2013 will go in the culinary books as the year of the Cronut, of Isaan fare, of dialed up Asian flavors, of one-item fast casual restaurant concepts, and of a return to vegetables — the pork era, it seems, finally came to a close. I averaged two meals out per day in this city as I chased down stories, and I had a few really stellar bites. None as good as those I’ve listed here, though. These are my 10 best meals of 2013.
10. Bhojan, 102 Lexington Avenue, 212-213-9615
Bhojan started as a Seamless staple for me and morphed into a permanent fixture in my restaurant rotation. The place retired the gujarati dumplings — my very favorite dish on the menu — but I took solace in the daal, pumpkin sabji, and malai kofta. Order a thali if you want to taste an array. Oh, and this spot is totally vegetarian — but it’s possible you won’t notice that even if you’re a carnivore.
9. Peter Pan Bakery, 727 Manhattan Avenue, Brooklyn, 718-389-3676
My birthday present to myself this year was a solitary lunch at the Peter Pan Bakery counter, where I ate a couple of donuts while I did the crossword (and pondered comparing answers with the guy sitting across from me doing the same thing). I’m into the fancy rounds that line the shelves at spots like Dough and Dough Loco, but the donuts here are like the Platonic versions of the old-fashioned pastries I grew up with. I’m especially partial to the white cream, a powdered sugar-coated pouch packed dense with fluffy pastry cream.
8. Charlie Bird, 5 King Street, 212-235-7133
Of all the restaurants that opened this year, none wooed me back so regularly as Charlie Bird, a spot I found myself suggesting for everything from special occasion feasts to a casual after-work glass of wine and a snack. I learned quickly to order the scallops on each visit and to let the wine team control my vinous fate. And I frequently forced my table to order every pasta on the menu.
7. Fritzl’s Lunch Box, 173 Irving Avenue, Brooklyn, 929-210-9531
It’s possible that Fork in the Road has rhapsodized about the Fritzl’s burger more than any other dish in the last 12 months, and I still feel like we’re underselling it. This drippy patty draped with cheese, pickles, and special sauce is like the TV commercial version of the American classic — only you actually get to eat this perfect thing instead of stare at it longingly and then be disappointed when the real-life version doesn’t live up. It’s best on the light-strung back patio paired with a couple of side dishes and a beer.
6. Katja, 79 Orchard Street, 212-219-9545
This is a spot I find myself frequently — mostly because I love the convivial vibe of the twice-expanded dining room and the fact that the owners will chat you up like friends even if they’ve never met you in their lives. I almost always order the same thing: the tart red cabbage salad; a soft, warm pretzel; and the sausage sampler, loaded with dumplings and sauerkraut in addition to all that pork. Best to share that last one and wash it all down with a stein of Stiegl.
5. Roving Flushing Feasts
I spent more than one Saturday wandering around Flushing and eating myself into a world of hurt — and it was worth the agony every time. My favorite stops: the beer garden-like patio in back of Biang!, where I feasted on lotus root salad and mouth-numbing noodles, and White Bear, a take-out counter turning out wontons hit with face-melting pepper.
4. Taqueria Lower East Side, 198 Orchard Street, 212-677-3910
When I interview chefs, I always ask them to tell me the best place to be when you have no where to be at all. Taqueria Lower East Side is my answer to that question. Over the last year, it’s likely that I’ve stuffed my face with a whole hog’s worth of juice-drooling carnitas, eaten cases worth of avocados in the form of guacamole, and consumed enough citrus to ward off scurvy for the rest of my life via the margaritas.
3. Bunker, 43-63 Metropolitan Avenue, Queens, 718-386-4282
If I had to eat one cuisine forever, Vietnamese would likely be a top three contender — but I’ve found most of the NYC restaurants turning out this fare are sorely lacking. So it was a treat to sit down at Bunker, even if it meant riding my bike across a terrifying stretch of Metropolitan Avenue in the dark (kind of the only way to get to this place, unless you’re willing to take the train to the bus) and then queuing for a couple of hours with a brown bagged bottle of God-knows-what procured from nearby Western Beef. Thanks to the fragrant pho ga, the myriad versions of banh mi, and the cha ca la vong — a dill-spiked fish dish that holds a special place in my heart — it’s a journey I’d make again and again.
2. Balaboosta, 214 Mulberry Street, 212-966-7366
Middle Eastern fare has defined a few great restaurants over the last couple of years, but I hope that 2014 brings an explosion of spots dealing in these fresh flavors that rivals the glut of southeast Asian spots. Especially if some of them turn out as good as Balaboosta, where I recently had crispy cauliflower brightened with lemon, cardamom-imbued papardelle studded with sun-dried tomatoes, and a fork-tender lamb shank enriched with deep caramel-y jus.
1. Glasserie, 95 Commercial Street, 718-389-0640
And speaking of the uptick in Middle Eastern restaurants…I trekked to Greenpoint dozens of times this year, and I had enough good meals to convince me that some neighborhoods make the G train worth the trouble. Glasserie, though, stands out, in part because it feels like it really filled a void in the dining scene here. Shared plates may not be novel, but done this way — with small bites leading into entrees — they feel fresh. Maybe that’s the flavors, though: pistachios with kaffir lime leaf, cauliflower with lemon yogurt, and sweet potato dumplings with hen of the woods mushrooms and cranberries cull from a canon that feels vastly underserved.