Isaan Thai food, micro-focused establishments, pastry celebrities, celebrity pastries, burgers with buns made of noodles — this year had it all. As infuriating as the NYC trend machine can often be, the city’s dining scene is as vibrant as ever and for that we can only be thankful. Here are some of the plates that wowed me in 2013.
11. Flock Dinner, lamb tartare
As the precursor to a mid-meal walk around the block (built into the procession of courses) at one of Corey Cova’s free-form Flock Dinners, petite wood bowls held glistening cubes of lamb tartare slicked with raw quail egg and a punchy dose of ginger and scallion. Cova is a Momofuku vet, and the flavors here mimicked Momofuku Noodle Bar’s ginger scallion noodles, which are themselves an interpretation of Great NY Noodletown’s storied version.
10. Taqueria Rancho Escondido, barbacoa tacos
Fat-slicked shreds of spit-roasted goat anchor a plate of superior tacos at this family-run Mexican restaurant in the Bronx. The meat retains a crunchy char, smoky from the fire; tortillas sport heady masa aromatics; and the salsas burst with chilies and herbs.
9. Gwynnett St., blood dumplings
Folds of gently cooked parsnip noodles hide spongy hunks of pig’s blood whipped into airy dumplings in this small plate from Gwynnett St.’s Justin Hilbert, who left the restaurant in April (since replaced by his sous Owen Clark). The blood’s minerality plays off parsnip’s earthiness and treviso chicory’s bitterness, all tied together with slices of jammy roasted apple.
8. Tanoshi Sushi, Omakase
Hovering at around $60, Toshio Oguma’s Yorkville hole-in-the-wall offers one of the city’s more judicious omakases. Together with an apprentice, a porter, and a waitress, Oguma constructs a meal that includes uncommon offerings and techniques, like crab brains brushed onto rice or marinated yellowtail belly hiding under pickled cherry blossom leaves. The knife cuts on a piece of squid are so delicate the often chewy flesh is rendered velvet-soft.
7. Louro, belly goat burger
It’s a cruel injustice that David Santos only offers this barnyard burger at brunch. For our money, this thing is a game-changer. The chef hard-sears freshly ground goat patties (the mythical 80/20 ratio of, in this case, goat meat and beef fat) and tops them with crisp slabs of pork belly, a mixture of aged and fresh goat cheeses and pickled red onions. The bun comes toasted; the top coated in sweet tomato marmalade, the bottom soaked through with meat juices but still holding together.
6. Mission Chinese Food, chilled tsukemen
Before Danny Bowien’s Orchard Street hotspot succumbed to DOH closures and a massive structural overhaul that’s currently underway, it was a pleasure to see the kitchen branching out in whimsical directions, like this tsukemen special. A tangle of springy noodles sat beneath the surface of glistening, smoky bacon consommé; a nest of trout roe escabeche cradled salmon roe and tongues of sea urchin.
5a. Estela, panna cotta
Even with a bevy of stellar savory dishes, Estela’s deceptively simple panna cotta is a standout. Ex-Blue Hill pastry chef Alex Grunert, who consulted on the dessert menu, improves the creamy gelatin dessert with a sticky pool of honey, sweet muscat vinegar, flecks of bee pollen, and a dusting of salt. It’s the vinegar that really sets off fireworks, cutting through the pudding with a musky, tangy sweetness.
5b. Ricotta dumplings, Estela
Shielded by slivers of raw white mushrooms, ethereal gnudi nestled in an onion-rich sauce exhibit muted sharpness thanks to the Sardinian sheep’s milk cheese Fiore sardo. Fanned out like scales around the plate, the mushroom’s earthiness blossoms and tempers the onions and salty, tangy cheese.
4. Larb Ubol, pla dook pad ped
River fish feature heavily in the Isaan diet, and Larb Ubol’s pla dook pad ped, a lacquered stir-fried catfish dish radiating with spicy curry paste and herbaceous fresh green peppercorns, has us contemplating trying our hand (literally) at noodling (which, for the uninitiated, is a fishing technique that involves sticking your hand inside the fish’s mouth). Cooking renders the burnished hunks of bone-in fish crisp and tender all at once; the bones brittle enough to chew through.
3. Blue Hill at Stone Barns, Chicharrones with dipping sauces
As part of the spring menu at this agricultural Shangri-La, chicharrones made from the skin of berkshire hogs raised on-site were served in typical Mexican fashion with dipping sauces. This being Dan Barber’s outfit, however, the sauces in question came in flavors like sauerkraut, paprika, carrot-mustard, and phytoplankton.
2. Contra, leg of lamb
At Jeremiah Stone and Fabian von Hauske’s progressive Lower East Side restaurant, a plate of lamb leg utilized peppery black radish, earthy turnips, and rich lamb jus to amplify the meat’s sweet gaminess. Still, it was the obsidian dollop of squid ink and charred eggplant puree that gave us pause, its depth as bottomless as the waters where tentacled creatures tend to dwell. Pity then that it’s anyone’s guess as to when it might show up on the menu again thanks to Contra’s daily-changing menu.
1. Atera, peekytoe crab raviolo
Matthew Lightner’s provocative tasting menu clocks in at an extensive 25+ courses, each one a study in seasonality and technique. Of the many tastes experienced during the chef’s focused procession, an alluring toasted grain dashi has stayed with us most prominently. The big fish in this tiny cup-shaped pond is a raviolo stuffed with crab mixed with lobster sabayon. A layer of yuba (an opaque sheet of tofu skin) acts as the wrapper and shrimp oil adds unctuous brine. The melding of deep, earthy stock with sweet seafood is remarkable.