New York dining is stronger than ever with a modern wave of Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese, and Indian spots
New York’s dining scene isn’t receiving too many love letters from afar these days. The San Francisco Bay Area has taken over as the nation’s fine dining capital, at least in the eyes of Michelin. Bill Addison, Eater’s ex-national critic, argued this summer that California is now “the most influential force” in American dining (His headline: “Sorry New York…”). Last month, Besha Rodell published an essay titled “What Sydney Can Learn About Los Angeles from Dining,” the type of missive that, once upon of time, might have taken Brooklyn as its template.
And just last week, a magazine food editor randomly slid into my emails. “Dig what you do, man,” he wrote, before explaining why an acclaimed French restaurant in Lower Manhattan wasn’t as good as its counterparts in Minneapolis, Dallas, LA, or Culver City, where he’d sooner “race back” to.
I don’t have point-by-point counterarguments. California is great! But on behalf of the 8.6 million people in the five boroughs, most of whom would rather dine locally than jet across the country for dinner, let me say the following: I’m still long on New York, man.
Big Apple dining is undergoing one of its most exciting and diverse transformations of the past decade.
Ambitious slice pizza, long neglected in favor of more expensive Neapolitan pies, is experiencing a proper renaissance at Paulie Gee’s, PQR, and elsewhere. New York’s quintessential food stuff is shining once again.
A booming Chinese student population, combined with diners of all stripes who are tired of the city’s countless Euro brasseries, is prompting a wave of young Asian operators to show off their ancestral fare in updated settings. I’m thinking of MáLà Project’s dry hot pots, as well as the spicy crawfish boils of Le Sia. These venues, along with the Taiwanese-leaning Win Son and Ho Foods, show every sign of becoming the next class of hip-casual culinary establishments, building on the ethos of Keith McNally, David Chang, and others.
Modern Korean spots, at Atomix and elsewhere, continue to function as the city’s ambitious answer to the more traditional restaurants of LA’s stunning K-Town. Vietnamese fare, in turn, is beginning to assert itself in more innovative ways, from Di An Di’s rice paper pizzas, which you cut with scissors, to the new Madame Vo BBQ, set to grill wagyu later this month. The city’s South Asian scene, still thriving with creative spots like Indian Accent and Bombay Bread Bar, saw a thrilling ode to home cooking with Adda in Long Island City.
And despite all the venture capital pouring into slick counter-service spots, the best of that bunch was Kopitiam, a small Malaysian cafe serving fried-anchovy coconut rice for $9.
There are still headwinds for sure. Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s new parental leave plan fails the hospitality industry. Hudson Yards will bring a heavy dose of luxe monotony to the West Side. Big-time developers remain hesitant to empower local operators for high-profile projects. No tipping faced a serious setback. Mario Batali still owns his restaurants.
And a Chick-fil-A just opened across the street from me in Hell’s Kitchen. But you know what? Kebab Empire, a Uyghur joint, opened down the block from me, too. In the face of burgeoning chains, small-time operators are still finding ways to make things work. And so are others. New York isn’t done just yet.
Here’s my list of the year’s best restaurants.
Restaurants of the Year: Saint Julivert Fisherie and Momofuku Ko Bar
Momofuku Ko Bar: It’s not uncommon for fine dining chefs to water down prix fixe dishes for cheaper spinoff venues. Ko Bar, however, does the opposite. Sean Gray and Su Wong-Ruiz built this a la carte annex to the restaurant’s set menu counter to “create a space for tasting-menu research and development.” Indeed, the share plates here, which rarely rise over $20, are as ambitious as anything at the $255 menu. The quadruple-fried chicken, brushed with yuzukosho and served cold, costs just $6, service included.
Saint Julivert Fisherie: As exorbitant European and Japanese approaches to the sea dominate, Alex Raij and Eder Montero have done something more diverse and approachable. They’ve taken a decidedly global (and non-rip-off) approach to the world’s oceans, channeling the Caribbean with jerk kanpachi collar, Mexico with shrimp-laced posole soups, China with chile- and oyster-topped pig-ear terrines, and Peru with elegant fluke ceviches. Also, they have barnacles that squirt!
Restaurants of the Year: The Long List
Kopitiam: This stunner of a Malaysian cafe counters the narrative of aspirational, overpriced all-day spots hawking $21 anchovies. Chef Kyo Pang and Moonlyn Tsai have created a space where one can tap away at a laptop for a few hours, enjoy breakfast all day (perhaps a $6 coconut pandan jam sandwich), or slurp up $9 chilled spicy noodles. The focus is Peranakan fare, which blends Malay and Chinese sensibilities with Dutch, Portuguese, and other influences.
Glady’s Jerk Center: Kingston native Felix Junior, backed by Michael Jacober and beverage wizard Shannon Mustipher, hasn’t just opened one of the city’s best Caribbean restaurants. He’s given New York its best new barbecue spot since Hometown. Junior’s hardwood-cooked jerk exhibits nuanced notes of pine, heat, salt and allspice pungency.
MáLà Project: Amelie Kang’s duo of restaurants — the Midtown location opened in February — functions as an excellent intro class into a culinary style without much representation in New York: Sichuan dry pots. Diners build customizable bowls of lamb, beef rib, shrimp, fish cakes, tripe, testicles, spam, and other ingredients, which the kitchen wok-fries with head-exploding levels of spice. It is one of the most affordable and delicious ways to eat meat in the city.
Paulie Gee’s Slice Shop & PQR: New York’s best new pizzerias almost exclusively sell their wares by the slice. Italian import PQR represents the best of the new school, with long cold fermentation resulting in preternaturally light squares, while Paulie Gee’s is an elevated evocation of the classic tri-state area slice, cut into orange triangles that glow like Fanta.
Le Sia: This East Village spot, by first-time restaurateurs Tina Chen and Yang Liu and chef Zac Zheng, is one of the most exhilarating places to eat shellfish in the city. The Chinese are the world’s largest producers of crawfish; Le Sia, accordingly, wok-fries those mud bugs, along with snow crabs, shrimp, lobsters, and Dungeness crab, in any variety of spicy, tingly, garlic-tinged sauces. Plastic gloves allow for reckless crustacean cracking.
Frenchette and La Mercerie: Frenchette, brought to us by Riad Nasr and Lee Hanson, isn’t quite as envelope-pushing as a neobistrot like Wildair, but it’s distinct enough from the city’s more traditional-minded brasseries. From uni omelet souffles to spicy blowfish to the natural wine list, Frenchette pushes the genre forward in a way that can still excite more open-minded patrons while not scaring off more conservative eaters. And La Mercerie, quite simply, is where Marie-Aude Rose cooks elevated cafe fare on par with the city’s most virtuosic Gallic chefs.
MeMe’s: Libby Willis and Bill Clark have reimagined the endangered species that is the New York diner. Strong martinis arrive with free cheeseballs; migas eggs in Frito bags come with sides of breakfast cereal; and Andes mints accompany guest checks. The CrownHeights restaurant also serves what is surely the city’s best new brunch.
Atomix: It’s the best case for a long, expensive, intellectual tasting menu experience since Aska. Ellia Park and her chef-husband Junghyun thrill with ultra-modern Korean fare; imagine sweet shrimp under rose-scented radishes with persimmon sauce. The duo supplements the cerebral offerings with menu cards that explain all the references and ingredients. Think of them as CliffsNotes for food.
Di An Di: Tuan Bui, Kim Hoang, and Dennis Ngo’s Greenpoint hot spot serves one of the widest range of pho soups for a single Vietnamese restaurant. There’s the beefier Hanoi style, the more aromatic Saigon approach, the spicy lemongrass pho, and the stellar dry chicken pho — decidedly rare in New York. Brave the hour-plus wait, then order them all!
Don Angie: Chefs Angie Rito and Scott Tacinelli use the tropes of Italian-American cookery as a loose framework, rather than a set of handcuffs, for reinterpreting one of the city’s most quintessential (albeit staid) foodways. The result is a brilliantly international take on red sauce fare. Get the dumplings that look like Pittsburgh Steeler uniforms!
Adda: As a recent wave of Desi spots experiments with flavor combinations (dal with burrata, hoisin duck kulchas), Adda in Long Island City reminds us there are ample thrills to be found in more affordable homestyle cooking. Chef Chintan Pandya — who wields the torch of modernism at Rahi in Greenwich Village — nourishes at Adda with fiery lamb curries and bowls of eggy goat brains. Chef Hemant Mathur has long championed both the traditional and modern side of Indian cooking with aplomb; count Pandya as another fluent practitioner.