The recession special is dead. Two years after the collapse of Lehman Brothers, New York is finally in the midst of the Great Restaurant Recovery. Unlike 2009, the year of tragic closing, 2010 has brought us some major openings. And re-openings.
Pies ‘n’ Thighs, after a long shutter, is again serving Williamsburg hipsters hot sauce-topped mac and cheese. Cafe Des Artistes, left to gather dust two Augusts ago, will reopen in 2011 under a new name. And April Bloomfield’s John Dory, whose remnants are still visible in West Chelsea, was reborn in Midtown. A tiny cup of lobster chowder is $14 bucks.
Masa, New York’s most expensive place to eat, hiked its sushi omakase back up to $450; it had charged $50 less in the depths of the downturn. And Mario Batali’s Del Posto, despite its uneven cuisine, moved to a prix-fixe format and raised its costliest tasting to $500.
Minetta Tavern charged $36 for their strip steak in 2009. Now it’s $48. The two-Michelin star Brooklyn Fare’s set menu, which cost $95 per person, is still underpriced at $135. It’s outstanding. It’s a two-month wait to get in.
This isn’t just inflation. This is pricing power.
Eleven Madison Park, whose three-course dinner menu was $88 a few Augusts ago, now sets its dinner minimum at $125 for a longer tasting. When I tried walking in last month, the maitre’d shook his head. Even the private rooms upstairs were full.
Same day tables for two at Per Se, once common, are tougher to come by. The $275-per-person venue is mostly booked a month out. So I went into the restaurant’s a la carte salon and had the best meal of the year. Caviar was involved, as was a killer dish of $175 risotto.
The new $20 million Lincoln, where former-Per Se chef Jonathan Benno now cooks, isn’t faring quite as well. It cut prices across the board after mixed reviews; the tasting menu dropped ten bucks to $110. That’s still expensive Italian.
The year also brought supermarket Italian (Eataly), Italian-American (Torrisi), Gramercy Park Italian (Maialino), avant-garde Italian (Il Matto) and Bowery Italian (Pulino’s). Michael White gave us way-too-fatty Italian (Morini) and hotel Italian (Ai Fiori).
Scott Conant gave us crummy Italian (Faustina), confirming his role as the next Todd English, a talented chef more interested in expansion than improving his existing venues.
But The Lion, John DeLucie’s celebrity hangout, was by far the worst restaurant of the year. His tuna spaghetti is a sad copy of Jean Georges’s great dish. His gummy pappardelle evokes a high school cafeteria mishap, and the $85 truffle burger has no truffle flavor.
Enough with the bad. Here were the best spots of 2010:
10. Kajitsu: This isn’t American fake-meat vegetarianism. It also isn’t the European “butter, cheese and egg” approach to no meat. This is the Japanese-Buddhist “soy, buckwheat and burdock” way. I’ll say more about this great Shojin spot, which serves vegetable tasting menus, in 2011.
9. Brooklyn Fare: My 20-course meals at Cesar Ramirez’s 18-seat spot realized my hope that one of our city’s great restaurants finally lies in Kings’ County. But I’m not sure whether such a tough-to-get-into den deserves a four-star rating. I’ll give a full review in the New Year.
8. Eataly: New Yorkers prefer to eat out rather than to cook, so it’s good that Mario Batali’s 50,000 square foot supermarket has 13 places to eat. The bad part is you’re stuck eating in a supermarket. Still, there’s stellar vitello tonnato at Manzo and Le Verdure serves a lasagna that bests Del Posto’s.
7. Peels & Seersucker: The year’s best Southern joints. Peels feeds us smoky shrimp & grits on the Bowery. Brooklyn’s Seersucker dishes the city’s best fried chicken.
6. The Mark & ABC Kitchen: The former is a French-American joint for the Upper East Side’s Gagosian crowd; the latter is a green-themed barnyard joint for the Prius-set. Both prove that Jean-Georges Vongerichten can rule the haute-casual zeitgeist with his $20 takes on pizza (with truffles), burgers (with truffles) and fried chicken (fancily deboned).
5. Colicchio & Sons and Riverpark: Tom Colicchio can expand all he wants because he puts solid restaurants in neighborhoods that need them (Kips Bay, far West Chelsea) and gives us refined, creative American fare. Think octopus in hot dog buns.
4. Maialino: Danny Meyer’s Italian joint crafts the city’s best chicken soup. Chef Nick Anderer spins white noodles out of eggs and forges copper-toned broth from bird wings. It should be canned to compete with Campbell’s.
3. Torrisi Italian Specialties: Seven courses. Fifty bucks. Smothered pork chops, organ-meat ragu, tomato bread. Enough said.
2. Ma Peche: Sometimes this Momofuku spot is haute-Vietnamese, like steak tartare with shrimp chips. Sometimes it’s French, like gnocchi with black truffle shavings the width of baseballs. Sometimes it’s avant-garde American, like a grassy, nutty, sous-vide steak. The 45-minute wait last Thursday is proof chef that Tien Ho can make midtown a destination.
1. The Breslin: In our city’s fat-obsessed (and male-dominated) culinary world, April Bloomfield has blessed us with balance. She cuts smoky-sweet lamb ribs with piquant tomatoes, the U.K. response to American BBQ. She pairs a crispy poussin with a powerful vinegar sauce; it’s like Buffalo wings without the spice.
Bloomfield has created the restaurant of the year, a deservedly packed British gastropub in the Irish-bar Penn Station district. Eat up.
(Ryan Sutton writes about New York City restaurants for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)