food crush

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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: danji

danji

I’m one of those strange people who hates chicken wings. I’ve never quite grasped the attraction of eating with my hands and getting all messy for the sake of a few strands of meat and a mouthful of fatty, slippery poultry skin. Until the sticky, spicy, chili-flecked ‘k.f.c’ (Korean fire chicken) wings at Danji made a carnivorous convert of me, that is. Artfully piled five to a plate these honey-glazed wings are meaty and succulent, encased in a firm sheath of crispy skin. In place of the pure heat that too often overwhelms what could be a tasty tidbit, there’s a pleasantly lip-smacking piquancy that is divine – especially when paired with a cool glass of makgeolli, an unfiltered Korean rice beer that’s slightly sweet, like nigori, with just a hint of fizz. My only issue at this casually elegant version of a Korean tapas bar is that the plates are made for sharing. How do two people split five chicken wings? At one point I feared a stand-off, like a couple of dogs staking their claim. Good thing a silky bowl of wild mushroom jook and truffle oil arrived to distract us, followed by a plate of panko-dusted tofu with ginger scallion dressing hot on its heels. Dinner shifted into a new, less abrasive terrain. Like a palate cleanser, we had moved into the velvet course. I became doubly impressed once I realized how the kitchen had organized the arrival of our small plates. We had ordered everything at once and in no particular order. The chef had cleverly grouped our random selections into a composed menu of flavors and textures. Vermicelli noodles with beef and Korean pepper came next, alongside the most curious dish of the evening, spicy bulgogi beef rice cakes. I couldn’t discern the dish at first: it looked like gnocchi and kimchi with a fried wonton on top. Once the server explained that yes, we were close – the gnocchi was in fact a chewy rice cake; the wonton a vegetable dumpling designed to add some crunch – the dish made perfect sense: beef was an accompaniment, not the main attraction, as this was our rice course. It was also the course where we realized we were full. Poached sablefish with spicy daikon arrived to a palpable groan but we gobbled it up nonetheless. The buttery flesh was cut with the tang of a soy reduction, making for a star protein. Small plates can be deceiving, even more so at Danji, where anyone with a taste for a multiplicity of flavors will be easily seduced by the menu of a dozen and a half options. My sage advice: pace yourself; there’ll be plenty of time for bossam and spicy pork belly sliders tomorrow.

kfc chicken wings

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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: 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: esca

I knew it was bound to happen sooner or later: a bust up, a blow out, the discovery of an out and out lemon undeserving of its place in the vaunted Top 100. For some reason, however, I never expected it to happen at Batali and Bastianich’s Esca. Mario and Joe, respectively, are the forces behind an impressive group of critically acclaimed restaurants, including Babbo, Del Posto, Lupa, Otto, and the Eataly megaplex. Together they’ve taken a cuisine which for generations dwelled in a red sauce ghetto and forged an authentic four-star Italian experience. These restauranteurs know what they are doing – which made my recent meal at Esca all the more disappointing. For starters, the rock ‘n’ roll is too loud by half and the lemon yellow walls are in need of a fresh coat of paint. (On the first day of spring – with the weather happily cooperating – could there be anything more off-putting than looking out a window and realizing that the Lincoln Tunnel traffic crawling down Ninth Avenue commands a more serene vista than the scuffed and shabby room where you’re about to dine?) Pressed for time, the reservationist forgave my late arrival yet things got off to a bumpy start when a few simple menu questions left my waiter befuddled. So without help I settled on the two-flight tasting of crudo for which the restaurant is famous. Arriving first, a trio of winners: a plump oyster, satisfying and briny, diver scallop in tangerine-pressed olive oil and peppercorns, and my favorite, local porgy with flaky sea salt. The second plate offered more mixed results: beautifully marbled Arctic char was oddly cut and improbably stringy, a Cherry Stone clam ceviche had all the unpleasant mouth-feel of a spicy rubber band, and yet razor clams with chilis, scallion and mint were delicious and invigorating. (I could easily pop back a dozen and not bat an eye.) The inconsistencies continued with the arrival of polipo, a perfectly charred – and for $17, entirely too small – piece of flavorful octopus on a bland bed of giant corona beans, which were themselves perched atop a flavorless mound of undressed frisée. House made fusilli with gulf shrimp and zucchini flowers was ultimately fine – yet the reality of a few wilted greens tossed into some pasta didn’t quite deliver on the promise inherent in those ethereal spring blossoms. Nobody seems to be in charge at Esca – the contrariety is evident not only between courses but often within a single dish. It’s all the more frustrating because you can sense the good intentions even if the follow-through never delivers. Dessert, alas, didn’t deliver either – though I must admit it never even got the chance. I mentioned to the waiter at the start of service how I needed to be firmly out the door by 7:30. At 7:40 she wandered over oblivious with a dessert menu in hand. That inability to sustain a thought, I’m afraid, explains the Esca experience in a nutshell.

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top 100: le cirque

If you don’t believe it possible that any single establishment could embody the look, attitude, and (un)consciousness of an era, look no further than Le Cirque. In the go-go 1980’s Sirio Maccioni’s restaurant at the Mayfair Hotel was where the elite came to meet and eat. On any given evening you might find the Nancy’s (Reagan, Sinatra, and Kissinger, if you have to ask) cheek by jowl on a red leather banquette alongside European royalty, assorted movie stars, Jackie O, and an editor or two from Tina Brown’s Vanity Fair furiously scribbling it all down. It wasn’t, however, solely about the intermingling of the power elite – it was also about the food. David Bouley, Terrance Brennan, Jacques Torres, Sottha Khun, Bill Telepan, and Geoffrey Zakarian all spent quality time in the kitchen at Le Cirque. And it should be remembered that under Daniel Boulud the restaurant ascended to four-star status, repeatedly regaled by the New York Times. Few people would argue that as the 20th century drew to an optimistic close Le Cirque epitomized not only everything a restaurant should be but also everything a city could be. Today – despite the bonfire of many an interim vanity – much of what made it great remains. For one there’s the impeccable white-jacketed service fronted by the most hospitable hosts in town. You are welcomed like an old friend – more to the point, an important friend – into one of the more elegant dining rooms in the city. The ceilings might soar double or triple-height but the mood is nevertheless cozy and intimée at a banquette overlooking the room. Le Cirque may have lost some of its buzzworthiness and fallen out of favor with the Page Six set but the air remains rarefied. If anything, the diminished spotlight only serves to focus the attention squarely where it belongs: on the food, which I’m happy to say succeeds from the first amuse to the final petit four. In between, a half-dozen meaty Blue Point oysters on the half shell are cause for celebration. So, too, a restrained rectangle of foie gras with quince jelly. The fish is impeccable: both turbot a la plancha atop olive oil crushed potatoes and john dory in a rich bouillabaisse broth make for satisfying main courses. And I dare you to find a desert to trump the ethereal Floating Island. Under the toque of Executive Chef Olivier Reginensi there remains a handful of oldies but goodies like lobster risotto, diver scallops with black truffle in puff pastry, baked Alaska and Chateaubriand for two, but for the most part Le Cirque has gracefully found its feet in the 21st century, moving beyond those flashy holdovers from another era – society swans included.

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top 100: sfoglia

The lighting at Sfoglia on the Upper East Side is both a blessing and a curse. In one regard it’s a minor miracle: the votive-filled, semi-subterranean restaurant manages to refine even the homeliest of profiles into a vision as serene as one of Giotto angels. Yet that self-same light is also a curse upon every amateur food photographer or blogger armed with equipment little more sophisticated than last season’s iPhone. As I fall into both of those latter categories, I’m afraid you’ll just have to trust my word about the food and accept the few images I was able to pilfer from the restaurant’s website. Then again the unfussy, casual elegance of this week’s dining experience is a sure sign that I’ll be returning to photograph the warm embrace of Sfoglia’s den of deliciousness again and again – preferably post-workout. Now that you know the happy ending I can share the evening’s irritating beginning, which didn’t begin nearly as felicitously: in the cold, cramped entryway the host was simultaneously handling future reservations, checking coats, and acting as sommelier to a four-top that wanted a bottle of wine while they waited for their table. My initial impression of an improvised hot mess was only reinforced upon sitting when the waiter asked about water before quickly disappearing. What I really wanted was a glass of Dolcetto but I had to wait, patiently nibbling olives in silent frustration. By the time the waiter finally returned to ask if there were any menu questions, I was hungry, and so quickly ordered a glass of wine, antipasti della casa, and the cavatelli, which sounded intriguing as it came with mustard greens pesto and breadcrumbs.  My partner in carbs went for paccheri, a floppy, tubular pasta with pork shoulder and fennel pollen, plus a side of brussel sprouts for good measure. The waiter repeated it all back to us, getting it wrong. Then he repeated it once again, this time getting the wine wrong, before giving an offhand nod and walking away. Before I could give sarcastic voice to the exchange a plate of bread arrived and we tore at it like a pair of hungry cats. The bread at Sfoglia has a cult following. They ship it now, as well as sell it at the restaurant. The crispy thin crust belies a pillowy warm inside which just happens to be an ideal vehicle for sopping up a flavorful plate oil. When the antipasti arrives with my wine I’m glad we decided to share:  two big crostini smeared with whipped ricotta and sea salt share the plate with a mound of peppery arugula and smoked trout and a salad of shredded radicchio and apple that’s unbelievably sweet and creamy and salty all at once. We begin to debate our favorite, coming close to those embarrassing acts of plate scraping and fork-licking. Who cares that our waiter is a dolt, or that we had to wait in the cold for a table? We are here, in this warm haven where simple ingredients being accorded a respectful finesse and we’ve still got two courses left to go. The pastas are, of course, equally memorable: tender pork shoulder, rich in tomato, has the proper ratio of acid to fat, making the perfect foil for wide tubes of the ribbon-like paccheri. Strangely the tiny cavatelli look like grubs – a sensation further enhanced by a topping of crunchy, butter-soaked breadcrumbs. Yet mixed with a pesto of bitter mustard greens it makes for a dish so savory that I’m glad it doesn’t come in a trough or I’d have to make a right spectacle of myself. A happy accident occurs when the waiter absent-mindedly stops by thinking he forgot to tell us about the special deserts that require pre-ordering.  (He did.) Once I hear the words “bread pudding,” I go deaf and don’t need to hear another word. Somehow I manage to continue shoveling cavatelli in my mouth while signaling that yes,the pastry chef should fire up some bread pudding and oh, by the way, more wine, more wine! It’s like being in one of those collegiate stoner dreams: the taste of everything passing my lips is elevated to such a degree that each bite takes on new levels of deliciousness. A heaping bowl of rum-soaked pudding is the night’s crowning glory, managing to at once be both a proper pudding and a wonderfully light finish to the meal. It’s a testament to the kitchen that I’ve managed to have a generous feed and yet I don’t feel stuffed. In the wrong hands an evening at Sfoglia could easily turn into a bacchanal of Falstaffian proportions. Or do I mean the right hands? I have a sneaking suspicion I’ll be back to put that theory to the test.

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top 100: corton

Despite the oddly antiseptic LED lighting that imbued me and my companions – not to mention the food – with a sallow, slightly cirrohtic tinge, Corton, occupying the Tribeca space formerly home to the late, great Montrachet, builds on Drew Nieporent’s unbroken string of gastro-success. I can’t imagine anyone wanting to dine here on a regular basis but let me qualify that by saying I mean that as high compliment. The food at Corton is rarefied, and as is the current fashion within molecular gastronomy circles, purposely imperfect. Visually stunning, it does not, alas, invite the diner to dig in with anything resembling gusto. Each course in the five-course Seasonal Tasting – there is a 10-course tasting menu as well – comes with an assortment of intriguing side dishes: an Albacore tuna amuse with charred limes on a brick of pink salt; tandoori monkfish twinned with both a cocotte of vegetable stew and a single, perfect Kushi oyster; red-legged partridge accompanied by a partridge shepherd’s pie. It’s the perfect dining exper –

ience for a group: each plate is greeted by oohs and aahs and quizzical looks and occasionally, shrieks of glee. Part restaurant, part gallery the plates are studied at first, as if stanchioned behind a velvet rope, before being timidly poked and prodded and twirled about. (and photographed, natch.) While I wish the wait staff were a bit more instructive in how to approach each course, there’s something to said for the fun involved in discovering the satisfying contrasts of texture and flavor that crash like waves across each successive dish. (Word to the wise: try to get a little bit of everything into each bite.) Even more surprising is the fact that after three hours, five courses, a quartet of amuse and mignardises, and one magic magnum of St. Julien that mysteriously paired beautifully with both fish and fowl, four happy diners trotted off into the windy night feeling perfectly sated yet not stuffed. Uniformly imaginative and delicious, the experience of Corton is so very grown up, so very European. Which is perhaps why I can’t shake the sensation that dinner here resembled less of a Top 100 meal than a vacation.

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the top 100

I spend an extraordinary amount of time eating out. Whether at home or on the road, it’s a rare week that goes by when I’m not eating outside of the house a good six out of seven nights. When New York Magazine published critic Adam Platt’s occasional Top 100 ranking of the city’s restaurants right before the new year, I did a quick scan and discovered that despite my excessive consumption I had eaten at only a handful of the garlanded hundred. Perfect timing for a New Year’s Resolution, I’d say: spend 2012 working my way through the list. Not only would it help in getting me out of a restaurant rut (at present I can’t seem to get enough of Candle Cafe’s seitan) but it would make each Top 100 meal an occasion – look out, Tribeca; hallo, Queens – and a good excuse to spend festive time with fellow foodie friends. The ground rules are simple: no rules. So despite the New Frugality – another pesky resolution I now wish I had saved for 2013 – let the feasting begin.

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