Are we back to normal?
As I shuffled through the archives to choose my favorites of the new restaurants I reviewed this year, it sure looked that way. New York City’s restaurant business, among the first pieces of the economy to fall to the pandemic and among the last to recover, has come roaring back on a flood of Negronis and orange wine.
Last year, particularly in the first half, openings were scattered. Many new places had a provisional, shoestring approach. This was handy for adapting to a disease that seemed to change every few weeks.
The first night I went to Bonnie’s, the dining room was dark because half the staff was out sick, and I ate its inventive and energetic Cantonese American food from takeout containers at home.
But reheated noodles in plastic cartons do not a world-class restaurant city make. Diners who had been holed up in their neighborhoods or out of town were starting to trickle back into Manhattan, eager to see those big-city lights again. Restaurants designed to satisfy them take time and money to build, along with some faith that the world isn’t about to end. By the late summer and fall of 2021, expensive projects started before the pandemic by Danny Meyer (Ci Siamo, on my list) and Ignacio Mattos (Lodi, ditto) finally got up and running. In January, Victoria Blamey opened Mena, a ferociously inventive restaurant that would have landed close to the top of my list had its owner not closed it, shortsightedly, in July.
The pace of big, ambitious openings hasn’t let up since. It’s reached an almost frantic, Lucy-in-the-chocolate-factory speed in the past few weeks, as Tatiana and Jupiter, Torrisi and Naro unlocked their doors. (I haven’t reviewed these and some others yet, so they’re not eligible for this year’s list.)
Under the surface, the pandemic’s aftereffects linger. The labor shortage means that restaurants keep earlier hours and shorter weeks than before. I hear kitchens are understaffed, and it’s obvious that a lot of servers are still practicing their dance steps.
The restaurant establishment, the part of the business that gives you big and expensive projects from people you’ve heard of, is well equipped to handle this. It gave us some of the restaurants I liked best this year. I enjoyed some underdogs, too, like Zaab Zaab and Eyval. But with so many experienced operators arriving nearly at once, it was hard for more modest projects to get a word in edgewise. To try to atone, I’ve come up with a short selection of less expensive restaurants that might have made my top 10 in another, less competitive year.
One note: I stopped awarding stars during the pandemic when things were just too weird. The stars came back in June. That is why some of the restaurants below got starred reviews and some didn’t. Here’s my countdown.
The dining room is a maelstrom, everybody taking a second helping of stuffed rainbow trout and waving for a third MSG martini. But Bonnie’s point of view is clear and unmistakable. The chef, Calvin Eng, cooks the Cantonese food of his family like somebody who came of age in 21st-century Brooklyn. This is distilled in the char siu McRib that’s equal parts Chinatown and McDonald’s. It’s probably Bonnie’s most famous dish, unless it’s the cacio e pepe mein — Chinese-Italian noodles cooked with pecorino and fermented tofu. Bonnie’s magnifies some of the flavors beyond the comfort point, but it does nothing without a purpose. Nothing is dull, either.
398 Manhattan Avenue (Frost Street), Williamsburg, Brooklyn; no phone; bonniesbrooklyn.com
The trick of Hillary Sterling’s Italian cooking at Ci Siamo — well, one of the tricks — is that it can do about 10 things at once while remaining simple enough that it is still at least arguably Italian. She has lots of ideas, but expresses them in a natural, relaxed style. The plates on her long, long menu tick every box you’d see on a “Top Chef” judge’s score sheet — contrast, crunch, salt, spice, a splash of acid. There’s smoke, too, from a wood-burning hearth that Ms. Sterling can take from simmering to scorching and all stations between. This is a project of Mr. Meyer’s Union Square Hospitality Group, which means that you are attended by a platoon of servers eager to figure out what you want before you do. It also means desserts by Claudia Fleming, whose pared-down aesthetic nicely suits not-too-sweet Italian sweets.
385 Ninth Avenue (31st Street), Chelsea; 212-219-6559; cisiamonyc.com
Two charcoal grills sit at the heart of Eyval’s kitchen. Kebabs are the focus of the menu. But beyond this, Eyval does not much resemble garden-variety Iranian restaurants in the United States, where meals tend to revolve around row after row of skewered meats and heaping platters of rice. The chef, Ali Saboor, is trying to imagine his way into a more contemporary and nuanced view of Iranian food. The mushroom kebab is plated with pickled mushrooms and stewed lentils; chicken kebab is less a stick of meat than a thorough rethinking of zereshk polo morgh, a dinner-party staple. Salads and dips are treated as invitations to innovate; some of the most appealing dishes are seasonal vegetables on a bed of yogurt, derived from the class of dips known as boranis.
25 Bogart Street (Varet Street), Bushwick, Brooklyn; no phone; eyvalnyc.com
If you’ve ever wondered what it takes to not get yelled at by Gordon Ramsay, check out Markus Glocker’s new place, Koloman. Mr. Glocker survived in a Ramsay kitchen for about two years, and his food is so unbelievably precise and painstaking that I have to imagine it met with the occasional grunt of approval from the boss. His beautiful salmon en croute is so finicky it could drive a young fish cook to tears; the Austrian boiled-beef dinner known as tafelspitz is reworked, with the emphasis on worked, into a stunning multilayered terrine. Koloman is, among other things, a persuasive argument that very old-school European hotel cooking can still stop you in your tracks.
16 West 29th Street (Broadway), NoMad; 212-790-8970; kolomanrestaurant.com
It’s a hot rod built from the best parts of half a dozen styles of French dining. Breaded tripe, tablier de sapeur, is borrowed from grotty bouchons in Lyon; the exceptional raw-bar menu a tribute to the oyster-crazy cafes of Montparnasse; the natural-wine list like a compilation of the chalkboards in every bar à vins east of the Opéra Bastille. But nothing at Le Rock is quite the way you remember it. The baba is soaked in a pale-green herbal liqueur that recalls absinthe. The steak that’s served au poivre is a bison filet, and it is as tender as pudding. The owners, Lee Hanson and Riad Nasr, and their chef, Walker Stern, have very little tolerance for clichés, which can turn into lies if you repeat them often enough. A steak-frites joint would do just fine here in Rockefeller Plaza, but Le Rock is something better.
45 Rockefeller Plaza (entrance on West 50th Street), Midtown; 332-258-8734; lerocknyc.com
When anyone asks what makes Zaab Zaab stand out from other Isan restaurants, I always say the sauces. There must be a dozen of them — including green and minty seafood nam jim, made for the grilled head-on prawns, and the dark and bitterly coffee-like jaew that accompanies the grilled steak dish Crying Tiger. But each one tastes as if it was fussed over until the basic elements of sweet, sour, salty, hot and bitter had been brought to the maximum state of tension. Zaab Zaab’s chef, Aniwat Khotsopa, is a master of building complexity without losing clarity. His rotisserie catfish is wildly aromatic but not overpowering; the larb ped Udon from his hometown, Udon Thani, is a symphony on the theme of duck. Zaab Zaab is probably the greatest Thai restaurant in the city at the moment. Certainly it is the best one that has chicken heads painted on its ceiling.
76-04 Woodside Avenue (76th Street), Elmhurst, Queens; 631-526-1664; zaabzaabnyc.com
Sometimes you want fancy-restaurant food without going to a fancy restaurant. This was pretty much the idea behind Momofuku Ko, at least at first, and it is a good part of the idea behind Claud, whose owners met while working at Ko. The dining room gestures toward comfort, but doesn’t make any sort of grand statement. It’s happy to let the food and wine take the lead. Joshua Pinsky, the chef and a partner, strips his dishes down to their fundamentals; there’s nothing superfluous. A small skillet of hot oil contains dried chiles, garlic cloves and red shrimp, which cook while you watch. That’s the dish. Bistro-style escargots are reconfigured as snail croquettes — small, crunchy, panko-crusted butter bombs. Chase Sinzer, the other partner, oversees the wine list, which is notable for prized, hard-to-find bottles that will make certain drinkers froth at the mouth. His by-the-glass list is reasonably priced without giving up a sense of adventure.
90 East 10th Street (Third Avenue), East Village; 917-261-6791; claudnyc.com
Sitting on a corner that couldn’t be anywhere but Manhattan, with a front-row view of Rockefeller Plaza, Lodi does a deadpan impression of a small Art Deco cafe in Milan. Waiters walk around in black neckties and cotton work jackets. The coffee menu does not have a flat white, let alone a peppermint mocha latte, but the baristas will pull you a sweet and creamy shot of espresso. If you ask for a sugared bombolone or a chocolate flauto, perhaps the most exquisitely crafted Italian pastry in New York, it will be brought to you on a lace-paper doily. Sandwiches are made on bread of a quality you rarely see outside Europe. (It’s baked in the back, from freshly ground flour.) Hot dishes — fagioli all’uccelletto, pork sausage with mostarda — are Northern Italian in origin, few in number, modest in size. So much about Lodi is almost guaranteed to flummox tourists who came to Rockefeller Center to get a glimpse of Al Roker that I can’t quite convince myself that Ignacio Mattos, the chef and owner, didn’t conceive of it all as an elaborate prank.
1 Rockefeller Plaza (West 49th Street), Midtown; 212-597-2735; lodinyc.com
Restaurants specializing in dosas and other South Indian dishes haven’t been especially rare in and around New York City, but Semma is the first one that feels like a party. It’s not just that the bartenders know how to slip jaggery and curry leaves into the drinks. Or that the list is full of wines that light up in the company of tropical seasonings. Or that South Indian pop plays all night. The cooking itself is celebratory. The chef, Vijay Kumar, seems thrilled to turn Manhattan on to the lush, lavish cooking of his home state, Tamil Nadu, and the region around it. Some of it’s pretty rustic in its original form, like the stir-fried snails or the thick curry of goat intestines. As you’d expect for a chef working in the Unapologetic Foods restaurant group, he’s fearless about chiles — his sprouted mung bean salad can make you wonder whether your will is in order. But then he’s fearless about milder spices like turmeric and star anise and black stone flower, a lichen that adds an earthy essence to Chettinad-style braised venison shank.
60 Greenwich Avenue (Perry Street), Greenwich Village; 212-373-8900; semma.nyc
We could argue about when exactly it happened, but I don’t think there can be any doubt that New York is now the most important city for sushi outside Japan. This must have seemed obvious to Tadashi Yoshida when he gave up his acclaimed sushi-ya in Nagoya to start over in Manhattan. Yoshino, the 10-seat counter he opened on the Bowery last year, should convince any last skeptics, or at least those willing to pay $646 for dinner, including tax and service. The first half of the omakase meal, the tsumami, will be a procession of focused, shimmering little tastes: custard-soft monkfish liver terrine with a searing dot of wasabi; a sliver of pressed, salted mullet roe draped, like a tiny orange piece of prosciutto, over raw sea bream. As Nobu Matsuhisa did years ago with Peruvian flavors, Mr. Yoshida weaves ideas from French cuisine into his appetizers. He will make, for instance, a stunningly smooth vichysoisse and then nestle lumps of hairy crab and a heap of osetra caviar into it. Once he begins shaping his elegantly small pieces of sushi, the outside influences end. Most of the effects for his nigiri come from old techniques of aging, salting and curing the fish. This part of dinner culminates with tamago, the sweet egg omelet, and it has a fragile sheet of burned sugar on top like a crème brûlée. It’s a last look back at France. The city has sushi chefs who excel at the Edomae school of nigiri, and a smaller number who dazzle with their appetizers. With a meal at Yoshino you get the whole package, presented in a space so intimate you can’t help being drawn into the performance.
342 Bowery (Great Jones Street), East Village; 917-444-1988; yoshinonewyork.com