Choosing the best new restaurants of the year is a somewhat philosophical endeavor. The critic wonders: What are the culinary establishments that best represent where we're going, or where we should be going, as gastronomic community? But picking out the top new (or relatively new) dishes is easier: These are the items we crave. These are the dishes that will keep a critic going back after the review process is over, or that will lure guests back as the restaurant ages. And that's an important distinction. Sometimes we dine out for the larger experience, for a night out at, say, Eleven Madison Park, where our enjoyment is derived from multiple factors like service, ambience, and wine. But other times we crave a single burger, taco, or steak. While I like to think all of these dishes speak to our larger New York culinary scene, what's most important is that they make me hungry.
1. Marta's Carbonara Pie
If Neapolitan pizza, in all its deliciously bastardized forms, is unquestionably one of New York's trademark foodstuffs, the ultra-thin crust pies of Rome could be the next import to achieve citywide fame. This is all thanks to the fine work of Danny Meyer and chef Nick Anderer at Marta. Anderer's best effort involves taking the flavors of Carbonara (pancetta, egg, and black pepper) and throwing them onto a pizza, with soft potatoes substituting in for the spaghetti. The chewy, crispy, fatty, and funky product that results is something you want to eat every single day. 29 East 29th Street, (212) 651-3800, martamanhattan.com.
2. Roberta's Pastrami Sandwich
The pastrami sandwich, like pizza, is a quintessential Big Apple delicacy, and while nostalgia will convince some that Katz's is the best, Roberta's puts out the better product. "The trick is a light smoke (so it doesn't taste like barbecue), a gentle cure (so you can actually tell that it's beef), a subdued peppering (this is New York not Sichuan Province), and a thick cut (to prove how tender the pastrami really is)," I wrote in my three star review of Roberta's. And guess what? The sandwich is now available in the take-out spot next door for $12, which is $8 cheaper than Katz's. 261 Moore St., 718-417-1118, robertaspizza.com.
3. Momofuku Noodle Bar's Hozon Ramen
Who would've thought that the finest ramen by pork-centric chef David Chang would ever be a vegetarian ramen? In fact, the mushroom and chickpea ramen, which takes advantage of Chang's instant-umami hozon product, is one of the city's best ramens period. See my piece from earlier this summer, where I used nearly 1,000 words to wax poetic about this stunning noodle soup. 171 First Avenue, momofuku.com.
4. Dirty French's Mushroom Mille Feuille
Who knew fungi could mimic flaky pastry? Chef Rich Torrisi knew. He layers royal trumpet mushrooms with so much butter that this savory creation is indubitably just as unhealthy as a proper Napoleon. And then he finishes the affair with enough green curry to render it Thai. This is the type of creatively delicious vegetarian fare diners deserve at more expensive tasting menu haunts like Per Se. Until then, it's available for $17 at Dirty French. 80 Ludlow Street, (212) 254-3000, dirtyfrench.com.
5. Cherche Midi's Prime Rib
Let's be honest: there are too many cote de boeufs overrunning our city's dining rooms. So it's refreshing to see Cherche Midi's Shane McBride and Daniel Parilla give us our meat in a slightly more old school way: via a mammoth prime rib. It's essentially two steaks in one. On the inside you have an easygoing, medium-rare cut of cow. On the outside, you have a dry-aged deckle that's as tender as barbecue brisket and packed with as much dry-aged flavor as the truffle section of your local gourmet market. 282 Bowery, (212) 226-3055, cherchemidiny.com.
6. Root & Bone's Fried Chicken
This fried bird isn't for everyone — my good colleague Robert Sietsema isn't a fan of the sugary tea brine. But enough people dig Root & Bone's masterpiece to engender pretty crazy waits during prime time. The flesh is gently sweet and assertively salty. The crust is properly crunchy. And it's all tied together with a sprinkling of lemon dust for a whisper of unexpected freshness. 200 East 3rd Street, (646) 682-7076, rootnbone.com.
7. Ivan Ramen's Spicy Chile Ramen
How good is this blend of dashi, peppers, and pork? Here's what I wrote in my two star review of Ivan Ramen: "It has the depth of flavor you'd expect from a fancy French sauce that some guy spent half his life learning to make. And then there's the heat, which lights your GI tract ablaze like a Roman candle going off in both directions. I dare you to eat it on a first date." 25 Clinton Street, (646) 678-3859, ivanramen.com.
8. Estela's Crazy Breakfast Sandwich
One day, the corporate food scientists at Cinnabon will start stuffing bacon and eggs inside of their delicious cinnamon rolls, and on that day those scientists will rule the world. Until then, we have Estela, which places an egg, some avocado and pancetta inside a Danish pastry. So in the sweet-savory breakfast game, Estela reigns supreme. For now. 47 East Houston Street. 212-219-7693. estelanyc.com.
9. Cosme's Corn Pudding
Corn, with all its sweetness, can easily go over the top, especially for dessert. But that's not the case at Cosme, where chef Enrique Olvera whips the maize into a heady, vegetal mousse. Only the husk meringue on top gives the dish its proper sugars. The result is a creamy, crunchy Mexican take on the Australian pavlova. 35 East 21st Street, (212) 913-9659, cosmenyc.com.
10. Batard's Schnitzel
Schnitzel isn't so much a traditional German dish at Batard as it is a European-inclined fried chicken. Chef Markus Glocker pounds down a milk-fed bird, boasting an interior that's as soft as good veal sweetbreads. He then fries it in enough butter and olive oil to make you think he's trying to do for breadcrumbs what Joël Robuchon does for mashed potatoes, which is make them incredibly unhealthy. And tasty. 239 West Broadway, (212) 219-2777, batardtribeca.com.
11. The NoMad Bar's Burger
I only awarded a single star to the latest endeavor by the Made Nice group (Eleven Madison Park), but this Garment District hangout has produced what's possibly the city's most compelling new burger, a mix of dry-aged chuck laced with bone marrow and suet. The product is so soft and silky I'm half certain you could spread this burger on a piece of toast like a foie gras terrine. 10 West 28th Street. 212-296-1500, thenomadhotel.com.
12. Aldo Sohm's Foie Gras Lollipop
Every year I make a New Year's resolution to eat more foie gras, but the chief flaw of so many duck liver dishes is that they're prepared like a warm, gooey dessert, finished with this balsamic reduction or that fruit compote. The team at Aldo Sohm Wine Bar exercises a more steady hand, using the foie to anoint a slice of tomato bread, softening the acidic fruit with a healthy dose of drippy duck fat. And a generous grind of pepper over the whole affair gives the three bite treat as much spicy oomph as an au poivre steak. 151 West 51st Street, (212) 554-1143, aldosohmwinebar.com.
13. Contra's Popcorn Mousse
Pastry chef Fabian von Hauske, a Noma alum, gives us the fine dining equivalent of movie theater popcorn: maize mousse, topped with icy mandarin granita. It's sweet, gritty, vegetal, and awesome. It's all par for course for Contra, a restaurant that thrives on throwing diners outside their comfort zones for a very fair price: $55 for five courses. 138 Orchard Street, (212) 466-4633, contranyc.com.
14. Aquavit's Salmon Tartare
How do you amp up the umami-rich oils on hay-smoked salmon? Toss in some trout roe. It's a stupidly simple technique and Aquavit chef Emma Bengtsson surely isn't the first to do it, but she's certainly one of the few to make this tired dish feel new and delicious again. Bravo. 65 East 65th Street. 212-307-7311, aquavit.org.
15. Bar Primi's Seafood Salad
Seafood salad is one of those dishes I've grown accustomed to never ordering because it's often a terrible mess of cold, rubbery shellfish doused in too much lemon. So kudos to Bar Primi's Sal Lamboglia for giving us a pile of soft potatoes, warm octopus, and ruby red shrimp that seem to collapse in the mouth like cotton candy. 325 Bowery, (212) 220-9100, barprimi.com.
16. Ma Peche's Fried Chicken
Yes, this is the third fried chicken on this year's list (see also: Batard, Root & Bone). It was a good year for eating crispy birds in New York! What Ma Peche's Paul Carmichael brings to the game is one of the world''s tastiest (and hottest) peppers. He brines his chicken with habanero, seasons the bird with habanero paste, and then amps up the crust with habanero powder. The rigorous process imparts the chicken with the chile's gorgeous fruitiness, while the capsicum pain is subdued. 15 West 56th Street, 212-757-5878, momofuku.com.
17. Bar Bolonat's Halva Creme Brulee
There are those who believe that the creme brulee is a perfect dish, that it needs no improvement. Well, they're wrong. And the Israeli-inspired Bar Bolonat is proof of that. Chef Einat Admony fortifies the custard with nutty halvah. She anoints the burnt exterior with Persian cotton candy, which looks and tastes like what would happen if dental floss were made out of sugar. And so what you get is a textural contrast times three. The French wish they'd thought of this. 611 Hudson Street, (212) 390-1545, barbolonatny.com.
18. Empellon Al Pastor's Namesake Taco
As Enrique Olvera opens a kick-ass South of the Border spot where dinner costs about $100 per person, Alex Stupak, with a high-end Mexican joint already under his belt, is doing just the opposite, virtually giving away tacos for $4 apiece. I found the venue to be putting out solid food on its opening night, and that's still the case nearly two months later. The best item is the namesake al pastor, balancing smoky chiles against musky, spit-roasted pork, and a slice or two of tart pineapple. Put that in a warm, house-made corn tortilla and call it $4 well spent. 132 St. Marks Place, 646-833-7039, empellon.com/al-pastor/.