Best new restaurants of 2015
There’s no set menu at Semilla (Spanish for “seed”), the pair’s intimate, vegetable-forward chef’s counter, with the rootsy output (8–10 courses for $75) changing weekly, sometimes daily. That spontaneity allows for constant revisions and brainy inventiveness—not a surprise given the couple’s pedigree. José Ramírez-Ruiz put in time in the experimental kitchens of César Ramirez at Chef’s Table at Brooklyn Fare and the Ignacio Mattos–era Isa, while Pamela Yung honed her skills via serious-minded pastry programs at Roberta’s and Torrisi Italian Specialties. Their cooking is as high-flying as it is powerfully fixed to the earth, a cerebral quality offset by genuinely warm service. (The chefs personally deliver dishes to diners at the stark, 18-seat ashwood bar.)
Jeremiah Stone and Fabian von Hauske’s avant-garde tasting-menu den, Contra, already had an understated, almost mumblecore approach to set menus—five courses clocked in at $55 when the place opened; elevated to its current $67, it’s still a bargain—but Wildair is even more low-pressure, set with sardine-packed bar tables, a fuzzy midaughts soundtrack and neighborhood affability. And though Wildair’s snacky, à la carte menu has less sharp-edged experimentation than Contra’s, there are low-key innovations at play here. The simple bistro pleasure of breakfast radishes with soft-churned sweet butter are smacked with the briny funk of seaweed ($8), and beef tartare ($14) is sultry with smoke courtesy of a haze of hardwood-kissed cheddar, with chestnuts adding pops of crunch.
Gabriel Kreuther—the restaurant, not the man—is not “cool.” The big-box room, situated on the ground floor of the Grace Building, is too comfortably cream-toned for cool, fixed with timber barn beams and folky stork wallprints evocative of the Alsatian farm country where Gabriel Kreuther—the man, not the restaurant—hails. But Kreuther isn’t concerned with cool, nor should he be. Fresh off an acclaimed decade at Danny Meyer’s MoMA restaurant, the Modern, the veteran chef joins the grand pantheon of name-bearing flagships—the Daniels, the Jean-Georges—with cooking that’s as personal as it is precise. Kreuther doesn’t pander with mere greatest hits. Instead, he turns out the year’s most visually arresting dish, a ceviche of raw diver scallops in a moat of brightening jalapeño coulis with black radish curls and crispy tempura crumbles.
Branden McRill and Patrick Cappiello look like any two guys you’d find walking down the Bowery—plaid-shirted, sporting stubble and, in Cappiello’s case, serious arm ink. But despite such slacker appearances, the young guns are behind two of the most impressive wine programs in the city: first at ambitious Nolita dining room Pearl & Ash and now this neobistro sibling next door. Like at Pearl & Ash, food and wine play a symbiotic role here, with chef Daniel Eddy (formerly of seminal Parisian restaurant, Spring) turning out brainy Gallic bar bites like a deconstructed leek vinaigrette garnished with leek ash ($12) or fried, salty spheres of pig's head ($12) with vin in mind (a more extensive food menu is available in the back dining room).
Sorry, Chris Pratt, the It dish of the 2015 blogosphere was actually a fried chicken sandwich. The year was inundated with heavyweight options, from Shake Shack’s Brooklyn-only ChickenShack to Chick-fil-A’s Manhattan debut, but one bird ruled the roost: David Chang’s poultry tour de force, with buttermilk-battered, Scotch-bonnet-smoldering meat spilling out from under a pliant Martin’s potato roll. Spare trimmings—a slick of briny butter, a few snappy pickle chips—allow for focus to remain on the bird, and what a mighty bird it is.
In the überindulgent world of three-figure omakase thrills, sushi reigns, but tempura, Japan’s battered-and-fried preparation of seafood and vegetables, was never a part of that fine-dining fawning. Enter Masao Matsui. Lured out of retirement by the Ootoya America restaurant group, the 65-year-old Tokyo import has been commanding fryers in Japan for nearly 50 years, a finesse felt in the ease with which he handles his cooking chopsticks behind the tempura counter, drawing those wooden batons up from his mixing bowl to show the ethereal silkiness of his batter. Matsui’s near-translucent tempura veils work wonders for seafood—a scallop sealed in nori before frying, its soft center one luscious shade off raw, or sizzling strips of sea eel, crisp edges curling in on itself like an ancient scroll.
The instantly craveable honey-buttered chips are not the only successful Korean retooling that South Korea–born fine-dining vets Brian Kim and Tae Kyung Ku (Bouley and Gramercy Tavern, respectively) put forth at their neoteric East Village nook. Bibimbap is deconstructed into a DIY “seven flavors” ($14), whisper-thin rice-flour crepes joined by a range of toppings that include julienned carrots, shiitake mushrooms and egg whites. Craggy Korean fried chicken is reborn as arguably the most ethereal chicken cutlet ever ($13), trading grease traps of batter for a delicately crisp tapioca coating, and slow-braised oxtail ($23) is a handsomely refined rendering of the home-cooked classic, highlighting sweet, gelatin-rich meat with the loosest of grips on the knobby bones it’s served on.
Since debuting Torrisi Italian Specialties in ’09, Mario Carbone, Rich Torrisi and Jeff Zalaznick have gone from relative unknowns to restaurant moguls—in 2015 alone, they launched an appetizing store, outposts of their high-end hero spot Parm and Santina, a glass-enclosed jewel box of a restaurant tucked neatly beneath the High Line. Though billed as “coastal Italian," the vibrant set-piece room reads more South Beach than southern Italy. Beneath candy-colored glass chandeliers, waiters bustle around the Renzo Piano–designed cube kitted in pastel polos and white Rod Laver kicks, weaving between potted palm trees to deliver painted ceramic plates of house-cured anchovies and porcelain pineapples brimming with tropical cocktails, as salsa horns blare overhead.
The state of Indian food in New York is a divided one, one of rickety dosa carts and Michelin-level fine-dining rooms. Babu Ji, a south Melbourne import from husband-and-wife team Jessi and Jennifer Singh (from Chandigarh and New York City, respectively), falls comfortably in the middle. There’s a tasting menu, but it’s only $50 per person; a thoughtful wine list but also a fend-for-yourself beer fridge. And the plates are similarly middlebrow— slow-cooked lamb folded into a Kashimiri-style rogan josh ($20), raw Long Island scallops dropped into turmeric-yellow coconut curry ($25)—heartily accessible but more pristinely garnished than your hole-in-the-wall curry house.
The counter-service West Village follow-up to Dominique Ansel's hysteria-inducing Soho bakery is more spacious than the pint-size original, but there are no iPhone-primed lines to be found here—that’s because the work Ansel’s doing is more quietly radical than the hammy Wonka–fied hybrids on the lips of every tourist. Cookie-milk shots and frozen s’mores have been traded for nipped-and-tucked classics, most of which are made to order, like velvety chocolate mousse folded à la minute ($6.50). Upon first bite, the fresh-from-the-fryer mini matcha beignets ($5.50 for six) are a touch too bitter—that is, until you pop one whole in your mouth, where that musky green-tea dusting acts as a gorgeously savory counterpoint to warm, zeppole-like dough.