The room was a world of its own making: confident and beautiful and captivating. You walked in from southern Manhattan’s construction-hoarded skyscape – under the “Alimentari & Vineria” sign and through the doors and the light was suddenly warm and the walls were lined with hand-blown antique wine jeroboams from Italy.
The air smelled of roasting chicken and sizzling artichokes. A smiling server brought a glass of fizzy, strangely soulful lambrusco and crusty hot sourdough and little dishes of salt and olive oil. The chefs wore red cotton cycling caps with the brims flipped up, like old-time Giro d’Italia racers. Il Buco Alimentari e Vineria’s chefs cooked with a level of skill you just don’t find in many other towns.
I had a plate of the razor clams. They’d been shucked and chopped and set back on their half-shells with olive oil and chilies and the juicy, softly floral pulp from finger limes. The lime pulp’s pale translucent vesicles pop-popped tart and effervescent as you ate them, an epiphany against the chilies’ spice and the clams’ briny sweet.
The clams gave way to the greatest bowl of pasta I’d had in ages, and then to a juicy, assertively spicy half-chicken that had been marinated in harissa and brick-oven-roasted.
This was lunch on a Monday, the first stop on a five-day eating trip in which I hoped to discover some of the best new(ish) restaurants in New York. Of course that’s a tall order. The city’s scene is a perpetual 10,000 rpm churn of promise and success and failure and reinvention. The half-life of hotness here lasts approximately 3 1/4 weeks. But out of that churn comes way-out-of-the-ordinary restaurants. The best spots in New York suspend time and disbelief. They all have their own sense of place: only right now, exactly here.
As I was starting in on my pasta that afternoon, the couple at the next table met my eye. Their expressions said that they knew what I knew. They knew that Il Buco was one of those places. And that nothing feels more like getting away with murder than a long, boozy lunch in the greatest dining town on Earth.
After dinner one night, a friend from the city was trying to explain how much New York’s restaurant business has changed. It was nearly 10 p.m.; I was rushing off to a second meal. New York is overpopulated with 25-year-olds who spend their entire disposable incomes on restaurant cooking, he said.
Sure enough, 30 minutes later, Uncle Boons was rammed with proof of that. They drank cocktails and talked about real estate, table tennis and True Detective. They ate toasted coconut wrapped with lime and chilis and ginger in betel leaves and curries with pickled mustard greens.
Uncle Boons is a casual Thai rotisserie. It opened just more than a year ago near the Bowery, in Manhattan’s Nolita neighbourhood. The room is decorated with Thai movie posters; its soundtrack runs from smoky-voiced Thai crooners to warbly funk. At the bar, a mechanical beer-chilling machine turns bottles of Chang lager into disconcertingly refreshing slushies.
Uncle Boons’s two chef-owners – she from Northern Thailand, he from Long Island – met while working in the kitchen of Thomas Keller’s Per Se, one of the top restaurants in the city. When you apply that level of training and talent to Thai food, it doesn’t taste much like the Thai food most North Americans know.
The blowfish tails, fat and juicy with their fins still attached, were sweetly charred and bathed in coal smoke and perfumed with lime and garlic. I ate them with my fingers alongside grilled baby octopus, dipping them into complex green chili sauce, sweating and smiling like a maniac from the heat. I had sworn to myself that I wouldn’t overdo it. Now I couldn’t pull myself away from the mee krob: fried sweetbreads on a salad of crispy noodles, peanuts, herbs and tamarind.
Yet for me the killer dish was the rotisserie cabbage, a $6 side. The kitchen slow-roasts whole green cabbages until they are sweet and darkened in spots and nearly melted inside, and then quarters them, sousing the hunks with chili and fish-sauce-based nam prik and bombing them with deep-fried shallots and crispy shrimp. I can’t say I’ve ever had anything like it. I haven’t stopped thinking about it for a month.
A lunch crowd was building in the food court. Gotham West Market is located far, far away from the usual dining strips. It’s in Hell’s Kitchen on Manhattan’s distant West Side, a (gasp, if you’re a New Yorker) 12-minute walk from the nearest subway stop.
The market is bright and cheery, with window light instead of dreary fluorescence. It’s populated by independent restaurants and purveyors and even a “hand-crafted” coffee company – the sort of quality-obsessed entrepreneurs who’ve breathed new life into local, small-scale food production of late.
My prime destination was the stainless-steel counter facing Ivan Ramen Slurp Shop, a fresh-faced noodle-soup spot run by Ivan Orkin, a Long Island-born chef.
Smartly designed illustrations around the counter demonstrated the finer points of ramen-eating. The menu went one further. “Bring the noodles to your mouth and SLURP loudly!” it instructed.
“Find the rhythm of the noodle,” it said.
Orkin’s calling card is his rye-flour noodles. They taste as though they’re enriched with chestnuts: They’re firm and almost meaty-tasting, springy like the really good stuff, deep-down satisfying. Orkin adds whole roasted tomatoes to his soup as well – the effect, against his classic soy and chicken broth, is bright and a little sour, sweet and hugely savoury. There isn’t a single detail Orkin didn’t think through. New York has gone mad for the joint; a second Ivan Ramen opened earlier this month on the Lower East Side.
The Slurp Shop has a lot in common with many of the new-school restaurants and food shops that seem to be taking over the city these days: out of the way location, tiny, focused menu.
And though his restaurant feels every bit like something you’d only ever find in New York, Orkin is an outsider to the city: He opened his first ramen shop, proved his concept and made his name not here in New York, but in Tokyo, where to this day his noodles remain a cult favourite. Chefs and restaurants from outside New York – Mission Cantina, run by the San Francisco chef Danny Bowien, Oregon-based Pok Pok, and Toro, a buzzy new Spanish place, originally from Boston, are a few of the recent high-profile examples – have been having a good run in the city of late.
One night I ventured out to Greenpoint, Brooklyn – newly fashionable thanks to soaring real-estate prices elsewhere, but still far enough out of the way that it might as well be Indiana.
There I ate a superb meal at the counter of Luksus, a neo-Nordic spot run by Daniel Burns, a Halifax-raised chef. The restaurant is hidden in a tiny room at the back of a Danish-owned craft-beer bar. (Scrawled on the chalkboard sign out front: a drawing of Yoda, and the words, “Get beer you must.”)
The room was packed. The restaurant critic at New York magazine, Adam Platt, named Luksus one of his 10 favourite new restaurants of 2013.
I had lambs’ sweetbreads that had been fried like popcorn chicken and served in a craft paper cone with briny, hay-infused sauce gribiche, and skate poached in olive oil until it was wickedly moist, tender and mellow.
It was new-Nordic cooking (rye toasts; restrained seasoning; the same 10-pound, hand-thrown plates as at Noma) through a New York lens. My only complaint: Luksus’s tasting menu is served with beer only; by the time that fish arrived I might have killed for a glass of wine.
Even in a city that thrives on extremes of money and scarcity, that proudly wears its badge as home to many of the world’s most exclusive restaurants, it can all get to be too much sometimes.
I’ve never had to navigate as demanding a reservations department as the one at Little Elm, for instance, an eight-seat tasting-menu spot in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, where I had pretensions of eating at 6 p.m. on a Thursday night last month. To keep my booking, the restaurant required that I photocopy the front and back of my credit card and fax it to them, along with a signed release form. (Life is too short. I didn’t bother.)
At Atera, an acclaimed, 24-course tasting-menu restaurant that’s run by the chef Matthew Lightner, the most memorable things about my dinner were that a) the sommelier talked endlessly about his wines, and how rare they were, and what exactly they were going to taste like and where I should focus on my palate when I tasted them and why he’d paired them with what I was about to eat (the short answer: because he’s a wine-pairing savant), and b) that everyone around me seemed to care more about the novelty of a restaurant serving 24 courses – count them, 24! – than about the actual food.
I was served a tiny duck’s heart entombed in beeswax, a flower sculpture made from garlic and razor clams, a miniature lobster roll built into a meringue “bun,” a piece of trout that tasted of pork, a course called “geoduck, lardo, air baguette.” (Please tell me you just rolled your eyes.) Some of it was excellent. Most of it was overwrought: pretty but mediocre. Dinner for one with wine pairings cost $485 (U.S.).
Yet New York’s splash-out restaurants can be unforgettably delicious, too. What I remember most about the 10-course, all-dessert tasting menu I ate early one evening at Per Se, Thomas Keller’s gilded and linen-draped pleasure palace in the Time Warner Center, is how restrained and original and gorgeously balanced and beautifully plated those dishes were. (Even better, that tasting menu, available from 5:30 p.m. onwards to walk-ins only and also at lunchtime on weekends, is a steal at $70.)
The lunch I ate at Le Bernardin the last time I was in New York remains one of the greatest, most memorable meals of my life. Le Bernardin’s cooking combined incredible ingredients, best-in-show technique and that other, rarest of kitchen elements – artistry – to a level I’ve never seen surpassed in another North American restaurant. It cost nearly $450 all-in for the full lunchtime tasting menu and wine pairings; it was expensive enough that I ate there alone while my (monumentally understanding) wife wandered around the city. I would do it all again in a second.
And all that talent from the high-end trickles down, not merely in the form of staff and new restaurateurs such as that couple from Uncle Boons, but also by helping to build an expectation of excellence at places where the silverware doesn’t come from France.
It turns up at the city’s most extraordinary wine bar – the East Village flagship of Terroir, the friendly, riesling-and-Madeira-obsessed flagship of a growing mini-chain that’s run by a Torontonian named Paul Grieco.
It shows up at sandwich and coffee shops and vegetarian restaurants and bagel counters, and at Bouchon Bakery where the quiche, tall and jiggly and as tender as foie gras and sold by the slice, may be the single sexiest, most purely sublime expression the humble egg will ever achieve.
The trip ended the best way possible, with a long lunch in Lower Manhattan. This one was on Mulberry Street, where Little Italy brushes up against the Lower East Side and Chinatown. It was in a little room that’s kept hidden behind lace curtains, that has polished wood benches and Italian-American groceries on the shelves around it, that’s fronted by single-pane windows that might have been installed in the 1890s. On one of them, someone had painted in tidy red cursive, “Torrisi Italian Specialties.”
I half-expected to find a canning party – two dozen nonnas making tomato sauce. Instead, there were just two other patrons. (Dinner reservations are significantly more difficult to come by; N.B., the reservations department is nowhere near as polished as the restaurant’s floor staff.) It would be hard to overstate how lucky we were to have a world like this all to ourselves.
The chefs, Rich Torrisi and Mario Carbone, are products of the city. They trained under the best in the business: with Daniel Boulud and Mario Batali. Torrisi Italian Specialties first opened in 2009 as a sandwich shop. Today it is built around a $100, seven-course tasting – their tribute to the neighbourhood as a melting pot. (The restaurant, as with the city, is constantly being reinvented.) The wit and inventiveness and sense of place of the cooking that day blew my mind.
There was a note-perfect salmon tartare topped with cream cheese and salmon roe and served with “everything” blinis, a nod to the area’s Jewish history. And a gossamer slice of lamb carpaccio dotted with chili oil, sided with a steamed bun in a bamboo basket. There was a fillet of trout done francese-style, breaded and fried with that classic Italian-American sauce of lemon, reduced wine and stock and butter, but made with four-star precision. The gnocchi – gnudi, really – made with sheep’s-milk ricotta and chestnuts was one of the most time-stopping dishes I’ve had in my life.
Before dessert, they served a crystalline lemon ice in a tiny paper cup, like you might find in a 1950s scoop shop. That single gesture, the wit and humility and nostalgia, and yes, of course, the deliciousness of it, said everything you need to know about the restaurant.
I wished I never had to leave.
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