No West Village restaurant guide would be complete without a mention of nouveau scene-maker Gabriel Stulman, who has built a mini empire here affectionately named Little Wisco (a nod to his home state); his latest addition is new-wave sushi restaurant Chez Sardine. Other recent arrivals include Ed Schoenfeld’s progressive Chinese eatery, RedFarm, and Jody Williams’s exquisite bistro, Buvette, but don’t overlook popular neighborhood fixtures like Pearl Oyster Bar and The Spotted Pig. You’ll also find plenty of cheap eats and great brunch places.
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Last summer, Anita Lo’s ten-year-old West Village flagship, Annisa, was shut down following a fire. Earlier that year, its casual spin-off, Bar-Q, had opened and closed after a critical drubbing. Meanwhile, Lo’s Rickshaw Dumpling Bar chain had contracted to a single location. Sometimes, bad luck is the creative kick in the pants one needs.
Stripped of distractions, Lo has spent the past year rebuilding Annisa—recently reborn from the rubble—into a restaurant once again worthy of citywide buzz. The understated jewel box, as sparely appointed as a Japanese rock garden—with a brittle branch in one corner and a few tropical fronds in another—isn’t any flashier than it used to be, but the food is more exciting than ever.
Lo’s menu, a mercifully brief and balanced departure from the zeitgeist, isn’t lopsided with pork, or burdened with extraneous side dishes or snacks. The compositions, often inspired by the chef’s own eating adventures (in 2009 she was crisscrossing the globe), are so intensely personal, they seem to exist in a vacuum. While her colleagues, in collective retrenchment, all appear to be stuck in the same comfort-food rut, Lo takes a singular stand for old-fashioned refinement.
While a few signature items predate the inferno—her Sino-French spin on soup dumplings, with molten foie gras in the center and seared foie on top, are too dazzling to retire—most of the menu is entirely new. Lo’s food, complex and audacious, is unlike any other you’ll find in New York. A tuna starter appears simple enough—grill-marked belly on one side, shimmering tartare on the other—but when they hit your taste buds, the real adventure begins. Yuzukosho, a Japanese condiment made from hot peppers and yuzu, adds a subtly spicy citrus note to the tender belly. The tartare is also swaddled in unusual accents: cod roe, cucumber gelatin, yellowfin marrow—a saline medley, the pure taste of the sea.
The chef, a precise technician, shows particular panache with the Japanese canon. Her chawan mushi (no longer on the menu), the savory Japanese custard, is also brilliantly tweaked—with fresh lotus root and spring morels folded into the dashi and eggs—and sea urchin and more morels (delicately fried like tempura) draped over the top.
Her wanderlust contributes exotic grace notes to dishes like her lamb entre, an homage to South Africa that distills the flavors of Cape Town into an elegant package. Two gorgeous rack chops accompany a house-made tamarind chutney with butter-glazed baby turnips and what must surely be New York’s first upmarket bobotie (the classic South African ground-lamb-and-egg casserole), debuted in time for the World Cup.
Meanwhile, the most formal dishes showcase Lo’s reverence for French technique: The truffled veal jus, oyster cream sauce and brown butter surrounding a veal entre are clearly the products of an expert saucier. That they somehow complement one another—drizzled on and around gorgeous pink veal loin, crisp sweetbread nuggets and warm velvet oysters—is also testament to a formidable palate.
Lo runs the pastry department, offering desserts as nuanced as everything else—crispy beignets filled with warm salted butterscotch; a beautiful malt-and-chocolate triumvirate with chocolate-almond pudding, malted-milk poivron (a crumbly cake from the Philippines) and a frothy malt shake. The candied ginger, minted chocolates and mini passion fruit Popsicles that follow as a petit four finish are, meanwhile, as smartly conceived as the restaurant revival itself. They’re not extraneous baubles—you won’t find any of that here—just tiny bites that leave a memorable taste in your mouth.
Drink this: A light, crisp Mas de la Dame Provence ros ($32), among the most reasonably priced wines on the moderate list, makes a fine summery bridge between meat and seafood.
Eat this: Foie gras soup dumplings, sea urchin chawan mushi, veal with black truffle and oysters, lamb with South African flavors, salted-butterscotch beignets
Sit here: A modest menu of nibbles is available at the small bar. None of the seats face the wall, so there’s no bad placement in the dining room.
Conversation piece: Anita Lo had a good run on Bravo’s Top Chef Masters last year, finishing fourth.
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There’s something to be said for a solid neighborhood restaurant, a place versatile enough for an informal bite or a special occasion. Such is the charm of Bistro de la Gare, a West Village newcomer—with picture windows and crisp off-white walls—that takes its casualness seriously. Chef-owners Maryann Terillo (Jarnac) and Elisa Sarno (Babbo) combine their experience in an approachable Mediterranean menu. A seared scallop appetizer was simply presented with toothsome fava beans and black-garlic vinaigrette. Cool roasted-tomato soup was something we could imagine eating when it’s too hot to cook—a pulpy bowl with a drizzle of garlic oil. Seated in the back garden—a nicely landscaped space unfortunately devoid of air flow—we nursed a bottle of Sancerre from the reasonably priced wine list representing small, biodynamic vineyards. Dinner furnished more gratifying plates. Chewy house-made spaghetti (now off the menu) was dotted with plump mussels and rosy-pink gulf shrimp, all in a basic sauce of white wine, lemon juice, butter and parsley. A fried soft-shell crab entre featured juicy, lightly battered crustaceans over a crunchy celery-root rmoulade. Dessert—excellent vanilla-scented panna cotta, simple olive-oil cake—completed the meal. There were flaws—the pasta was somewhat doughy and heavily sauced; gnocco fritto that shared billing with the soup were room temperature and slightly stale; and had the waiter been more knowledgeable, we might have taken the place more seriously.
Over the past decade, Jody Williams has established a serious food-industry following. Mario Batali, with whom she worked at the Clift Hotel in San Francisco, has called her one of his favorite American chefs; in 2007 restaurateur Keith McNally tapped her to open Morandi, his first trattoria.
But not every great chef is hardwired to be an empire builder. Instead of leveraging these votes of confidence into a cookbook deal, a food show and an outpost in Vegas, Williams chose to cater to an increasingly diminutive audience. At her last project, the precious wine bar Gottino, she served serious small plates in a space no bigger than a walk-in closet. At her latest, the equally tiny, Gallic-themed Buvette, she's got just enough space to feed a neighborhood following. Indeed, with so little room for gastro-groupies, rhapsodic reviews may be the last thing she needs.
Williams thrives in this intimate setting. As at Gottino (which still operates a few blocks away without her), the approach is small but exacting. She's filled every nook with old picnic baskets, teapots and silver trays, among other vintage ephemera. There's a bouquet of old rolling pins behind a glossy red Berkel slicer, antique nutcrackers on the marble-topped bar beside baskets of walnuts and almonds in their shells---much of the design here is both striking and practical. Even the bottles of wine seem to have been chosen as much for their aesthetics as their drinkability.
The food is just as thoughtfully curated, served on tiny plates and in little jars and crocks, receptacles tailor-made for the restaurant's very tight quarters. Williams packs an awful lot of flavor into these dishes. They arrive all at once as a bountiful spread, designed to be shared like an indoor picnic. There's exceptional fluffy brandade (house-cured salt cod emulsified with garlic-steeped milk) and rustic hand-cut steak tartare anointed with a sprightly mix of frise, capers and cornichons. There are rich shredded goose and pork-butt rillettes, too, studded with prunes plumped in red wine.
This self-consciously retro cooking is a showcase not of the chef's creativity but of her very good taste. Her classic ratatouille with garlic toast is a seasonal special of diced zucchini, eggplant and peppers. Gorgeous pink slices of chilled leg of lamb are topped with flageolet beans and black-olive tapenade.
Buvette is the sort of place where you pop in for a glass of wine and a snack---hunks of creamy Noble Road Brie; slices of saucisson sec fished from jars filled with herbed olive oil---and three hours later realize you've stayed for dinner. You've polished off a delicious cocotte of falling-off-the-bone coq au vin (the closest thing to an entre here), plus a fat, beautiful slice of perfectly caramelized apple tarte Tatin.
In spite of herself, Williams's new restaurant, which opened quietly just after the start of the year, seems to have already outgrown its sliver of real estate. Come nightfall, the queue for a seat often extends out the door, the long wait list scrawled on a chalkboard inside. The best neighborhood joints, like Buvette, may be designed with friends and neighbors in mind. But when they're this accomplished, they can't stay local for long.
Vitals Eat this: Brandade, steak tartare, rillettes, leg of lamb, coq au vin, tarte Tatin
Drink this: The wine list, limited to France and Italy, includes Chateau d'Esclans's Whispering Angel, a bright, summery Provence ros available by the glass ($10) or bottle ($39). Among the handful of aperitif cocktails, there's a classic Manhattan ($12) featuring lush WhistlePig Rye (made in Vermont by the former master distiller at Maker's Mark).
Sit here: The best seats are at the marble bar, which is spacious compared with the cramped two-tops. Big groups can book the big banquet table in back (where Williams offers order-ahead feasts).
Conversation piece: Williams calls her new project a "gastroteque," a made-up word encompassing, she says, "your early-morning coffee, your luncheonette, your stand-up, sit-down dinner." The restaurant opens at 8am on weekdays, serving velvety scrambled eggs, steam-cooked using the milk frother of an espresso machine.
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Most successful restaurateurs debut with a bang, turning out a groundbreaking original before settling into safer crowd pleasers. Not so with Gabriel Stulman, unstoppable West Village hit-maker, whose low-key beginnings in no way indicated greater ambitions. He started small with a pair of New American spots: Joseph Leonard and Jeffrey’s Grocery, serving excellent food but making no real imprint on Gotham’s dining scene. Instead of coasting on these modest triumphs, Stulman pressed forward, partnering with headlining chefs for esoteric tavern fare at Fedora and carnivorous Italian at Perla, a few blocks away. His new project, Chez Sardine, is his most daring by far—with a quirky name and a wacky theme—asking of his regulars great leaps of faith. It’s a sushi bar run by a French-Canadian chef (Fedora’s Mehdi Brunet-Benkritly) with no experience cooking Japanese food professionally, an East-West izakaya of sorts, serving French wine and American cocktails alongside wild multicultural bar bites. Stulman, whose knack for scene-making informs all of his restaurants—hip hop on the stereo, Pop Art on the walls—has decked out his most diminutive venture with a portrait of Mr. Miyagi and polished wood panels out of an Italian yacht. And a buzzy crowd, waiting as long as two hours for a hand-carved walnut booth, have made this strange hybrid one of the most coveted new tables of 2013 so far. The new-wave sushi, crafted behind a slim kitchen counter, features morsels from land and sea r
Sibling restaurateurs Bunkei and Reika Yo give us a sense of Japanese living in this multilevel space. On the ground floor are tatami-style rooms; on the mezzanine are re-creations of a living room, dining room and library of a Japanese home from the Meiji Era. But the main dining room is where the action is: Diners sit at tables either on the periphery or around a small pond under high ceilings. Chef Koji Nakano is running with the home theme too by offering handmade miso paste, tofu and yuba (soy-milk skin) in dishes like Berkshire pork belly braised in sansho miso; foie gras and poached daikon steak with white miso vinegar; and seared chutoro marinated in garlic soy. The menu changes frequently with seasonal specials. Try the sake and shochu flights (or wonderful original cocktails) and you’ll get an authentic Asian buzz, too.
Young restaurateur Gabriel Stulman is an A-list impresario in the making, with a trio of hot eateries---including Joseph Leonard and Jeffrey's Grocery---clustered within a three-block West Village radius. His new spot, Fedora, is the most chef-focused of the bunch, matching Stulman's trademark hospitality with destination-worthy cuisine. The affable host is still at the door, converting newcomers to regulars with a smile and a handshake---but the food, for the first time, does most of the work.
Stepping out of his comfort-food comfort zone, Stulman has recruited his first daredevil chef. The young Canadian Mehdi Brunet-Benkritly--- a veteran of Au Pied de Cochon in Montreal---serves Quebecois party food for epicurean hipsters that's giddy, excessive and fun.
Brunet-Benkritly makes his New York debut in a historic venue that last summer still catered to octogenarian barflies, an unlikely beachhead for French-Canadian gluttony. The 60-year-old West Village landmark, lovingly refurbished by Stulman and team, retains its clubhouse feel. But the cocktails these days are mixed with house-made bitters and served alongside some of the city's most exciting toe-to-tongue cooking.
The food is eccentric, yes, but not so extreme you couldn't, or wouldn't, want to eat here twice a week. While the chef's crispy octopus with brown-buttered sweetbreads is an inspired and challenging take on surf and turf, there are also plenty of accessible treats. Replacing the usual bar burger is a killer steak sandwich, with horseradish aioli and shoestring fries stuffed into the bun. Salt-cod fritters are light as beignets, and a big dinner salad is a riotous number with rock shrimp, avocado, shaved fennel and Manchego. Then there's a very fine steak tartare, an offbeat and elegant spin---a little bit Asian, a little bit French---that combines a hand-cut fillet with sriracha mayo, flying-fish roe, crisped rice and shallots.
Brunet-Benkritly clearly has a soft spot for big, blustery flavors, and a real macabre sense of humor. His fried chicken, served like a salaryman lunch over sushi rice and bitter greens, arrives at the table with a sharp claw still attached, the bird's confited leg and thigh covered in crisped rice and bread crumbs---a coating so flavorsome, you might be inclined to nibble those toes. There's a feasting quality to so much of the food here---my table tore gamely into a deliciously sweet, sticky duck leg with dates and cilantro. Still, the giant pork chop for two---a double-thick monster split lengthwise with crisp pickled veggies, nutmeg-spiced meatballs and cabbage, and crumbly green-onion pancakes for wrapping it all up---makes everything else seem almost quaint. (See Feasts!)
The toque has got bravado to burn. Even without a pastry chef he fares well, serving buttery madeleines and a fine apple tart. But dessert at Fedora needn't be the end of the meal. If it's your third or fourth visit, Stulman might know you by name---the man loves his regulars. Pull up a stool at the bar: Who knows, that last one for the road might even be on the house.
Eat this: Octopus with sweetbreads, steak tartare, steak sandwich, fried chicken, pork chop for two
Drink this: The cocktails (all $12), featuring house-made bitters, syrups and infused spirits, have a nostalgic bent that fits the storied venue they're served in. The Black Squirrel old-fashioned is a classic potent drink polished up with pecan bitters. Serious cocktailians can finish off the night with a Shackleton, an intense digestif made with Fernet Branca and bourbon.
Sit here: Bar-top dining best fits the spirit of the place, but the big corner tables are much better suited to a full-fledged feast.
Conversation piece: Au Pied de Cochon, the chef's alma mater, may be North America's most famously gluttonous restaurant, best known for adding foie gras to everything. For more food in that vein, check out M. Wells in Queens, where another alumnus is now serving dinner.
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It’s getting hot in New York’s Neapolitan pizza scene, and not just because of the blazing hearths: This new pizzeria is just one of three opening this week, though the man behind Kesté, Roberto Caporuscio, carries the biggest name. President of the U.S. branch of the Association of Neapolitan Pizza Makers, Caporuscio will introduce New Yorkers to his pie expertise in an intimate, 46-seat space, with pizzas that range from the classics to original creations, such as one with butternut-squash cream, cheese-stuffed zucchini flowers and smoked mozzarella. A selection of Neapolitan street foods will also be offered. The space will eventually double as a training and education facility.
This fashionable spot with clean lines, chocolate tones and a warm golden glow arrived in the Village with an instant scene, courtesy of chef Galen Zamarra (formerly of Bouley Bakery). But look past flashy diners for the real excitement: a menu that focuses on seasonal and organic ingredients. A salad of sweet Maine crab and portobello benefits from a tinge of citrus, and a black-trumpet-and-chanterelle stew is topped with a delicate lasagna noodle. Organic hen, cooked with saffron and truffle, deboned and served sliced, is deeply moist, and the bigeye tuna, which is given a delightfully meaty edge by brown butter and crisp shallots, is swoonworthy. Even strange-on-paper dessert combos, such as warm rhubarb tart with black-olive ice cream, work wonderfully.
This convivial, New England–style joint was a forerunner of the city’s fish-shack trend. The outstanding lobster roll—sweet, lemony meat laced with mayonnaise on a butter-enriched bun—is Pearl’s raison d’être, but more sophisticated dishes fare equally well: A bouillabaisse features briny lobster broth packed with mussels, cod, scallops and clams, with an aioli-smothered crouton balanced on top—a great value at $20. For dessert, try a bittersweet chocolate mousse topped with a quenelle of barely sweetened whipped cream. Finally, a restaurant worthy of its hype.
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. It was just a matter of time before he pursued a more personal place. That restaurant, Perla, is a project he shares with affable restaurateur Gabriel Stulman. It’s the latest piece of the Wisconsin native’s growing West Village empire—a snowballing dominion that also includes Joseph Leonard, Fedora and Jeffrey’s Grocery. Stulman is a high-profile partner to be sure, leveraging his neighborhood goodwill to keep the place packed from Day One. But Toscano is the real star here: a virtuoso teasing freshness and excitement from humble Italian fare. The space itself cuts a fitting jib for Toscano’s ambitious food. Stulman built an electric vibe here, with his usual mix of house-party warmth and clubhouse decor. There’s drop-in dining at the bar and kitchen counter, and big tables packed with friends of the house. This is a serious restaurant with a relaxed point of view, as buzzy already as celebrity haunt Minetta Tavern, just across the street, and with a similarly nostalgic feel to its tarnished mirrors, mismatched filament bulb fixtures and tufted red leather booths. The chef, building on the carnivorous work he started at Manzo, has moved his creative compass here way beyond meat, riffing on Italian classics with an enormous menu that invites pass-around sharing and anytime, anyway-you-like-it dining. Pop in early or late for cocktails and snacks at the bar—both are fun and delicious. Sip on a zingy Georgia Armani (sparkling wine with peach bitters), say, while scarfing house-fried potato chips coated in amatriciana dust (a genius mix of powdered tomato, onion, guanciale, garlic and chile). The chef’s foie gras tramezzini—a sort of upmarket PB&J featuring crustless white bread with cherry jam, pistachio butter and creamy duck liver terrine—is just as off the charts. Add a big plate of house-cured prosciutto cotto, mellow Berkel-shaved ham from Raven & Boar pigs (raised Parma-style up in Westchester), and it’s almost a meal. A composed salad of brussels sprouts—in caramelized hunks and raw shavings—with roasted butternut squash, charred scallions and creamy goat’s-milk ricotta, ought to take it over the top without cleaning you out (dinner here can quickly add up). Stulman and Toscano, though, would certainly prefer you settle in for the long haul, which could explain the chatty waitress who encourages ordering four courses apiece. If you’re feeling flush and famished, your feast might begin with cool pieces of lobster served with smeared robiolina and a sprinkle of caviar—a cheese and crustacean pairing to rival Michael White’s signature burrata and lobster. Braised and grilled octopus, the meaty tentacles beautifully charred on the ends, is a less extravagant choice but also a good one, draped on crispy fettunta (grilled country bread) and a sweet-and-sour stew of pickled eggplant and oven-dried San Marzano tomatoes. Handmade pastas are modestly portioned enough to work just fine as a shared middle course—their suggested timing, should you choose to accept it. If you’re going all in, stuffed shapes—the translucent brown-buttered tortelli with Technicolor ricotta-beet filling or short-rib-filled agnolotti sauced in meat drippings—are the best way to go. The generous entrées, hardly scaled back for a many-course meal, have self-confident swagger, all big, bold proteins under an assertive sear. The whole blistered branzino, cooked fast in a wood-fired blaze, arrives smoky and succulent. They’ll fillet it for you, delivering the juicy flesh—fragrant with lemon, oregano and garlic—on a boisterous caponata of eggplant, fennel, pine nuts and olives. Two cuts of lamb on one plate—rosy saddle beside confited breast—are gutsier still, served with nutty fregola (Sardinian couscous) and doused in a Calabrian chile vinaigrette. But brined beef tongue, charred black on the grill then sliced thick on the bias like a porterhouse steak, goes most out on a limb, delivering a whole new spin on tongue—crisp on the edges and supremely tender inside—with caramelized ramps (while they last) and white bean ragù. Desserts, by Toscano too, include a light ricotta cheesecake with a sweet-and-tangy balsamic cherry jam, and an apple-fig upside-down cake that’s like a cross between tarte Tatin and sticky toffee pudding. For chefs who have done well running other people’s restaurants, the move into the spotlight doesn’t always go this smoothly (see Jonathan Benno at Lincoln). But Toscano seems to have wasted no time getting up to speed here. With his bold, playful food, and Stulman’s trademark bonhomie, Perla has all the trappings of a classic in the making. Vitals Eat this: Amatriciana potato chips, foie gras tea sandwiches, brussels sprouts salad, lobster with robiolina, beet tortelli, lamb breast and saddle, grilled beef tongue, apple-fig upside-down cake Drink this: The playful cocktails, as well-crafted as the food here, feature offbeat house-made ingredients like the peach bitters in the Georgia Armani and carrot spray mixed with Cherry Heering and rye in the dark and complex Yosemite Sam Parker (both $13). The well-curated, but pricey, list of French and American wines includes a fruit-forward food-friendly Zerbetta Barbera ($62). Sit here: The tall stools at the front bar and kitchen counter out back are the easiest to score (they’re all saved for walk-ins). The reservation-only booths, though (for parties of four or more), are a much more comfortable place to spread out. Conversation piece: Stulman’s first restaurant was named for his grandfathers, Joseph and Leonard. The new spot is dedicated to his mother, Perla, whose photo hangs in the open kitchen (along with a picture of the chef’s mother, too). By Jay Cheshes
Bus Stop Café
By name alone, Bus Stop Cafe evokes a no-frills neighborhood greasy spoon; a place that’s full of commuters hastily grabbing a quick bite that’s dependably just fine before hustling to catch a bus (or a train or a plane or a cab). That vignette does not capture the Parisian-bistro essence of Bus Stop Cafe, which likely gets its name from being located near a, you guessed it, bus stop in the heart of the West Village. The hefty, wide-ranging menu—which includes an entire page of served-all-day breakfast options like warm banana-walnut pancakes ($12), a jalepeño-avocado omelette ($13.75) and a fully loaded bagel-and-lox sandwich ($13.75)—is where Bus Stop’s diner likeness starts and ends. The ample sidewalk seating hugs the perimeter of the quaint, dimly lit corner restaurant’s street-facing walls. The rustic wooden two-tops are each bedecked with a small vase and flower, and the waitstaff’s informed but not overbearing friendliness elicits the feeling of idling at a European bistro; it’s a perfect place to have an intimidate date, dine alone as you read or simple watch passersby while sipping a glass of vino ($9 to $10.75). For dinner, appetizers run the gamut from savory beef nachos ($13.75) to a cocktail of fresh, succulent shrimp ($12.75 for four pieces), while homemade soups (4.75 to $5.75, or complimentary with an entrée) like chicken or French onion are simple and comforting. All regular-menu entrées, like a prime-cut sirloin steak with fresh vegetables and potatoes, a
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