Upstairs at Bouley (130 W. Broadway; 212/219-1011; dinner for two $90) feels like postmillennial Tokyo filtered through Paris by way of Barcelona—all in a space no bigger than your kitchen at home. Those who find the cuisine at David Bouley's flagship (across the street) too aloof and high-minded will delight in the cheeky cross-cultural riffs being served from the open kitchen at this casual offshoot: tremulous tofu in truffled dashi (fish broth); an ingenious salad of smoked duck, eggplant, and bitter microgreens; the sweetest of crab and asparagus in a lemony cloak of emerald-green parsley sauce. From the sushi counter expect meticulous Japanese flair; desserts deliver Gallic voluptuousness. Prices seem amazingly reasonable until, giddy from the sheer deliciousness of it all, you start ordering every single dish on the menu.
Other chefs employ full-time science labs to achieve moments of alchemy that Jean-Georges Vongerichten can conjure with a flick of a whisk in his minimalist juxtapositions of simple ingredients. At Perry St. (176 Perry St.; 212/352-1900; dinner for two $140)—below his apartment in that glossy Richard Meier tower overlooking the Hudson—he explores the buttery textures of avocado and oyster mushrooms in a startling carpaccio; poises a gorgeous hunk of halibut on a soft pea raviolo and bathes it in mint-infused lather; turns roast chicken into a thrill ride with a touch of smoked broth and piercingly citrussy Meyer-lemon gnocchi. Over mint-and-chocolate soufflé you can ponder the following: Is Richard Meier's militantly Modernist space calming or clinical?Does the staff's friendliness excuse the strange lapses in service?And how can Jean-Georges preside over a global restaurant empire and still dazzle back home with simple red-snapper sashimi?
New Yorkers who've been moaning forever that there are no truly authentic tapas in their town cried Ole! when Tía Pol (205 10th Ave.; 212/675-8805; dinner for two $85) opened two years ago in the western reaches of Chelsea. Now they pack tighter than anchovies into the scruffy-chic room that seems to have been airlifted from Barcelona's Raval Quarter. Inhale the pungent aromas of pimentón and fried garlic. Gulp Manzanilla like Iberian pros over plates of daring chorizo-and-chocolate canapés, folksy blue-cheese croquetas, and the best adobo-marinated fried fish this side of Cádiz. Pray that today's special is the 12-hour roasted suckling pig—but arrive at sixish to avoid the stampede.
You won't have an easier time scoring a creamy faux-leather seat at Boqueria (53 W. 19th St.; 212/255-4160; dinner for two $90), a designer homage to Spain's greatest food market, with handsome tiled walls, tempting cheeses arrayed at the bar, and soft amber lighting that makes everyone look as if they've just returned from Ibiza. Chef Seamus Mullen grew up on an organic farm in Vermont and apprenticed with top Spanish toques. With a perfect sense of direction, he navigates you from tapas (bacon-wrapped dates with Cabrales are habit-forming) to media raciones (medium portions of, say, wild-boar terrine with candied almonds) to hearty shareable dishes such as black rice studded with rabbit and cuttlefish. Estupendo.