It's such a challenge to select only ten little restaurants in a culinary mecca like New York City, but I don't want to overwhelm you (or embarrass myself by publicly declaring every item I consumed over the summer). If you didn't catch the first part of my back to school essay on 'What I Ate This Summer," click here. If you've already been there, read that, let me know what you think!
See also My Top Ten NYC Restaurants, Part 1
What's not on this list are the fantastic places that might not necessarily exude ambiance, or those that deliver a specific product that lures fanatics. Like Porchetta, which does nothing but glorious roasted pork, offering it in plate or sandwich form (the "burnt ends" end up in a cup of crispy potatoes. Do not, repeat, do not, leave without ordering the potatoes.) It's miniscule though, decidedly un-fancy.
Don Antonio's pizza got a best pie nod from New York Magazine, but it's not in a cool area (Midtown, West 50th Street), and the restaurant itself is only moderately decorated. You won't care. I suggest the Vesuvio, stuffed with homemade mozzarella, ricotta and salami, then topped with tomato sauce, more mozzarella, ham, artichokes and mushrooms and fresh basil.
Can't forget The Meatball Shop; when you land on their homepage, you'll hear "ummm, balls." And from classic beef to pizza to bolognese style made with mortadella, these balls are damn good, and that's what you'll be saying too.
Now that I've paid homage, let's get back to the task at hand. What I ate this summer...
5. The Nomad
Why I love it: It's a scene in there right now, always fun people watching and the menu is designed by the extremely talented Daniel Humm of Eleven Madison Park, who received 4 stars from The New York Times and was named the 'Best Chef" in NYC by James Beard in 2010. Since the historically influenced tasting menu at Eleven Madison has become, ahem, complicated, this is where you can eat his food without the element of surprise.
What to order: A chiffonade of snow peas arrives looking like a skinny nest of tendrils topped with pancetta, pecorino and mint ($15), and the gazpacho with duck proscuitto is a winner, although that's seasonal. Tagliatelle with chunks of crabmeat and Meyer lemon is simply delicious ($20), as is the whole roasted chicken with truffles for two ($79) and the bone marrow crusted beef with heirloom beans and tomato confit ($37).
What to skip: Sadly, the tasting menu upstairs on the roof did not quite live up to the $125 price tag. Numerous vegetable courses like a tomato salad and grilled fennel were definitely good, but left me wanting something more special; a bigger and better showing of the chef's skills.
4. Red Farm
Why I love it: It feels like a country home away from home, with red and white check printed banquettes, exposed wooden rafters, mismatched chairs and little flower pots abounding. Although the bankroll comes courtesy of restaurant glamour guy Jeffrey Chodorow (China Grill), it's small scale and relaxed, with a huge communal table that ensures you get to see what everyone else is eating before you order.
What to order: Start off with 'Pac Man' shrimp dumplings ($12.50) and an order of BBQ'd "black foot" Berkshire pork belly ($15.50). Mains are delivered in huge, easily shareable sizes, but the whole lobster is the star of the show here. It's served in the shell, glazed in something sweet and tangy resembling black bean sauce, and covered with little nuggets of chopped pork and egg ($38). It's one of those messy meals made better because you get to lick your fingers clean.
What to skip: The spicy crispy beef, which was too crispy, a bit chewy, and not nearly as spicy as anticipated.
3. 15 East
Why I love it: The fish, the sake list, the polite men behind the sushi bar using deft fingers to perfectly slice along the grain without pulling at the delicate fish flesh. It's small, quiet, featuring a dark color palette in the dining room, which feels intimate, despite lofty ceilings. It's all about quality here, not quantity, and a deep respect for tiny pieces of perfect sashimi.
What to order: Begin with a seaweed salad extravaganza called the "degustation of sea lettuces," which includes eleven different kinds of greenery ($14), and the crispy soft shell crab with basil butter and ponzu ($22). Order every single kind of sashimi they have on offer (or sushi, depending on your rice intake ability) and for hot dishes, try the abalone risotto ($30) as well as the cherry wood smoked duck with shiitakes and satsuma yam ($32).
What to skip: The blue crab croquette, which is a big fried ball of rice overwhelmed by the scent and flavor of curry.
Why I love it: The room conveys old school elegance without seeming stuffy, and the service is outstanding from the moment you enter to departure. You'll see the hostesses chasing down any woman who attempts to leave without receiving a little cake as a take-away present for the morning after.
What to order: Lobster and mozzarella seems incompatible, but in chef Michael White's hands, it's incomparable; small gelatinous basil seeds squish like caviar between your teeth ($25). The crudo menu is extensive, go for the threesome ($27) to eliminate tricky choices - bigeye tuna with oyster crema and crispy artichoke, striped bass with a mussel vinaigrette, and pacific deep water snapper with grapefruit and chervil. The spaghetti with crab and urchin ($) is a favorite, but the fusilli ($32) is an astounding enticement chock full of octopus tentacles and bone marrow. Ravioli filled with short rib is dressed with a foie gras red wine reduction ($31) and the seasonal fish selections range from roasted monkfish tail ($40) to Alaskan halibut ($41).
What to skip: There are two 'carne' offerings on the menu, a sirloin and roasted guinea hen, but Marea is a love letter composed to Italian seafood, so you don't come here to eat the meat.
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1. ABC Kitchen
Why I love it: Damn, girl, you pretty. I mean, really, really pretty. This restaurant is white on white, with opaque frosted chandeliers, exposed brick and beaming, even the long thin tree branches that frame the entire space have been whitewashed. Large scale black and white photography lines the walls, and the entire place glows with dim light. Oh, and then there's the food...
What to order: Begin with a beautiful crudo of shaved fluke combined with crushed olives, lemon and chiles ($15), then move on the the creamy ricotta cheese, made in house, served with a compote that varies from rhubarb to strawberry ($14). Next is an order of the chicken liver toast ($11), and pretzel dusted calamari ($14). The roast suckling pig entree with smoked bacon marmalade and grilled baby leeks ($34) is outstanding, as is the wood oven roasted lobster with a lemon-chile vinaigrette ($39). Don't miss out on dessert, the salted caramel ice cream sundae ($13) and the donuts (which change seasonally) are worth every single calorie.
What to skip: The whole wheat pizza. It's not that have anything bad to say, but I just think it's wrong to choose pizza when there are so many stellar items on ABC's table.