If nothing (okay, very little) else, this was at least a great year for dining in New York City. Despite the lofty challenges posed by rising costs on both sides of the kitchen pass, New York City continues to draw strength from its dense cultural patchwork, and our best restaurants broadly reflect this virtue. From the resurgence of both Gallic luxury and Nordic austerity at the high end, to the emergence of Indian cuisine across the spectrum; to earnestly risk-taking, affordable New American (and Himalayan) cooking in Prospect Heights and Woodside; and killer Bolivian street food sold in an MTA commuter passageway — it’s a legitimately exciting time to eat out in New York. We could probably cool it with the poké, though.
In the past, we’ve kept this list to a strict ’10 Best,’ but who knows what fresh surprises 2017 will bring. So please join us as we cackle in the face of convention and this jaw-dropping year to present our best restaurants of 2016.
16. Indian Accent (123 West 56th Street, 212-842-8070)
For a glimpse into India’s haute cuisine scene, look no further than chef Manish Mehrotra and Rohit Kattar’s splashy Delhi import, where northern Indian bone marrow stew inspires a luxe sauce for beef kebabs, and the tasting menu includes whole-fried wild morel mushrooms sourced from Kashmir. The wide marble bar is great for dining a la carte solo, with the added bonus of having immediate access to Indian Accent’s cocktails, which take advantage of the kitchen’s deep pantry, and are among the best quaffs to be quaffed in midtown.
15. Lilia (567 Union Avenue, Brooklyn; 718-576-3095)
If Brooklyn can be said to have any kind of a power scene, it’s here under the glow of Missy Robbins’ wood-fired hearth, where a well-dressed and well-heeled clientele look right at home chomping away on exceptionally cheesy cacio e pepe fritelle. At this expansive Williamsburg restaurant, a magnificent return for the celebrated chef, her contemporary Italian recipes are as big and brassy as the dining room, set in a former auto body shop. From outstanding pastas and bold seafood to a lamb leg steak with enough char to make a steakhouse blush, there are hardly any tune-ups needed here.
14. El Atoradero (708 Washington Avenue, Brooklyn; 718-399-8226)
Forced to close her South Bronx hit Carnitas El Atoradero due to a rent increase, Denisse Lina Chavez joined forces with Noah Arenstein, Josh Kaplan, and Jared DeLine at the end of 2015, reopening in Brooklyn with a fresh look to fit the neighborhood. She recently left her post due to a health issue, but you can still go here for her fragrant tortillas, made from blue-corn hominy and used in superlative nachos and tacos. While you can score chipotle meatballs and beautifully murky mahogany colored mole poblano, we’re hoping for even more dishes from the original, like avocado leaf-roasted goat and cheese-stuffed pig’s trotters, to show up in 2017. In the meantime, be on the lookout for hearty brunch pozoles and the occasional grasshopper taco special.
13. King (18 King Street, 917-825-1618)
King might be the ideal neighborhood restaurant for current-day Soho, which, like the rest of Manhattan, can’t help but escape the island’s glossy makeover. There’s British expat chefs Jess Shadbolt and Clare de Boer’s rustically posh Mediterranean cooking, honed at London’s famed River Café, which yields daily changing pleasures like veal tongue poached with cotechino sausage, or a chestnut-gilded roasted guinea hen that threatened to undermine this year’s Thanksgiving. Partner Annie Shi deftly handles wines and runs both cream-toned rooms with the kind of warm generosity that makes you want to become a regular.
12. Hail Mary (68 Greenpoint Avenue, Brooklyn; 347-422-0645)
Combat your winter SAD, or cheer yourself up just because at Sohla and Hisham El-Waylly’s gonzo neo-diner, where the fine dining veterans let their hair down and cultivate an atmosphere that encourages you to do the same. There’s the industrial-meets-retro décor, a playlist that might get explicit about oral sex, Sohla’s towering buttercream-frosted layer cakes, and a plate of fried chicken spiced so powerfully with cinnamon, Sichuan peppercorns, and star anise that it nearly gets your lips tingling before the first bite. The newly instituted $29 three-course prix-fixe is a bargain, and at brunch the El Wayllys dish up their takes on greasy spoon standards, including a relish-topped double-cheeseburger and duck hash made with potatoes and rice for extra crunch.
11. Sushi Inoue (381 Lenox Avenue, 646-766- 0555)
Like the unassumingly marvelous sushi bars tucked away in Tokyo’s train stations, this stealthy seafood oasis hides behind bamboo window shades on the ground floor of a luxury Harlem low-rise. As exacting as he is waggishly entertaining (“Tuna is my girlfriend,” he once told VICE Munchies), chef Shinichi Inoue has a hand in everything at his namesake restaurant, including pickling his own ginger, which is slightly sweet with a gentle bite. Fish, sourced locally and flown in from Japan daily, dictates the evening’s offerings (omakase options start at $90), and specials like torched blowfish sperm offer nigiri nerds a real opportunity to expand their repertoire. There are frankly too many places in this town where you can blow hundreds of dollars on sea creatures, but Inoue never makes a visit to his broad counter feel like anything less than a proper voyage.
10. High Street on Hudson (637 Hudson Street, 917-388-3944)
New Yorkers owe Philly restauratuers a debt of gratitude this year for giving us a number of Gotham outposts of their hottest eateries, including Ellen Yin and chef Eli Kulp’s excellent sibling spot to their original High Street on Market. The all-day operation — part bakery, part café, and part experimental New American restaurant — shines no matter when you show up, whether it’s to grab a coffee-gravy-and-ham-packed red-eye danish in the morning, or a duck meatball sandwich during lunch. At night, you can go the small-plates route or settle in for a $65 multi-course tasting. The kitchen’s ability to juggle so many moving parts with such consistency is almost more impressive than the food that comes out of it… almost.
9. Izzy’s Brooklyn Smokehouse (397 Troy Avenue, Brooklyn; 347-425-0524)
Who knew Jews could ‘que? We were certainly unenlightened until we set foot inside Sruli “Izzy” Eidelman’s sliver of a meat palace in Hasidic Crown Heights, where the bearded Brooklynite pitmaster doles out heavily crusted, Flinstonian beef ribs and gloriously fatty lamb breasts from behind swinging saloon doors. If you don’t adhere to a kosher diet, the prices might come as a surprise, but even at $20 for a half-pound, Eidelman’s brisket — smoked for up to eighteen hours using a combination of oak and cherry woods — is some of the moistest and smokiest we’ve ever come across. In true smokehouse fashion, you can complement your meats with homey sides, like beefy pit beans and baked sweet potatoes loaded with candied pecans. Given the dietary restrictions, everything, including the pies for dessert, are dairy free, though they’re mostly no worse off for it.
8. Win Son (159 Graham Avenue, Brooklyn; 347-457-6010)
Taiwan’s multitudinous, multicultural cooking traditions are the jumping-off point at Josh Ku and chef Trigg Brown’s comfortable East Williamsburg haunt, which matches a dressed-down Brooklyn aesthetic to a crafty and inexpensive lineup of small plates. The kitchen seems to only know how to season at full throttle, so that even fried eggplant stands out among the pig-heavy menu, the nightshades electrified by scatterings of chopped cashews, cilantro, black-vinegar caramel, and tangy yogurt. Even when Brown stays traditional there are surprises, as with the musky pull of fermented black beans lacing his “flies head,” a heady dish of ground red wattle pork shoulder and finely minced garlic chives. The sole dessert relies not on impressive sugar wizardry, but store-bought vanilla bean ice cream, which gets stuffed inside an oversized fried mantou bun drenched in condensed milk.
7. Atoboy (43 East 28th Street, 646-476-7217)
Banchan, the procession of sides that traditionally launch a Korean meal, get the star treatment at this boisterous NoMad canteen from fine dining veterans Ellia and chef Junghyun Park. In a chicly spartan concrete-and-wood room, the wife-and-husband team serve a three-course menu of share plates for a remarkably reasonable $36 at dinner. Park’s focused and aesthetically adventurous cooking — in which green chile broth nudges gently cooked mackerel, peanut butter sets off fried chicken, and salsa verde splashes pork-stuffed squid with an eye-opening kick — would impress at any cost; at these prices, it’s kind of astonishing.
6. Mr. Donahue’s (203 Mott Street, 646-850-9480)
Throwbacks aren’t solely reserved for Thursdays at Anne Redding and Matt Danzer’s eminently bewitching second act quick, a sentimental follow-up to cult favorite Uncle Boons. At their jewel-box Nolita lunch counter, the spouses produce elegant updates of old-fashioned stalwarts, like broiled fish steaks and chicken-fried pork cheeks that are wonderful smothered in spicy gravy or stacked between a sesame potato bun for a pepperoncini-topped, mayo-slicked slam dunk of a sandwich. Best of all, the vintage delights (creamy crab imperial rendered peppery and profound, fudgy deviled duck eggs) come with near-vintage pricing: most meals that include a main, a sauce, and two sides fetch $20.
5. Dawa’s (51-18 Skillman Avenue, Queens; 718-899-8629)
Taken as a whole, the split menus (one market-driven New American, the other full of Himalayan specialties) at this charming Woodside café tell two parts of the same story. It’s one authored by chef Dawa Bhuti, whose family hails from Tibet and who herself was born in Nepal and raised in India. At her namesake restaurant, which soaks up natural light during the day, she shares the kitchen with her father Ngodup Gyaltsen, cooking gorgeous, affordable brunch plates like grain salads of black rice punctuated alluringly with coconut dressing and a $14.50 herb-poached cod with bok choy and celery root puree. Their Tibetan, Nepali, and Bhutanese dishes — from exceedingly crispy shabaley beef patties, to fiery chile pepper pork, to gyuma, the blood sausage thickened with tripe, heart, and bulgur wheat — are terrific, too, standing out in a neighborhood intimately familiar with these recipes. Smartly arranged on dinnerware from cult potter Jordan Colón, these elevated tastes of home bridge the gap between the spot’s farm fresh fare and what Dawa’s proudly dubs “ETHNIC PLATES,” which are as excitingly bold as the all-caps would imply.
4. MIMI (185 Sullivan Street, 212-418-1260)
The young talents fueling this snug and stylish Greenwich Village retreat continue to make MIMI a must-try for those in search of exhilarating bistro cooking. Under opening chef Liz Johnson and her fiancé Will Aghajanian, the place earned a reputation for daredevil-ish theatrics on both palate and plate; ducks were set ablaze, slabs of foie gras-stuffed eel arrived dripping with blood sauce, and if you showed up more than an hour after opening, your chances of snagging some of their outrageous turtle soup, served ceremoniously beneath its shell, were slim-to-none. Twenty-six-year-old Ivan Corona, their pal and former sous chef, took over last month, and has kept the restaurant’s rambunctious kitchen spirit (and some of Johnson’s most popular recipes) alive, so there’s no risk of losing mainstays like MIMI’s eminently approachable, mustardy roast chicken or the wedge of dense chocolate cake that comes with a snowball-sized scoop of silky ice milk.
3. Olmsted (659 Vanderbilt Avenue, Brooklyn; 718-552-2610)
For all the farm-to-table jokes you can lob at them — about the heated backyard garden with its cooing quails and claw foot tub full of crawfish, or the “living wall” of plants that runs the length of the dining room — it’s clear that farmer/co-owner Ian Rothman and chef-owner Greg Baxtrom have something special in Olmsted, their perennially mobbed Prospect Heights sensation. It’s evident in the smiles of the blanket-clad guests toasting marshmallows outdoors in the middle of winter, and in the U-shaped planting beds lined with radishes and kale, which the kitchen purees into soup and folds with crab for rangoons respectively. Even with all of the agricultural razzle dazzle, Baxtrom’s moderately priced and overtly ambitious menu (the most expensive dish is a $24 two-act main course of guinea hen; the breast roasted, the dark meat confited and piled high alongside in a separate wooden bowl) remains the star.
2. Le Coucou (138 Lafayette Street, 212-271-4252)
Everything old may eventually be new again, but few restaurants balance such a beguilingly timeless mix of baroque aesthetic opulence, laidback yet painstakingly generous service, and superb old-school French cooking as this striking downtown newcomer from mega-restaurateur Stephen Starr and chef Daniel Rose. Befitting the cavernous room decked out with chandeliers and a set-piece open kitchen that seems to stretch back forever, you’ll pay a pretty penny for Le Coucou’s stunning renditions of Lyonnaise fried calf’s head, caul fat-wrapped chicken crepinettes topped with foie gras and roasted plums, and airy pike quenelles plied with lobster claws and briny, buttery sauce Américaine. Though rooted in centuries-old traditions, Rose’s food has an au courant sheen that backs up substance with style.
1. Aska (47 South 5th Street, Brooklyn; 929-337-6792)
If the pop-up he ran from inside art and nightlife space Kinfolk Studios was his chrysalis phase, Frederik Berselius has gone full-on, beautiful wing-flapping butterfly at this grand revival of Aska, his high-minded Scandinavian restaurant now housed in a circa-1860s warehouse under the Williamsburg Bridge. What separates these blowout chef’s tastings (ten or nineteen courses for $145 or $215, respectively) from the current crop of New Nordic restaurants is that they feel so intensely personal, down to the lamb heart ashes inspired by a dream, and the reindeer lichen the chef sources from Stephanie Charlene, the Catskills potter who also supplies the restaurant’s stoneware. It also helps that during his hiatus, the lithe and lanky Berselius seemingly figured out how to commune with Mother Nature in ways that would make Captain Planet and Al Gore jealous, compressing cucumbers with linden flower oil and sneaking blood into petit fours. Downstairs, the Edda Bar gives guests who don’t want to commit to an hours-long authoritarian dinner a taste of the action taking place on ground level with a selection of stately, under $20 snacks, like carrots and fennel with house-made cheese and curls of smoked pork shoulder mean for dragging through chanterelle cream.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on December 30, 2016