The 20 Best Things Our Food Critic Ate in 2014


This week’s column is a run-through of personal observations and highlights from a year in which the limits of my diet were stretched as much as the elastic waistband on my dungarees. Of all the things carried by hand, fork, spoon, or knife (I eat dangerously), these were the most memorable foodstuffs that entered this discerning gullet.

20. Sticky toffee walnut fig cake, Mountain Bird (closed)
This French-Japanese bistro was a strong contender for the year’s most charming restaurant, but ultimately it succumbed to an alleged landlord dispute. While Kenichi Tajima’s food skewed more homey than progressive, the chef and his wife took an admirable risk opening their restaurant away from the most gratuitously gentrified parts of Harlem. For every whiz-bang dessert I encountered this year, few sweet endings left me as satisfied as a diminutive slice of Tajima’s sticky toffee cake studded with walnuts and layered with dense fig cream. Let us also mourn the loss of one of the city’s best breads (even if you did have to pay for it), a dark and malty baguette with the cutest miniature ceramic tureen of vanilla bean butter.

19. Smoked trout sandwich, Black Seed Bagels (170 Elizabeth Street, 212-730-1950)
Biased though I am (as a dual citizen of the U.S. and Canada), Black Seed’s bagels lived up to the hype, and gave the city something original. And now that the crowds have died down, there’s less pressure to figure out your favorite upscale bagel sandwich. Try a signature combination, or create one of your own. Thick hunks of smoked rainbow trout, a native New York fish, are paired with vividly pink and salty tobiko cream cheese, dyed with with flying-fish roe. Sprouts and cucumber take off the fatty edge. All of the shop’s bagels get the same honey water boil, but I have a special place in my heart for the nutty sesame variety, whose seeds are browned and fragrant from Black Seed’s wood-burning oven.

18. Bucatini all’amatriciana, Sole di Capri (165 Church Street, 212-513-1113)
Chef Eddy Erazo cooks impressive, straightforward southern-leaning Italian food from a bus stop–sized kitchen at this Tribeca mainstay that gets slammed during lunch. News flash: The food’s just as good at dinner. You should make time in your schedule, day or night, for a plate of this classic bucatini all’amatriciana, whose fragrant and thick sauce coats tangles of pasta with a Tinseltown-worthy embrace.

17. Braised lamb neck with creamy oats, The Gorbals (98 North 6th Street, Brooklyn; 718-387-0195)
Hidden within an Urban Outfitters concept store, Ilan Hall’s Williamsburg restaurant, sibling to his Los Angeles culinary fun house of the same name, is a strange and ephemeral place, a made-for-TV purgatory for the lost souls consuming faux-hip culture from an ultra-conservative billionaire. And yet I’d consider taking a knee for this funky, homey mass of molten lamb neck over creamed oats. A dish this soulful deserves a more intimate stage. With any luck, we’ll get a neighborhood spot out of Hall now that he’s moved back to Kings County with family in tow.

16. Corn pancakes, Pacifico’s Fine Foods (798 Franklin Avenue, Brooklyn; 917-966-2670)
Shanna Pacifico stepped out from under Peter Hoffman’s shadow this year to open Pacifico’s Fine Foods, a cheery Crown Heights canteen doling out Latin-influenced New American cuisine. On a brunch trip over the summer, I flipped for cornmeal flapjacks studded with fresh corn kernels. The maize infusion brought Japanese okonomiyaki or Thai corn fritters to mind, and a pour of bourbon-spiked maple syrup and thick-cut bacon rendered me speechless. Props to a stunt (looking at you, bacon-shrimp garnish, fried together in unholy matrimony) bloody mary that actually delivers with a balanced horseradish spice.

15. Calamari bocadillo, Huertas (107 First Avenue, 212-228-4490)
Yes, the migas are a must-order at Jonah Miller’s Basque restaurant, and you should do so either up front at the pintxos bar or as part of the back room’s $55 prix fixe. I’d enjoyed my fair share of ciders and vermouth that evening, but I couldn’t get the murky, mysterious flavors of the bar’s fried squid bocadillo, slicked with dark ink aioli, out of my mind. Oh, and the $1 pintxos on Tuesdays are one of the best specials in town.

14. Halva crème brûlée, Bar Bolonat (611 Hudson Street, 212-390-1545)
While portion size had me miffed at an initial traipse through Einat Admony’s boisterous West Village hotspot, I fully succumbed to the toasty richness of this halva crème brûlée. It’s replaced the late Savoy’s wood-fired effort as my favorite version of the often tired dessert.

13. Fedora burger, Bar Sardine (183 West 10th Street, 646-360-3705)
If this was a year of redos and rebirths, the Wisco fellas — Gabe Stulman and Brian Bartels (along with chef Mehdi Brunet-Benkritly) — absolutely killed it with their conceptual pivot from quirky Chez Sardine to manchild cave (in the best possible way) Bar Sardine, a close-quartered nightspot with imaginative drinks and fun bar food with a tremendous burger as its anchor. LaFrieda beef hardly gets my blood pumping anymore, but the robust celebrity meat blend (short rib and brisket) still shines under a flavorful cloak of smoked cheddar and crunchy shoestring potatoes. Raw red onions and pickles add welcome sharpness, but the burger’s barbecue mayonnaise is the most euphoric surprise — a smoky, sweet, unctuous special sauce deserving of the superlative, which enhances the beef rather than hiding it. Served on a soft potato roll, it’s a formidable $10 ground meat sandwich. Sadly, fries are sold separately.

12. Lebanese stonecress salad, Casa del Chef (39-06 64th Street, Queens; 718-457-9000)
Ecuadorian chef Alfonso Zhicay admits that one of his favorite parts of his job is introducing new vegetables to people, and that’s exactly what he did to me at his humble Woodside bistro. That soigné arrangement of shrubbery contains Lebanese stonecress, an edible plant that tastes like a citrusy cucumber. It’s tossed with radish, raw slivers of Jerusalem artichoke, and toasted pine nuts. After I’d eaten it, Zhicay told me about his 14-year history with farm and garden guru Dan Barber — which now makes perfect sense.

11. Arroz Negro, El Colmado (600 Eleventh Avenue, 212-582-7948)
Seamus Mullen’s tapas bar inside the sprawling Gotham West Market offers cider and sherry on tap and a host of smart, fun tapas and small plates. The one that’s stuck with me most is the chef’s update of classic Catalan arroz negro. There’s the traditional cuttlefish and squid ink, but Mullen’s version adds creamy tongues of sea urchin and cubes of avocado for further richness. While the uni-on-everything trend needs to die, when chefs get it right, the velvety gonads sing.

10. Caramel crunch sundae, Hamilton’s Luncheonette (51 Bank Street, 212-661-1515)
Although this West Village retro diner served me a bizarre sham of a Rachel sandwich (turkey Reuben, as it were), all was forgiven after numbing my sweet tooth on the nostalgic desserts made with Jane’s ice cream, a Hudson Valley outfit that provides Hamilton’s with its luxurious, balanced frozen dairy. Slightly chewy rather than palate-coating, it worked wonders in a “caramel crunch” sundae, in which smooth vanilla ice cream takes a burnt-sugar beating from caramel sauce, soft caramel wafers, and malty grape nuts.

9. Prime rib, Cherche Midi (282 Bowery, 212-226-3055)
Whatever your thoughts on Cherche Midi’s occasional “tortured ghost of Balthazar” vibe, the handsomely outfitted brasserie serves a truly unforgettable slab of beef, rippled and capped with melting fat. Chefs Shane McBride and Daniel Parilla throw in zippy cider vinegar–braised onions, airy and crisp pommes soufflées, and a palate-cleansing salad for good measure. There’s room for improvement, but Cherche Midi was the right move away from sluggish Pulino’s.

8. Sea snail soup, Sushi Dojo (110 First Avenue, 646-692-9398)
Although David Bouhadana’s enthusiast raw seafood is the real draw at this chill sushi parlor, a bowl of deeply nuanced broth containing chewy sea snail served in the animal’s shell took me by surprise.

7. Sweetbreads, cucumber-lychee, tonic, fermented black bean at wd~50 (closed)
On one of my final visits to Wylie Dufresne’s pioneering Lower East Side laboratory, I indulged in what used to be one of the best fine-dining deals in town: $25 for two courses at the bar, selected from either the main tasting or the restaurant’s “vault menu,” featuring vintage recipes from throughout the restaurant’s history. It was such an amazingly affordable way to experience Dufresne’s cooking without diving in headfirst for the $155 fourteen-course extravaganza. This plate of pitch-perfect sweetbreads paired with cucumber-lychee gelée and fermented black bean cake felt like the progressive master at his finest.

6. Arctic char and its roe, raw foie gras, cream & brown butter at Box Kite (115 St. Marks Place, 212-574-8201)
Box Kite, a cubbyhole of a restaurant run out of an East Village coffee shop, delivered some of the brightest flavors of the year. Unfortunately, chefs Justin Slojkowski and Dave Gulino left for a new venture shortly after charming the public. The coffee shop remains a boundary-pushing culinary salon, but I’ll only have memories of this dish of nearly raw arctic char served with a crown of its own roe. The fatty fish was laid next to tender slips of raw foie gras and zapped with a broken sauce of cream and brown butter. It was a surf-and-turf pairing fit for Poseidon himself.

5. Ssambap, Myung San (162-21 Depot Road, Queens; 718-888-1245)
Auburndale matriarch Gap Soon Cho cooks a lengthy roster of soups, stews, grilled meats (including pork belly on a gas stove), and stir-fries at this destination for Korean home cooking that’s accessible via the Long Island Rail Road. And although beloved for its cheonggukjang, a uniquely assertive stew that some say smells like rotting corpses, Cho aces familiar fare like a generous ssambap spread of pork belly cooked in gochujang, a fermented chile paste that adds heat and depth. As an added treat, the owner herself grows many of the vegetables meant for wrapping your pig.

4. Smoked trout chowder, Russ & Daughters Café (127 Orchard Street, 212-475-4881)
The café that herring constructed is one pretty monument to downtown New York. And while a platter of smoked fish or a carob egg cream offers distinct Jewish-American dining pleasures, it’s the smoked whitefish chowder that’s been keeping me warmest when temperatures drop. Espelette pepper and dill turn what would otherwise be just a very good cream-based fish chowder into a layered and developed bowl of comfort, the whitefish adding an undercurrent of smoke that’s perfected a balance of fishy and creamy elements as the appetizing shop’s famed Heebster sandwich.

3. Chili crab, Pasar Malam (208 Grand Street, Brooklyn; 718-487-4576)
The soft-shell chili crab at this fun Williamsburg Malaysian restaurant doesn’t pull punches on spice. Once you’ve devoured the entire crustacean (the reason chef Salil Mehta chooses soft-shell crabs over traditional mud crabs), finish lapping up the vibrant sauce with a choice of steamed or fried buns.

2. Jerk Pork, Glady’s (788 Franklin Avenue, Brooklyn; 718-622-0249)
Yes, a white American man who used to work at Per Se serves the best jerk I’ve ever tasted, a fact that somewhat confounds and depresses me during my darkest nighttime contemplations. The imported Jamaican lumber and deft spice blend imbues chicken, lobster, and pork with smoke and attitude. Shannon Mustipher’s list of sugarcane spirits and frozen cocktails can’t be beat, either.

1. Egg, Momofuku Ko (8 Extra Place, 212-203-8095)
Now in its spacious and jazzed-up confines on Extra Place, the new Momofuku Ko feels fresh and out for blood. Not so much in an aggressive, John McEnroe way (save that for Ssäm Bar), but in a suave and calculating manner, like a film-noir private dick. I was slain by an initial visit. Sean Gray and co.’s revision of the Ko egg especially hit home, a wonderful homage to the OG concept. If Stage Restaurant’s breakfast sandwich is my lowbrow standard for eggs, this gorgeous amoebic puddle takes top honors in the highbrow ovum category. Scrambled luxuriously soft, the fluffy hillock harmonizes with buttery onions and crispy potatoes (turned from fingerling chips into a fine crumble). Sweet-potato vinegar lurks underneath, offsetting the onslaught of decadence. As before, the eggs come with a plate of sourdough bread and radish butter that acts as a yeasty palate-cleanser.