Empellon, Mission Chinese Best New Spots of 2012: Review

Gwynnett St. Young Carrots
Young carrots at Gwynnett St. The $14 carrot dish has a lot going on: the root vegetables are roasted in thyme and olive oil, glazed in a carrot juice reduction, paired with dehydrated carrot cake, mixed with pickled carrots and finished with carrot yogurt and flowers. Photographer: Philip Lewis/Bloomberg

By late October, New York was on track to have its most impressive year for new restaurants since the 2008 collapse of Lehman Brothers and the ongoing recession ravaged our city’s economy.

Then Hurricane Sandy came along and ravaged us again. Diners and chefs fought back with credit cards, charity diners and hashtags, acting out of duty -- and fear of going under.

Uptown venues were packed as downtown spots remained dark and empty. But downtown restaurants like Northern Spy Food Co., Corton and others would soon be back. We opened our wallets and realized that, Sandy be damned, this was still the best year for new restaurants in a long time.

Things weren’t so great for high-end hotel spots; Adour and L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon shuttered. Expensive snoozers opened -- Il Mulino, Brasserie Pushkin, Hakkasan and Sirio.

The most exciting new restaurants blossomed in lower Manhattan, Brooklyn and Jersey City, neighborhoods battered by power outages and raging floodwaters. Not one of the following selections lies north of 28th St. These are the best of the best:

Pok Pok

12. Pok Pok: Shortly after Andy Ricker imported his hipster-Thai-enterprise from Oregon to Red Hook, I encountered service so bad I had to personally raid a wait station for utensils. Months later, Pok Pok has become the destination restaurant is deserves to be, with friendly service, fiery pork salads and one of New York’s best gin and tonics.

11. The NoMad: Daniel Humm and Will Guidara gave the garment district (of all places) Leo Robitschek’s four-star cocktails and one of the city’s finest and, at $79, priciest chickens, albeit one stuffed with foie gras and truffles.

10. North End Grill: If you work for Goldman Sachs next door, this is where you have your client dinners. Danny Meyer and Floyd Cardoz do it right with $64 veal chops, a killer clam pizza and over 100 scotches -- definitely a banker’s hangout.

9. Thirty Acres: Jersey City is no farther from Manhattan than Brooklyn, so there’s no excuse to ignore this mom and pop shop from ex-Momofuku Noodle Bar chef Kevin Pemoulie. Where else can you get maple-syrup-slicked corned beef?

Maison Premiere

8. Maison Premiere: It’s fitting that when so many restaurants shuttered the night Sandy struck, this New Orleans-inspired spot stayed open, shaking Hurricane cocktails into the night. And with myriad dollar oysters during happy hour and one of the city’s best bread baskets for $3, Maison reminds us that ambitious food doesn’t have to cost a mortgage payment.

7. La Vara: In the era of Italian everything and New American anything, Alex Raij gave us a Carroll Gardens Iberian spot that takes its influences from Spain’s rich Sephardic and Moorish traditions. This is where you can get a life-enhancing bacon sandwich for $8.

6. Atera: Typical criticism of Atera in Tribeca goes like this: Matthew Lightner’s avant-garde wizardry is more interesting than delicious, more clever than satisfying. That’s hogwash. Try Lightner’s intense, nourishing chicken broth with squid noodles and you’ll see why I disagree.

Red Sauce

5. Parm: Now that Torrisi Italian Specialties has been turned into an expensive luxe establishment, the neighboring Parm is where to go for affordable Italian-American red saucery. Expect galamar with tabasco aioli, frozen scorpion cocktails and a flattened meatball parm that ranks with the city’s best burgers.

4. Perla: Gabe Stulman and Michael Toscano’s Italian newcomer in the West Village is today’s Babbo. This is where I go when I want foie gras, instead of truffle shavings, fortifying my papardelle. I get that craving a lot.

3. Gwynnett St: Perhaps the most courageous restaurant of the year, a statement I feel comfortable making for an East Williamsburg spot that serves turnips with Iberico ham mousse, parsnips with pork blood dumplings and shockingly boozy whiskey bread, all down the block from a dollar store.

2. Blanca: Caviar doesn’t cost any less in Brooklyn, which is why you shouldn’t complain about your $700 meal for two at Blanca in Bushwick. The restaurant serves a 25-course tasting menu on par with New York’s most exalted fine-dining spots.

The Tie

1. Empellon Cocina: This is New York’s best Mexican restaurant. It’s the story of Alex Stupak, an ex-pastry chef who forces us to eat outside our comfort zone. Stupak initially refused to serve tacos; instead served masa fettuccine. When Stupak charged $125 per person to expose us to the cuisine of Mexico City’s Enrique Olvera, he sold out the house. Empellon has helped free Mexican cuisine from the stereotypes of rusticity, the shackles of authenticity and the burden of being cheap.

1. Mission Chinese: Like the San Francisco flagship, Danny Bowien’s Manhattan outpost isn’t just about excellent plates of “Americanized Oriental food.” Diners pump free beer from a keg while waiting to be seated. Most of the (incendiary) dishes are $16 or under. And 75 cents of every entree goes to the Food Bank for New York. Mission inflames your insides while warming your soul.

For a slideshow on the New York area's best dishes in 2012, click here.

(Ryan Sutton writes about New York City restaurants for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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