I can’t tell you what a joy it is sorting through the best things I ate last year in my imagination, proving that food memories can be just as poignant as the original experience. The collection is also a tribute to how democratic great food still is: Some of my favorite dishes come from fancy kitchens where you can drop $100 or more on dinner, while others are street snacks you can enjoy for less than $5. Most fall in between. And anyone who says restaurant food is in decline just hasn’t eaten around enough. Here, then, are the 15 best dishes I ate this year.
Veal Tongue and Mackerel at Frenchette: The dining public embraced Frenchette when it appeared in Tribeca earlier this year, finding that the bistro with a warm and old-fashioned look ended up having a menu more creative than the decor suggested. Of a slew of scrumptious dishes, the veal tongue was the best, matched with a small filet of wild mackerel whose aggressive flavor paired perfectly with the smoothness of the glottal organ. A salty northern Italian tuna sauce tied the package like a Christmas ribbon.
Fufu With Mixed Meat Egusi at Africana: This restaurant near JFK Airport flaunts its cocktail lounge ambiance yet turns out some of the best Nigerian food in town. Pick a starch — in this case pounded yam fufu — and then order a meat and sauce combo to go with it. The egusi is splendid, a slurry of mashed melon seeds that does a convincing imitation of scrambled eggs. On top is a “mixed meat soup,” which means you’ll find yourself dredging up tasty bits of gluey cow foot, strong mutton, sinuous chicken, and sometimes fish, though the selection varies from day to day.
Lagman at Foteh’s Tandoori: While the quintessential Central Asian restaurant has been a hulking kebab palace along the lines of a Russian nightclub, smaller and less grandiose places have been appearing out of the public eye. Coney Island Avenue harbors an enclave, including Foteh’s Tandoori, a humble place offering breads, savory pastries, and soups, including this lovely lagman. It sparkles with flavor, bolstering ragged chunks of lamb and slippery noodles accented with fresh herbs — the perfect winter potage.
Roasted Octopus at Pheasant: Pheasant flapped into Williamsburg this year like a rare bird with colorful plumage, seeking to redefine the classic bistro menu. Instead of a predictable grilled octopus slicked with olive oil, it gave us this dish. The tentacles were roasted and plopped in a sauce made with the concentrated yogurt called labneh, which had been flavored with the salami paste ‘nduja. Pureed potatoes added a comfort-food fillip and arugula, camouflage.
Raspberry Croissant at Cannelle: We’re all familiar with the usual range of French croissants, seemingly available on every block of some neighborhoods, including the plain croissant, the almond croissant, the chocolate croissant, and occasionally, a chocolate-almond hybrid. Obscurely located north of Northern Boulevard in Jackson Heights, Cannelle does them all one better by adding sharp and sweet raspeberry preserves to what is basically a marzipan-filled almond croissant, amping up the deliciousness significantly. One bite and you can’t forget it.
Anchovies with Vanilla Butter at Saint Julivert: Anchovies are fab, especially for their salty and fishy flavor that enlivens a pizza, a salad, or a plain piece of toast. They rarely come into their own as the solitary focus of a dish, but they do at newcomer Saint Julivert Fisherie. There, they receive a thick sweet glaze stiffening them enough to be picked up with the fingers, and sided with a sculpted fan of butter. Dip an anchovy into the butter, and discover that the rich spread is inflected with flecks of vanilla. Who would have imagined that, against all odds, this app works magnificently?
Pho Ga at Di An Di: The city’s been so obsessed with beef pho over the last few years that other Vietnamese soups have been neglected. A case in point is pho bac’s cousin pho ga, which is made with chicken, generating a mellower broth with lighter flavor notes. Di An Di does a splendid job on the soup, offering it in two variations, one with the broth intact, and the other with the broth separated from the chicken and noodles in the “dry” style currently popular in Houston, a Viet food hotspot to which the restaurant has historic and sentimental ties.
Macaroni Bechamel at Little Egypt: This delightful little cafe and market falls on Ridgewood’s Fresh Pond Road, one of the city’s greatest and most unsung food strips. This macaroni béchamel is an Egyptian dish that involves layers of pasta and ground meat, similar in look to an Italian lasagna or a Greek pastitsio. But it’s a thing unto itself, looser than the latter and mellower than the former. It would function equally well at breakfast, lunch, or dinner, especially sided with a salad or bowl of garlicky fava beans. Little Egypt is one of the city’s best Middle Eastern restaurants, and least expensive, too.
Folded Cheeseburger at Miznon: Paper-thin pitas have long been used to cradle falafel or shawarma, constituting the weakest part of the Middle Eastern sandwich. But Israeli chain Miznon starts with a puffy fresh pita that makes itself the center of attention, then fills it with a diverse choice of ingredients. The folded cheeseburger was a revelation for jaded burger fanciers, a great seared beef patty amplified with pungent garlic aioli, mild white cheddar, and sliced dill pickles that stick out of the top like green banners.
Roast Lamb Homestyle at Yi Lan Halal: This splendid restaurant from Tianjin in northern China offers several unusual dishes not found in other Chinese restaurants here. One of the best is this lamb dish, in which roast chunks of meat, onions, and other aromatics are concealed beneath an omelet dome that rises out of a pool of salty brown gravy like some rain soaked extraterrestrial edifice. This may be the world’s best hangover remedy, but also one of the city’s greatest and most comforting lamb dishes.
Vori Vori at I Love Paraguay: This South American folk dish is very hard to find in New York City, since our supply of Paraguayan restaurants have dwindled to only one or two, although we used to have several more. It’s a shame, since Paraguayan food holds many surprises. This rich and delectable stew features chicken, orange squash, and little yellow dumplings made of corn meal and cheese. The name “vori vori” is in the Guarani language, in which the doubling of a word designates a plural.
Country Style Duck at Bayard Bo Ky: Everywhere in Chinatown you see Peking duck, hanging in the windows of tea shops and depicted on posters on the facades of finer restaurants. In that ubiquitous preparation, the objective is a potato-chip-crisp skin, while the flesh shrinks into semi-toughness. But not so at Bo Ky, where duck is braised instead in a recipe attributed to the Teochew people in which the flesh becomes more flavorful and succulent. The accompanying pickled daikon and Vietnamese-style dipping sauce suggests the historic Teochew diaspora across Southeast Asia.
Samosa at Merit Kabab: There’s no better snack for walking around the city than the Indian samosa. The flaky crust conceals a potato filling modestly shot with other vegetables and scented with cumin, and a pair of chutneys come alongside to dip it in. At Merit Kabab — a Jackson Heights institution right near the subway descended from a convenience store chain — the outsize samosas are plucked directly from the cooking oil, crisp and warm as can be. Even more miraculously, they’re only a dollar apiece.
Kare Kare at Mama Fina’s House of Filipino Sisig: Yes I found the sisig, in which pig parts arrive sizzling in a cast iron pan in many variations, quite fine at Mama’s, but the kare kare pleased me more. This oxtail stew sports a rich peanut gravy, which makes the dish taste like a meaty and more fluid peanut butter sandwich. But then the bonus green beans and okra, perfectly cooked, make great dippers for the extra gravy. To top things off is bagoong, a fermented fish condiment.
Pizza at Archie’s Bar: New York City continues to be pelted with great pizzas, many geographically identified, including pies from such diverse locales at Rome, Detroit, San Francisco, Staten Island, and Naples itself. We sometimes find ourselves distracted by this tomato-dripping fecundity, so that we ignore less flashy styles like the bar pies at Archie’s in Bushwick, where the crust is puffy and well browned and the toppings heaped on with a generous hand. My favorite pie this year featured the low-brow combo of ground beef, spinach, jalapenos, and purple onions.
Enjoyed the 15 Best? Check out the 10 Worst.
Correction: This post has been updated to reflect the accurate photo and description of Di An Di’s pho ga.