Korean-American chef David Chang learned a thing or two about American heirloom foodstuffs while working at Craft. Seven years ago, he went to Japan on a noodle tour, and then, in 2004, opened a spare, narrow dining bar of his own in the East Village. The rest is history. For all the brand-name chefs and trillion-dollar interiors around, it was Chang's Momofuku (163 First Ave.; 212/475-7899; dinner for two $65) that became Manhattan's zeitgeist restaurant, sparking a craze for bar dining and snagging every award and accolade in the process. There's always a wait for a stool here, but at the end of the wait are feathery Chinese buns filled with rich slabs of barbecued Berkshire pork; kimchee-zapped oysters; and smoky greenmarket specials proving that everything tastes better with bacon. Momofuku's ramen—thin, slurpable noodles served in a broth bolstered with more Berkshire hog and a runny poached egg—is a comfort-food classic destined to become as iconic as the matzo-ball soup at the sorely missed Second Avenue Deli. Chang's new casual offshoot, Momofuku Ssäm Bar (207 Second Ave.; 212/254-3500; dinner for two $70), has the makings of a new mini empire and serves killer late-night menus—go for a tasting of American country hams—after 10:30 p.m.
If any place can challenge Momofuku's supremacy, it's Degustation (239 E. Fifth St.; 212/979-1012; dinner for two $85), a new hit from Jack Lamb, the dapper owner of such dainty East Village boîtes as Jewel Bako. Presiding over the 16-seat counter in the slate-paneled room is 27-year-old wunderkind Wesley Genovart, whose résumé includes stints at La Broche, in Madrid, and Perry St., in New York. These influences come together in tapas-scaled triumphs such as foie gras in caramel water with grapefruit (très Jean-Georges) or tortilla de patatas, the Spanish omelette, deconstructed into tiny spud packets with an unctuous quail-egg surprise inside (muy Ferran). "Why did I just spend a fortune on a fancy dinner for two uptown?" grumbles the Hollywood-producer type on the next stool. Good question.
A semi-clandestine hangout of New York's top pastry chefs and Asian hipsters, Room 4 Dessert (17 Cleveland Place; 212/941-5405; dessert for two $25) is the edgy atelier of pâtissier-provocateur Will Goldfarb, who clearly relishes the role of a wisecracking, blowtorch-wielding patron. Claim a perch at the striped plywood counter, sip Riesling, and watch him put finishing touches on such whimsically outré creations as "red," which brings together beet sorbet, meringue, and hibiscus gelatin. Do ask Goldfarb about his days at El Bulli—or about the miraculous gelling properties of calcium chloride.
CHINA'S NEW DYNASTY
Descend the vertiginous staircase at Buddakan (75 Ninth Ave.; 212/989-6699; dinner for two $110), and tour the surreal grotto of lounges and dining nooks arranged around an oak-swathed central hall as lofty as Chartres Cathedral and as theatrically brooding as a Hollywood vampire flick. Christian Liaigre's design is a hard act to follow, but chef Michael Schulson heroically tackles the challenge of wowing hundreds of diners a night with elegant intimations of China that steer refreshingly clear of sticky-sweet fusion clichés. Dumplings filled with a vividly green edamame purée nestle in a shallow pool of Sauternes broth; aromatic beef tartare is dotted with slippery tapioca pearls. The fiery ginger-infused mao poe tofu is your reward for braving the deafening din and the maddening crush by the entrance.
With a loungy electronica sound track, jazzy cocktails, and Rat Pack nightclub–meets–mah-jongg parlor ambience, Chinatown Brasserie (380 Lafayette St.; 212/533-7000; lunch for two $70) seems like yet another brash faux-Asian canteen for the young and the restless. Then you taste the butterflied barbecued duck and braised "long-life noodles" with lobster—and suddenly you're in Hong Kong. Dim sum is dazzling here: ephemeral wrappers, each distinct from the next, enclosing succulent hand-chopped fillings such as shrimp and snow-pea leaves or seafood spiked with xo sauce. And this might be the only place in New York where ordering egg rolls makes sense. Come for lunch, when it's calm.
THE ITALIAN JOB
Uptown fans of Andrew Carmellini's refined global flavors at Café Boulud followed him south to A Voce (41 Madison Ave.; 212/545-8555; dinner for two $100), where the chef now celebrates his Italian roots in a tall, angular space that recalls a glossy Milanese boardroom. Woody Allen has just ordered spaghetti with speck and ramps. A posse of blondes with shrill laughs—ouch, the acoustics— are all having the sculptural Gorgonzola-and-beet salad. And everyone turns in their swiveling Eames chairs as waiters strut by with copper vessels of steamed bass and shrimp balls in a basil broth that fill the air with the perfume of Liguria. The duck polpetti slicked with cherry mostarda is a kind of dish your Modenese nonna would have prepared—if she had apprenticed with Daniel Boulud.
Squeezed into a white-on-white Clinton Street storefront, Falai (68 Clinton St.; 212/253-1960; dinner for two $90) is a Euro-chic neighborhood trattoria that just happens to harbor such adventurous notions as octopus with candied-celery garnish, or potato-and-sausage ravioli chased by a shot of apple consommé. The place is the uniquely personal vision of Iacopo Falai, once a pastry chef at Le Cirque, who can comfort with ricotta-and-spinach gnudi so light they practically levitate, or challenge with a brainy deconstructed tiramisu. As for the restaurant's quirky haute-homey vibe—the busboy who ceremoniously pours tap water into your glass of San Pellegrino, the sommelier who can't decide whether to smile or smirk—somehow it's all part of the charm. And did we mention the awesome raspberry jam bomboloni at Falai Pannetteria just down the street?