Another madcap year of NYC dining comes to a close. Here are nineteen dishes (and one meal) I couldn’t stop thinking about — and that I hope to taste again sooner rather than later.
20. Beef rolls, Kottu House (250 Broome Street, 646-781-9222)
Godamba roti, the flatbread Sandya De Silva chops up for her namesake dish at Kottu House, also deep-fries sensationally. The chef, who serves up Sri Lankan street-food gems with her son, Chelaka Gunamuni, from a jewel-box storefront on the Lower East Side, rolls the roti and fills their crisp shells with ground beef, shredded vegetables, and fragrant curry before dropping the bundles into hot oil. Hot sauce comes with an order of the enlightened Hot Pockets, but throw down a few extra bucks for the house sambals. The raw onion and coconut condiments deliver chile-spiked fireworks.
19. Caramel mille-feuille, Vaucluse (100 East 63rd Street, 646-869-2300)
Oh, you like fancy, huh? At the Altamarea Group’s latest venture, Alina Martell complements Michael White and Jared Gadbaw’s unabashedly buttery, savory French cooking with a cadre of grown-up and posh sweets. Her mille-feuille sandwiches gorgeously light lemon-inflected cream between layers of flaky puff pastry. That caramelized shell, plus sweet milk ice cream on the side and a deeply flavored caramel drizzle on the plate, render this classic dessert contemporary.
18. Indian aster salad, Gui Lin Mi Fen (135-25 40th Road, Queens; 718-939-2025)
Noodle soups, a signature of the southern Chinese city of Guilin, get top billing here, but I kept going back for tastes of this salad of finely diced tofu and herbaceous Indian aster. When cooked, the plant has a texture similar to boiled tea leaves, with a grassy finish. And while it arrives looking like lawn clippings, the chilled appetizer — with its bouncy bean curd cubes — makes for a refreshing counterpoint to the warming noodle soup.
17. Korean tortilla española, M. Wells Steakhouse (43-15 Crescent Street, Queens; 718-786-9060)
Chef Hugue Dufour and his wife, Sarah Obraitis, the trout-farming owners of this charmingly wacky steakhouse built inside a former auto body shop — are well suited to brunch, a meal that can simultaneously cause and soothe hangovers. The duo added the indulgent weekend meal earlier this year, with stupendous results. This inverted and dressed-up frittata made me chuckle and then woke me up with explosive pockets of kimchi and blood sausage, the eggs stained a Seussian purple from Okinawan sweet potatoes.
16. Fisherman’s okonomiyaki, Bar Goto (245 Eldridge Street, 212-475-4411)
Okonomiyaki popped up a lot this year, and nowhere did I enjoy the Japanese comfort food more than at veteran barman Kenta Goto’s tastefully appointed drinks lair, which slays with a combination of thoughtful, fun cocktails and righteous bar snacks. The savory pancakes — made with grated yam and cabbage and served in rectangular cast-iron pans — arrive wearing artful squiggles of Worcestershire-like sauce and Kewpie mayonnaise. My favorite (with a shout-out to the wonky sun-dried-tomato-and-cheese version) is the Fisherman’s okonomiyaki, a friendly assemblage of perfectly cooked rock shrimp, squid, and octopus. Sprinkled with wispy bonito flakes, it eats like the drunk-munchies of Aquaman’s dreams.
15. Cobia al pastor, Cosme (35 East 21st Street, 212-913-9659)
Tacos al pastor are having a moment in NYC, with industry professionals using the pork-and-pineapple dish as a point of inspiration for pizza and even beer. At Cosme, Enrique Olvera’s progressive Mexican restaurant in the Flatiron, chef de cuisine Daniela Soto-Innes translates the hearty recipe into a gorgeously balanced plate of spice-rubbed cobia with chile-pineapple purée, cilantro, and paper-thin pineapple slices. Reimagined in Soto-Innes and Olvera’s hands, the rough edges of this street food are softened into something elegant that hits on both a referential and a guttural level.
14. Fig & olive dessert, Timna (109 St. Marks Place, 646-964-5181)
Nir Mesika cooks with an erratic but overwhelmingly successful creativity and isn’t afraid to take risks seasoning assertively. Although a porcini dessert perplexed me, his take on the Israeli rosewater pudding called malabi was the best kind of contemplative dessert — one that’s hard to stop eating. Salty dehydrated olive crumbs offset the sweetness from rose syrup and a mound of yuzu custard layered with black mission figs, fresh berries, and shredded halva — a symphony of fresh fruit, brightness, and brine.
13. Sunchokes with gruyère-cider foam, Wassail (162 Orchard Street, 646-918-6385)
At Jennifer Lim and Ben Sandler’s Lower East Side cider bar, chef Joseph Buenconsejo cooks with confidence and plates with whimsy. In these vegetable-mad times, this lovely bowl of sunchokes stuck out for its clever and seamless oscillation between cold and warm ingredients. Cider-spiked gruyère foam obscures tender and crisp cooked sunchokes. A top layer of shaved sunchokes, arranged like reptile scales, balances the rest of the dish’s deep, nutty elements.
12. “Fuckin’ Mackerel” dip, Whit’s End (97-14 Rockaway Beach Boulevard, Queens; no phone)
Fine-dining expat Whitney Aycock runs a very particular kind of pizzeria out in Rockaway Beach, with occasionally flexible operating hours (check Instagram) and a menu littered with profanity. An avid fisherman, the chef aggressively smokes his catch behind the restaurant, taming the oily, locally caught bluefish or mackerel (depending on what’s in season) and producing a stunningly rich and pungent appetizer. Forget toast points — Aycock stacks a pyre of char-speckled pizza-dough breadsticks next to the dip. Topped with a puddle of imported olive oil, chopped scallions, and cracked black pepper, it’s well worth the money you’ll have to drop in your swear jar.
11. Herbie’s International, Ivan Ramen (25 Clinton Street, 646-678-3859)
Ivan Orkin put this throwback sandwich on his L.E.S. lunch menu after a friend mentioned eating the original in Canarsie at Herbie’s International, an offshoot of Catskills restaurant Herbie’s in Loch Sheldrake. Both of those places are long gone, but Orkin’s kitschy regional excavation yields gustatory pleasure. The kitchen piles thin slices of sweet and tender Chinese-style barbecued pork into a miso-garlic toasted hero roll and serves the bulky sandwich with sinus-clearing Chinese mustard, shiso-spiked citrus slaw, and syrupy roasted-garlic duck sauce.
10. Khinkali, We Are Georgians (230 Kings Highway, Brooklyn; 718-759-6250)
These dumplings from the Caucasus aren’t quite as soupy as Shanghai’s delicate, glutinous soup-concealing jewels, but they’re no less fun to eat, and these are my favorite in town. Co-owner Marina Maisuradze-Olivo stuffs her sturdy skins with pork and veal; it’s up to you to add the hot-pepper condiment known as ajika, which fairly buzzes with coriander and blue fenugreek.
9. Georgia white shrimp, Wildair (142 Orchard Street, 646-964-5624)
So many of the small plates at Jeremiah Stone and Fabian von Hauske’s funky wine bar are fun to share, but none more than a bowl of shell-on, olive-oil-poached shrimp. Unsheathe the briny creatures from their shells and snag some of the accompanying cilantro and celery garnish on the way up to your mouth. When’s the last time you wiped your shrimp hands clean before taking a swig of pét-nat, Champagne’s lightly effervescent, often cloudy cousin?
8. Pastrami and eel sandwiches, Harry & Ida’s (189 Avenue A, 646-864-0967)
Chef Will Horowitz’s obsession with preservation techniques has never been more keenly focused or better presented than at his rustic apex delicatessen, which he opened with his sister Julie Horowitz this past summer. At the small but well-stocked East Village shop, live eels are plucked from a tank, killed, and smoked. You can take the slippery bastards home or let Horowitz and his team tame them in an otherworldly sandwich layered with smoked butter, maple sauce, and a spiced relish made from parsnip, onion, and horseradish. The justly famous pastrami sandwich, first sold at sister restaurant Ducks Eatery, delights here as well, with fatty and supple smoked meat sassed with dill and buttermilk-pickled cucumbers.
7. Sardine tostada, El Rey Coffee Bar & Luncheonette (100 Stanton Street, 212-260-3950)
Of the many fresh and refreshing small plates on the dinner menu (launched this past winter) at Nick Morgenstern and chef Gerardo Gonzalez’s quirky café, an open-faced fish sandwich beguiled me most. Gonzalez arranges meaty, oily, smoked Portuguese sardines over a crunchy corn tortilla slathered in whipped Greek-yogurt butter. Brightened with shaved radishes, carrots, and carrot-top salsa verde, this fragrant, vibrant tostada eats like a Vogue Battle on the palate.
6. Lamb coppa pizza, Bruno (204 East 13th Street, 212-598-3080)
What started as an off-menu nightly special at Justin Slojkowski, Dave Gulino, and Demian Repucci’s stark East Village pizzeria eventually became a menu mainstay. And for good reason: The talented kitchen team melds barnyardy lamb coppa, béchamel, sheep’s-milk cheese, fennel, and tomatillos. Such rambunctious toppings might otherwise inundate more subtle crusts, but the nutty, caramel-brown dough that Slojkowski and Gulino mill in-house is a perfect foil to the onslaught of strong flavors.
5. The entire Kitchen Table menu (more or less), at Empellón Cocina (105 First Avenue, 212-780-0999)
This past spring, chef Alex Stupak renovated Empellón Cocina, the most ambitious of his three Mexican restaurants, and reopened with a semiprivate dining area overlooking his kitchen. There, the New England native serves extended menus ($95 for 10 courses at 6 p.m., $165 for 22 courses at 8 p.m.) that amount to some of the most ambitious and original cooking in town, Mexican or otherwise: cerebral and interactive; elaborately composed yet altogether relatable. I won’t soon forget squash with chilmole, an obsidian sauce made from pepper ashes; the choose-your-own salsa adventure; or Stupak’s cheeky inverse al pastor with a swatch of melting pig fat layered over spiced and caramelized pineapple. For those who yearn for the restlessly creative chef’s return to his pastry roots (and who lament the loss of Cocina’s briefly offered dessert tasting), the Kitchen Table is where to find his particular brand of sweet sorcery, like white sesame and black mole sorbets. Beverage pairings are some of the most affordable of their kind ($30 and $50, respectively), likely because you’ll swig micheladas and frozen margaritas. What other tasting menu lets you do that?
4. Tum kanoon, Chiang Mai (293 Van Brunt Street, Brooklyn; 646-858-5185)
The porky salad of shredded jackfruit stirred with curry and tomatoes that Kanlaya Supachana and Sirichai Sreparplarn served at their welcoming pop-up had me wondering why northern Thai cooking isn’t more prevalent in NYC. The chefs anoint their heady mash with slivers of fatty pork belly and fried hibiscus blossoms and pile crisp pork rinds on the side. Mixed up into one lush, piquant, crunchy salad, it will ruin you for all other meat salads — even the fiery, sour larbs of nearby Isan.
3. Squid ink strozzapreti, Faro (436 Jefferson Street, Brooklyn; 718-381-8201)
In a former Bushwick warehouse, Kevin Adey cooks some seriously provocative pasta from house-milled grains. His knobbly, hand-rolled squid ink strozzapreti have remarkable heft and chew and are tossed with shreds of olive-oil-poached skate wing that coat the noodles like a maritime ragù. A topping of pumpkinseed breadcrumbs adds a pervasive nutty crunch. You’ll never yearn for lobster mac-and-cheese ever again.
2. Wild sesame soup, Oiji (119 First Avenue, 646-767-9050)
Do you like tahini? OK, do you love tahini? You probably should have deep-rooted feelings about sesame seeds (or wild sesame, a/k/a perilla seed) before ordering Brian Kim and Tae Kyung Ku’s outrageously rich and slightly bitter wild sesame soup. Missing the heaviness of other nut soups like West African peanut-based maafe, this velvety purée is silken and almost airy. The chefs ladle the beige and burnished liquid over tender oyster mushrooms, black truffle, and chewy coins of rice cake for a truly impactful and comforting bowl.
1. Baked potatoes, Mekelburg’s (293 Grand Avenue, Brooklyn; 718-399-2337)
Alicia and Daniel Mekelburg’s baked potatoes redefine the staple comfort food as an affordable luxury. You’ve never seen spuds so glamour-shot ready, their creased and cracked salt-baked skins split down the middle and stuffed with lavish fillings. One oozes raclette and wears a crown of sour cream, pickled peppers, and double-smoked slab bacon; the other supports flaky smoked sablefish under a cloud of crème fraîche and a gargantuan quenelle of briny caviar. The rest of the menu has thrills aplenty (from monstrous porchetta and NOLA-style BBQ shrimp sandwiches to a “Mek-Muffin” brioche breakfast sandwich featuring more of that slab bacon). Still, in a million years (and hundreds of meals over the course of this one), I never thought I’d be dreaming about baked potatoes.