The Village Voice searched the five boroughs to find the best of breakfast, lunch, dinner, and everything in between. And here they are: the ten dishes you’ll want to put on your must-eat list this year. Before you know it, you’ll revisit these New York City gems over and over again, savoring each and every bite.
We shared our first ninety favorite dishes in no particular order, but these shining top ten have won their hard-earned spots thanks to their innovation, attention to culinary detail, and (of course) taste.
10. Bar Goto’s Okonomiyaki
After nearly a decade entertaining thirsty patrons at some of the city’s swankiest and most esteemed watering holes, barman Kenta Goto has finally struck out on his own. Years in the making, Bar Goto (245 Eldridge Street, 212-475-4411) showcases its owner’s talents with a selection of expressive and elegant cocktails. He infuses vodka with mushrooms for bloody marys and riffs on the Tom Collins using Calpico, a Japanese milk soda. Chef Kiyo Shinoki oversees the food menu, delivering lighter fare like yuzu-pepper pickles and celery treated with seaweed and sesame, as well as more recognizable bar fare including burdock-root fries and miso-hot-sauce chicken wings.
Chief among the kitchen’s offerings are Shinoki’s okonomiyaki, savory Japanese pancakes made with grated yam and cabbage and delivered in rectangular cast-iron skillets. The five highbrow flapjacks served here come in winning combinations like mushrooms and leeks and chicken and pork belly. And while you can indulge in classic Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki, griddled with a layer of yakisoba noodles in the batter (along with a satisfying mix of pork belly and rock shrimp), don’t miss out on the “Fisherman” and “Grilled Cheese” versions. The former adds an oceanic feast of octopus, calamari, and shrimp, while the latter melts together cheddar, parmesan, and gruyère with lush, piquant sun-dried tomatoes.
Every pancake gets doused in Kewpie mayonnaise and tangy Worcestershire-like okonomiyaki sauce and arrives with bowls of shaved bonito flakes and diced pickles meant for scattering across the top. It all amounts to some of the city’s most refined bar food and best drunk munchies, the pancakes simultaneously crisp, fluffy, and dense with hearty flavors.
9. Peasant’s Risotto
Frank DeCarlo built his kitchen with his bare hands and his wood-fired ovens brick by brick. At Peasant (194 Elizabeth Street; 212-965-9511), his rustic Nolita restaurant going fifteen years strong, the seasoned chef and a small crew cook a lineup of traditional — and, in many cases, ancient — Italian recipes learned through his time spent cooking throughout the country. From his roiling furnace and rotisserie, he produces thin-crust pizzas topped with spicy peppers and chile-spiked salami and lasagnas layered with tomato-braised goat or shredded rabbit and béchamel, while his burners are reserved for classics like risottos served in wide, shallow dishes.
Accoutrements for the wondrously soupy and creamy grains change seasonally. Sometimes they hold porcini mushrooms, sometimes asparagus; sometimes peas and shrimp. Our favorite version is DeCarlo’s squid ink risotto, the black rice dotted with plump whole cuttlefish. Red and yellow cherry tomatoes, basil, and edible flowers add pops of color and bright, fresh flavor to the dish’s earthy richness. Peasant’s wood-fired items, like head-on squab and crisp-skinned suckling pigs with potatoes simmered in milk, are arguably its biggest draw, but the risottos — offered in portions large enough to share — illustrate why the restaurant hasn’t missed a step.
8. Empellon Cocina’s Cucumbers
For the past four years, pastry chef turned Mexican-cooking savant Alex Stupak has wowed diners with his creative take on this complex cuisine, delving deep and playing with flavors, techniques, and textures both familiar and unconventional. At Empellon Cocina (105 First Avenue; 212-780-0999), the most formal and experimental of his three establishments, he’s tinkered with his dining-room menu numerous times and even installed a chef’s counter in the back of the restaurant that entertains four select guests with a procession of ingenious bites served in two seatings.
If you can’t snag a reservation for the wild ride taking place in back, several dishes on Cocina’s main menu offer similarly evocative highs. One such plate is Stupak’s surreptitiously intricate jumble of cucumbers. Sitting in a puddle of black-cumin-spiked buttermilk, the raw and pickled cucumbers chill out under a dusting of lemon ice squirted with lime-basil oil (referencing the Mexican snow cones known as respados). The refreshing, sour granita, tangy and spicy dairy, and gently sweet vegetables conspire to generate a composition that feels far more nuanced and luxurious than cucumbers have any right to be — yet it’s something that would also feel right at home alongside a michelada.
7. La Vara’s Gurullos
Jewish- and Moorish-influenced Spanish flavors pervade at La Vara (268 Clinton Street, Brooklyn; 718-422-0065), Alex Raij and Eder Montero’s spot located along a sleepy residential Brooklyn street. Whether seated alongside exposed brick or beneath the massive tree that juts into the tiny outdoor seating area, diners enjoy the couple’s evocative and often hearty plates, like cumin-spiced half-chicken and bricks of shredded lamb served with scallions. But we were also delighted to find out that Spain has a pasta tradition.
Hailing from the southeastern city of Murcia, gurullos are airy and hand-rolled stubby semolina noodles poached in milk. Sometimes flavored with saffron, the pasta is, at La Vara, drenched in grassy goat butter and seasoned with bright, lemony sumac. For an extra barnyardy taste, you can (and should) get this primo pasta with the addition of ground goat meat — the animal’s usual gaminess is only hinted at, while its richness and texture bolster the rest of the ingredients on the plate.
6. Gui Lin Mi Fen’s Noodle Soups
Flushing overflows with all kinds of no-holds-barred dining experiences boasting ample (and occasionally too much) spice and gluttony. Which is why the neighborhood’s blessed to have a place like Gui Lin Mi Fen (135-25 40th Road, Queens; 718-939-2025) situated off the vibrant community’s main thoroughfare, where diners can indulge in a slow-cooked regional delicacy with a subtle approach to complexity.
The specialty here, springy and thin mi fen rice noodles floating in soup, arrives at the table deconstructed — but it’s no modernist touch. Hailing from Guilin, a city in southern China, the dish presents starch and soup separately in deep bowls. Sip the pristine stock, a cloudy and only slightly oleaginous elixir made from chicken, pork, and beef bones simmered for twelve hours. Don’t forget the noodles in the other bowl. They sit in pungent soy marinade and come topped with simply prepared meats like fresh-killed poached chicken, thinly sliced brisket, and deep-fried pork belly. After you’ve tasted each separately, combine them into one seriously fortifying soup. Smoked pork makes a compelling accoutrement, its streaks of fat melting into the elixir, and the vegetarian “Good Friends” version plays nice with peppery bamboo shoots, mushrooms, pickled green beans, cilantro, scallions, and roasted soy nuts.
5. Coney Shack’s Hainan Chicken Burrito
“Fusion” is still a four-letter word in many kitchens, but after a visit to affable street-vending newcomer Coney Shack (2875 West 8th Street, Brooklyn), you’re likely to utter a few oaths of your own. At Lawrence Mach’s Coney Island cart and roving food truck (spotted in midtown and the financial district), the kitchens churn out sizzling Southeast Asian takes on popular American snack foods.
We can’t argue with messy double-animal hot dogs, which throw everything from garlic-lemongrass grilled chicken to garlic-glazed pork and even beer-battered fish atop snappy beef frankfurters. Sans tube steak, all three are available as tacos or quesadillas (sweet-sticky Vietnamese caramelized pork is our favorite). Then there’s Mach’s Hainan burrito, an ode to Malaysian and Singaporean Hainanese chicken over rice. To make it, he layers zippy ginger-scallion sauce with grilled chicken and jasmine rice. The flavor-packed condiment adds an electric-green vein of oily savor throughout the multicultural gut-bomb that soaks into the soft grains, bolstered by bright pico de gallo, chile oil, spicy mayonnaise, and chopped pickled long pepper.
4. Safari’s Hilib Ari
Maymuuna Birjeeb’s Harlem restaurant Safari (219 West 116th Street; 646-964-4252), the first to bring Somali cuisine to New York City, delights diners with its globally influenced flavors. Birjeeb and her crew serve up aromatic plates of pasta and broiled fish ladled with Italian-influenced, alfredo-like “Fantastic” sauce, as well as goat so supple the plate arrives with the meat already sliding off the bone.
Called hilib ari on the menu, the animal has been roasted for six hours until its exterior attains some char. Seasoned generously with coriander and cumin, the sweet meat retains little trace of the barnyard. The kitchen stirs the goat with onions and bell peppers before plating with rice pilaf stained yellow with turmeric. You’ll want plenty of basbaas, a Somali hot sauce that gets its bite from cilantro, lime, jalapeños, and yogurt.
3. The Ron Darling Pizza at GG’s
A lifelong Mets fan, Hellen has produced a few yeasty sonnets in honor of his favorite baseball team. One such combination is a round number named after Hawaiian-born Ron Darling, former Mets pitcher and current MLB announcer. Recalling the island state’s infamous fruit-and-meat pizza, the kitchen dots a layer of mozzarella with pickled pineapple and extra-smoky ham, and in another refreshing twist, Hellen squirts curlicues of al pastor marinade over the top (a nod to the Mexican pork-and-pineapple combo). Fruity and fiery guajillo chiles in the sauce lend an unexpected and incredibly satisfying punch.
2. Kurumazushi’s Lunch Specials
Climbing the stairs to Kurumazushi (7 East 47th Street; 212-317-2802), Toshihiro Uezu’s unassuming maguro mecca on the second floor of a midtown low-rise, you might understandably get cold feet. After all, this is the same 69-year-old itamae who has been slicing traditional edomae sushi since 1977, and whose dinnertime omakase starts at $300.
But breathe easy — you’ve come for lunch, when a platter of ten pieces of glistening nigiri (plus a roll, usually tuna) can be yours for $35 or $60, depending on the rarity of the cuts desired. You’re likely to encounter tuna, yellowtail, chopped crab, and a slab of sweet, creamy tamago egg. Uezu, whose lightly vinegared rice supports generous portions of fish, also smokes salmon in-house, giving the fatty fish a wonderfully faint woodsy aroma.
1. Mekelburg’s Baked Potatoes
“How the hell do you make a baked potato unforgettable?” is not a question most people are dying to answer, but at Mekelburg’s (293 Grand Avenue, Brooklyn; 718-399-2337), a subterranean grocery and restaurant in Clinton Hill, the kitchen delivers two salt-roasted, irrefutable answers.
One holds a puddle of melted raclette and is otherwise stacked with sour cream, pickled peppers, and a slab of crisp, deeply smoky pork belly; the other contains an appetizing counter’s worth of hot-smoked sable, the buttery fish mingling with crème fraîche and caviar. Hulking and affordable (at $8 and $10, respectively), both esteemed tubers prove that elevated comfort food doesn’t have to feel cliché.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on October 27, 2015