The Year of Eating Fabulously: Our Food Critic Cleanses His Palate

The jerk lobster at Glady's
The jerk lobster at Glady's
Bradley Hawks for the Village Voice

Click each restaurant name to read our original review.

Maybe it's because I ate in so many of them with only infrequent quibbles, but 2014 felt like a banner year for New York restaurants. Old-school elegance wrought from new-school money (with prices to match) predominated. M. Wells Steakhouse held my attention for longer than any steakhouse has in years, but Cherche Midi chefs Shane McBride and Daniel Parilla served me one of the primest prime ribs in town, a hulking portion with musky cider vinegar–braised onions and greaseless pommes soufflées. Leo Robitschek's "cocktail explosions" at the grand NoMad Bar are nearly as hulking as that prime rib, large-format drinks that slake groups of six to eight and come layered with fruits and mint in Art Deco crystal decanters that act as quaffable table centerpieces. Speaking of crystal: Peering through the Rainbow Room's dazzling crystal curtains onto the gleaming city below is enough to make any cynic whistle a different tune. Another satisfying coincidence: The NoMad Bar and the Rainbow Room bake the city's most decadent potpies, the NoMad's a riff on its fabled chicken-for-two with foie gras, the Rainbow Room's loaded with creamed lobster, both with enough black truffles to knock out a pig.

See also: 99 Essential Restaurants in Lower Manhattan

Over the past year, I found myself hunting down the newest crop of young guns. I ate some of my favorite meals at Box Kite in the East Village. (Arctic char with its roe and shavings of raw foie gras leaps to mind.) But Dave Gulino and Justin Slojkowski soon took their considerable culinary talents elsewhere; the duo is set to open Bruno, a nouveau pizzeria, sometime in 2015. James Kim's painterly plates and bold flavors delighted me at Skál, but I'd barely finished my review when he and the restaurant parted ways. He recently opened an ambitious ramen bar in New Rochelle. (Metro-North, here I come.)

If you hated on Marcus Samuelsson for gentrifying soul food at Harlem's Red Rooster, chances are you chose to pass over the Glady's redo in Crown Heights. Thanks to owner and Per Se alum Michael Jacober, what began as run-of-the-mill New American transformed into a tremendously exciting West Indian restaurant that walks a cultural tightrope like a culinary Philippe Petit, offering versions of traditional Caribbean dishes that are cheffed up in preparation only. (Think fresh green pimento wood imported from Jamaica for ultra-smoky jerk.) Come summer you will find me with a plate of tender, allspice-scented jerk pork in front of me and a frozen dark 'n' stormy in my hand.

This year saw the Lower East Side lose and gain a number of high-stakes properties, led by the era-ending closure of Wylie Dufresne's groundbreaking wd~50. Pour one out for a major loss, but do so at the watering hole where the wd~50 staff liked to wet its collective whistle: Black Crescent. Initially a small-plates seafood restaurant, it now boasts seriously inventive bar food to pair with its fine-tuned cocktails. Momofuku Ssäm Bar vet Dustin Everett cooks up lemony jambalaya fritters and masterful po'boys (two favorites: the octopus BLT and a smoky, buttery barbecue-shrimp version) stuffed into bread from New Orleans's own Leidenheimer Baking Company, and co-owner Michael Reynolds's bittersweet and creamy "Five Dollar Shake," a Pulp Fiction–inspired Chartreuse– chocolate bourbon flip, makes for an inspired nightcap. Sweet after-dinner drinks are on the rise in general; I took memorable postprandial nips at both the Bowery's Bacchanal (the espresso martini–esque "Talisman") and the West Village's Bar Sardine (a minty, chocolatey Grasshopper made with almond milk and topped with cracked black pepper). The latter serves the Voice's favorite new burger, a bulky LaFrieda patty that arrives bursting with fried potato sticks, cucumbers, and melted smoked cheddar smothered in barbecue-spiced mayonnaise. In other LES news, while Baz Bagel and the Russ & Daughters Café brought sentimental noshing back to this historically Jewish neighborhood, it bade farewell to Andy Ricker's Pok Pok Phat Thai, a loss for the area but a boon for Red Hook, where it joins its siblings, Pok Pok Ny and Whiskey Soda Lounge.

Fermented tomato gazpacho from the Box Kite tasting menu
Fermented tomato gazpacho from the Box Kite tasting menu
Bradley Hawks for the Village Voice

Highlights emanated from brows both high and low: affordable aperitifs and bright, herb-filled salads at Claudette in Greenwich Village; fermented soybean stew and intensely fresh vegetables grown by a Korean matriarch at Myung San in Flushing; a pizza topped with razor clams (followed by an exceptional grandma pie) at GG's in the East Village. The Voice's pick for Best New Restaurant, Tuome, deftly balanced New American leanings with the Chinese-American upbringing of Thomas Chen, its Eleven Madison Park–trained chef and owner. On a far crazier scale, the Momofuku group's expansion of its experimental Asian-inflected tasting counter, Ko, should finally shut up David Chang detractors.

We're in the midst of a prix-fixe renaissance, and several restaurants are coursing out extended tasting menus for $55 and under. Contra set that bar last year, soon to be matched by Huertas' Jonah Miller, whose five-course Basque menu provides a suitable counterpoint to the restaurant's phenomenal passed pintxos. But I got the biggest finer-dining bangs for my bucks in Brooklyn and Queens: At Delaware and Hudson in Williamsburg, Patti Jackson weaves a charming, homespun 10-course menu of bites and small plates for a respectable $48; while in Woodside, Blue Hill alum Alfonso Zhicay pins a heartfelt ode to his Ecuadorian roots at the end of his $35 five-course greenmarket menu at Casa del Chef, in the form of chicha, a white-wine fruit soup infused with lemongrass.

Downtown, Danny Bowien's hands are full with his newly reopened Mission Chinese Food, and mine are full with his griddled burritos at Mission Cantina. Alex Stupak (Empellón Cocina, Empellón Taqueria) started slinging heady, spit-roasted al pastor tacos at Empellón al Pastor, and the aforementioned Chang revived Ssäm Bar's burrito-like ssäm wrap and debuted spicy fried chicken buns at Má Pêche. I wouldn't mind seeing more cheffy fast-casual operations sprout in the year to come.

More than anything, 2014 was a crash course in the nuances of the city's dining scene, as vast and varied as any localized industry in the world. What stands out the most after 52 weeks is that, in my inaugural year as critic, I barely scratched its surface.

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