While plenty of New York restaurants have lately made the environment a priority—sourcing their ingredients locally and crafting dining rooms from salvaged materials—none have done so with quite as much visual and gastronomic panache as chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s new ABC Kitchen. The chef’s “hippie” restaurant, as he’s taken to calling it—a joint venture with his home furnishings landlord—is a stunner, as artfully merchandised as the shop that surrounds it.
In the golden age of robber baron New York—we’re talking turn of the last century—there were hotel restaurants like the NoMad all across the city, their grand dining rooms buzzing with beau monde patrons morning till night. The recent return of the all-day hotel clubhouse began with hip reinventions of the form at the Standard, Ace and Gramercy Park Hotels. But the NoMad, with its rich mahogany bar and dining rooms shrouded in red velvet curtains, is our first truly opulent throwback.
Not only is the iconic Balthazar still trendy, but the kitchen rarely makes a false step. At dinner, the place is perennially packed with rail-thin lookers dressed to the nines. But the bread is great, the food is good, and the service is surprisingly friendly. The $99 three-tiered seafood platter casts the most impressive shadow of any dish in town. The frisée aux lardons is exemplary. The skate with brown butter and capers and a standard-bearing roasted chicken on mashed potatoes for two are both délicieux. Don’t hate the patrons because they’re beautiful; just join them.
A young chef can go only so far in the shadow of a superstar. Many of the cooks running New York’s top kitchens toil in obscurity for years—at restaurants like Jean Georges, Daniel and Babbo—keeping their egos at bay until an opportunity presents itself for a stage of their own. But Michael Toscano—who ran the kitchen at Mario Batali’s meat palace Manzo—caught the eye of the food cognoscenti even without his name on the door. His high-caliber cooking earned him plenty of critical praise and a James Beard Award nomination last year.
Keith McNally protégé Dean Jankelowitz (Schiller's, Pastis, Balthazar) is behind this morning-to-evening café. The 40-seat restaurant—sporting dark-green leather banquettes, brass railings and marble counters—serves homey fare, like Jankelowitz's grandmother's matzo ball soup made with duck fat, a skirt steak sandwich served alongside hand-cut fries, and piri-piri-hot-sauce-marinated chicken kebabs. In the morning, find Stumptown coffee, homemade croissants and full breakfast plates, including soft-boiled eggs with challah "soldiers" (strips).
The ceiling and walls are hung with pipes, some from such long-ago Keens regulars as Babe Ruth, J.P. Morgan and Teddy Roosevelt. Even in these nonsmoking days, you can catch a whiff of the restaurant’s 120-plus years of history. Beveled-glass doors, two working fireplaces and a forest’s worth of dark wood suggest a time when “Diamond Jim” Brady piled his table with bushels of oysters, slabs of seared beef and troughs of ale. The menu still lists a three-inch-thick mutton chop (imagine a saddle of lamb but with more punch) and desserts such as key lime pie. Sirloin and porterhouse (for two or three) hold their own against any steak in the city.
Chef Michael White (Alto, Marea) is one of New York’s most prolific and successful Italian-American chefs, and this terrific downtown homage to a classic Bolognese tavern is the most accessible restaurant in his stable. The toque spent seven years cooking in Italy's Emilia-Romagna region, and his connection to the area surfaces in the rustic food. Handmade pastas—frail ricotta gnocchi in light tomato cream, fat tortelli bundles oozing an absurdly rich mix of braised meats—are fantastic across the board. Heart-stopping meats, meanwhile, include porchetta with crisp, crackling skin and potatoes bathed in pan drippings. With so much butter and cream, you might skip dessert, but don’t miss head barman Eben Freeman’s riffs on classic aperitivi.
The Italian-American supper clubs immortalized in mob movies and sepia-toned photos were never as dreamy as they seemed. And the red-sauce classics still served behind curtained windows at clubby holdouts like Il Mulino and Rao’s are rarely as inspiring as our memories of them. The young guns behind Carbone, though, have moved beyond sentimentality in their homage to these restaurants by flipping the whole genre onto its head. The new spot, from tag-team chefs Rich Torrisi and Mario Carbone, is a Godfather hangout on steroids, more fantastical set piece than history-bound throwback.
Former caterer Guy Vaknin doles out vegan sushi at this diminutive Gramercy spot. At three wood tables, diners choose from colorful rolls packed with fruits and vegetables from nearby Union Square Greenmarket. Combos include the Crunch N’ Munch (alfalfa, baked tofu, English cucumber and kiwi) and La Fiesta (avocado, pickled jalapeño, chayote and cilantro), or nigiri topped with slivers of carrot, mango and snow pea. Vaknin also crafts a line of vegan pastries, such as black-sesame avocado cookies, sweet-potato black-bean brownies and a date-and-nut bar.
New York is spoiled rotten with top-shelf trattorias, great casual spots for weekday Italian, where the food is fresh but not fussy, and you don’t have to think much about what’s on your plate. But most of the city isn’t as blessed with the Spanish equivalent. A few years back, chef Seamus Mullen did his bit to change that, launching his Boquerias in Soho and Chelsea with restaurateur Yann de Rochefort. The chef, who left those still thriving restaurants for health reasons last year, is back—in the West Village this time—with Tertulia, an equally charming solo endeavor.
In Astoria, just off the bustling shopping district of Steinway Street, lies a hidden treasure. Gaijin, meaning “outside person” in Japanese, is an apt moniker for Chef Mark Garcia’s modern take on Japanese food. Garcia and co-owner Jay Zheng met working in Chicago restaurants and planned for five years to open their own place. They brought their ideas—and nearly their entire staff—to the Big Apple for a soft opening last October. The staff look chic in crisp white button-downs and leather suspenders, with jaunty newsboy caps for the cooks. Jazzy pop provides unobtrusive background music for diners. The appetizers are divided into cold and hot plates and should not be ignored. The steak tartare ($21) topped with herbs and a diminutive quail egg is a religious experience. Sesame and paper-thin scallions give the raw meat an almost charred taste. Once a special, the bone marrow ($14), a cross-cut bone sprinkled with charred scallion, Chinese onion and parsley, is now a mainstay. Scoop out clouds of gelatinous joy to spread on griddled baguette with a tiny wooden spoon. A tuna flight ($24) offers three levels of fattiness—akami, chutoro and otoro—all superb. And in one of the most innovative presentations ever, three toothsome gyoza ($8) arrive attached, as part of a single pancake. The sleek, modern eatery seats 30, including eight chairs at the long, white sushi bar where Garcia holds court, turning out exquisite, jewel-like pieces of sashimi and nigiri with delightful topp
Venue says: “Gaijin is a modern Japanese inspired restaurant serving fresh fish from the Tsukiji market, Japan and robata delicacies with binchotan.”