top 100: gordon ramsay at the london

IMG_1444Gordon Ramsay‘s noxious, narcissistic television persona might put you in the mind that he’s more clown than chef, but the man and his various entrepreneurial gambles collectively boast an impressive 14 Michelin stars, considered by many to be the ultimate benchmark in the hospitality industry. (To wit, there are only four 3-star restaurants in all of the UK, one of which is Ramsay’s flagship.) The bad boy of British cooking might be an unbearable bore, but his cooking is the real deal – even if Gordo is rarely seen in any of his kitchens these days. His first, and so far only, foray into the hyper-competitive world of New York fine dining was greeted with bemused detachment when he arrived with yet another eponymous restaurant inside the former Rhiga Royal, newly christened as The London hotel. Who was this Glasgow footballer-turned-chef come to teach New Yorkers about French food, the foodie demimonde decried. The reception – to be kind – was cool. Yet despite the collective ennui of my neighbors, I must give Ramsay some props. As fine dining it’s all too pretentious, let’s just get that out of the way. The presentation may be classically – and meticulously – French but the complexity of flavor doesn’t always hit the mark. And neither does the suffocating ambiance, which feels more like a temple to Ramsay’s unmitigated ego than one dedicated to dining. But that doesn’t mean the food isn’t often delicious, because it is. The secret is counterintuitive to how Ramsay see himself: treat his dining room as a relatively casual pre or post theater dinner spot. Get there early or late and order off the prix-fixe menu; it’s fantastic and a relative bargain. The simpler the plate, the better, like a perfectly poached hen’s egg over artichokes and basil puree. Or crispy skate wing with roasted fennel. Ramsay is at his level best when he’s humble with his ingredients, proving that sometimes less really is more. Does anyone dare to try and tell that to the chef himself?

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top 100: torrisi italian specialties

torrisiBuzz can be a great thing for any restaurant that’s finding its sea legs, but it really puts the kibosh on the element of surprise. Since opening in the spring of 2010, Rich Torrisi and Mario Carbone’s homey Torrisi Italian Specialties has been greeted with the kind of lavish praise that has helped make it one of the tougher tables to procure in this city. (It doesn’t help matters that the slip of a dining room seats only about 20 diners at a time.) Which is why I found myself having dinner recently at the ungodly hour of 5:30pm. On a Saturday, no less. Naturally I arrived with expectations. In a city littered with half-assed Italian restaurants, the promise of something revisionist, or just plain properly executed, gets a man salivating quicker than you can say red sauce. I wanted to love Torrisi. Moreover, I wanted Torrisi to love me for loving them. But the feelings of Sunday supper evoked by storefront windows hung with lace-curtains and an elegant, old-school script end outside the door. Despite the kitschy charm of warm wood interiors set off by mismatched china, it’s business as usual inside. (Perhaps there is something to be said about the downside of success.) That’s not to take anything away from the food, which is delicious and lovingly executed – just imagine your good luck to have an Italian Grandma with a degree from culinary school – but the hipster wait staff is efficient to the point of being brusque, it not downright condescending. Feed the myth, Torrisi: where’s the old lady in her sauce-stained apron? The four-course tasting menu varies seasonally, and I expect now that spring has sprung the chefs will be taking full advantage of baby this and baby that, but I hope for your sake the warm, made-to-order mozzarella is a constant. A puddle of barely-set cheese, drizzled with olive oil, it’s like slurping primordial soup. Earthy, silky, and bubbling with the beginnings of fermentation, it’s intoxicating to say the least. Three more appetizers arrive in succession – you have no say in the matter – and while pleasing, they’re not nearly as hypnotic as the mozzarella: blackened tuna with eggplant; crisp, savory potato millefoglie; and oddest of all, a grilled Boar’s Head sandwich with pickles that reminds me of a concoction I might have dreamed up as a child. Fusilli in a dirty duck ragu is a toothsome pasta course, not nearly as rich or as heavy you might expect, but wholly satisfying. (And properly portioned, thank heaven – enough to sate, not stuff.) Both choices of entrée were winners: country pork muffaletta served with roasted and pickled variations of cauliflower, and monkfish in a zippy pepper marinara with shellfish. For dessert, it’s hard to pass up a rainbow cake, which, though not extravagant, provided just enough sweet to round off the meal in that particularly almond-flavored, Italian way. For the quality of the cooking Torrisi’s $75 set menu is a bargain, plus the wine list is equally reasonable. God knows I’ve had much lesser meals at three times the price. And for all my griping about sitting down to dinner before the sun sets, there was an upshot: I made it to Midtown for an 8pm curtain with nary a hitch.

made to order mozzarella

potato millefoglie

fusilli dirty duck ragu

country pork muffaletta

monkfish, pepper marinara

rainbow cake

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top 100: minetta tavern

minetta tavern

From the outside you wouldn’t notice much of anything about the 75-year old Minetta Tavern has changed. The Greenwich Village hangout of writers, poets, and pugilists looks much the same as ever: frozen in time on a shoddy corner of MacDougal Street and Minetta Lane, it’s louvered storefront windows creating the perfect redoubt for all sorts of layabouts and hangers-on. Inside, however, restaurateur Keith McNally along with chefs Riad Nasr and Lee Hanson have meticulously updated the interiors and the menu, transforming the formerly down-at-heel hideaway into the hottest French steakhouse in town. It’s six o’clock on a Saturday night and behind the velvet curtains – ropes being so last century – the joint, as they say, is jumpin’. This is Keith McNally after all, the man behind such landmark restaurants as Odeon, Nell’s, Pravda, Balthazar, and Pastis. So acute is his gravitational pull he can snatch chefs away from Daniel. His premonition of the zeitgeist so unerring that you find yourself in his establishments suddenly desirous of foods you didn’t know you wanted until Keith came along and showed the way. Clubby, convivial, Minetta Tavern lets you in on a secret: French food, in all its unpretentious, butter-laden, robustly flavored glory, is back. This is no wannabe brasserie, it’s a steakhouse-cum-tavern, which means the service is efficient and the bread comes cold. You want roasted marrow bones? Prepare for a platter that would have satisfied Fred Flintstone: three enormous what-look-like-femurs, split, roasted then broiled, with baguette soldiers and shallot confit. How about a simple roast beet hors d’oeuvre?  Brace yourself for a Pleistocene portion fettered with leeks, French walnuts and enough Vermont chevre that Barney and Betty Rubble would have no trouble sharing. Thankfully entrees are a bit more demure: a special of skate wing with cumin and roasted vegetables is warm, savory and as rich as meuniere; that classic of bourgeois cookery, blanquette de veau, is fork tender and served without a smirk on a bed of rice; a grilled whole dorade is simple with fennel and charred lemon without being Spartan. And if ever you’ve toyed with the idea of pre-ordering a souffle, this would be the place to do it. The luscious liaison of humble eggs and Grand Marnier arrives at the table as plump and inviting as a pinata, turning grown men and women into spoon-wielding children. Two smart sides must be singled out for Proustian praise, too: the choux farci, which will change they way you think about a humble cabbage roll, and the heretofore unknown pommes aligot, a variant of mashed potato infused enough cheese and butter to qualify it as the food equivalent of flubber. You don’t so much scoop it out of a cocotte as ladle it out in silky, elastic ribbons. It’s a solid that behaves like a liquid – and surely the only mashed potato I’ve ever encountered that warranted being eaten with both a knife and a spoon. Once upon a time I couldn’t have imagined wanting pommes aligot. Now I can’t bear to think of a life without it. Typical.

roasted marrow bones

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top 100: seäsonal

lobster bisque amuse

I’ve grown accustomed to the two variants of service one often experiences dining out in New York City: the cold, icy reserve of a server who takes himself (and the chef’s food) very seriously and the overly obsequious waiter who hopes to share with you his or her personal favorites and be your friend. Such extreme parameters often come in for a bit of jest at the table, but they are important: service sets the tone of the meal, letting you know whether you’re expected to either sit up straight and pay attention or find the time to chat amicably about every plate after it has been cleared. It may be part of the game that comes with eating out, but at least you know the rules at the start. What I cannot abide are mixed messages. A perfect case in point occurred recently at Seäsonal, a very well-regarded Austrian restaurant on a dim midtown block just south of Central Park. Greeted warmly by the host, I was escorted promptly to my table with a list of cocktails and wines by the glass. After settling in, the host returned to take my drink order and a subsequent question about one of the wines led to the arrival of the sommelier, who clued me in on the flavor profile of a Zweigelt I was considering and promptly poured me a tasting. A savory, spicy red, it was exactly what the weather – and the promise of rich Austrian cuisine – called for. And then I sat and waited. And waited. And waited some more, expecting a menu to eventually arrive. It did not. (As a table in front of me were handed cocktails, menus, placed their order, and started to dig into an appetizer all in the time that I sat there quietly contemplating my wine, I felt just a bit slighted.) Eventually I decided to ask for the menu. Later, I had to ask for a waiter to come take my order. At the end of the evening – I bet you saw this one coming – I had to ask for the bill, too. The warm embrace of the opening salvos at Seäsonal promised a certain kind of evening: friendly, considered, comforting. The reality of the experience, however, proved much the opposite. In truth, the front of house didn’t so much change the rules of the game as forget about them – and me – entirely. Which is honestly a shame because Wolfgang Ban and Eduard Frauneder’s kitchen is as thoughtful and considered as I had hoped. Pearls of cucumber enlivened an amúse of creamy lobster bisque. Meaty pork belly, or schweinebauch, paired with earthy kale and sweet potato, was brightened by the clean zing of grapefruit. A carpet of butter-toasted pumpernickel crumbs proved a perfectly addictive foil for a creamy soft poached egg over tender lobster meat. Kaisergulasch more than lived up to its imperial sounding name: silky veal cheeks in a densely flavored sauce of peppers and paprika came crowned with fried capers, citrus zest and the requisite dollop of sour cream. Add to that a side of pillowy soft, buttered spätzle and I was in hog heaven. Or make that veal heaven. The only culinary misfire occurred with the arrival of a soggy-bottomed apfelstrudel. Much more successful was the kaiserschmarrn, a crumbled caramelized pancake with apple compote that I could eat over and over again. It’s a breach of the diner’s contract to have to go searching for an exit strategy when you should be rightfully allowed to wallow in the afterglow, secure in the knowledge that eventually you will be discretely urged to settle up and move along. So let me take a moment to wag a finger in the face of Seäsonal: the next time an urge for schnitzel hits, I’ll be eating at the bar.

pochiertes ei

kaiserbulasch

apfelstrudel

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top 100: sushi yasuda

sushi yasuda

The conundrum of sushi in New York City is that it covers the waterfront, so to speak: from an exorbitantly priced kaiseki degustation to an all you can eat chop shop or chain, the options very often exist cheek by jowl. For many fish lovers the sushi experience in this city has been both dumbed down and made uncomfortably pretentious, leaving little precious middle ground. Behind a Mondrian-style glass facade on a nondescript block near Grand Central Station, however, there’s an antidote: Sushi Yasuda, an airy interior composed almost entirely of butter-colored bamboo planks. Slightly different finishes and a geometric pattern on a few of the walls, creates a sense of dimension and calm. This is most definitely not Haru. Nor is it Masa. And while the service is tolerable, if just a little brusque, I’d gladly chalk that up to the vagaries of cultural difference for Chef Naomichi Yasuda’s empyrean expertise. His sushi is simple. It’s delicate balance reduced to the selection of impeccable raw ingredients treated with respect. A starter of morokyu is the perfect example. What could be simpler than cucumbers with soybean paste? Yet these cukes are like none you’ve tasted before. Blanched to draw out a bit of the excess moisture, the translucent knobs become sweet, almost creamy, and an ideal foil for salty, piquant soybean paste. Yasuda is renowned as a tuna specialist – he typically offers seven or eight options for tuna fattiness – but the hagashi toro, the super high-fatty tuna taken mainly from the top of the tail, drops like rain onto my tongue. I’ve never had sashimi like this before. So, too, the giant clam, often tough and chewy but here as sinewy and delicately fibrous as young artichoke. King salmon, in both red and white varieties is so silken and pure of flavor that I wish I had ordered more. In fact, I wish I hadn’t made theatre plans and could – as tradition dictates – move on to a course of sushi with rice. (I’ve eaten all my fish without pausing to dip into the chef’s special shoyu, or soy sauce!) When the bill arrives – with a pristine box of bamboo toothpicks – I appreciate that I’m paying to have eaten something special without the guilt that comes from seeing a comma in the total. On one hand, Sushi Yasuda isn’t your quotidian fish bar, but on the other, it shouldn’t be restricted solely to special occasions or expense accounts either. Three cheers for the middle ground; it’s the closest you’ll get to an authentic Tokyo dinner in the Big Apple: refined, informal, wonderfully sublime and worth every penny.

morokyu - cucumber with soybean paste

sashimi like butter

toothpicks

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top 100 (off shoot edition): empellon cocina

Taking a breather from the official Top 100, let me briefly sing the praises of a worthy spin-off. Wunderkind chef Alex Stupak reinvigorated New York’s tired ideas about Mexican food two years ago when he opened Empellon in the West Village. The casual, convivial tacqueria with the unpretentious atmosphere belied the chef’s interpretive – and elevated – take on Mexican: chicharonnes arrived at the table piping hot, noisy as a bowl of Rice Krispies; sweetbreads, maitake muchrooms, and pastrami  became fodder for tacos the likes of which you couldn’t stop eating; and then there was the seductive slate of outrageous salsa – habanero grapefruit, spicy salsa de arbol, pasilla mezcal, and my favorite, smokey cashew. For New Yorkers too long forced to endure the banalities of overstuffed enchiladas, or even worse, burritos, Empellon was a beacon of hope, appropriately south of the 14th Street border. With Empellon Cocina at the front lines of the East Village, Stupak continues his journey, refining his  cuisine by way of creatively composed plates. No need to worry about things getting too haughty, however: a pistachio-flecked guacamole is still an essential beginning. Served with earthy crisps of warm masa, you’ll never be able to look at mere mortal “chips” the same way again. Roasted carrots tangle with mole poblano and watercress in a beautifully calibrated starter. The lusty flavor of fried lamb sweetbreads is set off by nuggets of parsnip and cleverly cut with sliced radish and a sweet salsa papanteca made with pumpkin seeds. Chef Stupak obviously believes that texture deserves a pride of place usually accorded solely to flavor and he proves it in dish after dish. (Even the mezcal comes with slices of orange dusted with ground, salty chapulines.) Without sacrificing the integrity of any single element, his plates come together greater than the sum of their parts. The sociable atmosphere at Cocina is as buoyant as the list of tequila is long, but don’t be fooled by the noise: there is serious business going on in the kitchen.

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top 100: prune

Every New Yorker complaining about kitchen size and space should at some point venture to Gabrielle Hamilton’s Prune in the East Village and take a moment on the way to the toilet to peer into the minuscule kitchen and be humbled. With a footprint no larger than most office cubicles, Hamilton turns out effortless, engaging dishes that make you wish you had the forethought – and the energy – to try them at home. Self-explanatory nibbles like fried chickpeas and radishes with sweet butter and kosher salt go down easy while deciding between meaty roasted marrow bones and a spatchcocked poussin. (I opt for both.) Chef Hamilton knows that fat is flavor and she’s not shy about using it liberally. The same might also be said for those no-nos butter and salt. To food Puritans – or anyone presently caught in the austere rage for “new Nordic” – this night be a heresy. To me, however, it soothes like home, which, I expect, Chef Hamilton had in mind all along.

fried chickpeas

radishes and butter

roasted marrow bones

spatchcocked poussin

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top 100: sushi of gari

Even by New York standards it’s small and the tables are squished cheek by jowl. The uninspired decor is vaguely reminiscent of the Brady Bunch rec room. Service is anything but fluid and the wait staff are notoriously difficult to understand. Still for lovers of sushi there are few meals that compare to one which involves the sublime wizardry of the blade-wielding shokunin at Sushi of Gari, unassumingly tucked away on an Upper East Side side street. Not just the most meticulous kaiseki in town, it’s also – shhh! – the most reasonably priced, too – though you might not have a clue what it is you’re eating. Nevermind, it’s all so artfully done. And chopstick-licking delicious.

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top 100: momofuku ssäm bar

Yes, it’s loud, crowded and incredibly cramped even by New York’s standards – and the byzantine reservation system is almost enough to cause you to throw up your hands and arrive hoping for a random cancellation – but in the end there is no denying the crazy-delicious nonchalance of what comes out of the kitchen at Momofuku Ssäm Bar. It’s everything you’ve heard about and more: inventive, intelligent, insidious, and best of all, indifferent – which I mean in the best way possible. David Chang’s kitchen doesn’t seem to give a rat’s ass for what’s fashionable or trending. (My god, they don’t even have a Twitter account, if you can believe) What Momofuku does have, however, is a culinary curiosity that asks you to either jump on board or get left behind. If you’re at all accustomed to the preciousness that too often comes with fine dining, this is an insouciant antidote and the gastronomic equivalent of a thrill ride. My table of eight started small with raw bites of striped bass flecked with pungent slices of kumquat. Spanish mackerel followed, cut with black garlic, lime, and a quixotic scattering of strawberries. Stimulated we moved on to what I like to think of as the steamed bun course: thick slices of meaty-fatty pork belly, cucumber rounds and hoisin stuffed into what looks like fluffy tacos; a plate of crispy, seasonal pickles; and BBQ buns, which turn that same slice of belly into a wholly different sensory experience: crispy pork, crunchy coleslaw and creamy smoked mayo colliding with finger licking results. Before the main event we downshift to a simple plate of ham. I’ve written about Benton’s hardcore bacon before yet lo and behold, the humble pig reaches its fatty, flavorful – and refined – apotheosis in a plate of paper-thin slices of Benton’s Smoky Mountain ham which dissolve on the tongue like the porcine equivalent of angel wings. And just when you think things couldn’t get any piggier, the Bo Ssäm arrives: a whole Niman Ranch pork shoulder slow roasted for eight hours in a brown sugar and salt rub. Ssäm is Korean for enclosed or wrapped, and the pork comes with bibb lettuce for wrapping, along with white rice, kimchi, ginger scallion sauce, korean bbq or ssäm sauce and a dozen oysters on the half shell. While you’re encouraged to eat it however you please, there is an art – and a pleasure – in going whole hog. Take a buttery leaf and spread it with a little of each condiment. Using the provided tongs grab a hunk of the tender meat, sprinkle with a little rice, toping with a raw oyster, wrap and devour. Yes, you read that right: top it with a raw oyster. A really good medium-sized oyster has a mouth feel similar to lardo. In the bo ssäm that creamy, colloidal texture – along with the spiky mollusk brine – elevates the simple wrap into a salty-sweet, juicy pocket rocket of porky goodness. You might approach the enterprise with a bit of gustatory hesitation but trust me, you’ll soon be shoveling it in with gusto. A good part of the fun also comes from watching your table mates as they experiment with assembling and eating their carnivorous creations. (tip: the messier the better) Ultimately the bo ssäm turns into an epic battle of the wills: man versus pork. I’m full and yet I keep eating and picking and wrapping because yes, I have no self-control, but also because it is that good.  Collectively the eight of us did some serious damage and still, the pork shoulder won hands down. (I took home a solid five pounds of leftover meat.) Stuffed to the gills it was difficult for anyone to fathom room for desert, yet when the waiter mentioned that pastry chef Christina Tosi was experimenting with an off-menu treat that night, I couldn’t resist insisting on one for the table: pancake cake, layered with raspberry jam and miso ganache, glazed with maple syrup and served with a black pepper butter sauce and strips of bacon. A seemingly playful send-up of breakfast, it was sick come to think of it. Sick and oh, so right.

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top 100: lincoln

I do love a surprise. Especially a delicious one – which is exactly what’s tucked under the grass-covered roof of Jonathan Benno’s glass-walled Lincoln. As sophisticated as the Henry Moore sculpture which sits in a reflecting pool at the entrance, Lincoln doesn’t just wax nostalgic for how a big city restaurant should feel, it delivers. Lincoln – all hail the Upper West Side food gods – is a restaurant for grown ups. Not buttoned-up or pretentious grown ups mind you, but the urbane, smart set which once populated many a Woody Allen film: attractive, somewhat attenuated New Yorkers partaking of the distinct difference between eating and having a meal. Proper drinks, substantive food, the dull murmur of smart chatter – all that’s missing from this light-filled room are the sinuous strains of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. Buttery leather chairs are smooth and silent against a carpeted floor; the wait staff glide as if on wheels, as crisp with a pour of Collio Bianco as they are with a well-timed quip. Then there’s the food, which even my tablemate had to admit was a series of gustatory pleasures far more impressive than the oratorio for which we were reluctantly about to depart. For one long used to the cheek by jowl seating across the avenue at Fiorello’s or – god forbid – the ignominious cuisine at too many of the establishments which line the perimeter of Lincoln Triangle, it’s a little disorienting. The menu at Lincoln Ristorante – to use the restaurant’s full name – may not be strictly Northern Italian but it nevertheless feels that way: cool, collected, and stylishly composed, it’s a marked contrast to the swarthy, sweaty, Southern ambiance popularized by Mario Batali. Chef Benno calls his cuisine modern Italian, which is a far cry better than farm-to-table Italian, of which it shares an ethos, but it still doesn’t do justice to the precision techniques on display. Jumbo soft shell crab is lightly battered and deep fried, with a garnish of pickled green tomato, cucumber, celery, and red onion. Alongside a slice of smoked trout terrine, halved stalks of white asparagus are generously blanketed in a fine mince of egg and baby mache. Milk-fed pork shoulder, pecorino romano, and lots of black pepper go into the ravioli, which is as pillowy as any I’ve ever tasted. Long a staple of my childhood menu, had my family called flounder passera I probably would have eaten a lot more of it. Of course, it would have also helped had the fish been pan-fried, too, and perched atop a green sea of fava beans, pea leaves and the first of the spring peas. Who’d have guessed it’d turn out that mint zabaglione is all my childhood really lacked? Mixed roasted mushrooms sound like such a simple side dish and in fact they are, yet what a bowl of funghi: smoky shitakes, meaty hen o’ the woods, and earthly king trumpets in little more than butter, garlic and chives. Perhaps we’ve grown so accustomed to overly lyrical menu descriptions that to call a thing by its name alone feels a bit naive. Looking over the menu after the fact I realize that everything at Lincoln is so equanimously named: soft shell crab, white asparagus, pork ravioli, flounder, and zuppa inglese – a desert of macerated raspberry, lady fingers, and sabayon that beggars belief. Feel free to humor that naiveté at Lincoln; streetwise, studied, or simple, Chef Benno tells  – and cooks – it like it is.

 

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top 100: the dutch

Of all the noisy restaurants in this abominably loud city to Andrew Carmellini’s The Dutch must go the dubious distinction of sporting the most inexplicably ear-splitting acoustics. While the decor is a pleasingly comfortable homespun ode to American earnestness, the decibel level makes it a little like dining on the verge of the BQE or trying to eat in the mosh pit of a rock concert: you live in fear of being bumped from all sides because honestly, there’s no way a group of ordinary humans could be THIS LOUD. I want to make the font larger, the bold bolder, the caps more capital to emphasize just how loud the hive is because even for a Saturday night in Soho it is VERY, VERY LOUD!  And that takes away from the food, I fear, which is pretty darn delicious from soup to nuts. As twilight gently envelope a momentarily quiet corner window table we start with Jersey asparagus because – smelly pee be damned – ’tis the season for asparagus. (In food fetish circles mid-May generally marks the time ramps relinquish their crown to the noble asparagi) Fragrant, toothsome, adorned with the slightest hint of tarragon and the buttery yolk of a fried – versus poached – egg, it’s like eating stalks of spring: verdant, earthy, and above all, vital. Steak tartare is equally alive, the beef tasting of its grassy diet and topped with white anchovy and a piquant dollop of caesar salad. A dozen New England oysters follow: meaty Massachusetts Peter’s Point and Rhody Matunucks thick with brine. Maybe it was the first round of cocktails – for me, The Last Oaxacan, a smoky mix of yellow Chartreuse and pineapple infused Mezcal; an aromatic blend of Thai basil, kaffir lime and vodka for my partner in crime, the Cassia Blossom – or the first bottle of Trimbach, but it’s at this point I notice we are speaking quite loudly while leaning in across the table to listen to each other. When main courses arrive we pay significantly more attention to our plates because it’s a losing battle trying converse at a sufficient volume while not shooting torpedos of food at the person across from you. It’s a taste-a-palooza, however, so we’re both happy to shut up and dig in. I’ve got five plump sea scallops glazed with bacon jam, jalapeno and kumquat. It’s a smoky-spicy-citrus trifecta that makes me want to shout “Yahtzee!” Across the table, my friend has a bowl of tarragon-roasted chicken with morels and charred leeks. The earthy smells perfume the table like narcotics and we happily pass plates back and forth in silence, like a joint shared at the beach – as oblivious to the noise as the crash of the surf. It’s a happy spell of satiety that’s cast, made even better by dessert – an ethereal banana cream pie that makes me yearn for summer. In fact everything this evening, save the noise, has been so seasonally focused that it has me looking forward to what might follow: summer corn, blueberries, and sea bass; autumn lamb, apples, and winter game. Chef Carmellini, you can cook for me anytime. But could you find a way to keep it down just a bit?

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top 100: empellón taqueria

The best part about the Top 100 project? Simple: stuffing myself silly. Yet it’s not  as easy it sounds. With the exception of a few casual establishments my dining experiences to date have been notable for a measured degree of formality. (Perhaps that’s the true price of a $300 dinner for two.) At times you’d almost be excused for thinking the only way to get an exceptional meal in this city was to suffer through a multi-course tasting menu in a suit and tie. Not so at Empellón, thankfully – or Empellón Taqueira as it’s now called. Chef Alex Stupak’s wise and wonderful interpretation of la cocina Mexicana may be civilized down to its crunchy chilaquiles but that shouldn’t stop you from rolling up your sleeves and getting down ‘n’ dirty. Begin with a bowl of guacamole, which is studded with cashews and comes accompanied by two salsas, tangy red arbol for purists and a smoky cashew that seems tailor-made for hedonists. (Put me in the latter camp; I appreciate the red sauce, but I’d happily eat an old shoe if it was dressed with smoky cashew.) If you’re one of those folks who cringe upon hearing people wax poetic over chicharrones, chef Stupak will open your eyes to the beauty that is deep fried pork skin. Served warm with a roasted tomato and caper salsa, there is something deeply satisfying to the crackling sound which rises from the plate, like an overactive bowl of Rice Krispies. The texture is light and crunchy, yet alive with salty, porky good flavor. I challenge you to eat just one. (Unless of course, you’re like one of my dining companions and you’re in town from Rochester – in which case, you’re now wishing you could find a nice quiet Taco Bell and scarf down a gordita or two.) Eyes bigger than my stomach, a trio of appetizers arrive in quick succession: tuna with pickled potatoes and chorizo mayo, which should henceforth be packaged as a summer staple for city picnics, silky rounds of octopus with parsnip and salsa papanteca, a savory mix of pumpkin seeds and chipotle which on first glance looks overpowering but instead brings each flavor together quite marvelously, and a salad of sweet roasted beets with sikil pak, a creamy Mayan pumpkin seed dip that could easily be the new hummus, topped with a scatter of bitter sorrel leaves. In case you’re wondering, everything goes incredibly well with a neat pour of mezcal, too – notably the smoky Fidencio Madrecuixe. I’m physically unable to resist fish tacos whenever I see them on a menu, so forgive me, I didn’t get to sampling either the beer braised tongue or lamb barbacoa tacos – both of which sounded intriguing. But no worries because the tempura battered fish is that perfectly simple yet elusive combination of creamy flesh and crispy shell. Spiked with a dab of lime mayonnaise and the clean crunch of radish and cabbage, I can convincingly predict that I will order these fish tacos every time I visit – with a side of crispy yucca, please, my new favorite form of starch. As I wipe a dollop of smoky cashew off my shirt - excellent as a dipping sauce for the yucca – it occurs to me that therein lies the problem at Empellón: my utter lack of self-control. Every morsel of this meal has been not just good, but great –  in a full-but-can’t-stop-eating, bowl-licking, chip-scraping, my-palate-is-alive kind of way. I’m at capacity and yet I’m trying to convince my companions that we must have the churros rolled in cinnamon sugar with masa-enriched hot chocolate. Dining at Empellón could be a prim and proper experience if you choose to make it that way, but take it from one who’s stuffed and stained and still wants more: it wouldn’t be nearly as much fun.

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top 100: kin shop

My only gripe with Harold Dieterle’s fantastically unfussy contempo-Thai restaurant, Kin Shop, is the lighting. Though the dim interiors go a long way towards making everyone seem that much more attractive, it’s heinous for the amateur iPhone photographer. So, you’ll just have to trust me on this because my snapshots can’t begin to do the meal justice. Also, I’ve never been to Thailand (something I hope to remedy later this year) so neither can I vouch with any authority on esoteric matters of authenticity, yet I can safely say this is the best Thai food in New York – certainly following the all-too-brief lifespan of Lotus of Siam. Like a novice at a night market, I enter just a bit overwhelmed by the thick smells and smoky air. Immediately want a taste of everything. Instead me and my merry band do the next best thing, putting ourselves in the hands of the kitchen and opting for the five-course tasting. (At $65, it’s a smart bargain.) Things get off to a bang with miang, a traditional Thai street food of tasty bits ‘n’ pieces wrapped inside a leaf. Here it’s a mix of fluke, lychee, chili jam, and crispy fried garlic on a shiso leaf. A myriad of contrasting flavors and textures, it’s the canape equivalent of an aperitif; a wake-up call, which tingles the palate in preparation for what’s to come: grilled prawns spiked with fresh lime and Phuket-style black peppercorn sauce; a succulent king-size crispy oyster over fried pork, peanuts and mint; squid ink and hot sesame oil soup (as delicious as it sounds disgusting). I’m made even happier when the special of the night arrives amusingly enough as the equivalent of a pasta course: grilled ramp congee with Chang Mai sausage, crayfish & crispy garlic. It’s the Greenmarket version of Thai comfort food, creamy, thick, and satisfying, with the addition of ramps, no less – the locavore’s answer to crack cocaine. Two versions of duck arrive next: a perfectly pink and tender roasted breast under a fragrant mound of fresh herbs, topped with green mango and accompanied by tamarind water and a spicy duck laab salad riddled with birds-eye chilis that more than earns its four-alarm fire notation. (So potent are the effects of the chilis that more than one person in my party navigated a bout of gastrointestinal distress the following day. Me? I’ve never tasted such an exquisite mix of meat and heat in a single forkful. I could easily eat this dish over and over again.) And that’s a prime example of what’s so enjoyable about Dieterle’s menu. Even if it’s not necessarily always a traditionalist’s version of Thai food, there’s a mutual regard for both the cuisine and the diner that meets way above the middle. Except for desserts, there’s no dumbing down here for ignorant palates. In the piquant hands of this Top Chef everyone and everything rises.

 

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top 100: recette

I’d been dreading this moment since I started the Top 100 project. Mind you, I knew it would arrive; I just never imagined it would arrive so quickly, the subtle realization that as it is in the theater, each night’s kitchen performance is unique – and that remains an essential part of the thrill. Some nights the stars align, defying explanation – let alone codification – to deliver magic on a plate. Other nights – blame the full moon or just an off night – the effort is strenuous and entirely respectable, if not necessarily worth a standing ovation. The meal I eat tonight – despite a restaurant’s striving for some degree of consistency – will rarely, if ever, be the same meal you eat. So let’s just leave  it at this: the stars did not align at Recette the other night. That’s not a knock on Jesse Schenker’s food, which is urbane and thoughtful to a fault at times. (You could do a whole lot worse in this city, believe me) Yet I arrived expecting something ineffable.  What was served was pretty. But for a $300 price tag, entirely too practical.

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top 100: telepan

As a long-term resident of Manhattan’s Upper East Side I’ve spent a disproportionate amount of time turning up my nose at the dining options available on the other side of the park. For many years the Upper West Side was primarily the redoubt of cheap Chinese restaurants and hand-scrawled signs offering free box-wine with dinner. At a push there was Zabar’s. If you wanted a proper sit-down meal that didn’t involve a Kosher pickle you went downtown – or headed east. Reluctantly I’ll admit to having held on to this East-West bias for far too long. Times have indeed changed. The area surrounding Lincoln Center has blossomed and – dare I say? – makes my old ‘hood seem downright stodgy when it comes to fine dining. Case in point: Telepan. Earnest, honest, market-based cooking tucked into an unassuming side street brownstone – this is the type of restaurant you’d love to make your local if only the price points were as demure as the setting. There’s nothing outlandish or extravagant about the kitchen save Chef Bill Telepan’s devotion to seasonality. The homemade mozzarella is unlike any you’ve ever tasted: a shiny boletus cap that’s part cheese, part saltwater taffy. No workaday caprese, it is served atop peppery spring arugula and toasted green garlic with (appropriately enough) crispy hen-of-the-woods mushrooms. A country pate “sandwich” arrives with house-made pickles, citrus chile vinaigrette and toasted triangles of brioche. Jumbo Maine sea scallops are seared to perfection. Cleverly presented on discs of fingerling potato, the toothsome mollusks are accompanied by the last of winter’s reliable veg, cauliflower and kohlrabi. A meaty filet of halibut replaced the advertised wild striped bass the other night because that’s what was fresh in the market. With wild mushrooms, spinach and sunchokes it made for a substantial entree. It’s at this point I was glad to have ordered a la carte and not done the recommended four-course tasting. While the cuisine might be nouvelle-inspired, the kitchen is clearly at the mercy of a Jewish mother who thinks you’ve gotten too skinny. Perhaps the coming spring menu will lighten things up a bit with a lithesome selection of shoots and leaves – I was hoping for the first ramps of the season myself –  but until then my best advice would be to pace yourself.  Because  the food is that good. And dessert is mostly worth saving room for. I would have loved a more significant (and less decorous) contribution of meringue in the Meyer lemon meringue pie, but the gooey puddle of sweet and tart – heightened by supremes of blood orange and grapefruit – made for a fragrantly pleasant palate cleanser. Wait, let me contradict myself: the pie crust and merengue were unnecessary. A big bowl of that custard topped with a sprig of mint would have enabled the less-than-sober scene of my licking a bowl in public. I have no such suggestions when it comes to the cheese board, however. Okay, maybe just one: there’s four pieces of cheese, Chef; please train your waitstaff to be able to identify which is which. That said, I can’t think of a finer quartet of artisanal cheeses outside of a Terence Brennan cave. The Smokey Blue out of Oregon’s Rogue River Creamery is alone worth the price of admission. Lightly smoked over hazelnut shells, it completely altered what I’d come to expect out of a traditional blue, like Roquefort or Fourme d’Ambert. At once pungently fecund and heady with smoke it tasted of the end of winter – and the burgeoning spring.

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