relative strength; I simply liked all the places above more. But I missed many items on the menu that winked their eye at me, so hopefully I’ll return there one day and sample them. And for sure I know the monkey bread and market vegetable salad I’m getting.
The flagship restaurant from Jean Georges Vongerichten, located at the Trump Tower in Columbus Circle, has been one of NYC’s finest restaurants for many, many years. And when it comes to lunch options in town, I don’t think there is a better deal: they have a 2 dish special for $38. That’s right, no typo there. For less than two Andrew Jacksons you get the VIP treatment that comes with a 3 Michelin Star establishment, including amuse bouche, petit fours at the end, and some of the best service there is, plus a seat in a magnificent power room, surrounded by the 1%.
I have to admit though, and in line with my opening remarks, the meal was just OK. Nothing was earth shattering, nor did anything made me want more of it or even leave me with a desire to come back. As a matter of fact, I think I’m done with Jean Georges and would probably only return to take family members when we do the occasional gathering in the Big Apple. There’s way too many exciting restaurants south of 20th Street and across the bridge in Brooklyn, for a culinary enthusiast to waste a bullet at a place like this. Unless you’ve never experienced a Vongerichten restaurant of course… but even then, as I mentioned above, it’s not as if Jean Georges will come and carve a duck for you table side.
Perhaps 20 years ago
10. Momofuku Ssam Bar
A similar experience occurred with this member of the Momofuku empire, the one by David Chang. Yes, the steamed pork bun was amazing. Probably best I’ve ever had. But the remaining dishes were nice, simple combinations not really making much of a impression. This is probably the lowest key member of the family, and it doesn’t mean that one day I won’t want to try his 2 Michelin star restaurant Ko, but in a way I wonder if these restaurants were truly great and impressive when David Chang was there and now things have just been averaged down.
These are fantastic but…
11. Locanda Verde
Love this place and love Andrew Carmellini, but went here for breakfast and the oatmeal wasn’t warm and the toast that comes with the ricotta, that claims to be orange burnt on the menu, was plain and cold. Maybe another victim of the phenomenon mentioned above? Speaking of Carmellini I sneaked into Lafayette for a very plain blueberry dessert, but had some of the best french fries I’ve ever tried.
Lovely but where’s my orange?
No comments. This is the place that triggered my opening remarks and if people go to this restaurant to experience Mario Batali, they’re 100% better off crossing the street and having a real italian meal at Carbone, the new joint by the Torrisi boys.
That’s it! Hope you enjoyed and write to you soon,