In an unsettling year, Pete Wells finds many reasons to cheer
Staying focused on the soups and pies wasn’t always easy this year.
There was the unexpected punch in the stomach of losing two major voices long before we were ready to let them go: Anthony Bourdain, who took his life at 61 in June, and Jonathan Gold, who died at 57 the following month after a fast and brutal round with pancreatic cancer. Both men, Mr. Bourdain in his books and television shows, Mr. Gold in his criticism of restaurants in Los Angeles and elsewhere, expanded our ideas about food and the people who keep us fed. Neither seemed anywhere close to running out of smart, original, perspective-shifting things to say.
At the same time, everybody who writes about restaurants was still trying to metabolize last year’s dismal revelations about the way some major chefs and proprietors are said to treat women in their establishments. We all know that we are in a new place, but its contours aren’t firm yet. Each new turn in those stories started a fresh round of questions about restaurant culture and what its future should look like. Simultaneously, incidents of overt racism, sexism and anti-immigrant animus in the national news made it seem more urgent to face those problems in the restaurant business, where they are often so deeply embedded that they’re taken for granted.
On some days, it could feel like a revolution was happening on my beat. And then I’d go to dinner, and remember that restaurants take a long time and a lot of money to open, and that a major sector of New York City’s economy is not going to change overnight. As Chris Christie said, Rome was not unbuilt in a day.
But after I’d complained in print that hoteliers and developers were handing too many plum projects to the same people who’ve always gotten them, I was glad that a major builder in Brooklyn gave Missy Robbins the chance to build Misi in the redevelopment of the Domino refinery site. I was thrilled that when the Life Hotel couldn’t make its new restaurant, Henry, work, it called in J.J. Johnson, a black chef with ambitious ideas about African food.
And sometimes, I got to cheer for an entire cuisine. This year I watched a chef and his wife, both born in South Korea, open a restaurant that presents Korean food and culture in a new and often revelatory light. Its name is Atomix, and it easily won its spot at the top of my list.
Go beyond the headlines.
A restaurant isn’t a particularly good medium for expressing philosophical concepts, but it’s ideal for expressing a whole culture. Atomix seizes this opportunity to open our eyes to South Korea over the span of a $175, 10-course tasting menu. The architecture, uniforms, ceramics, glassware, woodworking and menu art blend tradition and innovation to present a living, modern view of Korean aesthetics. Junghyun Park, the chef, builds dazzling, unexpected dishes out of things like white soy and an exhilarating tangerine vinegar from the island of Jeju. The dishes are elaborate, with upward of 20 ingredients on some plates, but they never go out of focus. The whole restaurant is like that.
104 East 30th Street (Park Avenue South), Murray Hill; no phone; atomixnyc.com.
The chefs, Lee Hanson and Riad Nasr, are veterans of the pseudo-brasserie scene who have finally opened their own restaurant after 20 years of cooking together in someone else’s. Their menu is a skillful and refined homage to the heart-stopping food served at a few old-time places around Les Halles in Paris; it includes snails, brains, tripe, tongue and other things that don’t exactly sell themselves in the United States. This might cause trouble with the chefs’ boss it if they had one, but they don’t, and they know just what they’re doing. The organ meats are beautifully handled. So are less confrontational items like duck breast with paradigmatic fries and roast chicken served over planks of baguette laden with rotisserie drippings. Frenchette also happens to have one of the broadest and most drinkable collections of natural wine in the city. The wines taste idiosyncratic and unbridled, just the thing for food that is a celebration of sticking around long enough to do what you want.
241 West Broadway (North Moore Street), TriBeCa; 212-334-3883; frenchettenyc.com.
New York is filling up with omakase sushi meals so quickly it’s hard to keep them straight, but 69 Leonard Street is one address to write on the back of your hand. The first half of the menu (available at three different lengths costing $190, $252 and $295) weaves some local ingredients into dishes that roughly follow the kaiseki format. This is a chance for the chef, Derek Wilcox, to freestyle a bit within that tradition’s prescribed boundaries, resulting in memorable hybrids like a late-summer chawan mushi made with East Coast lobster. The second half is a sequence of exceptional sushi, sliced and seasoned in the gimmick-free Edo manner. Either the sushi or kaiseki segments alone would be among the best of their type in the city, but the only place that does both this well is Shoji.
Missy Robbins has become the city’s leading practitioner of the bright, energetic, produce-centered branch of Italian cooking. Even in the winter, her food tastes like the afternoon sun beating down on a tomato patch. Misi is Missy (get it?) pared down to the things that show her skill off to greatest advantage, pasta and vegetables. The noodles, made on site, are a catalog of shapes, from long strangozzi with pork ragù to round, flat corzetti with cherry tomatoes warmed just enough to break their skins. For dessert there are six flavors of gelato, all with the same intensity and immediacy as the rest of the meal.
329 Kent Avenue (South Fourth Street), Williamsburg, Brooklyn; 347-566-3262; misinewyork.com.
Officially, it’s just the bar for Ko, David Chang’s attempt to storm the palace of fine dining. It’s also the most experimental thing he has tried, a laboratory where Ko’s chef, Sean Gray, can give cooks a chance to learn new skills like making the gorgeous puff pastry for the formidable pork pie or to work out oddball ideas. “Animal sausage” is ground meat stuffed into a chicken neck that still has the head at one end; it looks like a Pez dispenser made by a serial-killer butcher. This may not be the safest place for a first date, but it is ideal for nights when you want to roll the dice.
8 Extra Place (First Street), East Village; 212-203-8095; ko.momofuku.com.
6. La Mercerie
The only rough patch at this breakfast-through-dinner cafe comes at the beginning, when your server informs you that every piece of tableware can be purchased at the adjoining shop. After that it’s all as smooth as the melted butter in the pans where the crisp, savory buckwheat crepes are sizzled. Marie-Aude Rose, the chef, applies classical precision to eggs, salads, bouillon, boeuf bourguignon and other French cafe standards, which is more than you can say for some cafes in France.
Mako Okano, the chef of this little Japanese hide-out on Delancey Street, loves shabu shabu so much that she decided to open a restaurant where she would cook it for every customer. Normally, it’s a do-it-yourself affair, but Ms. Okano’s evident pleasure in taking care of people brings a touching intimacy to the simple process of dunking meat and vegetables into hot broth. The shabu shabu meats are superb, from Wagyu beef crammed with fat streaks to exquisite chicken meatballs. But she has a lovely touch at the stove, too, whipping up an airy omelet before you notice her back is turned, or skimming swatches of yuba from hot soy milk to serve as a warm bed for a tongue or two of sea urchin.
61 Delancey Street (Allen Street), Lower East Side; 212-925-5220; shabushabumacoron.com.
Chintan Pandya’s cooking is nothing if not energetic. At Rahi, in Greenwich Village, his plates are a whirlwind of local produce, Indian spices and gonzo notions. At Adda, the recipes are traditional, and all of Mr. Pandya’s ebullience goes into the seasoning. This is forcefully spiced food, although chiles aren’t always prominent in the mix. (When they are, buckle up.) The kaleji masala, or stewed chicken livers, employs a garam masala almost symphonic in its complexity. Cumin and cracked coriander make up the crust on the crunchy, twice-marinated bhatti da murgh. Adda may have been meant as a pit stop for students at LaGuardia Community College across the street, but those spices call out so loudly you can almost hear them in Manhattan.
31-31 Thomson Avenue (Van Dam Street), Long Island City, Queens; 718-433-3888; addanyc.com.
The theme of Joseph Johnson’s menu is Africa, not just the many cuisines eaten on the continent but also those of diasporic African communities around the world. Salmon noodles are inspired by Vietnamese immigrants in Senegal; Mr. Johnson came up with his transporting “Harlem curry” after reading Vivek Bald’s history of the Bengalis who settled in that neighborhood a century ago. This material is so rich and so underexplored that Henry is now one of the most fascinating restaurants in New York. It’s a remarkable about-face for a business that had closed two months before Mr. Johnson arrived.
19 West 31st Street (Fifth Avenue), Midtown; 212-615-9910; henrynomad.com.
The Oaxacan food at Claro isn’t the uncut stuff you’d find in Mexico; kale and sunchokes are in play, for one thing. But T.J. Steele, the chef, is serious about his moles, which show off the different traits of various chiles in deep, complex layers. Pork cheek, for instance, is stewed in a mole rojo with a beguiling undercurrent of chocolate. Masa, which can be dismal in New York City, is ground and nixtamalized in the restaurant, and makes a delicious foundation for about half the things on the menu. Mr. Steele, who lives part-time in Oaxaca, has filled the place with items he has brought back, including the plates and a mezcal that he imports.