Having tracked the New York restaurant scene as a critic for exactly 60 years, I cannot recall a year with as many new and ambitious openings as 2016. Perhaps memory fails a bit, but this year’s number is so large that even though I have visited 21 newcomers (20 in Manhattan with a single fling in Brooklyn), lists by other critics include many places I have not been to and, in some cases, never even heard of.
An amazing phenomenon, especially given that this is a time when many experienced restaurateurs are predicting that it soon will be impossible to run restaurants as we know them in New York, what with climbing rents, new minimum wage laws, and other sky-rocketing costs.
Tom Colicchio, the famed chef-restaurateur who has long had several excellent Manhattan establishments predicted, “Soon there will be no new New York restaurants on street level. They will have to be on second or third floors where rents are lower.” That said, he has just closed his huge and excellent Colicchio & Sons but opened the smartly clubby, enticing Fowler & Wells on street level in an exquisitely restored landmark now called the Beekman Hotel.
In deciding which newcomers to visit, I chose those I expected to like, meaning styles of food and service that appeal to me most. That meant none were restaurants where one eats awkwardly such as seated on high stools or places that don’t take reservations resulting in a two- to three-hour wait. I also eliminated chefs who are grinding dietary axes in the name of health.
Unfortunately, I visited three newcomers too early to be able to recommend. But all are promising options for 2017: Danny Meyer’s reincarnated and impressive Union Square Cafe, Keith McNally’s exquisite brasserie, Augustine, and Loring Place where Dan Kluger is beginning to serve up the same kind of delicious food he was known for at ABC Kitchen.
What stood out as trends to me is the abundance of really lusty meat dishes, a new adoration of marrow, and the return (or persistence) of French cuisine. Also on most menus: overly generous helpings of noise.
Given all of the great new options, it might seem churlish to bemoan a few losses; but in sadness, I bid very fond farewells to three longtime beloveds: Da Silvano with the best sidewalk cafe and classic Tuscan dishes, the Carnegie Delicatessen, home of great pastrami, corned beef, and matzo ball soup, and Soto, an under-the-radar winner for expertly crafted sushi with emphasis on uni, and a whole fried sole with the crisp and flaky appeal of gold leaf. Many thanks to all and I hope to see you in my dreams.
If ever there was a man who deserves celebration, it is Stephen Starr, the Philadelphia restaurateur who has branched out in New York with several places that are extraordinary for food, service, and stunning settings. Among them, my favorites are Morimoto, Upland, and now, Le Coucou, clearly this city’s restaurant of the year. Under chef Daniel Rose, the young American who made a name in Paris with his bistro, Spring, classic French dishes of maximum, authentic flavor get appealingly modern presentations. This in a high flown, spacious setting that combines luxury and rustic deconstructed details for a dramatic effect although noise can be intrusive when the place is full. In the formal dining room that opens to the kitchen, tables are large and comfortably spaced and a sort of front garden room works as a delightful sun porch, especially for breakfast, brunch, and lunch. Favorite dishes: leeks vinaigrette with hazelnuts, fried eel, warm oysters/seaweed butter, quenelles de brochet, any fish with beurre blanc sauce, duck with figs or cherries, rabbit three ways, any lamb, chocolate mousse, and rice pudding.
OK so it’s not a new restaurant by name, location, or urbane decor but in 2016, Angie Mar, the chef there for several years, bought the Inn from Vanity Fair editor in chief Graydon Carter. She closed it for a while and then re-opened to express her true culinary self with a stunning menu and unique preparations. There is fish to be had here, but it would be a tough choice against more sustaining offerings such as a pie of mixed game with a chimney of marrow bone rising from the stiffly crackling suet crust, or the duck for two set aflame tableside, or lamb neck ossobuco much superior to that dish when made with veal. Fortunately, there is still Ms. Mar’s justly famous meltingly tender milk-braised pork shoulder. Start with luscious chicken liver pate or the salad of apples and romaine lettuce or savory cherry tart, and in case you haven’t had enough bone marrow, you will welcome it for dessert as it enhances the crème brûlée. I am partial to the intimate downstairs front dining room though a bit noisier than the more spacious airier enclosed garden room. Maybe it just feels bit more “in.”
As a fan of Austro-German food, I was delighted when Peter Grünauer came back to New York and opened this rustic, convivial bistro on the premises many will recall as Primavera. One of my heroes of this particular cuisine, Grünauer in 1979 opened Vienna ’79, an elegant sort of supper club on the Upper East Side with stylish riffs on Viennese dishes and to which I gave four stars as the restaurant critic of The New York Times. This bistro, however, is much more gemütlich with tavern-brauhaus overtones and the comforting, delicious food matches the setting. Even the spiced liptauer cheese spread and the fragrant beef broth with slivered crepes are exceptional as are the tafelspitz-boiled beef with vegetables and horseradish, and the paprika-blushed goulash with spätzle, and the sage-buttered Austrian ravioli. Must among desserts is the hot and puffy Salzburger nockerl, a sort of hot riff in the French floating island.
The first American outpost of the original in Paris, Le Coq Rico by Michelin-starred Alsatian chef, Antoine Westermann may be the noisiest and most cramped of these newcomers whether you sit at a table or at the appealing counter facing the grill. Yet I find it hard to stay away although I try for quieter lunchtimes because of the amazing array of rotisserie grilled chickens of various heritages. Huge, juicy, and turning sunnier by the second as they swirl on the rotisserie, these rather large birds are priced in the mid-$90 but each is plenty for three or even four diners, depending upon the chosen appetizers and sides and leaving room for the epic mille-feuille pastry. My two main course favorites however are not chicken but rather the juicy, flavorful guinea hen or the individually portioned squab braised in cabbage leaves in the style of an old-time chartreuse. Great pâté en croute and a green salad with chunks of chicken livers as well as a board of grilled chicken innards are hearty starters and enticing sides include mac and cheese and crunchy pommes frites.
I have never been to a restaurant where April Bloomfield is the chef without loving it on first try, and this brand new, totally casual butcher-cum cafe is no exception. The full retail butcher shop provides the delectable choice cuts for the menu served at high stands or low tables, as well as for take-out. Service still needed polishing in the earliest days but food was totally well-realized from the vibrant sliced ribeye to the unusual beef heart, that is butterflied, trimmed, and grilled to rare perfection almost rivalling the steak. For fainter palates there is a comforting dish of smoked chicken rice and a refreshing salad of lettuce with pistachios in a lemon-tarragon dressing. Supple chicken liver mousse and sourdough toast with meat drippings, as well as the crisp potato cubes layered in beef fat and squash bolstered with farro are delicious choices. There is very good chocolate mousse but hold out instead for the amazing eclair topped with a snowfall of shaved coconut—surely enough for two. A welcome addition would be better wine-by-the-glass choices, especially among reds.
What fun this place is! Huge, casual, shining, and suggesting a market-cum-cafe restaurant, Harold Moore’s venture in the new Arlo Hotel is a riff on the traditional southern cafeteria format whereby diners order a main dish and for that price have the choice of three side dishes. As we were four at lunch, we had 12 different sides spread out before us—an embarrassment of riches. And just about everything was cozily comforting. Moore, who is already celebrated for the impeccable fried chicken he turned out at bygone Commerce, repeats that dish here, along with juicy veal meatballs, green chile tripe, and the egg and tomato combination that is shakshuka. The dinner menu adds beef pot pie, roast chicken, and hangar steak marchand du vin among other somewhat sophisticated choices. Among the best sides are crushed cauliflower, potato puree, grits, butternut squash, and a broccoli and rice casserole. In addition there is an all-you-can-eat salad bar that includes shrimp and prosciutto in addition to the green stuff, all for an additional $10. A warning: Save room for the mile-high coconut cream layer cake that will surely put the south in your mouth.
Tom Colicchio’s newest effort is this grown-up, polished, and intimate restaurant that features what he describes as French-informed American food. By any definition all so far has been beguiling. It was half-jokingly named for two phrenologists who practiced their questionable profession in the original building now magnificently restored as the Beekman Hotel. Expectedly luxurious foie gras, a half-lobster baked under a buttery mantle of herbs, and an inspired round of porcelet banded with crisp rind, were among winners, along with a lightly fried rabbit schnitzel. Although baked Alaska tasted just fine, it did not arrive aflame, more a disappointment to the eye than to the palate. But I congratulate the bartender on an impressively convincing Scotch sour, an old-time cocktail that I am trying all around town. Whether before or after a meal, plan to stop in the soaring, magnificent atrium bar.
Loving Chinese food and totally crazy about dumplings, I took to this spacious and handsome garden-like newcomer early and often especially as it is near my home. With a name that is less than catchy, it promised unusual interpretations of Chinese standards but was not quite clear as to whether Madam Zhu’s was the “really authentic way” or stylish riffs. No matter, for on the earliest tries I came to love the unusual shiu mai, steamed pork dumplings here in thin fluted cups with sticky rice adding a silky texture to the ground pork. Green shrimp-filled dumplings and those called clay pot served in broth were excellent and the warm and spicy Sichuan dandan noodles were among the best in town (excepting only those at Wu Liang Ye on West 48th Street). But sometimes strange things happened here: a kitchen on the fritz could serve only cold food for almost a week; a reservation was not noted; shiu mai were once overcooked and falling apart. But each time I chanced a return with trepidation, I was beguiled by some other wonderful dish: chunks of tender beef with crunchy walnuts, a spicy, verdant fish stew, tiny cold clams with garlic chives, and several times, pickled celtuce, a root vegetable that is a cross between knob celery and lettuce. And so for lovers of Chinese food with a taste for the unusual, Hao Noodle (and the tea is good, too) is worth chancing.
Back in town after a too-long lapse, Floyd Cardoz, most famously of the bygone Tabla where I loved the downstairs bar featuring Indian breads and street foods, is bringing enticing new looks to traditional dishes, many from the Portuguese-influenced province of Goa, where he has special roots. That influence accounts for the name pao (a puffy yeasty bun) and walla, a maker or vendor. (Shakespeare Wallah in fact, was the title of a marvelous 1965 Merchant-Ivory film about a poet crazy for biryani.) A supple biryani is served at Paowalla but based on silky noodles rather than the more traditional rice and is a dish not to be missed. Neither are the breads although I somewhat prefer oven-crisped naan brushed with rosemary to some of the more elaborate offerings that sate the appetite too soon, so be cautious. Brunch here would make breads more suitable along with the array of unusually intriguing egg dishes.
More light would be welcome in this cramped, noisy setting as Indian food with its burnished spice colors is lovely to see and where dishes are unusual sight would add to enjoyment. But only tasting is believing and dishes that proved totally delightful include the stunning crisp, batter-fried long green shishito peppers, the baked crab, and the superb, naturally-raised Elysian Fields lamb, here cushioned against lentils and cracked wheat in an aromatic curry.
Considering that I also visited the two very serious restaurants—Agern, the new Nordic restaurant in Grand Central Station where the only memorable dish was a roasted beet, and the esoteric Günter Seeger that proved a bit too stark, it may seem idiosyncratic to prefer the far less ambitious, but delightfully different Sunken Hundred, a small Welsh bar-cafe in the Carroll Gardens section of Brooklyn. It sparked my interest because I have been trying to learn if the Welsh make versions of several foods and whisky already famous in Ireland and Scotland. Turns out that under the aegis of the Penderyn Distillery, whisky is being produced after a lapse of one hundred years. The easiest place to try it is this brand-new outpost. In a long, bright narrow room one can sit at the bar or tables, and study the huge picture depicting the austere, legendary sunken kingdom, a local myth that inspires this place’s name. What inspired me was the decent size menu with enough dishes to make for several interesting and cozily delicious meals. The star is Glamorgen sausage, a crisp golden croquette that is traditionally made only with vegetables, despite its meaty texture and for which history and a recipe are provided in The British Table, Colman Andrew’s best-of-2016 cookbook. There you also learn that in Wales a cawl is a broth or a stew traditionally made with meat although the pleasing riff here is based on seafood. Seaweed ketchup adds a saline note to crisp chips and other winners included braised leeks, a savory lamb pasty, aromatic mussels in a pork belly broth and, ffagodau which is how to say meatballs in Welsh. For a sweet finish try the authentic rummy pan-fried tea cake, Bara brith not to be confused with B’nai B’rith.
The Penderyn Whisky? The only type sold in the U.S. is the Madeira-finished single malt, a convincingly aromatic, delicately smoky drink about which I leave further details to my colleague Noah Rothbaum for another time.
A Happy and Delicious New Year to all!