Ah, Perla. I love Perla so much it's a little embarrassing. You know how when you meet someone you're crazy about, you manage to work them into just about every conversation? That's how I feel about Perla. Bring up Italian food, the West Village, brunch, burgers, sandwiches, pizza, cocktails, and I'll probably find a way to talk about this fantastic restaurant. Gabriel Stulman does amazing things with West Village spaces; chef Michael Toscano does amazing things with pasta and interesting meat parts; together, they've created a place I'd recommend for any meal and any occasion. Some restaurants just keep wowing you. Perla is one of those.
It couldn't surprise anyone that Will Guidara and chef Daniel Humm of Eleven Madison Park were capable of launching a second fabulous restaurant. Still, it's a tricky thing to bring their sort of elevated cuisine to a comparatively casual place and lower price point; they've done so flawlessly. What, to me, makes NoMad a success is the number of niches it fills: you could imagine a blowout celebration meal here, truffle-laden chicken and foie to start. But you could equally imagine settling in for an under-$50 bottle of wine (of which there are many) and an entrée in the $20s. And: the chicken. That foie gras–truffle chicken. I dream about it.
The single most memorable meal I've had this year was a synapse-exploding, uncontrollably good omakase dinner at Neta in the West Village. (That we went for paired sake, wine, and cocktails didn't hurt.) The slightly unorthodox Japanese restaurant is equally impressive for its showstopper sushi and inventive hot dishes, like a grilled scallop with uni and maitake mushrooms that's simply one of the best things I've ever eaten. Before this year, I couldn't have told you my favorite single Japanese spot in the city; after 2012, I know it's Neta.
The menus at Empellón Cocina change often, in the dining room and at the bar, but I'm so confident in Alex Stupak's talents that I don't really need to know what I'll be eating. I'm in good hands regardless. Some recent favorites have been a Scotch egg with chicken chorizo and masa tempura that's served as a bar snack, and the Nantucket bay scallop ceviche. I've been known to take down an entire bowl of pistachio guacamole with pistachio salsa myself. It's a necessary counterpart to Mat Resler's excellent tequila and mezcal cocktails (I'm problematically fond of the all-mezcal Devil Inside).
I can't believe that, as of a year ago, Dale Talde hadn't opened a single restaurant in NYC. In twelve short months, he and partners Dave Massoni and John Bush have opened the wildly popular Asian-inspired restaurant, their beer-bourbon-burger bar Pork Slope, and then installed Talde as the chef at Thistle Hill Tavern, which the other two owned and operated. But it's Talde's flagship that I visit over and over and never leave disappointed. I'm powerless before pretzel dumplings, or oyster-bacon pad thai, or what might be my favorite brussels sprouts in New York right now. It's fun food, joyful food, dishes you dive back into again and again until you're sure you won't be able to walk out of the restaurant.
Mission Chinese Food
I'm not a line-waiter by nature; I'll forego the opportunity for a meal I know I'll enjoy if I'd have to stand around an hour for the privilege. An exception these days? Mission Chinese Food. If waiting for a table is the only way I can get my hands on their kung pao pastrami, or chongqing chicken wings, or cumin lamb breast... well, I'll line up, too.
I can't go to Pok Pok with a single dinner date, because two of us couldn't possibly order everything I want on my table: papaya salad, fish sauce wings, Laap Meuang, Muu Kham Waan... I could go on for awhile. Read more »
Xi'an Famous Foods got its start out in Flushing, a small stall in the Golden Mall basement serving the food of Xi'an, the capital of China's Shaanxi province. It's gained a cult following for its lamb burgers and hand-pulled noodles; this year, the father-and-son team opened their first more upscale restaurant. Aesthetically, Biang!—yes, the exclamation point is part of the name—could be straight out of Williamsburg. But the food is all its own, classics from Xi'an and a few more inventive dishes, but remarkably served at the same rock-bottom prices at their stalls.
Wang has managed to start franchising from a stand out of Flushing without compromise, without striking lamb face from the menu, without toning back the heat or upping the prices or changing what the stall has always done. And Biang! is proof that that concept can be taken one step further to a full-fledged restaurant.
We've long been big fans of husband-and-wife chef duo Alex Raij and Eder Montero of Txikito and El Quinto Pino, the Basque-style tapas restaurants in Chelsea. So we weren't at all surprised at the strength of La Vara in Cobble Hill, which explores the Moorish and Jewish flavors of Spain. Order anything fried, order the Fideúa, order the chicken.
North End Grill
Unless you work in the area, there's rarely a reason to visit Battery Park City; but leave it to Danny Meyer to start to remake it as a dining destination. North End Grill is the return of former Tabla chef Floyd Cardoz, and we've found his menu consistently fabulous, from standards like chicken and an awesome pork chop to inventive vegetarian dishes and a full "eggs" section of the menu.
Best Comeback: M. Wells Dinette
In 2010, M. Wells became the stuff of legend from its diner car in Long Island City, the work of Au Pied de Cochon vet Hugue Dufour and Queens native Sarah Obraitis. This year, it reemerged as M. Wells Dinette, the new cafe of MoMA's PS1 also in Long Island City. Reasons to go: a fantastically cheese-loaded French onion soup, a Caesar Salad with smoked herring in place of anchovies, blood pudding. If any of this sounds unexciting, you don't know M. Wells.
Best Restyled Menu: Maison Premiere
We already loved Maison Premiere for cocktails and oysters. But earlier this year, chef Jared Stafford-Hill created a full dinner menu, and it's now my favorite seafood spot in Williamsburg. Sea urchin with white gazpacho, bay scallops with lemongrass and Thai basil, octopus with a pig's head terrine...
Best New Pizzeria: Don Antonio
Two reasons I love Don Antonio: 1) the fabulous pizza; 2) that I finally have a go-to pre- or post-theater restaurant. The collaboration of Kesté's Roberto Caporuscio and his mentor Antonio Starita, a legendary Neapolitan pizzaiolo, it's great for everything from a classic Margherita to their fried pizza Montanara to inventive topping combinations such as walnut cream with porcini mushrooms or pistachio pesto with sausage. Salads and desserts are worth ordering, too.
Favorite Little Brooklyn Restaurant: Lulu & Po
If I had a dollar for every "Manhattan chef heads out to Brooklyn to open a small, no-reservations restaurant with a seasonally-driven menu"... well, I might be able to quit this job. But while many such restaurants can be creative but not entirely successful, Lulu & Po knocks it out of the park, and at more than reasonable prices. I'd go back anytime.
Most Anticipated Comeback: Governor
The newest restaurant from the same team behind Gran Electrica and Colonie, the waterfront Governor in DUMBO was hit hard by Hurricane Sandy, to the tune of a 4+ foot storm surge and catastrophic damage. In the months since, much of the restaurant community has rallied behind them, holding fundraisers and donating profits to their recovery efforts. They would've been on my 2012 best restaurant list if they were still open; as they're not, we're sending best wishes their way for a successful reopening.
Best New Cocktail Bar: Pouring Ribbons
Elegant, masterfully created cocktails that, while incorporating ingredients and flavor combinations that even experienced drinkers might never have heard of, manage to make their menu accessible through an ingenious two-axis graph, telling you how "refreshing" to "spiritous" a cocktail is on one axis and how "comforting" to "adventurous" it is on another. Is a drink with corn milk and two bourbons on the light size, or the boozier? Their chart helps decode a bit.
Best New Bakery: Maison Kayser
I've had supremely tasty cookies, financiers, and the like from Maison Kayser, but it's their standard breads, particularly their baguettes, that have me devouring entire loaves before I know what's come over me.
Favorite New Union Square Lunch Spot: Taboonette
I love me a Num Pang sandwich or a falafel pita from Rainbow Falafel, but when looking for a casual meal around Union Square where I can sit and linger for a bit, I often came up short. Until Taboonette opened earlier this year. This Mediterranean/Middle Eastern counter-service shop does amazing pita sandwiches and platters whose every element, whether spiced rice or white sauce, is more interesting and vibrant than you think it'll be. Serious Eats HQ isn't really that close to Union Square, but we've been known to make a detour for lunch (or send an intern for lunch. Thanks, interns!).
And Looking Forward To...
I've only been to Gabe Stulman's Chez Sardine for a quick preview, but I can't wait for a real dinner. The Marrow, the third restaurant from Harold Dieterle—can't wait for that either. And once I get to Atera and Blanca, two of the most lauded 2012 openings, I'll report back.