Southerners know that the best barbecue comes from run-down shacks in the worst parts of town—so don’t let the location of Daisy May’s BBQ USA, on a desolate stretch of Eleventh Avenue, or its college-town atmosphere deter you: Daisy May’s, despite a few missteps (the pulled pork is overstewed in its own sauce), is the real down-home deal, a masterful barbecue survey. The Kansas City Sweet & Sticky Pork Ribs are meaty and just tender enough, while the creamed corn tastes like ballpark nachos—and that’s a good thing. The sweet tea with mint leaves will make you long for a front porch. Skip the desserts for a side of bourbon peaches, which calls to mind a drunken cobbler.
While tourists bumble into Sbarro looking for a New York slice, pizza aficionados have been busy colonizing this pedigreed newcomer—a collaboration between Kesté’s talented Roberto Caporuscio and his decorated Naples mentor, Antonio Starita. Start with tasty bites like the frittatine (a deep-fried spaghetti cake oozing prosciutto cotto and béchamel sauce), before digging into the stellar wood-fired pies, which range from standards such as the Margherita to more creative constructions like the Rachetta, a racket-shaped pizza with a “handle” made of ricotta-stuffed dough. The main event, however, should be the habit-forming Montanara Starita, which gets a quick dip in the deep fryer before hitting the oven to develop its puffy, golden crust. Topped with tomato sauce, basil and intensely smoky buffalo mozzarella, it’s a worthy new addition to the pantheon of classic New York pies.
Esca is the area’s slickest and most creative choice. Part of the Mario Batali–Joe Bastianich empire, the menu takes a whirl through Southern Italian seaside cooking (spaghetti with lobster). Start with the signature raw antipasti, called crudi, then move on to excellent, shareable pastas such as superfresh grilled fish, lavish Sicilian-style seafood stew, or succulent square-cut maccheroni alla chitarra with sea urchin and crab.
Warm woods and soft lighting evoke a turn-of-the-century general store at this midtown eatery and gourmet emporium. The restaurant, tucked behind the retail shop, suffers from sluggish service, but all is forgiven when tangy Mediterranean spreads—vinegary artichoke dip, hot-pink beet skordalia—hit the table. Resist the urge to make a meal of Kashkaval’s impressive roster of charcuterie; entrées, like heaping plates of savory elephant beans piled over orzo and deep pots of fondue, are not to be missed.
Chef Andy D’Amico (Nice Matin) explores the interplay of French and Italian influences along the Mediterranean at Nizza (Italian for Nice). The sleek, mod space is an ideal pre- or posttheater spot, provided you don’t spend too much time navigating the extensive menu. Sharing a handful of dishes—like socca, a thick chickpea crêpe flavored with sage leaves, and pastas like pansotti triangles filled with herbs and walnuts—is the way to go. Return for dessert when the curtain falls: We liked the buttery chocolate-orange crostada.
French native chef David Malbequi (the Boom Boom Room, BLT Market) helms this seasonal Franco-American restaurant in Hell's Kitchen. Diners can choose from composed entrées, like veal cheek with Meyer lemon spaetzle and black trumpet mushrooms, or slow-baked halibut with a caper vinaigrette, cauliflower puree, sunchokes and grapes. Come dessert, twists on classics—from pastry chef Vivian Wu (Eleven Madison Park, Del Posto)—are available, including a cheesecake with a mango-pineapple salad. To drink there are 150 different wines, available at the stainless-steel–trimmed mahogany bar.
Like a traditional Japanese ramen-ya, this narrow, below-street-level noodle joint is designed for quick meals. Most seats are along a counter, behind which the chefs crisp pork slices with a propane torch and tend to bubbling stockpots. The specialty here is paitan ramen, a creamy soup that’s a chicken-based variation on Hakata, Japan’s famous tonkotsu (pork) broth. The most basic version, the Totto chicken, is a flavorful, opaque soup bobbing with thin, straight noodles and slow-cooked pork ridged with satiny fat. The real winner, however, is the miso ramen, enriched with a scoop of nutty fermented soybean paste and wavy egg noodles. Ramen is generally
a feast unto itself, but you can bulk up a meal with sides like char siu mayo don—a mound of rice heaped with more unctuous pork, yuzu-accented mayonnaise and raw sliced scallions.
Chowhounds rhapsodize about both Wondees with an enthusiasm that borders on mania. At the sit-down sibling to the original take-out operation, the food is deliciously authentic—a welcome change from standard satays and noodles. Spicy fried catfish is loaded with red pepper, basil, kaffir leaves and slices of Thai eggplant, while Shrimp on Fire is simply a literal description: Six impressive jumbos are doused with rum-and-tamarind sauce and set aflame.
The tony Upper East Side gets a bad rap for a dining scene that can be as stuffy as an un-renovated townhouse, but things have been changing in the past few years and a new guard is taking over. Enter Maison Hugo, the neighborhood's newest French entry, run by a young husband and wife team with a passion for fine dining. Provence-born chef, Florian Hugo, honed his culinary skills in Alain Ducasse restaurants from Paris to Monaco. Wife Michelle runs a neighborhood-friendly front of house. Together, they form a team that pays homage the neighborhood's haute cuisine history while also appealing to younger diners looking for something a little more out of the ordinary. The restaurant, which opened in October 2015, is a labor of love for the couple, who personally designed every detail of the restaurant, right down to the upholstery. The main dining room is a vibrant space boasting bright red banquettes, brass railings and colorful artwork. The more minimalist private dining room is cast in a softer hue with natural wood furnishings, the better to set the mood under the moonlight pouring in from the ceiling skylight. Chef Hugo, most recently of Brasserie Cognac and Brasserie East, shows an easy comfort with Gallic classics. For starters, his tartare de boeuf ($16/$26) is a thing of beauty. The buttery cubes of tender beef just about melt into their creamy mustard dressing, which packs addictively sweet and spicy heat. The simple poulet rôti ($30) is another winner, pairing moi
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