Most college pals just get intoxicated together. Instead, chef Takatoshi Nagara and partner Takayuki Watanabe chose to huff the hours-long simmered broths at Mr. Taka (170 Allen Street, 212-254-1508), the ramen-ya they opened on the Lower East Side last month. Nagara has received accolades from Michelin for his restaurant Bigiya in Tokyo. He’s part of a new wave of ramen chefs experimenting with lighter broths that express a variety of flavors beyond the standard animal bone, salt, and soy soups favored by nostalgists.
Mr. Taka warrants a visit if only to try the kitchen’s chicken-based shoyu (soy) broths, including versions fortified with ginger and yuzu. Made with pale white soy, the bright and peppery elixirs are powerfully aromatic. Joyously, these ramens won’t weigh you down, though the bowls are plenty filling. However, the rich and creamy Tonkatsu ($14), with its cloudy pork broth and double dose of both belly and shredded shoulder meat, will likely best your appetite before you’ve even consumed half. Whichever style of ramen you choose, stick to the gorgeously fatty planks of pork belly rather than pedestrian slices of wan grilled chicken. Or zen-out with a vegetarian bowl — layered with tofu, zucchini, and avocado —that gets its creaminess from soy milk. Bring cash or you’ll be forced to take a stroll — there’s no ATM in the small, brightly lit storefront.
Last month also saw the opening of Combina (330 West Broadway, 212-226-1248) from Einat Admony of Taim, Balaboosta, and Bar Bolonat. Admony, who once worked under Bobby Flay, tapped Bolonat executive chef Molly Breidenthal to run the kitchen at this chic, colorful SoHo tapas restaurant. Together, they’ve fashioned a Spanish-Israeli menu that runs the gamut from straightforward items (patatas bravas, pickled mussels — albeit served with matzo) to more outlandish mash-ups like savory mini-doughnuts filled with salt cod and a genius Frankenstein rice recipe that melds Spain’s paella with Middle Eastern, lentil-studded mujadara. Studded with thick hunks of squid and served in the pan, the grains receive a crowning squirt of tzatziki and a scattering of cilantro for garnish. Sabich, the israeli pita sandwich of hardboiled eggs and fried eggplant, here takes a Mexican turn as a tostada slicked with aioli made from amba, a pickled mango condiment.
“We suggest around two to three plates per person,” a friendly server offers. Only three of them exceed $20, but some — like a hearty lamb duet that tops the menu at $32 — could easily qualify as entrees, even when sharing. (The lamb, for instance, yields two chops and a hunk of belly.) Cocktails ($15) feature on-target ingredients like saffron and preserved lemon brine, and the popcorn and nuts that Admony dusts with spice blends (the former with za’atar, the latter with baharat) make for excellent accompanying snacks. Another spice blend, hawaij, flavors scoops of ice cream for dessert.
And then there’s Michael Stillman, scion of TGI Friday’s founder Alan Stillman, who expanded his Quality empire (Quality Meats, Quality Italian) in mid-November with Quality Eats (19 Greenwich Avenue, 212-337-9988), his millennial-minded steakhouse banking on cheap cuts and the kitchen prowess of chef Ryan Bartlow, a Frankie’s Spuntino veteran. Bartlow serves plates of bavette ($19), coulotte ($23), and bone-in short rib ($25), and with the exception of the $29 filet mignon served over chicken liver mousse toast points and arugula, each beefy platter comes with watercress and a tiny ramekin of sweet corn creme brûlée.
The Quality crew cultivates a convivial tone, with dim lighting and classic rock and hip-hop on the stereo. The whole thing is very “Not Your Dad’s Steakhouse,” but the earnest staff and whimsical cooking feels genuine rather than contrived. While affordable meat is the draw, Bartlow’s appetizers and sides eschew chophouse doldrums with quirky plates of savory butternut squash bread pudding and crostini made with sausage from West Village institution Faicco’s. Don’t miss the forty dollar “bottles” made of a trio of stackable carafes. The shared flight is both cleverly presented, and a great way to taste through some decent table wines on the cheap. “We purchased the entire inventory,” our server says gleefully before adding, “You won’t find these anywhere else.” Proof that even the 99% can embrace exclusivity.