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The Food Lover’s Ultimate NYC

201401-a-ultimate-nyc

Photo: Noe DeWitt

Video: Where to Eat in NYC

Somewhere in Brooklyn there’s a tented tiki bar next to a secret garden strung with party lights. Sunflowers sway on the roof of a repurposed shipping container and the icy drink machine is churning frozen apple cider with rum. It’s a bracing night, the first true chill of the season. Huddled laughter rises from low-lit picnic tables; logs crack and hiss in their campfire pits. On the stereo, a velvety voice is singing “I love Juanita, my sweetheart from Venezuela.” There are skateboards mounted above the bar. A framed portrait of Sanford & Son. A sticker that reads Life. Sausage. Death.

I order a plate of crisp pig’s ears and a plastic cup of the spiked cider slush. A plane flies overhead. I track it across the glassy, star-speckled sky and try to remember what flight delivered me here. When did I arrive? What happy country is this?

But I didn’t take a plane at all. I hailed a yellow taxi (miraculously) outside my house, three miles away in another part of Brooklyn. Yet tonight this place—a scrappy garden party in the back of Roberta’s, the hipster-homesteader pizzeria in not-quite-post-wasteland Bushwick—feels enchantingly far from home.

Maybe it’s because I’m alone and am long-conditioned to dining solo while reporting in other people’s cities. Or because I’ve got a toddler and a five-month-old asleep in their beds and am simply deranged at the joy of being sprung for the night. Whatever the cause, this welcome buzz of disorientation is only heightened when I’m collected fireside and shown through a gate into the bright and capacious world-within-a-world that is Blanca, a tasting-menu-only atelier run by Roberta’s chef and co-owner, Carlo Mirarchi.

Stepping from Roberta’s into Blanca is like finding a secret door in a bric-a-brac shop that leads to a space station—one designed by a rich bachelor with a thing for Electrolux combi ovens and swivelly captain’s chair stools in buttery old-baseball-glove leather. On an otherwise bare wall hangs the mounted head of a 700-pound tuna. In its previous life, this space was an auto-body shop. Now it’s a psychic fix-it clinic for people with too many dining miles on them: hoist yourself up on a barstool and submit to a restorative, 20-plus-course culinary tune-up.

Blanca is a restaurant stripped of nearly every tiresome restaurant ritual: menu mulling, enforced server chitchat, all the shucking and jiving, French-inflected formality that was, until very recently, accepted as necessary for the procurement of a good meal. You make few decisions at Blanca beyond the decision to go or not to go. Dinner is a long-form, choreographed chef’s tasting menu and costs $195. It does not suit all moods or moments, and it is not for everyone. (Among those not accommodated: vegetarians, the gluten-intolerant, latecomers, and chronic food-photographers.) But tonight—feeling exploratory, open to surprises—I feel it is very much for me.

The meal starts with a tiny piece of wild kiwi set atop a delicate Marcona-almond “curd”: roasted, smoky almond milk that’s reduced with a bit of honey to a mousselike texture. Next, a house-cured prosciutto that melts meatily on my tongue. (Server: “And by ‘house-cured’ we mean in Carlo’s dad’s basement. Can’t do it here—that’d be illegal!”) A tangle of thinly sliced, nearly raw, just-seared Wagyu beef arrives with a brown kohlrabi broth of incredible smoky depth. Elton John’s “Saturday Night’s Alright (for Fighting)” is playing loudly on the stereo. You’re not supposed to use your cell phone at Blanca, but I furtively type notes on mine as a record of the onslaught. What I write for this course is:

Brown broth holy shit
Salty deep rich yes yes

I call Mirarchi the next day to discuss the meal in more sober terms.

“The broth is just vegetables,” he reports, to my sustained amazement. “Kohlrabi and some turnips. We caramelize them pretty hard, then cook it for hours and hours, until twenty liters gets cooked down to twelve bowls.” Musing over those many liters lovingly reduced to just a few unaccountably meaty spoonfuls, I am again transported. And not by accident. “The idea we had for the place,” Mirarchi says, “is that once you get comfortable and the meal starts to flow, you’ll forget where you are. It might not feel like New York, or even the United States.” He’s right, of course. Yet Blanca also feels very much like New York feels right now. Which is to say: like nowhere else in the world.

When I got the assignment to eat my way around town, I didn’t have to pack a suitcase, but I did need to put away the baggage I brought to the subject, my old habits and outdated assumptions. I travel a lot, trying to divine truths about foreign places by the food I’m served there. Between trips, I cave to the great nesting urge to stay in, to cook for friends at home. Or I fall victim to the entropy of sticking to familiar places, restaurants I know well that satisfy but seldom surprise.

If there is a constant to New York, it is the dining scene’s vast, tentacled, eternally evolving everythingness. I set out to tackle the monster, one meal at a time. What I found was a city more receptive to experimentation and quirky self-expression than I’d remembered. A city that celebrates deliciousness in all its forms.

To make sense of it, I narrowed my scope to restaurants that opened in the past 18 months or so. I picked places representative of what’s happening here, grouped like-minded chefs and restaurateurs, and drew up a kind of taxonomy of New York tastemakers.

Under the banner “The Innovators,” I’ve lumped Blanca’s Mirarchi in with brainy Matthew Lightner of Atera and the guys from NoMad and Eleven Madison Park, a restaurant that’s so committed to constant reinvention it almost counts as a new opening. “The Out-of-Towners”—Andy Ricker (Pok Pok NY and Whiskey Soda Lounge NY) and Danny Bowein (Mission Chinese Food)—get my and everyone else’s vote for most welcome newcomers: Ricker for his vibrant, regional Thai menu, imported from Portland, Oregon, and Bowein for his San Francisco–bred brand of stoner-surrealist Chinese-takeout remixes, like Sichuan catfish stew with Tennessee bacon and an incendiary kung pao pastrami that sets your mouth numb and your brain on fire but you still find yourself wanting more, more, more.

In another camp are chefs Mario Carbone and Rich Torrisi and their business partner Jeff Zalaznick, who made a big splash with small-format places, first at Torrisi, on Mulberry Street, and then next door at Parm, their ode to the great Italian American sandwich tradition. Last year they opened Carbone, a perfectly conjured tribute to the Italian red-sauce joints of our collective imagination.

I’ve paired them with Gabriel Stulman, another sultan of the small-scale, who recently added two new joints (Chez Sardine and Montmartre) to his six-restaurant, West Village–centered Little Wisco syndicate. Little Wisco refers to the Madison, Wisconsin, alma mater of Stulman and many of his colleagues, but it also describes the kind of low-key Midwestern mind-set that Stulman pioneered here. I call these “The Little Empires” because they’re young and expansion-minded, and are mapping out distinct pockets of downtown in their image, much the way Mario Batali and Keith McNally did a generation earlier.

One night I met up with Stulman, who wears a rakish, soft-brimmed hat and an inky black beard as thick as ermine fur. He looks a little like the comedian Aziz Ansari, if Ansari were Jewish and of Moroccan descent and ate like Stulman. I’d arranged for him to take me out for a typically Stulmanesque evening.

The night started with caviar toasts and cocktails (including the Japanese-whiskey-based “Cousin Scotty Fails His Driving Test”) at Chez Sardine, his diminutive, izakaya-ish supper club in a wood-shuttered glass box on West 10th Street.

Then we took a taxi down to Pearl & Ash, on the Bowery, which isn’t one of Stulman’s restaurants but is the kind of place people who run them like to come to when they get off work. We put ourselves in the hands of Patrick Cappiello—wine director, partner, obsessive collector of vintage rock T-shirts—who rewarded our trust with a mind-alteringly good bottle of Domaine du Closel, a Savennières fromthe Loire. We ate a tartare of hanger steak bound with spicy harissa, set over an orange smear of just-cooked egg yolks and scattered with cacao nibs and black lava salt. Then we polished off most of the rest of the menu, along with a second bottle (an ethereal 2002 Clos Roche Blanche Cuvée Gamay that Cappiello considers himself lucky to be able to secure a single case of each year but puts on his spectacular list for only $36 because that’s the kind of guy he is). Much later, our night ended with tongue tacos from a truck parked by Jeffrey’s Grocery (a Stulman restaurant), followed by sandwiches of duck confit and mayonnaisey gribiche, expertly improvised by Stulman in the kitchen of his bistro Fedora, long after closing time.

What struck me about our outing—besides how good duck confit is with gribiche—is the fact that not long ago it simply couldn’t have happened in this city.

Cappiello himself represents an interesting generational shift in the restaurant wine business. Along with Pearl & Ash, two of the year’s most exciting new openings have sommeliers as partners and driving forces: Charlie Bird, a narrow woody sliver of happiness on Sixth Avenue at King Street in SoHo opened by wine veteran Robert Bohr and chef Ryan Hardy; and Estela, a funky, warmhearted little spot above a dive bar on Houston Street, where Thomas Carter, late of Blue Hill at Stone Barns, pairs amazing wines with Ignacio Mattos’s freestyle cooking.

“Wine is cool again!” Cappiello says. And so is pretty much everything about Pearl & Ash, which draws a strong industry following for chef-partner Richard Kuo’s menu of elevated bar food, served in a kind of permanent party scene fueled by 80’s power ballads and Cappiello’s French-focused list of affordable treasures.

“We selfishly built this place around ourselves,” Kuo says, noting that he, Cappiello, and general manager Brendan McRill came up through what is still quaintly called “fine dining.”

“There’s always been this stigma that a certain level of execution has to come with a big price tag. But there’s nothing stopping us from doing great food without charging a lot for it,” Kuo says. “Something new is definitely happening in this city—the idea that people can serve this level of food, stay focused enough to do it right, and still have fun.”

Look at one of the things Kuo does right: a seemingly simple plate of bread and butter. The butter is whipped with rendered chicken fat and maple syrup—Kuo’s homage to fried chicken and waffles, his guilty pleasure. The bread is made from flour he smokes over hickory and applewood chips. “I got the idea from working with Paul Liebrandt at Corton,” Kuo tells me. “We did a pasta made with smoked flour and served it with truffles and beurre monté.”

Corton recently closed, despite two Michelin stars and a loyal following, and Liebrandt—a moody English artiste with moody 80’s English-pop-star hair—crossed the East River to open the Elm, a slightly more accessible but still brainy restaurant in Williamsburg. But meanwhile, his smoked-flour technique survived, migrated to the Bowery, and met a schmaltzy butter inspired by chicken and waffles. You could write a whole graduate thesis on the mutability of culinary influence and the merging of high and low in this one $4 dish.

Charlie Bird occupies a funny, shallow wedge of a space, feeling bigger inside than it could possibly seem when viewed from the street. And it pulls off the even bigger trick of being both an insider watering hole for high-stakes wine collectors and a cheerful neighborhood joint, with bright yellow banquettes and a brief but solid hit list of Italian-inspired food (farro salad; long-stewed, tomatoey tripe; suckling pig with pepper mostarda).

Before joining the general migration to Brooklyn, I used to live down the block. I spent most of a recent evening at Charlie Bird lamenting that it hadn’t arrived earlier. Maybe I would’ve stayed. The drink coasters look like old LP record labels; the name is a hybrid tribute to Charlie Parker, early NYC hip-hop, and...it’s kind of a long story—you’d better ask Bohr to explain.

The net result of wine guys going into business for themselves, Bohr says, is more interesting, better-priced wines for everyone. “When sommeliers open their own restaurants, they can make their lists much more personal than if they’re just working for someone else. You can build a list around what’s important to you,” Bohr says, noting a kindred spirit in Estela and Pearl & Ash. “Ten years ago, you could count on one hand the restaurants here that had full-time sommeliers,” Bohr says. “In five years I think you’ll have 30 former somms turned restaurateurs, rather than just a few of us.”

“New York is a hard, ambitious, stubborn city. It commends its heroes and is tough on outside talent,” Jon Bignelli says, full of respect. Bignelli is the executive chef at Alder, Wylie Dufresne’s East Village avant-bistro, a more casual and approachable follow-up to his celebrated WD-50. Dufresne is a hero among chefs, Bignelli his trusted sidekick. Much of the food at Alder is his. Man and menu alike are an interesting mix of brawn and brains, engaging and funny. Pigs in a blanket are reimagined as Chinese sausages with Thai chili sauce and hot mustard in deep-fried Pepperidge Farm buns.

The truth is, New Yorkers haven’t always been comfortable with envelope-pushing modernist cuisine. This isn’t Boise, but it isn’t quite Barcelona or Copenhagen or London either. Alder—like Liebrandt’s Elm—casts the auteur chef in a kinder, gentler light. “At the end of the day, food has to taste good. New York is absolutely a delicious city,” Bignelli says—as much a vow as an observation.

On the subject of deliciousness as endgame, let us now discuss the trout-roe toast at ZZ’s Clam Bar, the newest entry from Mario Carbone and Rich Torrisi. Full disclosure, it probably won’t make much sense written down, but let me try: a little round of blini-ish toast topped with bordello-red trout roe, truffle honey, and a flurry of pencil-shaving-thin black truffle. That’s all. Pure sticky-sweet-salty-fishy-earthy-funky sexiness, the thing is diabolically tasty, heartbreakingly expensive ($30), and instantly addictive.

ZZ’s is a clam bar with a bouncer. It clocks in at a mere 14 seats. But where Blanca is airy and earnest, ZZ’s is dark, shrunken, seductive. It’s the Boom Boom Room in a broom closet. The bartender—spindly, lushly bearded Thomas Waugh—is costumed in a white dinner jacket with enormous peaked lapels. A goblet in the form of a golden pineapple is set down on one of the four marble-topped tables. Nobody here would flinch at the sight of an opium-tasting menu or a silver cart of flambéed monkey brains. ZZ’s is a frank expression of louche exceptionalism—not for the majority, by design; flattering and indulgent for the few lucky souls inside. And, like nearly everything dreamed up by the Carbone/Torrisi gang, it manages a cinematic, better-than-it-actually-was gloss on vintage New York glamour.

I don’t know if I completely approve of the place, but I do know the trout roe is indulgently delicious. So are the sea-urchin toasts. And in my new role as collector and categorizer of New York tastes, I can’t stop now. So I go up the street to Carbone. Here you don’t so much walk to your table as float toward it—like Harvey Keitel in the famous dolly shot from Mean Streets—buoyed along by a back-slapping, winky, welcome-back-great-to-see-you bonhomie (even if it’s your first time here). Maroon-tuxedoed captains laugh at your jokes and then make better ones. Spicy rigatoni vodka is the apotheosis of a thing I forgot was even a thing: perfect pasta, shellacked in a thin red sheen of spicy sauce, red-peppery and delicious.

New York has always been a city of varied and immoderate pleasures. What’s evolved—what’s improved—is the erosion of the lines between low and high, thinky and kinky, faddish and fun.

More than once I’ve found myself mentally meandering down Houston Street, wondering what Chef Mattos is up to that evening at Estela. The softly lit, loudly peopled railroad dining room is presided over by the aforementioned Carter, who wears a denim jacket inspired by French workers’ uniforms of the 1930’s and 40’s. There is a matzoh cracker on Estela’s menu that fairly begs for ironic quotation marks around it. Also listed are many small plates that require your server to explain how the menu works even though you probably know how the menu works. You may worry that you’ve seen this indie film before. But fear not: Estela is strange and compelling and good and sometimes great. All of this is due to the light hand and improvisational style of Mattos. The Uruguayan-born chef has cooked with grill master Francis Mallmann in Argentina, at Chez Panisse in Berkeley, and, for a brief, interesting time, at Isa in Williamsburg.

Carter characterizes Mattos’s food as “craveable,” which is probably as good a description as you’ll find for sui generis treasures like a mussel-escabeche toast splashed with cilantro juice or a deeply flavorful small rib eye with charred leeks and cardoons. Someone at my table referred to it as “food with sexy bed head.”

Mattos tends to find a theme and then explore it, riffing according to his moods and market finds, so it’s possible to eat the “same” dish for several days running and never experience a repeat performance. (That matzoh is sometimes seen with anchovies, sometimes a soft, pallid brandade.) One night the steak is steeped in a sauce of melted Tallegio, marjoram, and pounded anchovy. It’s a deep-think dish. Everyone at the table shuts up after it’s cut.

“That was just intuitive, impulsive,” Mattos says nonchalantly when told of the lingering longing brought on by this thing—a dish he thought up on the day it was served, the result of stumbling across some nice cardoons. It contends with the giant strip loin at Blanca—long-charred over Japanese charcoal—for steak of the moment. And as much as any composed or celebrated dish, it can rekindle a crush on this fine, old, weird, ever-mutating city.

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