In a dining climate as exhilaratingly precarious as New York City’s, restaurants live and die by their ability to stand out in such a massively competitive market. Here are the openings that held our attention the most this year.
10. Superiority Burger (430 East 9th Street, 212-256-1192)
Punk-rock drummer and erstwhile pastry pro Brooks Headley didn’t miss a beat opening this vegan and vegetarian fast-food joint that’s short on space but unbridled in its creativity. The $6 signature sandwich – a petite seared puck of nuts, beans, and quinoa covered in melted muenster, roasted tomatoes, iceberg lettuce, honey mustard, and pickles – merits a try, but don’t miss out on Headley’s jazzed-up specials. Mock-Philly cheesesteak shames the beefy original with a stack of floppy yuba (tofu skin). Soups and sides mash-up market vegetables with a thrilling, casual playfulness, and desserts belie the chef’s pedigree with peerless soft serve in flavors like hibiscus-yogurt and toasted burger-bun. We only hope that Headley considers expanding to a location with more seating.
9. Oiji (119 First Avenue, 646-767-9050)
With time spent at Bouley and Gramercy Tavern respectively, Brian Kim and Tae Kyung Ku give Korean home-cooking a meticulous contemporary facelift at their sleek East Village canteen. You’ve never seen a prettier yukhoe, the chopped beef arranged into a plank dotted with ramp aioli, pickled mustard seeds, Asian pear, pickled cantaloupe, and a runny slow-cooked egg yolk. And mackerel hot-smoked over pine needles arrives with its own pine-needle brush for slathering on citrusy soy sauce. Even with painstaking care taken in the kitchen, Oiji tends to get boisterous during primetime – though that could just be the free-flowing soju.
8. Trini-Gyul (112-16 Liberty Avenue, Queens; 718-659-1020)
Although Ro Ramcharan was forced to relocate her Trinidadian restaurant from Bed-Stuy to Queens earlier this year, the new digs thankfully came with a boozy silver lining (a liquor license and bar area). In the morning, there are doubles — fried dough stuffed with stewed chickpeas and piquant chutneys. Show up during the day and delight from a staggering array of Caribbean staples occupying the steam tables in back, or hit up the lively, bare bones tavern after 9 p.m. – that’s when the former Carroll Gardens nanny busts out seriously flavorful bar snacks like jerk wings, shrimp wontons, and chicken glazed in peppery cassava molasses. On any given night, there might be cricket on the TV or live music blaring through the boxy dining room, and if you’re lucky, Ramcharan will emerge from the kitchen to school you and the rest of her customers on how to properly bust a move.
7. Wassail (162 Orchard Street, 646-918-6835)
Of the many vegetable-focused restaurants to open in the past few years, Wassail – from Queens Kickshaw owners Jennifer Lim and Ben Sandler – might be the most convivial. Whether that’s because of the bar’s many taps and 100+ cider options or chef Joseph Buenconsejo’s unlikely and charming vegetarian menu is anyone’s guess. All we know is we’ll gleefully show up during happy hour or brunch for the toniest, heftiest veggie burger we’ve ever encountered and fizzy pours from limited-edition kegs and carboys. Pastry whiz Rebecca Eichenbaum embraces sweet-savory combinations in her modernist desserts, mixing beets and buttermilk for a sherbet to pair with fudgy chocolate.
6. Bruno (204 East 13th Street, 212-598-3080)
In a city that loyally champions no-bullshit pizzerias both old and new, a place like Bruno – with its criminally unforgiving seating and starkly bright lighting – was bound to polarize both enthusiasts and the slice-eating public at large. But while you risk numbing your ass when eating here, we’d argue that it’s your icy heart that’s truly numb if you’re unable to find inspiration in Justin Slojkowski and Dave Gulino’s experimental pies. The chefs at the helm of this progressive pie parlor mill the dark, nutty flour for their ambitious pizzas and pastas, and complement their carbs with a menu of devotionally seasonal small plates. As the kitchen tinkers with the dough and learns the ins and outs of their wood-fired oven, Bruno’s fascinating rounds (lamb coppa with béchamel and sheep’s milk cheese; country ham and winter squash) have only improved.
5. Wildair (142 Orchard Street, 646-964-5624)
Chefs Fabian von Hauske and Jeremiah Stone have always cooked with fastidiousness while keeping things laid back in the dining room – first at their progressive neo-bistro Contra, which opened in 2013, and now at Wildair, the wine bar they opened a few doors down from their flagship restaurant this summer. Graze on shareable small plates, like peerless fried squid with ink aioli for dipping or black bass crudo done up al pastor-style with pineapple and ‘nduja vinaigrette, or split a blowout, $85 wagyu steak. However you use the menu, you’ll easily find something interesting to sip thanks to Jorge Riera and the many natural wines that populate his list.
4. Faro (436 Jefferson Street, Brooklyn; 718-381-8201)
Chef Kevin Adey opened this spacious, Italian-inflected New American restaurant with his wife Debbie in a former MoMA storage facility last spring. Adey mills his own grains, turning them into breathtaking pastas and porridges, like vivid green spinach gnocchetti with mushrooms, foie gras butter, and popped sorghum. The chef and his small kitchen staff also make ample use of the restaurant’s wood-fired oven, roasting hulking cuts of meat and greenmarket vegetable specials. Despite the looming, colorful graffiti murals spray painted onto restaurant’s surrounding buildings, Faro’s affable, attentive service (props to Debbie’s Jean-Georges training) is wonderfully, refreshingly anti-Brooklyn.
3. Chiang Mai (293 Van Brunt Street, Brooklyn; 646-858-5185)
From a pop-up restaurant inside Red Hook’s Home/Made, Kanlaya Supachana and Sirichai Sreparplarn cook uninhibited northern Thai food matched with what is easily the best beer and cider list of any Thai restaurant in the five boroughs (looking at you, Etienne Dupont Cidre Bouché Brut de Normandie on tap). The duo’s silken coconut milk based curry soup, khao soy, remains a worthy signature dish, but kudos go to the whole crew here for embracing spice and not shying away from pig parts. Chiang Mai offers a multitude: from shoulder to ears, belly, skin, and even blood.
2. Mekelburg’s (293 Grand Avenue, Brooklyn; 718-399-2337)
People get up to some depraved things in basements, but we’re certain none are as delicious – or satisfying – as Daniel and Alicia Mekelburg’s subterranean grocery and restaurant. Make your way past aisles of specialty foods to the bar and dining room in back, where chalkboard menus tempt with the promise of earth-shattering baked potatoes and mountains of thinly shaved porchetta piled into sesame seed rolls. Place your order at the bar and peruse the sixteen available beers and ciders on draft, which rotate whenever a keg kicks. By that same measure, cocktails are ordered by name rather than from a list. Arrive before 11 a.m. and spend some quality time with the Mek-muffin, a breakfast sandwich with gravitas that tops chive and crème fraiche omelets with arugula, slab bacon, melted cheddar, and the same southeast Asian sambal the Mekelburgs use for broiling oysters at night.
1. Gabriel Kreuther (41 West 42nd Street, 212-257-5826)
The setup might be familiar (a la carte in the lounge area, prix-fixe in the main dining room) if you dined at the Modern under his tenure, but Gabriel Kreuther hit the ground running this year with his stylish and opulent namesake Midtown retreat set within the ground floor of the W.R. Grace building across from Bryant Park. It marks a triumphant return for one of our city’s most treasured European chefs. From deep within an elegant and airy space decorated with wood beams and stork motifs, Kreuther oversees the execution of some 40 dishes between his two menus. Bookended by a procession of amuses, bread courses, and petits fours, the standard $115 four-course dinner feels like actual value for the Benjamins you’ll throw down — especially when paired with pastry chef Marc Aumont’s stunning desserts and beverage suggestions from sommelier Emilie Perrier. This is Kreuther, having finally struck out on his own, realizing his dreams. After eating there, you’re likely to have some nice ones of your own. Whether tucking into tartes flambees and hearty plates of tripe gratin in the glossy lounge or settling in for the multicourse main event among couch-like banquettes and handbag stands, Kreuther’s team provides a seamless experience to match the chef’s artistry on the plate.