The 18 Best Dishes in New York This Year
One of the reasons New York is the great love of my life is because even in the worst of times, you can count on the pleasures of pizza. A few new pies stood out for me this year, and they represent a larger category of chefs who committed to a singular style and mastered it (the crisp Roman beauties at Marta, the grandmas at GG’s, the extra-tangy puffs at Bruno). The extravagances I remember the most fondly, at least without referencing my monthly expenses, are the ones that were sent out joyfully, with the intent to please rather than impress. I’m thinking of the opulent reconfiguration of the generally crap tuna roll, which was served at Shuko, and the slightly ridiculous caviar service you can find at Mission Chinese Food (which reminded me that caviar is meant to be fun). The excellent and inexpensive vegetarian food at Superiority Burger has been a constant source of delight this year, and I hope to see more of that kind of fast-casual food in 2016.
For now, after 400 or so restaurant meals (I don’t keep a tally; I am guessing here), these are the standouts. The ones too vivid and delicious to forget. The ones that, through no fault of their own, taste like 2015.
Gabriel Kreuther’s Lounge
Blood sausage only sounds rough. When it’s made well, as it is at Gabriel Kreuther’s lounge, across the street from Bryant Park, it can be sweeter, more ethereal, and more delicate than any cut of meat. There, you’ll find it sliced, crisp at the edges, melting away in the middle, scattered in a little salad of potatoes and parsnip purée, with crunchy pieces of raw apple.
Fried Chicken and Biscuit Sliders
2015 will be remembered in New York as the Year of the Chicken Sandwich, with Shake Shack launching the Chicken Shack, Momofuku opening its chicken sandwich-dedicated restaurants Fuku and Fuku+, and Atlanta-based chain Chick-fil-A building its first location in the city, besides the one in an NYU food court. But the finest fried chicken sandwich I had came hot out of Carlos Swepson’s kitchen in Harlem. The chicken was crisp and deeply seasoned, and the buttermilk biscuit had a wonderfully soft crumb, like a gently salty cake. No hype, no fuss. And inside, a sheer lace of melted cheddar. I was so happy they came two to an order.
There’s a place every year for undemanding comfort food. This year it was Mekelburg’s, a subterranean grocery store in Brooklyn’s Clinton Hill, packed with fancy products and friendly workers (who seem to know every single word to every single Pearl Jam song). On bad days, and 2015 had so many truly garbage days, the bar in the back was just the spot to feel better with a pint of sour beer and a glorious baked potato with a line of melted raclette running through the center, entirely more sour cream than necessary, and a fat piece of bacon crowning the top. The other excellent potato option, stuffed with big pieces of smoked cod and a dollop of caviar, could even pass for breakfast, if you needed it to.
Dave Sclarow has been selling his puffy, gently charred, Neapolitan-style pies since 2008, and maybe you’ve even tried one from the wood-fired oven he used to pull around the Brooklyn Flea. This year he opened a full-time pizzeria, with general manager Anna Viertel. Pizza Moto is on the edge of Red Hook, looking out onto the vast gloom of the BQE, and it serves a beautiful clam pie: The dough is tender and tangy, a network of springy bubbles, slathered with clams and their liquor, big pieces of bacon, and meltingly soft potato. It’s all the elements of clam chowder, refitted for a white pizza, and it’s spectacular.
Açorda de Camarão
Somewhere between a soupy, savory porridge and a bowl of bread stew lies açorda, the Portuguese comfort food that turns almost nothing into something very special. At Lupulo, George Mendes’s beer bar and restaurant on the edge of Koreatown, the tiny pieces of bread are in parts squishy, soaked in a shrimp-rich stock, and in others unyielding and crunchy. There are more whole grilled shrimp on top, and if you’re lucky they’ll be carabinero, the big, sweet, lipstick-red shrimp from off the coast of Portugal and Spain.
Mission Chinese Food
Too many places serving caviar leave you wondering if it was worth it. You roll the juicy beads around in your mouth and pop them quietly against your tongue, and maybe you wonder: I don’t know … is this all there is? The sturgeon caviar at Mission Chinese is from Petrossian, and Angela Dimayuga sends it out with a massive, hot swell of sourdough flatbread you can rip with your hands and shine with salty kefir butter. It’s a bender of salt and fat and tang that drips with buttermilk as you eat it, and it reminds you that although caviar is an occasion, and an expensive one, it can still be absolutely fun.
$110 for 50 grams; mcfny.com
A bagel-obsessed baker turned out to be one of the year’s biggest culinary stars. Melissa Weller, formerly of Per Se, joined with Major Food Group after the team tasted the exquisite bagels she used to sell at her tiny Smorgasburg stall, East River Bagels. The result is Sadelle’s, where you can go for a tower of smoked fish and a tuna melt or, if you’re smart, wait for someone to shout “hot bagels” and then make off with a hot and crusty ring straight from the oven in the center of the dining room. All of Weller’s bagels are springy, crunchy, and full of flavor, the way bagels are meant to be. But her Everything 2.0, glittering with poppy, sesame, caraway, and fennel seeds, is my everything.
Uni and Chickpea Hozon
If syrupy canned lychees and frozen, grated foie gras defined the old Ko, this quieter dish of uni and fermented chickpeas defines the newer, more sophisticated Ko. Restrained, elegant, but powerfully delicious, the simple dish involves a spill of fresh, raw sea urchin from Hokkaido and hozon, a miso-like paste made from chickpeas instead of soybeans in Momofuku’s Brooklyn laboratory. The whole thing is covered in olive oil, which doesn’t make sense until you eat it. It’s a marvel, and somehow in the end, the uni still comes out on top.
Part of the $175 tasting menu; momofuku.com
The eponymous veggie burger is the star of Brooks Headley’s tiny East Village restaurant, but the Yuba Philadelphia is its true masterpiece. Yuba, the wide, creamy folds of “skin” that form on the top of fresh soybean milk as it’s heated, replaces beef in the Philly-inspired sandwich. Although it doesn’t do a great impersonation of meat, yuba has a fantastic texture of its own, delicately stretchy and chewy, unlike any other tofu variation. Here, saturated with chili heat, tangled up with grease-slicked peppers and onions, it’s killer. And the messy sandwich wanders even deeper into fast-food territory with a smear of “cheese” (made from cashew nuts, of course).
Chef Rita Sodi’s mother used to make her chopped steak when she was growing up in Tuscany, and at the West Village restaurant she now co-owns with Jody Williams, Sodi re-creates it: She hashes beef loin to bits, shapes it into a thick puck, and deeply sears the meat so it’s brown and crisp, but still a little bit rare in the center. The result isn’t a compromise, some kind of sad hamburger minus the bun, but its very own flawless thing. The svizzerina comes with nothing but whatever salty fat has rendered out and a bit of fried garlic still in the shell. And hey, that’s all it needs (OK, plus maybe a side of cauliflower in cheese sauce).
In Daniel Eddy’s hands, Parisian-style rotisserie chicken got even better: an elegant packet of dark and white meat wrapped in golden, crisp, salty skin. Eddy, who previously cooked at the American-owned bistro Spring in Paris, debones the birds to serve them this way at Rebelle, poaching the meat in tarragon-infused butter to finish it. Of course, it comes with potatoes, rotisserie chicken’s best friend, and these have been cooked until very soft in rendered chicken fat.
Spicy Tuna Roll
At Shuko, Nick Kim and Jimmy Lau give the poor old spicy tuna roll a generous do-over. Typically made from finely chopped tuna scraps, this deluxe version involves large pieces of grilled bluefin belly, dripping with mellow fat. The heat comes from properly spicy pickled chilis, and the whole thing is wrapped up in nori. It’s exquisite, and it’s one of the many ways Shuko turns up flavors in surprising ways, without taking itself too seriously.
Part of a $135 sushi omakase; shukonyc.com
I’m still dreaming about a second-generation Indian restaurant in New York with mastery over flavors and technique and a distinct point of view, a place capable of delighting people in the way Momofuku did in its early days. The Australian import Babu Ji gets real close (though the kitchen breaks my heart, because it doesn’t cook with ghee). Still, it serves one of the best, and simplest, desserts in town: badam kesar kulfi. That long, skinny popsicle is made from milk that’s been reduced with sweet cardamom and pistachio, and set in a long mold. The resulting texture is creamy, crystalline, and chewy all at once.
The pop-up pizzeria inside Brooklyn’s Emily offers just a handful of pies, and the truth is they’re all great. Adam Kuban, the writer and pizza-obsessive, zoomed in on bar-style pizzas for his one-man operation, and each one is thin and crisp, loaded (but not overloaded) with toppings. The sauce is round, gently sweet, and Kuban sprinkles extra cheese along the edges of each pan so the pizzas come out with a golden, crisp, cheesy edge.
$25 pre-paid ticket includes one pizza and either salad or drink; margotspizza.com
Egg Noodles With Chinese Sausage
Jonathan Wu’s brilliant modern American cooking, thoroughly informed by his study of Chinese cuisine, is some of the most exciting and delicious stuff in town. Although Fung Tu has been open for two years, in the last year the restaurant found its footing and rightfully gained some attention for its excellent, ever-changing menu and wine list. One of my favorite dishes is still the pile of noodles run through with bits of Chinese sausage and clams, which Wu steams open in amontillado sherry. The fat, chewy egg noodles are deeply comforting, and the flavors of ginger, scallions, and fermented soybeans run deep.
Harry and Ida’s
Brother-and-sister duo Will and Julie Horowitz named their East Village deli after their great-grandparents, a pair of Hungarian immigrants who once ran a deli in Harlem. But their supple, exuberantly smoky pastrami is very much their own. It’s made from the fattier, second cut of brisket, the deckle, and gets thickly sliced for the fantastic pastrami sandwich, which involves copious amounts of dill, cucumbers pickled in buttermilk, and mustard in a squishy roll. It’s not rye, but you won’t mind; there’s enough rye and caraway in the pickles to even things out.
There are many reasons to visit the family-run La Morada in the South Bronx. One is Natalia Mendez and Antonio Saavedra’s rare and delicious mole blanco, a ghostly white mole made from a base of almonds, peanuts, and pine nuts (not all mole involves chocolate). Another is the meatballs, which hide green olives at their core. In all cases, call ahead to make sure what you’re craving is on the menu that day. If you’re lucky, the kitchen is making mole Oaxaqueño: The dark sauce sings with smoke and tang, tingles with the complex heat of many kinds of peppers, and shines when it’s draped over tender pork ribs or chicken thighs.
I first tried Joshua Smookler’s tonkotsu in 2012, when he introduced serious pork bone broth to the kitchen at Tribeca’s Zutto. Since then, he’s become something of a star in the New York ramen scene, refining his technique and tweaking the rich, over-the-top flavors he started chasing a few years ago. At the ramen-ya in Queens’s Long Island City he co-owns with Heidi Smookler, his wife, the tonkotsu 2.0 is a rich, sleep-inducing, porky dream (with a little mushroom and scallion to break up the monotony). The broth is thick, cloudy, and creamy with fat, and the pork jowl on top has a delicate wobble.