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Ryan Sutton’s Best Dishes of 2018

From Le Sia’s spicy crab boils to Momofuku’s quadruple-fried chicken wings, the critic declares his favorites

Spicy crab legs, boasting an orange hue, with Chinese breadsticks at Le Sia is photographed from above
Spicy crab boil with Chinese breadsticks at Le Sia
Photo by Louise Palmberg

Last year harkened one of the most disappointing crops of new restaurants in quite some time, I argued in my roundup of 2017. As more and more Americans saw a country rigged in favor of the wealthy and the white, too much of New York’s culinary scene seemed to reflect just that.

Twelve months later, the #MeToo movement continues to highlight a pervasive culture of harassment throughout the hospitality industry. Fast-casual chains continue to pop up where independent restaurants once stood. And exorbitant sushi and kaiseki spots continue to flood the market.

Yet still, 2018 was one of the most transformative years to eat out since the Great Recession, I wrote in last week’s best new restaurants column.

Today, I unveil the year’s finest dishes. The top three, as well as the long list, frequently highlight how modern Asian foodways — Korean, Indian, Malaysian, Chinese, Uyghur, and others — are becoming a wonderfully dominant force in in contemporary New York dining. Add that onto a group of ambitious and affordable entrants repping for South America, the Caribbean, and Iran, and we have reason to believe that an increasingly diverse and exciting restaurant world is still possible in spite of, well, everything.

The Top Three

Two of Momofuku Ko Bar’s chilled fried chicken drumsticks sit on a ceramic plate, adjacent a piles of pickles
Momofuku Ko Bar’s chilled fried chicken
Louise Palmberg/Eater

Momofuku Ko’s fried chicken

Expensive chicken in otherwise affordable environs is one of David Chang’s hallmarks. At Noodle Bar, two fried birds command $150 before tip, a price that shoots up to $500 with caviar. So there’s something fitting about Momofuku’s most expensive restaurant, Ko, debuting a fried chicken dish that costs just $6 per piece, service-included. The drumsticks are quadruple-fried, brushed with yuzu-Tabasco glaze, and served chilled, a mix of Korean, Japanese, and American ideas. They are perfect. 8 Extra Place, near 1st. St., East Village

Le Sia’s crab boils

If an out-of-towner asked where to find good crab in New York, this is the first place I’d send them. Le Sia, by Tina Chen, Yang Liu, and chef Zac Zheng, isn’t just one of the most enjoyable modern Chinese restaurants in New York, it’s one of the finest places to eat shellfish, period. This is where I finally fell in love with Dungeness crab, while dunking the cotton candy-like flesh into a chile-laced sauce. 11 East 7th St., near 3rd Ave, East Village

Saint Julivert Fisherie’s pig ear terrine

Here’s a surf and turf we haven’t seen before: Alex Raij and Eder Montero take small squares of pig ear, interlaced with ribbons of seaweed, and anoint them with broiled oysters and chile oil. At one level, the dish is a brilliant study in layered umami and gelatinous textures. But what’s more striking is a Carroll Gardens seafood spot riffing on Sichuan-esque offal. The preparation is as much a testament to Saint Julivert’s global approach to the seas as to a larger desire among non-Asian chefs to adapt Chinese sensibilities into their own menus. 264 Clinton St., near Congress St., Cobble Hill

Pig ear terrine with kombu and oysters
Pig ear terrine with kombu and oysters
Gary He

Dishes of the Year: the Long List

Literally anything at Kopitiam: Noodle soup with anchovies and pork. Blue balls of sticky rice with palm sugar. Rose milk. Nasi lemak. Rice noodles with chile-sesame sauce. Milk toast sandwiches teeming with coconut pandan jam. The right way to approach Kopitiam, the new all-day cafe by chef Kyo Pang and Moonlynn Tsai, is literally to order anything. 151 E Broadway, near Rutgers St., Chinatown

The smoked meats at Glady’s Jerk Center: While flame-grilled chicken is a vital part of the local jerk experience, chef Junior Felix does things the old-fashioned way: by cooking chile and allspice-rubbed meats in a fragrant bath of hot smoke. Make no mistake: This is one of the city’s top barbecue spots. 453 Rogers Ave, near Lincoln Rd., Prospect-Lefferts

MáLà Project’s meat bowls: Amelie Kang, a native of Tangshan and a graduate of NYU and the CIA, helped fuel the growing popularity of modern Chinese restaurants in New York, in part due to her strikingly delicious Sichuan dry pots. Diners select from an impossibly long menu — there’s ribeye, fish cakes, and Spam — to be wok fried in chile oil and peppercorns. Served in a hip setting in Midtown or the East Village, MáLà’s dry pots function as a hot, spicy, and meaty analogue to the city’s superfluity of fast-casual salad bowls. 41 West 46th St., near Sixth Ave., Midtown

A spread of white plates filled with different kinds of food are set on a table. Jean Schwarzwalder
Eggs with seeded chile oil and greens Gary He/Eater

A spread of Kopitiam dishes; chile oil eggs at Meme’s; and jerked meats at Glady’s

MeMe’s chile oil eggs: Libby Willis and Bill Clark’s modern diner serves the city’s best new brunch. The chief piece of evidence to support that claim? Fried eggs over wilted kale, surrounded by a tidy moat of pepitas and chile oil. The resultant flavors and textures are nutty, slippery, drippy, crunchy, and smoldering. 657 Washington Ave, near St. Marks Ave, Crown Heights

Goat brains at Adda: As modern South Asian spots like Indian Accent and Bombay Bread Bar pop up around town, chef Chintan Pandya (Rahi) counters with bold, fiery, homestyle classics. Among the finest dishes at Adda is the bheja fry: goat brains as creamy as scrambled eggs drenched in tomato chile sauce. Scoop it all up with sweet pao bread, then repeat. 31-31 Thomson Ave, near Van Dam St., Long Island City

Slice pizza at Paulie Gee’s and PQR: Paulie Gee’s represents for the old school pizza parlors, putting out perfect plain slices and white slices with enough garlic to qualify as scampi. PQR, in turn, does the new school-style justice, topping airy, long-fermented dough with wisps of squash and lardo. They are both as vital members of the New York pizza scene as any Neapolitan, pies-only joint. 110 Franklin St., near Noble St., Greenpoint

A Sichuan dry pot (upper left) and other dishes at MaLa project
A Sichuan dry pot (upper left) and other dishes at MaLa project
Anthony Bui/Eater

Rice custard at Sofreh: This elegant take on homestyle Persian cooking functions as a much-needed alternative to the city’s kebab-heavy Iranian scene. The Prospect Heights establishment, a promising debut by chef Nasim Alikhani, also happens to boast one of the city’s stronger new dessert menus. Among the best offerings here is a rectangle of rice custard, a pleasantly coarse affair that shows off the lemony aroma of cardamom. 75 St. Marks Ave, near Flatbush Ave., Prospect Heights

Fior di latte gelato at Don Angie: Here’s a fun bit of trompe l’oeil from chefs Angie Rito and Scott Tacinelli, a duo who are rethinking Italian-American fare. A server ferries over what looks like a ball of mozzarella — but it’s really mochi wrapped around fior di latte gelato. The intensely milky interior makes the dessert a clever reinvention of mozzarella. 103 Greenwich Ave., near West 12th St., West Village

Llamita’s squid bocadillo: The fast casual-offshoot of Llama Inn sells a serious squid sandwich. Chef Erik Ramirez laces plancha-seared squid rings with chile peppers (aji panca and aji amarillo), and stuffs everything inside a soft white roll. The slick cephalopod snack, dripping with mayo and tinged with heat and smoke, makes for a cheaper alternative to a good lobster roll. 80 Carmine St, near Varick St., West Village

Rice custard with cardamom and pistachio
Rice custard with cardamom and pistachio
Alex Staniloff/Eater
Mussel tarts with mungbean sprouts, dried fernbrake and thistle leaf
Mussel tarts with mungbean sprouts, dried fernbrake and thistle leaf
Louise Palmberg/Eater

Namul tartlet at Atomix: Chef Junghyun Park, using his technical wizardry, creates a “Tostitos Scoop” of sorts out of mussel juice and modified starch. He then fills the tartlet with mungbean sprout, dried fernbrake, and thistle leaf, and seasons it all with fish sauce. The end product comes close to high-end caviar in its perfectly complex evocation of the sea. 104 East 30th St., near Park Ave South, Midtown

Roast chicken at La Mercerie: This is the roast chicken dish of the year. Marie-Aude Rose isn’t the only local chef to debone fowl and serve it underneath its crispy skin. What sets this dish apart, however, is a condiment. Rose garnishes the bird with discs of ginger-garlic nougatine, adding a sucker punch of sweetness to counteract the chicken’s ample salts. 53 Howard St, near Mercer St., Soho

Lamb with rice at Kebab Empire: The Uyghurs of Western China and Central Asia know how to grill. That fact is on display at Kudret Yakup’s young chain, which sells stellar cumin-laced kebabs and carrot-perfumed polo rice, simultaneously sticky and sweet. The cost of both together? Just $10. 934 Eighth Ave, near West 55th St., Hell’s Kitchen

Una Pizza Napoletana’s desserts: Ice cream — or ices — have long been central to the pizza parlor, and Una’s are among the city’s finest. Fabian Von Hauske Valtierra eschews eggs, resulting in nimble frozen desserts that express their component flavors with supreme clarity — with heavy doses of salt to further electrify the palate. 175 Orchard St., near Stanton St., Lower East Side

Una Pizza Napoletana’s ice cream
Una Pizza Napoletana’s ice cream
Jessie Jacobson/Eater

One more thing: I had strong words about Una’s pizzas in my one-star review. After hearing positive reports from my colleagues, I returned to in December. Shortly after I took a seat at the bar, pizzaiolo and co-owner Anthony Mangieri recognized me and told me I had to leave. “You’re not welcome here,” he said. Valtierra, one of the other co-owners, sent a lengthy apology via email, in which he stated that he would’ve aimed for a “different outcome” had he been at Una that night. He also wrote I would still be welcome at Contra and Wildair, the other venues he runs with chef Jeremiah Stone.

It’s disappointing when an owner decides to pick which members of the press to let in, and which ones to prohibit from doing their job. That job involves returning, with an open mind, to restaurants that were the subject of tough reviews, as uncomfortable as that might be for everyone. I still look forward to returning.

Pepperoni and cheese slices sit on an orange countertop at Paulie Gee’s slice shop, adjacent hot honey sauce and chile flakes
Pizza at Paulie Gee’s Slice Shop
Alex Staniloff/Eater NY
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