ESCA 402 W. 43rd St.; 212/564-7272; dinner for two $90. Just when Mario Batali's cooking at Babbo was getting a little aggressive, he and co-conspirator Joseph Bastianich reinvented themselves with a sleek new fish house. Translucent slices of raw scallop splashed with tangerine oil … a tangle of pasta with petals of cured tuna roe … immaculate salt-baked sea bass. Even without the captivating Italian wines it would still be the most lyrical meal this side of Amalfi.
PEARL OYSTER BAR 18 Cornelia St.; 212/691-8211; lunch for two $45. This dinghy-sized spot packs in the most fish flavor in town—per square inch. If you don't believe that line, you'll believe the one at the door. The ultra-fresh bivalves, lobster rolls, and pan-roasted salmon will ferry you to seafood heaven. Beat the crowds; come for lunch.
LE BERNARDIN 155 West 55th St.; 212/489-1515; prix fixe dinner for two $144. With its bronze wood, huge paintings, and corporate-casual décor, Le Bernardin is both a timeless and dated backdrop for Eric Ripert's flirtatious dishes. His lobster timbale in a zingy chive broth, peekytoe crab ringed by a vibrant gazpacho, and monkfish with a flourish of peppermint deliver simplicity, precision, and poetry all on one plate. The wine list seems conservative, but only until the sommelier steers you toward that unusual sparkling rosé from Savoie.
TEN BITES OF THE APPLE
1. PASTRAMI AT ARTIE'S: This new deli is serving the most succulent pastrami in town—yeah, bubeleh, hand-cut. 2290 Broadway; 212/579-5959; pastrami sandwich $8.39.
2. PANINI AT ´INO: Where the Italian sandwich died and went back to Milan. 21 Bedford St.; 212/989-5769; average panino $8.
3. PEARL TEA AT SAINT'S ALP TEAHOUSE: Frothy Taiwanese cold tea "cocktails" loaded with fat tapioca pearls. Try taro. 51 Mott St.; 212/766-9889; tea $5.
4. CAVIAR AT PETROSSIAN: Beluga, sevruga, osetra … Brezhnev never had it so good. 182 W. 58th St.; 212/245-2214; prix fixe dinner $38 per person.
5. KIMCHI AT CHO DANG GOL: A parade of mouth-tingling pickles to accompany the restaurant's signature tofu dishes. 55 W. 35th St; 212/695-8222; kimchi included with dinner; dinner for two $35.
6. FALAFEL AT MOISHE'S STREET CART: A light cannonball loaded with spice. 46th St. and Ave. of the Americas; falafel $5.
7. CEVICHE AT CHICAMA: From Nuevo Latino king Doug Rodriguez, raw fish concoctions so bold and fiery they virtually leap in your mouth. 35 E. 18th St.; 212/505-2233; average ceviche $15.
8. HOT DOG AT PAPAYA KING: Grilled, greasy, glorious, and dangerously addictive. 179 E. 86th St.; 212/369-0648; hot dog $1.29.
9. PIZZA AT LOMBARDI'S: New York's definitive dough at America's oldest pizzeria. 32 Spring St.; 212/941-7994; large pizza $15.
10. COTTON CANDY AT THE FOUR SEASONS: Ur-vernacular treat at Philip Johnson's austere temple of Modernism. 99 E. 52nd St.; 212/745-9494; cotton candy served before dessert on request; dinner for two $125
ANNISA 13 Barrow St.; 212/741-6699; dinner for two $100. Chinese-American chef Anita Lo wanted a soft opening for her new place. Was she kidding?Before she could say "bok choy," her intimate, off-white nook was abuzz with doe-eyed couples of every stripe and persuasion, seduced by the intriguing wines from only women vintners and Lo's quietly transporting cuisine. Shanghainese soup dumplings are reinterpreted with seared foie gras; amazing roast chicken comes with a luscious stuffing of pig's feet. "This is my third dinner here in a week," confesses my neighbor.
AZ 21 W. 17th St.; 212/691-8888; dinner for two $104. Patricia Yeo's restaurant arrived in the Flatiron District this summer with a big bang: critics raved, dot-commers swarmed the lounge, boldface types crowded the upstairs restaurant (imagine a postmodern Asian garden teahouse). The food ranges from insipid (listless lemongrass-cured salmon) to inspirational (plum soup with cherries and lychee sorbet). Consult the I Ching before ordering.
DANUBE 30 Hudson St.; 212/791-3771; dinner for two $140. Feast your eyes on the stagey Klimtian interior and you're sated even before your Fabergé terrine of beets and goat cheese arrives. A good thing, too, because the dishes are so exquisite and so microscopic you don't quite know whether to swoon or sue. (Only David Bouley's cerebral kitchen could reduce Mitteleuropa to a series of Zen-like metaphysical teasers.) Five astounding ravioli of "high-altitude" cheeses leave you yearning for more. Sweetly glazed beef cheeks are an abstraction of meatiness. Still hungry?A zaftig burger awaits you around the corner at the Odeon (145 W. Broadway; 212/233-0507; burger $10.50).
JEAN GEORGES Trump International Hotel & Tower, 1 Central Park West; 212/299-3900; dinner for two $200. Is Jean-Georges Vongerichten a chef or a superman (costumed by Helmut Lang)?Leaping between five global outposts—plus four more in this town—he keeps his creative edge as sharp as a sushi knife. A mouthful of consommé boosted with sweet Jura wine dissolves the richness of its accompanying foie gras terrine. A transparent broth bathes crisp-skinned sea bass and explodes with sweet-tart Thai intensity. Add whisper-smooth service and thoroughbred wines, and you have a Michelin three-star experience reconfigured for 21st-century Gotham.
NOBU 105 Hudson St.; 212/219-0500; dinner for two $120. Here's Kevin Bacon looking too thin and too blond. There's Tommy Hilfiger plying a see-through brunette ("She's my new all-American girl") with miso-glazed cod. Just a typical Monday night at Nobu. An invisible wall of bamboo separates us from this world, but once you break through you'll find nothing forbidding about designer David Rockwell's enchanted forest. As for the food, expect fusion-as-unusual: Nobu Matsuhisa's tricks with toro, uni, yuzu, and ponzu are more entertaining than Tokyo Disneyland. (Count on similar food, clever design, and a very long wait at the no-reservations Next Door Nobu.)
NEW NEIGHBORHOOD HAUNTS
RED CAT 227 10th Ave.; 212/242-1122; dinner for two $75. Chelsea has experienced a gastronomic invasion this fall, but Red Cat could well remain the tastiest spot on 10th Avenue. Laid-back setting (white clapboard walls hung with eclectic contemporary art). Laid-back dress code (Agnès B. behaving like J. Crew). Spot-on seasonal cooking pretending to be laid-back. Was that Kevin Spacey ordering julienned zucchini with almonds?He looked pretty laid-back, too.
71 CLINTON FRESH FOOD 71 Clinton St.; 212/614-6960; dinner for two $70. The minuscule storefront is more haimish than hip, the down-homehaute cooking by Jean Georges alumnus Wylie Dufresne merely pleasant. If you thwart the reservationist's tendency to slam down the receiver and then manage to find this forlorn corner of the Lower East Side, you might discover that the cultish 71 Clinton is not such a big deal. Which, of course, makes it an even bigger deal.
PEASANT 194 Elizabeth St.; 212/965-9511; dinner for two $80. The former garage in Nolita has enough earthenware, brick, and rough-hewn wood to fill an ethnographic museum. Stylish but unthreatening waiters bear crocks full of garlicky savories from the rotisserie and wood-burning oven. Skip the pastas—you want a bottle of the elegant Arneis blange from Piedmont, tutti antipasti, a crackling anchovy pizza, and a charred, juicy bistecca alla fiorentina.