This was the best year for eating out in New York since the Time Warner Center gave us a new dining district just by opening the doors to its high-end food court in 2004.
Spending habits changed in post-recession Manhattan. Until Romera debuted this fall with a $245 menu, no new establishment came close to rivaling the prices at Masa or Per Se, the standard bearers at Columbus Circle. Romera soon cut its entry-level price to $125.
This year, culinary risk taking at reasonable prices was rewarded. The only Thai restaurant that mattered in 2011 was Kin Shop, which came courtesy of chef Harold Dieterle, who is most definitely not Thai.
Alex Stupak, one of the world’s great avant-garde pastry chefs, gave up hydrocolloids for lamb barbacoa tacos at Empellon.
Who would have thought that Shea Gallante, who once served expensive wines and fancy French fare at Cru and Bouley, would wow the city with sub-$20 pastas at Ciano? Or that Michael White, an Italian chef from Wisconsin, would succeed with a Southern French restaurant co-owned by a former co-president of Merrill Lynch?
Goat is the new pork, this year, a culinary plaid flannel shirt worn by all the cool omnivores. With beef prices soaring, duck is the more affordable red meat for aristocrats, with large-format birds going for $90 at Eleven Madison Park, $97 at Crown and $140 at Momofuku Ssam Bar.
What would an economic recovery be without a little irrational exuberance? Big box restaurants are back, even serving good grub.
Nightclub cafeterias blasting Rihanna don’t typically dish out ambitious fare; Beauty & Essex is an exception; if my top ten list went to 11, it might have made the cut.
A slew of restaurants were revamped or relocated. The best were Brooklyn Star, The John Dory, Le Bernardin, Fedora and Monkey Bar.
And here are the top 10 newcomers for 2011:
10. Empellon: The most improved restaurant of the year. Alex Stupak transformed his uneven Mexican spot into one of the city’s best taquerias, banishing $200 Kobe steaks in exchange for ethereal flour tortillas. Stupak should trademark his sweetbread and maitake mushroom tacos, a brilliant study in creamy, earthy flavors.
9. Fatty ‘Cue: In the West Village, Zak Pelaccio offers expertly smoked American barbecue, fermented Malaysian seafood, and a $75 half-bottle of Cabo Wabo tequila any way you want it. The precise, heady balance of clams with curry and yuzu will have you swooning as tattooed bartenders make music with cocktail shakers.
8. Roberta’s: Not new, really, but this was the year Manhattan discovered an Italian-American gem. Your Armani-clad Midtowners may feast on crummy hackleback caviar while you smugly spoon the pricier sturgeon roe out in the middle of Bushwick, Brooklyn, alongside barflies eating pizzas and watching the ballgame.
7: La Promenade Des Anglais and Boulud Sud: New York no longer has a deficit of great Southern French spots. Alain Allegretti and Daniel Boulud are to thank for these offbeat endeavors, peddling the complicated, spicy and sometimes bitter flavors of Nice with accents from Italy and North Africa. Lincoln Center-goers will appreciate the quiet of Boulud Sud and its outstanding loup-de-mer -- sea bass wrapped in grape leaves. The Chelsea gallery crowd may prefer the lavender-spiked vodka lemonade and fish soup at La Promenade.
6. Brushstroke: Kaiseki can run as high as $200 per person in Manhattan; David Bouley makes a cheaper case for the elegant fare, with his seven-course tasting at just $85.
5. The Dutch: Why didn’t you eat at Minetta Tavern this year? Because Andrew Carmellini’s The Dutch made it irrelevant. Better steaks, better shrimp cocktail, better wines.
4. Ciano: Shea Gallante’s fireplace-equipped hat-tip to Aspen is the best new Italian restaurant of 2011.
3. Kin Shop: Chef Harold Dieterle, who won the first season of Bravo TV’s “Top Chef,” moved the epicenter of New York Thai food from the cash-only Sripraphai in Woodside, Queens to the more accessible Sixth Avenue, Manhattan, where plastic is welcome. Kin Shop is your jungle curry refuge from the city’s ongoing onslaught of burgers.
2. Ai Fiori: Michael White’s Southern French foray in the Setai hotel is the best new fine dining establishment since he opened Marea on Central Park South in 2009. It’s White’s most conservative spot, with little oily fish or offal to scare off the squeamish. And despite the recent departure of chef Chris Jaeckle, my meal here last week proved that Ai Fiori’s truffle-studded fare is moving ever closer to four-star territory.
1. Tertulia: The restaurant of the year, a Spanish spot like no other in New York, a shrine to Iberico, the world’s most expensive ham. Seamus Mullen showers this delicacy upon guests as if it were white truffles, perfuming every other dish with its floral, nutty aromas. Mullen could serve his saffron-soaked paella on white tablecloths. Instead, he surrenders to the haute-casual, linen-free zeitgeist, with a crowded room where bankers drink sherry standing up, praying to land that table next to Jay-Z.
(Ryan Sutton writes about New York restaurants for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)