The best affordable restaurants
Chefs have taken to revising America’s favorite eats with an artisan’s approach—which is one reason for today’s renaissance of foods like burgers, pizza and fried chicken. At Bark Hot Dogs, chefs Brandon Gillis (Franny’s) and Joshua Sharkey (Caf Gray) cast their gaze at the lowly wiener, more often associated with dirty water than the German-sausage tradition from which it descends. Already, Bark has become a favorite neighborhood spot with apparent universal appeal. Families pack the stools and high communal tables during the day, workmen stop in for hearty lunches, and groups of friends linger in the evening to drink the excellent craft beers on tap. There’s little mystery to why the place has caught on: The headlining menu item—a proprietary pork-and-beef blend made at Hartmann’s Old World Sausage in Rochester, New York—is a resounding success. Take one bite and the taut casing cleanly snaps, revealing a light and creamy filling with just a hint of smoke—everything a hot dog should be. The restaurant offers a long list of toppings, but aside from the simplest, such as a heap of tangy oak-barrel--aged sauerkraut, we found the dog to be best plain (baked beans with pork and raw onion, for instance, obliterated the frank’s flavor). Alternatives to the standard link were less reliable. While a mushroom-topped vegetarian option should sate most non--meat eaters, the all-beef hot dog was a dense and mealy disappointment. Sides like crisp fries and onion rings, and desserts such
Dominique Ansel not serving Cronuts is like Mick Jagger not singing “Satisfaction”—you risk losing the crowd if you don’t deliver the hits. But with a back catalog as extensive and worthy as Ansel’s, it wasn’t all that earth-quaking when the pastry icon announced he would be favoring deep-cut desserts over that croissant-doughnut phenom at Dominique Ansel Kitchen, the sophomoric effort to his hysteria-inducing bakery in Soho. The counter-service West Village follow-up is more spacious than the pint-size original, with a wooden pyramid of stadium seating in a corner, a large retail counter overlooking the kitchen and a handful of bloom-potted benches outside. 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. Ansel improves upon his own superlative kouign-amann, lacing the buttery, crusty beaut with brown sugar for a deep, molasses-like sweetness ($5.25), but it’s new creations like the spectacularly fudgy sage-smoked brown
They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery—if that’s the case, Russ & Daughters ought to be tickled as pink as its sliced Nova. When Frankel’s—the latest in a neodeli revolution that brought us Major Food Group’s bagel bistro Sadelle’s and Alphabet City pastrami pros Harry & Ida’s this past year—opened on a Greenpoint corner in April, appetizing-store regulars were quick to kvetch about the joint’s design similarities to R&D down to the red-and-green neon signage outside and the exact font that advertises menu items like corned beef and chopped liver above white shelves stocked with matzo meal and U-bet syrup. Frankel’s has since wisely swapped that copy-cat font for a royal-blue cursive, but the tributes go well beyond typeface: Raised on Jewish-food landmarks like Barney Greengrass and Zabar’s, brother-owners and Upper West Side natives Zach and Alex Frankel (former chef at Jack’s Wife Freda and half of Brooklyn synth-pop duo Holy Ghost!, respectively) preserve the traditions of their lox-peddling elders with menschy earnestness. There are no revisionist latkes or molecular-gastro matzo balls here—just the deli staples they, and New York, grew up on. The malt-sweet, hand-rolled bagels come from Baz; the smoked fish (kippered salmon, sable), from Acme. What Frankel’s gets right is the balanced ratio of its ingredients: ribbons of Irish organic salmon, equal parts oil and silk, has just enough fresh salinity and wood-chip smokiness to stand up to a creamy spread o
When yet another overcrowded eatery opens in New York, a diner must ask: “Should I bother jockeying for space?” In the case of Gottino, the answer is, “Absolutely.” Though the latest from co-owners Michael Bull and chef Jody Williams (Morandi) is not a restaurant per se—with its long marble bar, piddling five tables and menu of choice Italian nibbles to go with the all-Italian wine list, this narrow spot is indeed an enoteca. So what makes queueing up worthwhile, especially when the vino is somewhat pricey? (The least expensive glass goes for $9, and there are too few bottles under $40.) Choose a prosecco cocktail instead—we prefered the passion fruit and freshly squeezed blood-orange juices topped off with bubbly—which kicks off the night with a burst of fizzy color. Then attack the menu. Divided into salumi and cheese on one side, and prepared bites on the other, it provides multiple opportunities for memorable bites. Thick-cut cacciatorini (cured pork sausage) luxuriates in a shallow pool of olive oil infused with oregano and garlic, while in another wee dish, eye-poppingly tangy white anchovies keep company with celery, parsley and preserved lemon. On the mellower side was the fabulously saline cod whipped smooth with olive oil, as well as fragrant lady apples stuffed with meaty cotechino sausage—one of few available hot plates. Much of the food appears, almost magically, from behind the busy bar, where servers in civilized costumes of white shirts, ties and aprons whiz a
When New Yorkers hear the word deli, a few things come to mind, and most of them involve excess—like that mile-high Carnegie Deli behemoth. When I first visited Schwartz’s, Montreal’s answer to Katz’s Delicatessen, I was surprised to see a modestly portioned sandwich: a reasonable stack of meat on coaster-size rye that I could actually fit into my mouth. A New Yorker might ask: Is this really a deli? And then there’s what they call the meat: “smoked meat.” Sounds awfully generic when you’re used to names like pastrami and corned beef. But Montreal’s deli staple isn’t so different. It’s brisket that’s been dry-rubbed, cured, smoked, steamed and hand-sliced. The result, if done correctly, is flavorsome hot-pink flesh held together tenuously by creamy fat, and saturated with the taste of salt, spice and smoke. Mile End, a two-month-old restaurant in Boerum Hill, Brooklyn, may be the first restaurant to bring the Montreal deli tradition to New York City. Perhaps more important, it could be the city’s first proper Canadian dining establishment. The eatery is neither a theme park—like T Poutine on the Lower East Side, with its drunk-food motif—nor a gimmick—such as the defunct Inn at Little West 12th, with its nominal Canadian offerings. Mile End showcases some of the country’s most beloved regional specialties—smoked meat, Montreal-style bagels and yes, poutine—with Brooklyn flavor: The coffee is Stumptown, the cream cheese is Ben’s, and the brisket is from Pat LaFrieda. The subwa
Restaurants cannot subsist on cuteness alone. They’ve got to back up the charm with substance. Open The Sesame (what a darling name!) is pushing the adorable factor, perhaps to stand out from the multitude of nearby Thai restaurants. There are a few kinks to work out, but the place need not lean too heavily on its preciousness—the kitchen is solid. Chef-owner Petom Kochawattana has decorated the narrow space with original paintings. The menus are embellished with mismatched photos, a stylish touch, though it does make it difficult to read the words. Squint a bit and you’ll find standard Thai fare peppered with some unusual fusion dishes. A citrusy, chili-spiked mixed-seafood ceviche appetizer was refreshing, though a more even balance among the shrimp, scallops and squid would have been ideal. Better still was a bracingly spicy beef salad (pictured), with strips of grilled sirloin tossed with torn pieces of romaine in a chili-lime dressing. A heaping entrée of broad noodles stir-fried with bits of chicken, scrambled egg, string beans, red pepper and carrots was the best rice pasta we’ve ever had. Too bad the dessert menu is practically nonexistent, and the place doesn’t have a liquor license (yet). But despite all the delicious entrées, the biggest draw may be the sandwiches—lemongrass chicken, garlic pork chop, grilled portobello—made on loaves of Italian bread, each for less than $4.95. A meal for under $5 on the Lower East Side? Now that’s cute.
Rich Torrisi and Mario Carbone started small with their first project together, a sandwich shop that opened in 2009, serving hoagies by day and tasting menus by night. But Torrisi Italian Specialties, that low-key debut, blew up in a flash, its inventive riffs on Italian-American classics catapulting the young chefs onto the national stage. Soon there were glossy magazine profiles, restaurant awards and long lines out the door. It wasn’t long before they outgrew their very small space. When your first restaurant goes platinum, all eyes are trained on your next project. Torrisi and Carbone unspooled theirs in two parts, turning their original venue into a serious restaurant (all tasting menus, all the time) and moving its casual half into the vacant spot next door. Parm, that new cozy annex, is the Italian-American deli the daytime Torrisi strived to be, with more sandwiches and sides, new starters and mains, and a full-service bar with house wines and cocktails. The decor pays kitschy homage to the old-school venues that inspired this cooking, with wallpaper from the 1950s, neon, Formica and red swivel barstools. But while the menu reads as well-worn as the space, the food is new and exciting, prepared by grease-spattered cooks in white paper caps who happen to have high-end restaurant résumés. (Torrisi and Carbone worked together at Café Boulud.) As at Torrisi, the co-owner chefs offer dramatic improvements on the food they grew up on, without sacrificing the integrity of
One can’t overstate the excitement a vegetarian feels when a new meat-free option opens in this foie gras--loving city—especially when it turns out to be as good as Peacefood Cafe. Just a couple of months ago, the affable Eric Yu opened this vegan gem, with soothing sage-colored walls, soft amber lighting and a buzzing, cheerily staffed counter at which to order. It’s a welcome addition to the only slightly veggie-compliant Upper West Side, offering a small but diverse selection of wholesome caf dishes, from soups and salads to sandwiches and pastries—and none contain a single animal product. (A small selection of dinner entres will join the menu by the end of October.) Disappointments—standard fare at most vegetarian spots—could not be found here. An earthy salad combined red quinoa, white beans, corn, red peppers, avocado and lime-mustard vinaigrette in an invigoratingly fresh starter. It provided a light counterpoint to the fried seitan medallion panino, a creation that teams a—sorry—meaty wheat-gluten cutlet with cashew-based “goat cheese,” peppery arugula and chopped tomatoes on a hunk of yeasty homemade focaccia. The tempeh avocado sandwich followed suit with yet another satisfying juxtaposition—the baked marinated tempeh, avocado, wisps of pickled radish, shredded carrots and cilantro on dense spelt-rye toast were zingy, cool and creamy all at once. Smoothies and fresh-juice blends—like the pineapple-beet-lime concoction—are thoughtfully crafted, as are the desserts. T
Single-subject restaurants (S’mac , Obik) present a particular challenge to reviewers: How to weigh a place that hyperspecializes in one type of food? Such is the dilemma at Porchetta, which focuses narrowly on central Italy’s classic boneless roasted pork. Aside from limited counter seating, the bright, subway-tiled space is mostly intended for takeout business, rendering service something of a nonissue. And the lilliputian menu, which includes the namesake dish two ways—as a sandwich or on a platter with two sides—and little else, makes it clear that the only real reason to eat at Porchetta is, well, the porchetta. Fortunately for them, they’ve hit a home run. The cubed meat is equally enjoyable stuffed into a small spongy loaf (perfect for absorbing the juices) or served loose: It’s amazingly moist and tender, having been slowly basted with rendered pork fat during its five-hour cooking, fragrantly seasoned with fennel pollen, herbs and spices, and flecked with brittle shards of skin. The other menu items seem incidental; some work, others don’t. A summery mozzarella sandwich, layered with sun-dried tomatoes, capers and herbs, made for a flavorful vegetarian option, and roasted potatoes—the best of the sides—had a crisp surface that gave way to a fluffy interior. But cannellini beans were undercooked, sauteed greens were watery, and while bitter chicory was well matched with an assertive garlic-anchovy dressing, the too-large leaves were unwieldy and difficult to eat, e
Despite the ubiquity of sushi spots and Chinese joints, some Asian cuisines are still under the radar in New York. Top chefs like Jean-Georges Vongerichten have long embraced Thai flavors, and Vietnamese is enjoying a citywide renaissance thanks to Michael “Bao” Huynh, but the cooking of the Philippine archipelago has never made major inroads beyond immigrant enclaves. This despite the best efforts of Amy Besa and Romy Dorotan, who for 15 years brought their native cooking to a gentrified corner of Manhattan. The couple ran Cendrillon in Soho until last spring, when it became an early victim of the recession. The restaurant distinguished itself with its mix of Filipino classics and modern fusion. Purple Yam, its Brooklyn redux, is more traditional than its precursor. A few regional detours and multinational mash-ups endure—including a bland minipizza topped with mozzarella and a sort of wild-boar bolognese, and a pork slider on a mealy purple-yam roll—but it’s the by-the-books Flipino dishes that truly shine. That pizza and slider were the only real clunkers of a recent family-style feast. By 8pm during that visit, there was a standing-room-only bottleneck that both the guests and amiable waitstaff took in stride. Dorotan and Besa have settled into a neighborhood that’s clearly grateful to have them. Purple Yam, which is in the heart of Ditmas Park’s new restaurant row—the Farm on Adderley and Picket Fence are on the same street—is a sleek slice of Soho transplanted to a p
This East Harlem restaurant serves up tapas with a twist, thanks to the influence of Mediterranean, Japanese and French cuisine. You’ll find plenty of classics on the extensive menu, with a few surprises thrown in here and there. For instance, the house guacamole comes topped with shrimp and pomegranate seeds and El Kallejon even offers tofu tacos (each $5). You might also want to try the cocas, or Mediterranean flatbreads, topped with everything from mushrooms, goat cheese and truffle oil ($11) to chorizo, cheese and spicy pico de gallo ($10). The drink menu also features plenty of Spanish favorites, like white, red, rosé and sake sangrias ($9–$10). You’ll also find a variety of signature cocktails, ranging from the Mango Mambo with cava, sake and lychee ($11) to the Chelada Burron with beer, lime, cucumber, Mexican spices and a salted rim ($7).
Venue says: “Enjoy hand-crafted, fresh cocktails and Mexican small plates infused with Latin, Mediterranean, and Japanese flavors! Happy Hour Mon-Fri 4-7”