January 3, 2012 | BITE: My Journal
Insatiable Highs of 2011
The Dutch’s good American grub, including oyster sliders, was what I craved. Photo: Steven Richter
To re-channel the words of Brillat-Savarin’s sister Pierrette on her deathbed: “Bring on dessert, 2011 has just died.” Where am I eating now? Where would we go if my Daddy Warbucks called? Of all the restaurants I took a Bite of this year, these are my favorites.
1. I discovered Andrew Carmellini’s The Dutch in that brief moment when the clubby back dining room was almost empty, reserved for ritzy late-arriving hipsters and the tall women they trail. We swooned over the small oyster slider: fat, briny, delicately fried, full and soft, voluptuous like Angelina Jolie’s lower lip, oozing mustardy pickled okra remoulade. The cakey cornbread, smokey homemade ricotta plumped ravioli and the Asia White Boy ribs invoke satisfied mewings. Soon we’re back for fabulous steak tartare, the Barrio tripe cooked in beer with avocado and lamb neck mole, seduced by the chef’s aggressive slant on American grub. Of course, I had to have Kieran Baldwin’s daily pie, full force rhubarb with rhubarb jam, scattered kumquats and buttermilk lime sherbet. For a while I hesitated to brave the painful roar of the full house. I know it’s time to return. 131 Sullivan Street, corner of Prince, 212 677 6200.
At last Ai Fiori, a room with great food bruised grownups can love. Photo: Steven Richter
2. It didn’t bother me at all that Michael White’s sprawling Ai Fiori dining room in the Setai Fifth Avenue Hotel might be regarded as sedate. Quiet, light to read the menu without a miner’s helmet, table padded and swathed in linen luxury. I’d found a place to send grownups, at least those with the loot to handle the bill without getting indigestion. Having announced his star wattage and imminent urban ambition with a big score at Marea and the bawdiness of Morini, that he could glide into a dazzling taste of the Riviera here was no surprise to me. Scallops alternating with celery root smeared with marrow and bits of black truffle lined up in a cradle of bone got my attention at once. Fluke crudo with sea urchin and dots of sturgeon roe played to a duo of passions. With chef de cuisine Chris Jaeckle’s abrupt exit, I’m hoping his replacement has mastered house-made trofie in a tangle of cuttlefish and scallops dusted with espelette-peppered bread crumbs. I’m counting on White’s ego not having it any other way. 400 Fifth Avenue between 36th and 37th Street. 212 613 8660.
Come for Ciano’s pastas but don’t miss the sweet bay scallops. Photo: Steven Richter
3. If it were just Shea Gallante’s miraculous pastas alone, and the feel of being in a small Tuscan town somewhere between Florence and Siena, that would be reason enough to love Ciano. But add in the $20.11 three-course lunch under the soaring skylight, the sommelier’s inspired policy of opening any wine on the list and charging for a half-bottle, and the captain slicing warm bread and rich focaccia in front of the fireplace. Start with crostini, whipped chicken liver mousse, for sure. Baby scallops arranged like a jeweled brooch in season might follow right now. Ask for tripe, if it’s your pleasure; it’s Gallante’s as well. At times the kitchen may creep. And you don’t have to be menopausal to find it a little too warm near the fireplace. Try to think cool and consider remarkable pastas: home-style cortecce with baby octopus, pancetta, fennel and garlicky bread crumbs or pappardelle with duck Bolognese and pecorino. 45 East 22nd Street between Broadway and Park Avenue South. 212 982 8422.
Inauthentic Chinese Chinese chicken salad is a hit at RedFarm. Photo: Steven Richter
4. I have been asked by a tweeter if I am an investor in RedFarm. Pardon my enthusiasm. I’ve been a fan of dim sum master Joe Ng since I first tasted a few hundred of the more than 1000 dumplings and tidbits in his repertoire in Brooklyn at the urging of his partner here, Eddie Schoenfeld. Let me start by noting that the place is small and cramped and inconvenient – it doesn’t take reservations for its 44 hotly demanded seats. I’ve even tasted a dish or two I would have 86’d from the menu at once. But the place is actually cute with a few red and white checked banquettes and menus hanging from plumbing pipes above. Chinese? Sort of. “Unabashedly inauthentic,” Eddie says proudly. Fill up on dumplings, filet mignon tarts, mushroom spring rolls, kung pao pork and chicken triangles. And don’t ignore Katz’s pastrami egg roll. It’s fabulous. The mile high chicken salad – all dark meat -- is my favorite. Roast duck with rice noodles is a must for Steven. 529 Hudson Street between Tenth and Charles Streets. 212 992 9700.
Grilled New Caledonia blue shrimp from opening menu at BouludSud. Photo: Steven Richter
5. Daniel Boulud advanced his conquest of Lincoln Center Gold Coast dining with luscious Mediterranean reveries at good-looking, relaxed BouludSud, and luxurious standup eating and take-out at Epicerie Boulud. I like to sit at the Boulud Sud bar sharing small plates of sea urchin and crab tartine, chickpea and eggplant falafel or tabouleh two ways, then splitting a pasta with my guy after a movie. Boulud has chef de cuisine Aaron Chambers hopping from Spain, to Morocco, Greece, Sicily, and along the Riviera, delivering with a unique vision. 20 West 64th Street between Central Park West and Broadway. 212 595 1313. Even more often the two of us grab a spicy Merguez sausage sandwich with harissa and tzatziki or a Cubano on pressed ciabatta for a pittance to munch standing up at the Epicerie. We’ve even been known to sneak a Bouludian Banh Mi into the movie. 1900 Broadway, corner of 64th Street. 212 595 9606.
Marcus Samuelson’s buttermilk marinated fried chicken at Red Rooster. Photo: Steven Richter
6. Marcus Samuelson, newly settled in Harlem, thought the neighborhood needed a special place to eat. His Red Rooster, drawing a crowd as diverse as the menu, is it. Smartly dressed locals and church ladies in hats join downtown strivers, the curious, and Samuelson fans just waiting for a reason to taxi uptown, with or without offspring. The chef seems re-inspired by the rush, leading a team recruited from fast food dives, with a menu like Samuelson himself: a little Swedish, a little soulful, a little Africa. Granted, it’s not so much about the food. But I loved the tomato jam alongside sweet cornbread, the oxtails, mac ‘n cheese that sticks to the iron pan, and crusty fried chicken with a scent of its buttermilk bath and a hot peppery glaze. 310 Lenox Avenue between 125th and 126th Streets 212 792 9001.
Simpson Wong’s turnip cake from changing menu at Wong. Photo: Steven Richter
7. I’m sipping a Cornelia, maybe the best cocktail of the year for me: a shake of Jack Daniels, cider and Vietnamese cinnamon. Astonishing tastes and unexpected juxtapositions of flavors have emerged at Wong from Simpson Wong’s extended eating tour of Southeast Asia, a recent sabbatical from his restaurant Asean, a few blocks away in the West Village. He patched this small storefront together with recycled book shelves and discarded school chairs with space below to store your tote. Each dish is stunningly original. I must have the shrimp fritters with a last minute pour of preserved fish sauce, and the egg fu young. Bonito flakes move as if alive atop a small pot of wild mushrooms with an egg on top. Not everything worked every time I’ve been but the menu keeps changing. Recently, a marvelous lamb belly dish with endive and kumquats arrived when our friends were too full to move. Somehow I managed to taste and marvel. Pastry chef Judy Chen, alumna of Daniel, finds the alchemy to make duck ice cream quite wonderful. Save room for her blackout cake. 7 Cornelia Street, near West 4th, 212 989-3399.
Qi Bangkok Eatery kitchen scores in an aura of vintage Vegas. Photo: Steven Richter
8. Qi Bangkok Eatery sits like a jewel in the residual sleaze of Eighth Avenue. A shock of electrified crystal candelabra, white marble and shiny plasterwork inside suggest a Las Vegas rendition of Versailles. “It’s a nail spa,” cries my friend Zarela. We’ve come to sample the savory Thai cooking of pastry wizard Pichet Ong. What a happy shock. This is the best green papaya salad I’ve ever tasted, the dressing a glaze of sweet, hot sour and bitter – Ong’s mantra, he tells me later. Ruffled pan-fried kee mao noodles in a spicy basil sauce, charcoal grilled heads-on prawns napped in fish sauce with a torrid garlicky burn, five-spice honey-glazed ribs, I am wowed by the parade, even a torrid red turmeric pork curry almost too hot for me is irresistible. I wouldn’t dare include Qi on this list since I’ve not been back, but Zarela has returned several times impressing various hot-headed pals. 675 Eighth Avenue between 42nd and 43rd Streets. 212 247 8991.
Lincoln’s elegant eggplant parmigiana makes a great starter for me. Photo: Steven Richter
Reborn in 2011: Lincoln is a postscript on this list of favorites because I discovered it anew in summer, enormously vital and energized after a cautious launch in 2010. And from the beginning I’ve found the space spectacular, indeed, transforming. The stretched out prologue of welcome has been 86’d – along with the ridiculous crisps in their $100 toaster holders. Inept servers have been recycled. It’s still a serious investment of cash, even if you stick to two courses rather than three. I count the focaccia and the remarkable spicy breadsticks as my antipasto. Sometimes my guy and I share the huge plate of romaine with white anchovies and pecorino. On Christmas Eve aristocratic eggplant parmigiana from the list of sides made a hearty beginning, followed by pasta: Peekytoe crab and sea urchin with peperoncino on spaghetti tonight. Last time it was black strozzapreti with mussels, ruby red shrimp, calamari, razor and little neck clams. I always hope someone at my table will order the ricotta gnudi with garlic chips so I can taste. Why were the octopus and the Brussels sprouts so salty Christmas Eve? Chef Jonathan Benno had taken the night off. But that’s no excuse. 142 West 65th Street between Broadway and Amsterdam, or enter through the Lincoln Center campus. 212 359 6500.
A parade of Miss Lily’s fashionable hostesses is the most fun of 2011. Photo: Steven Richter
The Most Fun in 2011. Miss Lily’s Favourite Cakes fairly sizzled with a runway of late-night chic-lettes and long-haired bikers in ‘80s thrift shop primp. I was perfectly content with the robust goat curry and savory oxtails, and wondrously moist coconut cake as a finale, but it might be that I was mesmerized by immersion in a rainbow of diversity to rival Red Rooster uptown. The slim unreal fawn with heart shaped derriere in a striped evening gown. The mahogany show-stopper in a bare red mini. A young Diana Ross in black silk cut-outs. And that’s just the staff. 132 W. Houston Street near Sullivan Street. 646 588 5375.
You can count on stick-to-the-pan goodness at Soccarat Paella in Nolita. Photo: Steven Richter
Too Soon to Tell. Resolution for 2012: Give them a break. I arrived too soon at John Dory Oyster Bar at the Ace Hotel. Or maybe it was just an off night. Seamus McMullen’s Tertulia starred on many best of the year lists but the chef had not wrangled it into shape the night I arrived prematurely. He sent us several shaved slices of that remarkable Ibérico ham. A few of the tapas were fine, but the paella had an odd off-putting flavor and didn’t stick to the pan. 359 Sixth Avenue near West Fourth Street, 646 559 9909. That pitiful paella made me long to return to Socarrat, where what sticks to the pan is essential. I prefer the downtown Socarrat Paella Bar (Nolita) where you can book a table. 284 Mulberry Street just south of Houston. 212 219 0101.
Turkish rice pudding, rhubarb sorbet, almond tuile at BouludSud. Photo: Steven Richter
Best Dessert of 2011. It could be the big old fashioned dos leches butter-cream cake with scattered shards of Maldon salt by Pichet Ong at Coppelia the Cuban-Latino luncheonette. Alas, on a recent visit, it looked like he’d been away a while. 207 West 14th Street between Seventh and Eighth Avenues. 212 858 5001. So maybe it’s pastry chef Ghaya Oliveira’s Turkish rice pudding at BouludSud. It sits in the bottom of a fat glass stacked with rhubarb sorbet, cubes of lemon-verbena gelée and ribbons of poached rhubarb. But that means we have to wait for spring. Merci dieu there is always ABC Kitchen with Jean-George’s subtly salty caramel sundae in a puddle of dark chocolate sauce, pebbled with caramel corn. 35 East 18th Street between Broadway and Park Avenue South. 212 475 5829.