After a snoozer of a start, it ended up being a banging good year for New York restaurants, with diners showing an increased willingness to eat more adventurous foods than they're accustomed to. Or to put it more simply: 2014 was when President Obama ate at Estela. And so did the rest of us. That's why it ranks with Contra as one of the top two restaurants of the year.
Who would've thought Estela could get away with charging $37 for just a few ounces of ribeye, slathered in taleggio and hidden under a mound of potato chips. Who would've imagined that the Uruguayan born-chef, Ignacio Mattos, would crust swordfish with enough fragrant Sichuan peppercorns to make it taste like something out of Mission Chinese? Who would've guessed that the brunch sandwich of the century would be a funky mess of avocado, pancetta, and egg, served on a Danish pastry, McGriddle-style?
Mattos, along with co-owner Thomas Carter, could've cashed in with a steak house. Instead, they pushed us.
Contra pushed us too, Chefs Jeremiah Stone and Fabian Von Hauske pair roasted chicken breast with iron-y blood sausage. They dust silky pollock with tannic green tea powder. They let us scoop buttered goat brains out of the animal's own skull. They charge us just $55 for five courses. Whenever other young, talented chefs come into town, like Trevor Moran of The Catbird Seat or Ari Taymor of Alma, they always seem to end up cooking at Contra, cementing the latter's status as a legit and affordable salon for experimental and collaborative cuisine.
This was the year we ate Italian-Japanese food by the chef who used to run the Michelin-starred Ai Fiori. This was the year we scarfed down scrapple waffles at a ramen joint run by a guy from Long Island. This was the year we booked up a Mexican hotspot to spend $200 on tamales, corn chips, and tortillas.
This all means our city's culinary bandwidth for risky and non-traditionally expensive food is widening. This is a good thing.
Our city's culinary bandwidth for risky food is widening.
There were also restaurants that aged well in 2014. Roberta's, which opened in 2008, and The Breslin, which debuted in 2009, are both serving better beef, lamb, and pork than than most of New York's older chophouses. Prune, at 15 years old, remains the quintessential destination neighborhood restaurant. And Aquavit, under new chef Emma Bengtsson, still merits its designation as a Scandinavian fine dining staple at it nears the age of 30.
That all said, here are your best new-ish restaurants of the year.
Estela and Contra
You know it already; these are your restaurants of the year (even though both debuted last year). Both serve delicious food while catapulting us outside of our collective culinary comfort zones. They took risks, big risks. And they won. 47 East Houston Street, (212) 219-7693, estelanyc.com. 138 Orchard Street, (212) 466-4633, contranyc.com.
Danny Meyer and Nick Anderer could've played it safe with a Neapolitan pizzeria. They could've built a giant Motorino clone and cashed in. Instead they decided to take a risk by reinventing the cracker-like crusts of Roman pies for a local audience that's famously fickle when it comes to pizza creativity. And the result is that two hour waits aren't uncommon at peak hours, putting Marta in the same queue class as Brooklyn's storied Di Fara. 29 East 29th Street, (212) 651-3800, martamanhattan.com.
Cherche Midi and Dirty French
Two of New York's most high profile restaurant groups injected a strong dose of life into the local Gallic scene this year. Keith McNally, the king of cool, gave us a gorgeous ode to the French fare of yesteryear with Cherche Midi's cheese soufflés, frogs legs, and ile flottantes. And Major Food, which shows every sign of becoming an international gastronomic version of Louis Vuitton, went in the opposite direction, giving the Lower East Side a coherent vision of the Future of French. And that future is global, from a stunning lamb carpaccio, to parsley-butter oysters, to a curried mushroom mille feuille that wouldn't be out of place at a three Michelin-starred restaurant. 282 Bowery, (212) 226-3055, cherchemidiny.com. 180 Ludlow Street, (212) 254-3000, dirtyfrench.com.
Enrique Olvera has brass balls, riding into town and opening up what is surely our spendiest Mexican spot. But the venue delivers in almost every way, offering endless manipulations of corn, making that pedestrian ingredient taste almost as luxurious as foie gras. 35 East 21st Street, (212) 913-9659, cosmenyc.com.
In our city's hyper-competitive ramen scene, what makes Ivan such an essential outlier is its deference both to the traditional and the new. So while your date is slurping down a pitch perfect shio, a pristine expression of sea salt and dashi, you're attacking triple garlic mazemen, a porcine Japanese-American improvement on Alfredo, with more noodle than broth. 25 Clinton Street, (646) 678-3859, ivanramen.com.
If ambitious Mexican fare is already The Next Big Thing, stateside Middle Eastern cuisine follows close behind, with the expansion of Halal Brothers, the insane success of Zahav's Michael Solomonov and of course Bar Bolonat's Einat Admony, whose haute-Israeli cookery makes it the Cosme of the Eastern Mediterranean. This is where Admony's buttery kosher chickens keep company with very non-Kosher Yemenite shrimp curry. And then dinner ends with cotton candy-topped Halvah creme brulee. Thrilling. 611 Hudson Street, (212) 390-1545, barbolonatny.com.
Chris Jaeckle, late of Ai Fiori, has a love affair with Asia, so instead of opening yet another macaroni shop, he decided to whip up umami-rich parmesan dashi with tomato oil and agnolotti with funky XO sauce. His efforts paid off; All'Onda is perhaps the city's most original new Italian restaurant. 22 East 13th Street, (212) 231-2236, allondanyc.com.
Just as Parm is an entry-level experience into the Major Food Group (Torrisi, Carbone), Bar Primi is one of the cheapest ways to get a taste of the Andrew Carmellini empire (The Dutch, Lafayette). Late night Bowery diners can expect frizzy Lambrusco and pastas at $19 or less. Chef Sal Lamboglia nails it big time with a pinwheel shaped noodle stuffed with mascarpone and finished with smoked bacon.325 Bowery, (212) 220-9100, barprimi.com.
Not too long ago, this Drew Nieporent space sold Paul Liebrandt's esoteric, expensive, and delicious tasting menus. Now, under chef Markus Glocker, Nieporent has simplified things, with accessible, European prix fixe menus at $55 - $75, and one of the city's tastiest schnitzels. It's a date place for grown-ups, a venue that's more affordable and comfortable than it is exciting. And that's just what you want sometimes. 239 West Broadway, (212) 219-2777, batardtribeca.com.
Aldo Sohm Wine Bar
Ever visit a fancy joint where you get crap stemware while the folks ordering $500 bottles get the nice stuff? That doesn't happen here, because everyone drinks out of ultra-thin-lipped Zalto. The stems weigh about as much as tissue paper. That means you focus less on the glass, and more on the wine. It makes a huge difference. 151 West 51st Street, (212) 554-1143, aldosohmwinebar.com.
Root & Bone
This Alphabet City hangout serves the city's best new fried chicken, a combination of sweet tea-brined flesh, golden crust, and a scattering of lemon dust that makes the whole affair taste like a savory Sour Patch Kid. 200 East 3rd Street, (646) 682-7076, rootnbone.com.