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To address the champagne-swilling elephant in the room: The Grill, the Pool, and the Lobster Club are all missing from this list, even though the Major Food Group’s suite of restaurants in the Seagram Building were easily the buzziest openings of the year.
And arguably the splashiest, with prices to match. The hospitality leviathans who got their start slinging chicken parms and $45 tasting menus in Little Italy offer up unapologetic extravagance at the Pool, where a few bites of king crab fetch nearly $100 and shavings of foie gras are fashioned into ornate flowers; at the Lobster Club, where hunks of the ritzy duck liver are seared and precariously balanced over truffle-topped “tuna Rossini” sushi rolls; and especially at the Grill, the glitzy cosmopolitan time capsule that inhabits one half of Philip Johnson’s eye-catching landmarked space originally built to house the Four Seasons, where servers now don $6,000 bespoke tuxedos to guide $10,000 trolleys carrying Dover sole and Victorian-era bird-bone-crushing devices through one of the city’s most breathtaking dining rooms.
Their absence isn’t a condemnation of quality. The food is thrillingly well executed, and the spaces are undeniably extraordinary in scope (renovations cost $32 million), and important by virtue of their location. But writer Joshua David Stein, in a story for the Voice, was right to question the context within which they operate. There’s a disappointing connection, systemically speaking, between the Grill seeking to emulate the dynamic that allowed Four Seasons co-owner Julian Niccolini to feel he could commit misdemeanor sexual assault at his temple of old-school patriarchy and capitalism, and then serving a dish that, with a wink and a nod, alludes to Marilyn Monroe’s vagina. Whether intentional or not, it’s a tip of the hat to would-be pussy grabbers. Take it from Brett Martin, who wrote in GQ that the Grill was “the only restaurant I’ve been to this year at which I seriously worried that Donald Trump might show up.” The same thought crossed my mind. With stories of sexual misconduct and abuse of power rippling through the industry, whether that dissuades you or has you tapping away on OpenTable is your call.
Though Major Food Group’s barrage of decadence and one-percenter cosseting is indeed intoxicating, this year I found sincerer comforts among the city’s smaller, humbler newcomers — at restaurants like Ruzana in Bay Ridge, which specializes in Jordanian shawarma, and Otway, this year’s top pick, a bastion of fearless New American cooking from an all-female team making practically everything in-house. The same is true of another omission, that of erstwhile pastry wunderkind Alex Stupak and his midtown Empellón, a sprawling modern Mexican stronghold where the monumentally talented chef is, among other things, making some of the best desserts of his career. You should pay him a visit, but not until you get to sit with a glass of fermented pineapple tepache and a bowl of Daniela Soto-Innes’ enfrijoladas at Atla, or join the party at Gerardo Gonzalez’s Lalito in Chinatown for its forward-thinking Mexican-American menu.
Against the background of a whirlwind year, there’s much for city diners to be grateful for — and hopeful about — in 2018. The best restaurants of 2017 prove as much.
Not long ago, Claire Welle found herself in possession of a few extra duck hearts. Where other chefs might have stashed the bonanza for their own midnight snack, Welle weaved them into the remainder of the night’s squab specials, where they nudged the sweetly funky game bird to even richer, meatier places.
The charming act of spontaneity—and its flavorful payoff—was yet another reminder of why Otway held my attention more than any other restaurant this year. Last January, Welle opened the space with co-owner Samantha Safer (responsible for the easily-consumed cocktails and comprehensive natural wine list) in the husk of their short-lived but acclaimed Clinton Hill bakery Tilda All Day. In doing so, the duo has bestowed upon New Yorkers a breezy destination neo-bistro boasting neighborhood bona fides.
It’s the kind of place that hosts weeknight happy hours and weekend bake sales (hello miso-squash bread) but pulls no punches in trying to entice diners with herb yogurt-slicked sea urchin-crowned crepes, skewers of grilled snails and sunchokes balanced over bowls of garlicky persillade, and bar snacks like fried tripe meant to swipe through tart HP sauce. Welle and her all-female kitchen crew butcher whole animals, churn their own butter, bake bread from grains they’ve milled themselves, and use leftover whey to make the crackers for their cheese plates. Her food is consciously stylish while staying honest and accessible, and, above all else, outstanding in its execution. To wit: foie gras torchon, doled out in stout pucks the size of stereo receiver dials, comes paired with glasses of sauternes and thick slices of her darkly crusted whole-wheat rye bread – a taste of excess for a remarkably reasonable $18.
Anyone looking for inspiration and innovation among this year’s crop of restaurants should immediately head to Rivington Street, where Diego Moya and his crew tackle seasonality with a mixture of madcap ingenuity and shocking clarity. From their slender, warmly lit chef’s lair, they pit rosy duck breast against the sharpness of garlic scapes and the freshness of dill flowers, and explore the versatility of winter gourds by pairing whole roasted butterkin squash with cockles and walnut oil, and hubbard squash with russet-hued coconut caramel. They turn white turnips into tarte tatin. But for all the obvious attention to detail, prices are refreshingly moderate. Partner Zach Ligas pours natural wines with an eye toward the obscure, like peachy sparkling pét-nat from the Ozark Mountains. There’s creativity in spades without an ounce of pretension, something reinforced by the taco night held the first Sunday of each month, when you might encounter tortilla-bound curiosities like seared local bluefish laced with peanut salsa for all of $4.
Informed by his San Diegan upbringing and Mexican heritage, Gerardo Gonzalez’s cooking at Lalito is irresistibly fun and addictively engaging — basically the perfect complement to Lalito (né Lalo), the boisterous Chinatown restaurant he opened last year, which replaced cult karaoke bar Winnie’s, and where neon and retro tunes thankfully still reign. Gonzalez’s oft-changing menu is saturated with intrepid flavors and whiz-bang ideas, from the cumin-vinegar rub crusting lamb barbacoa ribs to the vibrant green pineapple hot sauce the kitchen pools under smoky pollo asado. He turns atole, the creamy Mesoamerican masa beverage, into a feisty puree infused with aji amarillo peppers for grilled shrimp, and makes what may be the finest flour tortillas in town, which are used to swaddle festively garnished pork carnitas (the pickled pink onions and corn nuts are key). His knack for vegan and vegetarian recipes hasn’t slowed a bit, either, as a “brown goddess” salad tossed with burnt pepita vinaigrette, and paddle-shaped huaraches, masa cakes mounded with curried chickpeas and local feta, make clear.
Wedding the bounteous traditions of Korean barbecue and the New York City chophouse, Cote proves itself a distinctly American experience. The clever concept is bolstered by chef David Shim’s savvy approach, which includes dry-aging the beef for a minimum of 28 days in Cote’s showy subterranean meat locker. The $45 prix-fixe nets diners a rotating selection of cuts rounded out with snacks, salads, and sides like feather-light egg soufflé and hearty stews of fermented soybeans and cabbage. Soft serve is a fun ending note. So are the germane, single-shot bottles of German digestif Underberg that come with the check, intended to soothe indulgent appetites. For those, you can thank beverage director Victoria James, whose monster wine list is graciously peppered with bargain bottles. This being a Gotham steakhouse at heart, however, you can still splurge aplenty on 120-day-aged ribeye and $600 double magnums of rosé if that’s how you get down.
Chef-partner Daniela Soto-Innes and world-renowned Mexican chef Enrique Olvera have followed up Claosme, their much-heralded New York debut, with this casual all-day spot. Atla sits at the bottom of a NoHo high-rise and serves carefully considered home cooking, like otherworldly chicken enchiladas. For brunch, which generously lasts until 4 p.m., there are virtuous flax seed-sprinkled chilaquiles and impeccable conchas, sweet brioche rolls coated in a cookie crust fashioned to look like a seashell (dip them in hot chocolate or café con leche). At night, bartenders never seem to stop pouring mezcal or one of Yana Volfson’s cocktails, and the tables are covered in an array of colorful dishes, like exhilarating ceviche verde of witch flounder zapped with fresh ginger and habanero or textbook finger-staining pambazo sandwiches dipped in guajillo salsa and stuffed with potatoes and chorizo. Anytime you show up, there’s something that wows.
After operating as a roving pop-up for the past five years, David Torchiano and Josh Arak’s sustainable sushi omakase has settled into a former tasting room attached to achingly cute East 6th Street wine bar Grape and Grain. The handsome eight-seat walnut counter looks primed to showcase ultra-pricey endangered sea creatures or rare Japanese imports. Instead, the $95, fifteen-course procession instead highlights catch and bycatch from North American waters, with an emphasis on the East Coast. At Mayanoki, that principle has never wavered, though chefs have come and gone, including opening chef Mike Han, whose Korean-American roots and zest for experimentation yielded unorthodox gems like jiggly swordfish bone marrow nigiri and pickled wasabi leaf hand rolls of kimchi seabass tartare. Under the purview of Jeff Miller, a veteran of the Uchi restaurants in Texas, meals might start with marinated quail eggs over Southern-style stewed greens simmered in beer dashi before moving on to New Jersey bluefish back meat smoked with walnut and finished with sesame salt. Partner TJ Provenzano handles beverage pairings with a similar lust for the local, pouring New York State wines and ciders to harmonious effect.
Sunday in Brooklyn, which opened at the end of 2016, is Adam Landsman, Todd Enany, and chef Jaime Yung’s ode to having the day off. As such, the trio serve brunch every day at their Williamsburg restaurant, plying the neighborhood with ample flapjacks, two-hander breakfast sandwiches sporting burger-sized sausage patties, and gonzo Barney Greengrass-esque platters of pastrami-spiced black cod. But while the daytime menu gets the most press, evenings are when the team unveils delightful surprises like hearth-charred vegetables (including a dramatic whole fondue-filled squash) and adventurously heady charcuterie options (“pig face” and tender lamb or bison tongues). Young’s “low-waste” efforts, like using the trimmings from dinner’s steaks to enrich the bone broth he sells the next morning, extend to pickling rooftop-grown vegetables and making condiments, like the hazelnut mustard he pairs with a recurring special of pork chops aged for three months in koji, the bacteria responsible for miso.
There are moments during meals at Ugly Baby that feel like a spice-fueled fever dream. When the verve and boldness of the food seems in sync with the psychedelic rainbow murals that cover the walls. That sense of delirium is perhaps to be expected when eating a dish like kua kling, a Southern-style sliced steak curry so thoroughly assaulted with dry chiles and fresh peppercorns that it comes with a warning (“brutally spicy”). Less so in the case of sea bream fried whole, which puts turmeric to good use better than any millennial latte by combining it with garlic as a rub and pungent fried garnish for the fish. So it goes at Sirichai Sreparplarn’s cheery home for uncompromising multiregional Thai cooking, where the Bangkok-born chef has resurfaced after a two-year hiatus. And thank the heavens his khao soi nuer has returned with him, making it the best version in town once more. The velvety curry still comes shrouded in pickled mustard greens, gobs of chile jam, and Chihuly-esque clusters of wavy fried egg noodles, though now the broth is even more robust, with beef shank taking the place of braised chicken legs.
For a homey, straightforward take on modern Israeli and Middle Eastern cuisines, look to Melanie Shurka’s West Village café and the Levantine dumplings called kubeh that are its specialty. A Long Island native with Persian-Israeli roots, Shurka serves the doughy parcels — some made of bulgur and semolina wheats filled with mushrooms or braised shredded beef, others made from a blend of ground meat (lamb or cod) and herbs — in lustrous broths, which diners can mix and match to their liking. Cups of Turkish coffee come with a guide on how to tell your fortune in the swampy grounds. With any luck, they’ll portend scoops of homemade saffron ice cream or audibly crisp apricot baklava for dessert.
For the better part of a decade, partners Edwin “Brods” Hughes and chef Patrick Khem Brady attracted a loyal local following for their brilliantly tender jerk chicken sold from a hulking barrel smoker stationed outside Bed-Stuy’s Stephen Decatur Middle School. When they opened their first brick-and-mortar location at the beginning of this year, their fans thankfully didn’t have to travel too far out of the way: the cheery corner spot sits at the other end of the block. Cooked over pimento wood embers, the spice-coated birds are still the thing to get, fragrant with a manifest rub of crushed allspice and scotch bonnet chiles. With more room and an actual roof over his head, Brady flexes his culinary muscles with bowls of red pea soup and ital stew, a turmeric-coconut milk potage with chickpeas, potatoes, and pumpkin that’s a cornerstone of the typically vegetarian Rastafari diet.
Head to Together — one of the only Burmese restaurants in the city — to get your fix of coconut milk and fish chowders, herb-laden salads of green mango, sour hibiscus, or pickled black tea leaves, and rich, mildly spicy curries presented alongside knobs of ngapi, a fermented shrimp paste seasoned with tomatoes and chiles that the friendly chef and author, Oscar Myint, makes by hand. There’s sushi, too, but it’s largely beside the point. Next to a mounted TV playing Burmese music videos, the specials board lists even more gems, like grilled pork skewers and a stew of fried hardboiled eggs cooked with tomatoes that almost tastes like North African shakshuka. The best dessert, shwe yin aye, also called “sweetie Rangoon,” brings together tapioca pearls, coconut jelly, sticky rice, and spongy slices of white bread. It looks entirely timid, but after a few stirs, the stark, cooling coconut milk soup coalesces into something between panna cotta and bread pudding. Myint runs his scrappily endearing Bensonhurst restaurant with his family in tow, so meals here feel cozier and more intimate than the photographic menu board hung over the open kitchen would suggest.
Simone Tong fell for mixian, the bouncy fermented rice noodles from China’s Yunnan province, while growing up a few hundred miles northeast in Sichuan’s capital, Chengdu. Her snug East Village canteen is a contemporary love letter to them and a boon for slurp-happy New Yorkers. Bundles of the thin, spaghetti-like strands lurk beneath rich pork and chicken broths and also serve as the base for a peppery sauce of ground pork and pickled mustard greens. There are regional specialties, like crispy potatoes from the North and ghost chicken, a cold salad of shredded bird with fresh herbs popular in the south, where China and Southeast Asia share a border. Even with a no-tipping policy, nothing on the menu (save for the occasional special) costs more than $15.
Shrak, contrary to my initial assumption, isn’t a direct-to-video Dreamworks knockoff but rather a Bedouin flatbread essential for making Arabic wraps, the specialty at this Bay Ridge shawarma shop from Jordanian expats Khadija Abdel-Fattah and brothers Mohammad and Mutassim Ayasrah. The rest of formula is exceedingly simple: marinated meat (layers of lamb and beef or dark and white meat chicken), wincingly sour chopped pickles, and a generous swipe of toum, the Levant’s answer to garlic aioli, which is zippy enough to stand out. The light and springy discs are also used to hold extra crunchy falafel and drag through dips like qudsia, a coarse mash of hummus and crushed fava beans bound with tahini. Jordanian food is something of a rarity in this town, so you’d do well to schedule a weekend trip (though call ahead first) for mansaf, Jordan’s national dish of bone-in lamb braised in goat’s milk yogurt, which arrives heaped over rice and showered with toasted almonds, all cradled in a toasty shrak shell.
Mike Bergemann’s unpretentious pizzeria in the back of the Gotham West Market food hall is the anti-Sbarro, an Italian-American wonderland where almost everything — from the excellent baked goods at breakfast (pistachio muffins, lard bread) to lunchtime sandwiches (in particular, a righteous Italian combo) on fresh-baked focaccia and ciabatta — is made from scratch. As such, the former Ivan Ramen chef’s pan pizzas are no joke: squat and sturdy with spongy, bubbled interiors and crisp-bottomed crusts. Topped with hot soppressata, seasonal specials like summery sweet corn and sungold tomatoes, or just baked with ladles of their profoundly herbaceous sauce, it’s wonderful stuff.