Best New American Restaurants 2004

Best New American Restaurants 2004

Noe DeWitt
Noe DeWitt
This year, chefs across the United States have stepped up to the plate with some amazing offerings. Hungry?Here are 40 places in 10 cities where you can find your next memorable meal.

What is "American cuisine" now?In search of answers, we traveled to 10 of our most forward-thinking food capitals to bring you the best examples and the top tables in each. As we discovered, choice is the new buzzword: from "small plates" to big ideas, celebrity scenes to intimate neighborhood gems, multimillion-dollar design temples to chic storefronts, the iconoclasts of a new generation are profoundly altering the culinary landscape. Meanwhile, other chefs are taking up the mantle of Alice Waters, romancing farmers' markets and kitchen gardens, preferring a revolution in the smallest details. Over the past year we've seen American chefs (and diners) turn their backs on gussied-up comfort food in favor of food that makes you sit up and take note. Whether they're in Boston or San Francisco, restaurants have become destinations for gustatory thrill rides. Luckily, culinary adventurers need not look beyond our shores to get a taste of the best. Read on.


Cairo-born chef Michael Mina is no stranger to the limelight. He has wowed San Franciscans with his mythic tuna tartare at Aqua, and outperformed Cirque du Soleil with theatrical tableside service at its offshoot in Las Vegas. Given all the fanfare that greeted the opening of Michael Mina (Westin St. Francis, 335 Powell St.; 415/397-9222; dinner for two $150) last summer, you'd think Escoffier himself had risen from the grave. It doesn't hurt that Andre Agassi is a backer. Or that celebrity designer Barbara Barry revamped the old dining room of the St. Francis Hotel overlooking Union Square—swathing it in calming shades of cream and celadon—to the tune of $4.5 million. "Diners lose interest after just a few bites of one dish," Mina says, explaining his ingenious idea of refracting a main ingredient—Dover sole, Kobe beef—into six sublime tasting portions arranged in three hot and cold pairs on fragile, custom-made Royal Doulton china especially designed to showcase miniature servings. Diver scallops, for instance, come seared and as ceviche, and are accessorized three ways: with lemon and caviar, truffles and corn, and tomatoes and lobster. The troika of bread puddings—peach and raspberry, banana and strawberry, fig and blackberry—proves that one dessert is never enough.

Daniel Patterson, formerly of Elisabeth Daniel, belongs to the new generation of scientifically minded chefs whose innovations are reawakening palates numbed by comfort-food overdose. He is now installed at Frisson (244 Jackson St.; 415/956-3004; dinner for two $95), a Mid-Century-Modern-inspired restaurant-supper club with a luminous backlit dome and a menu that is a testament to Patterson's latest obsession: aromas. Working with a perfumer to develop natural essential oils, Patterson explores the relationship between flavor and smell in his bold but disciplined creations. Lavender-scented onions provide an intriguing dimension to cornmeal-crusted foie gras. Black bass with braised lettuce is transformed by a peppery touch of Litsea cubeba (the fruit of the Chinese may chang tree). After serious gourmands depart, revelers sink into the lounge's oversized sofas and groove to an eclectic sound track mixed by resident DJ's.

Could it be?A restaurant this seemingly unpretentious generating such buzz?Book a full month in advance and see why Quince (1701 Octavia St.; 415/775-8500; dinner for two $100) basks in cultlike devotion. Chef Michael Tusk indulges lovers of haute-rustic flavors with a purist northern-California spin on Mediterranean food. It took clever maneuvering—partitions, flattering lighting, a Murano-glass chandelier—to make the diminutive former Victorian apothecary look so inviting. Still, what you'll remember is the quiet intelligence that shines through each dish on the market-driven menu. Here are chickpea ravioli in a pepper-zapped squid sauce, followed by squab cooked under a weight, or a Roman-style oxtail stew subtly seasoned with cloves and cinnamon. After buckwheat crêpes with prunes and Armagnac, you'll stroll away composing flowery sonnets to the pleasures of veal cheeks, wild nettles, and artisanal olive oils.


Ten-month-old T'afia (3701 Travis St.; 713/524-6922; dinner for two $80) is a Berkeley restaurant that just happens to have interesting Hill Country and Galveston County vintages on its wine list, a menu that romances Texas ingredients, and an address on a fast-gentrifying stretch of Houston's emerging Midtown. Monica Pope, one of the founders of the city's wildly popular farmers' market and the Republic of Alice Waters's ambassador to the Lone Star State, preaches the garden-to-table gospel with dishes such as a salad of house-cured duck prosciutto with fennel and blood orange; a terrifically tender and smoky venison served with a reassuringly homey sweet-potato purée and a sauce of buttermilk grits; or an earthy buckwheat and wild mushroom gâteau. The bare bones-chic, 16-table dining room, with exposed brick walls and acrylic-frosted tables, is saved from austerity by the excitement that hangs in the air as guests share in Pope's latest discoveries: an unusual Texas chèvre, a particularly sweet carrot from a farmer named Gita. A few sips of the punch made with the house-distilled ratafia—the Mediterranean fruit-infused liqueur that lends the restaurant its name—and the space positively glows.

The walls at Rouge (812 Westheimer St.; 713/520-7955; dinner for two $80) bring to mind a soak in a tub of Shiraz, and the wraparound eye-level mirrors make spying on your fellow diners obligatory (these range from mink-draped divas to deal-making moguls to foodies who are clearly here just for the rabbit terrine). Edelberto Gonçalves, a young Frenchman with the face of an angel and a past that includes stints at several Michelin-starred restaurants, knows how to please them all. Vaguely New American, more than a little bit French, his food says ambition, bordering on the baroque, but stopping short of the excess that plagues so many Houston chefs. Just taste his buttery-rich salmon confit sprinkled with fleur de sel. Or his impossibly fragrant lobster tagine—the whole crustacean is first presented in a tagine pot before being whisked back to the kitchen for carving. Please exercise restraint when attacking that sweet coconut tamale: everyone's watching.

It was a happy day in Houston when Claire Smith, once chef-owner of the Daily Review Café, reappeared on the scene after a three-year hiatus. Shade (250 W. 19th St.; 713/863-7500; dinner for two $70), her warm, minimalist neighborhood haunt in the Heights, is the first serious restaurant in a district Houstonians love for its eclectic mix of biker bars, antiques shops, groovy boutiques, and gingerbread Victorian manses. The cross-cultural menu leaps from Mexican-inflected quail with pickled Nopalito cactus to Chinese five spice-seared tuna carpaccio to Southern chicken-fried pork chops, but Smith is always in command of her flavors. She spikes ultra-fresh grouper with a wasabi crust and refreshing cucumber "scales"; and sauces roast lamb with a velvety eggplant-goat cheese purée. The retro coconut cream pie updated with a crumbly hazelnut shortbread crust is reason alone to come here.

NEXT GREAT NEIGHBORHOOD With the light-rail metro finally finished, Houston's Midtown is now home to new shops, bars, and restaurants. • White-napped tables pose against hot-red walls at Julia's Bistro (3722 Main St.; 713/807-0090; dinner for two $65). Jazzy Nuevo Latino cuisine—duck taquitos, churrasco-style pork tenderloin with red chimichurri—comes courtesy of chef José Garcia, most recently of Artista, another Houston favorite. • Fried catfish with grits and eggs, a delicious wings-and-waffles combo, and a comfy, lived-in vibe draw locals to the Breakfast Klub (3711 Travis St.; 713/528-8561; breakfast for two $17). • For three years running, the city's best-loved-restaurant award has gone to Ibiza Food & Wine Bar (2450 Louisiana St.; 713/524-0004; dinner for two $80), for the bright, welcoming room, the extensive wine cellar, the addictive slow-cooked lamb shank and mint couscous—to say nothing of the tableside cocktail carts.


If a Spanish-style culinary revolution ever sweeps across America, its epicenter will be Chicago. Witness Green Zebra (1460 W. Chicago Ave.; 312/243-7100; dinner for two $80), a West Town spot whose conceptual flair and novel techniques take vegetarian cooking where it has never ventured before. Chef Shawn McClain, an alumnus of Trio, isn't content to use outrageously flavorful heirloom vegetables and cook them simply. A pretty triptych of salad timbales—mustard greens and musk melon; champagne grapes with goat-cheese foam; watermelon and tomatoes, both yellow—blurs the boundaries between appetizer and dessert. Grilled peaches, another savory-sweet triumph, turn up in a delicate emulsion of milk and herbs on a bed of satiny white polenta. Avocado appears in a panna cotta: an ultra-luscious parfait layered with tangy crème fraîche and green-tomato gelée. The sleek boutique-industrial look, a gently priced small-plates menu, and a cool crowd having fun eating virtuously make Green Zebra (named after a tomato variety) the hottest ticket in town.

Reservations at El Bulli, the Catalan mecca of experimental cuisine, are off-limits to mere mortals. So what's a culinary thrill-seeker to do?Book at Moto (945 W. Fulton Market Ave.; 312/491-0058; tasting menus from $50 per person), whose 28-year-old chef, Homaro Cantu, is collaborating with a group of NASA scientists in his quest to redefine the language of food. In a spare meatpacking-district dining room, attended by waiters in black lab coats, Cantu practices his own brand of alchemy: vacuum-cooked everything, edible menus fashioned from potato starch paper, sublime Pacific bass cooked tableside on a polymer box that he invented and patented. Cantu is at his best when he riffs on the American vernacular—his barbecued capon, for instance, is a trompe l'oeil featuring two preparations of the smoky bird topped with tiny scoops of weirdly wonderful "Kentucky-fried ice cream" (infused with Cantu's take on the colonel's secret herbs and spices, of course). It's hard to know what to make of the strange corkscrew cutleryhandles stuffed with shaggy aromatic herbs, another madcap Cantu creation, or the glass of sweet sesame-milk soda that comes with an otherwise flawless sashimi. Still. At a time when most chefs shave truffles into mac and cheese and call it "creative," let's applaud one who actually dares.

On a dicey River North block, opposite the notorious Cabrini-Green housing projects, sits Chicago's most refined new restaurant: Pluton (873 N. Orleans St.; 312/266-1440; tasting menus from $79 per person). From the suave Big Band sound track, to the wall of creamy silk curtains that muffles the din, to the silver Cristofle cart laden with farmhouse American cheeses, everything inside oozes sophistication. So does the food. Unapologetically haute yet refreshingly playful, Jacky Pluton's Franco-American tasting menu unfolds as a series of tempting surprises. A Fabergé-worthy tableau brings together tuna threaded on licorice sticks, coins of banana and eggplant, and an ethereal, frothy basmati-rice cream. Roast duck is elevated with spirals of its air-dried skin and a shot glass of lavender-infused tapioca with a palate-cleansing apple sorbet concealed underneath. Cabrini-Green is being torn down, and now that Pluton has arrived, gentrification can't be far behind.

CHEF TO WATCH During his three-year stint heading the kitchen of Trio, the Thomas Keller-trained wunderkind Grant Achatz got it all: four stars from the Chicago Tribune, the title of James Beard Rising Star, and fans who clamored for his infusions and outré ice creams (olive oil, anyone?). At Alinea (1723 N. Halsted St.; 312/482-8113; dinner for two $125), due to open next month, Achatz will experiment with savory truffle bonbons (frozen on the outside, liquid inside), freeze-dried strawberries encased in foie gras tempered with cocoa butter, serving them in an equally cutting-edge space. Curious for a taste of the future?Start calling for reservations.


Wine-centric restaurants tend to shy away from ambitious cuisine, but Cru (24 Fifth Ave.; 212/529-1700; dinner for two $95)—with its astonishing 65,000-bottle cellar and a staff that can talk you through their Grüner Veltliners one grape at a time—performs a brilliant balancing act. While discreetly pushing the envelope (squab poached in acacia honey; veal cooked sous vide, or vacuum-packed), chef Shea Gallante's Italian-accented cooking still delivers plenty of charm. A dish of sea urchin risotto makes you see Venice; buttermilk-baked baby chicken with orange-tinged carrots is like a four-star Sunday supper. Grape geeks will find the two-volume wine list more absorbing than pulp fiction; for novices, some 50 wines available in three- or six-ounce pours means discovering eight vintages for the price of a bottle uptown. The sedate space is ideal for discussing malolactic fermentation, or just sinking into a Barolo-induced daydream.

Behind the trappings of a glam downtown lounge—replete with would-be models, er, waitresses, condescendingly delivering your lemongrass martini—hides Kittichai (60 Thompson St.; 212/219-2000; dinner for two $85), the best Thai restaurant in America. Thank Ian Chalermkittichai, former executive chef of the Four Seasons Bangkok, in whose hands even the tired standards come alive. The beef salad is pungent, with a kick of dried chiles and roasted ground rice for texture; normally rubbery Thai fish cakes are like crisped morsels of wild striped bass and prawn soufflé exploding with aromatics. Why waste time on fusion-y attempts such as honey-glazed duck breast when you can order the greatest green curry or the most expertly fried snapper this side of the Chao Phraya River?The opium den-meets-Zen garden interior features a reflecting pool afloat with votives and enough raw silk to tent a small nation-state. Though it all feels very Hollywood, habitués of fashionable haunts in Bangkok or Hong Kong will recognize Kittichai for being as authentically Asian as Hello Kitty.

Yes, everything you've heard about Per Se (10 Columbus Circle; 212/823-9335; tasting menus from $125 per person), Thomas Keller's French Laundry East, is true: the posh, rather impersonal, 16-table space, the reservations that make scoring courtside seats to the Knicks look like a breeze, the four-hour lunch for two that might cost a cool 500 clams. Worth it?Mais oui. From the parade of amuse-gueules, such as gossamer tuile cones filled with silky salmon tartare, to the tray of adorable postprandial chocolates, Per Se delivers the sort of Michelin-star polish and pampering you won't find elsewhere in this country. There is also Keller's legendary sourcing, the depth of the California-heavy wine cellar, and the fun of discovering lowly animal parts on the menu (grab the tripe!) next to oysters and caviar. More than anything, it's the service: so caring, gracious, and smart, you'll want to ask the waitress to be a guest at your next dinner party.


Nuevo Latino restaurants in Miami come and go more often than J.Lo bares her midriff. But, judging by its boisterous cadre of regulars, Chispa (225 Altara Ave., Coral Gables; 305/648-2600; dinner for two $70) looks destined to remain a running hit. Who cares if Buffalo, where chef Robbin Haas grew up, is a long way from Havana?He cooks in fluent Floribbean in a sprawling space with colorful vintage tiles on the floor, a design showroom's worth of cool lighting fixtures, and a 40-foot mahogany bar. It's easy to get carried away with cazuelitas (seared marinated octopus with roasted garlic), fritters (the definitive conch chicharrones), and empanadas (chorizo, potato, and Manchego is a must). If you manage to save room for the slow-roasted short ribs with cornmeal stew—not to mention the guanabana crème brûlée—the mojitos are on us.

On the northern edge of South Beach, a world apart from the frenzy, Talula (210 23rd St., Miami Beach; 305/672-0778; dinner for two $100) is where you'd go for a romantic dinner that might involve subtly spicy chile-glazed barbecued quail served over pillowy sweet-potato agnolotti, and a wicked El Rey-chocolate brioche and banana-bread pudding. Moroccan sconces cast a soft light on the cozy red banquettes and the lush garden patio is a great place to flirt. For Frank Randazzo and Andrea Curto-Randazzo, who have worked at some of the best restaurants in the country, Talula was a labor of love. It shows.


The first thing you'll hear about Ethan Stowell, the 30-year-old chef-owner of Union (1400 First Ave.; 206/838-8000; dinner for two $70), is that his parents are the celebrated artistic directors of the Pacific Northwest Ballet. Next, locals will say that he has transformed a previously hexed restaurant space into an inviting glass-framed haunt with dark wood tables and walls the color of ripe tomatoes. Then they'll rave about the food. Driven by the season and changing each day, the menu reflects Union's location just a clam-toss away from the Pike Place Market. Your meal might progress from kohlrabi-purée soup with a cloud of truffle cream, to spaghetti-like umbricelli carbonara brightened with English peas and made creamy with duck eggs, to 30-day-dry-aged beef loin paired with grilled tongue and roasted artichokes. Not to forget the vivid sorbets in flavors like blackberry or lady apple. The final thing you'll hear about Union is that, at $48 per person, Stowell's sophisticated eight-course tasting menu is the best bargain in town.

With its urban ski lodge look and an extensive small-plates menu, Lark (926 12th Ave.; 206/323-5275; dinner for two $60) pushes all the right buttons. Have a fondness for artisanal charcuterie?Order a goose confit with greens and olives, or guanciale (smoked pork jowl) served with mostarda di uva, a grape-must preserve. Need a fix of organic vegetables?Chef Johnathan Sundstrom sends out a cocotte of spinach enlivened with Meyer-lemon butter. Can't wait to sink your teeth into Pacific seafood?Vanilla-sweet Dungeness crab with green mayonnaise coming right up. Portions tend to be minuscule and decibels high, but these are small gripes for a place this fun and food this satisfying. Every city should have a restaurant like Lark.


When Gabriel Bremer bought and transformed the Cambridge restaurant Salts (798 Main St.; 617/876-8444; dinner for two $90) last March, the Boston food press instantly announced "a star is born." We agree. A veteran of the progressive Maine restaurant Fore Street and of Cambridge's Rialto, 27-year-old Bremer offers an intensely personal vision that combines modernized riffs on country-French cooking with a guerrilla approach to sourcing (his microgreens are overnighted from Ohio). Heirloom beets, golden purslane, and braised veal tongue team up in a beautifully composed salad; Niman Ranch pork keeps company with hazelnut-accented polenta. Expect an enthusiastic welcome from Bremer's fiancée, Analia Verolo, in a warm, rustic room anchored by a huge vase of white blooms. The brioche-stuffed roast duck (carved tableside) approaches the Platonic ideal of poultry.

It's easy to roll your eyes when the amuse-bouche arrives in a test tube. Well, lighten up. Boston's dining scene has gotten a much-needed spark ever since Pino Maffeo, last seen at the stoves of New York's AZ, moved back to town, bringing with him a clever take on fusion and AZ's famous recipe for panko-crusted duck schnitzel. His new playground is the former Café Louis at the posh clothing emporium Louis Boston, now brightened with Mondrianesque abstract panels and rechristened L (234 Berkeley St.; 617/266-4680; dinner for two $110). Here, Maffeo satisfies both food lovers and shopaholics with clever stunts like pairing goose liver and barbecued eel in a neat parcel topped with caramelized sugar, or marrying shiso-tinged tuna tartare with a creamy soy zabaglione. With the check comes a small cone of cotton candy. Now you're smiling.


Kevin Rathbun knew with all the certainty in the world that there wasn't a soul in Atlanta who could resist oysters two ways (cornmeal-fried and lemongrass-stewed) or banana-peanut butter cream pie. What really matters, however, is this: the Southern-leaning New American dishes at Rathbun's (112 Krog St.; 404/524-8280; dinner for two $60) taste as good as they sound. One would be happy to eat his food in a mess hall. Yet Atlanta's fashionable Johnson Studio has transformed the 19th-century warehouse space, once home to a potbellied-stove factory, using mod shades of gray, a luminous open kitchen, and oversized stovepipe pendants that cast a fuchsia glow on the city swells who tuck into veal chops with sweet corn and Gouda fondue or Rathbun's cloudlike fresh mozzarella. They leave lusting after all the stuff they didn't manage to order.

Neither a chile-suffused ethnic dive nor a pink box in the mall serving flavorless pad thai, Nan Thai Fine Dining (1350 Spring St. N.W.; 404/870-9933; dinner for two $67) reinvents the genre with a sleekly opulent crimson and gold room that hosts le tout Atlanta: Buckhead charity-ball queens, pro golfers (Vijay Singh is a friend of the owners'), and sweater-vested academics from Georgia Tech. It's hard to tell which detail is most enchanting: the silk-draped gamins who deliver your tea rose-colored dumplings, the elaborate carved fruits that appear as part of chef Nan Niyomkul'sappetizer lollapalooza, or the coconut-milk extractor that the owners imported from Thailand (read: fabulous curries).


Impresario Stephen Starr is the Steven Spielberg of restaurateurs, and like the director he yearns to be recognized for being more than a blockbuster-machine. Witness his Oscar-worthy remake of Striped Bass (1500 Walnut St.; 215/732-4444; dinner for two $90), the city's soaring temple of seafood. The original marble columns and coffered ceiling are still here, but lengths of gray velvet now lend the room a coolly masculine look. Starr has cast Alfred Portale—the perfectionist chef of Manhattan's Gotham Bar & Grill—for the part of executive chef. With fellow New York chef Christopher Lee in a supporting role, Portale skillfully manipulates gorgeous ingredients into sophisticated compositions like soft-shell crab with a frothy cinnamon-tinged emulsion, or a pristine slab of halibut paired with fava beans, leeks, morels, and fiddlehead ferns. The Philadelphia Cheese Skate (short ribs, wild mushroom, and caramelized onion stuffed between pieces of breaded skate and sauced with a Parmesan cream) is a classic in the making.

In a time of flash-in-the-wok fusion trends and concept-by-number restaurants, Meritage (500 S. 20th St.; 215/985-1922; dinner for two $90) feels like a throwback to a more civilized era. Wine is the restaurant's raison d'être, with the menu of beautifully prepared retro hits of European cuisine (remember Veal Oscar?) devised by the globe-trotting owners to flatter their serious cellar. Provençal artichokes barigoule make perfect sense with the crisp rosé; the caramel notes in the Recioto di Soave echo the perfectly ripe figs in the Italianate tart. The warm, 34-seat dining room, with Tuscan-rust walls, and the personal attention lavished on guests bring to mind an intimate dinner party. Are you one of those guests who like to linger?Settle into a leather club chair in the lounge and nurse one of the 40 single-malt scotches on offer.


Okay, so here's Table 8 (7661 Melrose Ave.; 323/782-8258; dinner for two $85), a meta-hip boîte located below a Melrose body-piercing parlor and patronized by the likes of Robert Downey Jr. and Jennifer Aniston, and helmed by a chef who has been featured on People magazine's "50 Most Beautiful People" list. Will food be an afterthought?Well, no. Handsome as he is, Puck-trained Govind Armstronghas put impeccable artisanal ingredients before his ego, distilling them into clean, compulsively edible dishes. He makes sardines glow with a hint of celery-leaf pesto, introduces you to sunchokes or Kurobuta pork, hooks you on oak-grilled sweetbreads with hand-torn pasta. You'd rather just stare?There's Elton John sneaking into a private room. He'll be having a salt-crusted porterhouse. Feel free to follow suit.

A light-bathed, split-level room packed with sleek blondes, La Terza (8384 W. Third St.; 323/782-8384; dinner for two $90) is the second restaurant from Gino Angelini, a chef whose urban-rustic Italian idiom fits L.A. like a Gucci glove. The emphasis here is on grilled and rotisserie meats, but for all the wood-fired pleasures of Sonoma lamb or Jidori chicken (L.A.'s "it" fowl), what you might remember is the sophistication of the smoked branzino carpaccio, or the lingering flavor of the pappardelle with beef cheeks. Order a nutty Umbrian Moraiolo from the olive oil menu, so you can watch the waiter ceremoniously pour it onto your plate from a long silver ladle. It would be reckless not to gorge on La Brea Bakery breads—La Terza's co-owner and frontman is the former La Brea vice-president—or try Nancy Silverton's divine dolci, such as ricotta fritters with sour-cherry compote. Even the sprout-loving locals can't resist.

The word petit has never loomed larger in San Francisco's restaurant scene. These three favorites show that bigger just isn't better. • Napoli would be lucky to have a piccolo restaurant like A16 (2355 Chestnut St.; 415/771-2216; dinner for two $70), whose owners have plundered Italy's Campania region for dishes like butter beans-and-octopus soup served over grilled bread, and authentic Neapolitan pizzas with a chewy, blistery crust. • At the new Hotel Adagio, in the theater district, the stylish Cortez (550 Geary St.; 415/292-6360; dinner for two $65) plays to a full house with mini shots of carrot-ginger soup topped with celery foam or crab cakes with tarragon aioli. • Chef George Morrone, fresh from a stint in Australia, recently opened Tartare (550 Washington St.; 415/434-3100; dinner for two $100), where he experiments with combinations such as ahi, plums, and mint, or hamachi and pickled water-melon. A tiny list of entrées— poussin with almond milk, Tasmanian ocean trout with sour-cherry vinaigrette—completes the menu.

Two recent openings have put the "hot" back in hotel. • At 17 (1117 Prairie St.; 832/200-8888; lunch for two $55), in the newly revamped, historic Sam Houston Hotel, one forgives the occasional lapses in service for the sake of chef Jeff Armstrong's short-rib salad, saucy clams with chorizo and corn bread, and sea scallops with caramelized cauliflower. Texas tycoons and Southern belles alike have fallen for the bold brocade upholstery and potted palms set against gleaming dark parquet; this is definitely the sleekest room in town. • Jean-Georges Vongerichten (the guy who actually invented scallops with caramelized cauliflower) has recently added Bank (Hotel Icon, 220 Main St.; 713/224-4266; dinner for two $90) to his ever-expanding empire. The soaring space, retooled from a former Union National Bank lobby, has a cool grandeur, and dishes like ginger-tinged tuna with avocado deftly reprise JG's flirtatious Franco-Asian style. His chocolate cake with a molten center is worth the investment in calories.

Beyond the old-world beer halls, a spate of openings in Chicago's Lincoln Square has made this the city's hottest restaurant corridor. • Begin with a bowl of bacon-laced mussels and a Belgian boutique beer at Charlie's on Leavitt (4352 N. Leavitt St.; 773/279-1600; dinner for two $65), a crisply contemporary haunt with a smart wine list. • Across the street, Aqualina (4363 N. Lincoln Ave.; 773/770-4363; dinner for two $60) draws crowds with a mod neo-seventies look, a backlit bar, and Pan-Mediterranean favorites like fennel-scented lamb with tzatziki and figs. • Farther up Lincoln Avenue, the narrow Tank Neighborhood Sushi (4514 N. Lincoln Ave.; 773/769-2600; dinner for two $30) trades in warehouse chic and Japanese-inspired small plates. Goat-cheese tempura with apples, or yellowtail and shiitake roll with mango, might sound far-fetched, but once you've tried them the combinations seem inevitable. • End with banana éclairs and apricot kolacky at the sweet-smelling Café Selmarie (4729 N. Lincoln Ave.; 773/989-5595; dessert for two $10).

This year marked the return of energy and high style to New York's restaurant scene. • The long-awaited Café Gray (10 Columbus Circle; 212/823-6338; dinner for two $100) is a splashy, stylized brasserie featuring an open kitchen framed by blue lava-stone. Shrimp with green mango in a creamy Kaffir lime rémoulade and red bass bathed in a lavender-honey broth deliver Gray Kunz's signature flavors. • Serious foodies are smitten with Josh DeChellis's nouvelle Japanese dishes at Sumile (154 W. 13th St.; 212/989-7699; dinner for two $95). His vanilla-sweet crab in a citrusy yuzu gelée and oysters with pineapple and nori vinegar impressed Ferran AdriÀ himself. • With sumac-dusted quail over pumpkin risotto and wild salmon enlivened with Indian spices, Gary Robins offers a supremely assured take on fusion food at the Biltmore Room (290 Eighth Ave.; 212/807-0111; dinner for two $95), a marbled space retrofitted from a 1913 hotel. • Sure, you'll get an exemplary rib eye at BLT Steak (106 E. 57th St.; 212/752-7470; dinner for two $70). But it's the light-as-air, cheesy popovers, giant onion rings, and the city's definitive tuna tartare that keep this modern midtown spot packed.

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