Whole Dungeness crab slicked with garlic sauce. Vanilla ice cream laced with an entire day’s worth of sodium. Vegetarian Frito pie. Slices of tomato pizza that would not be out of place at a Michelin-starred Italian joint. Cheese puffs. The best new things I’ve consumed so far this year haven’t come from slick tasting menu venues or European imports charging $48 for burgers. They’ve largely come from small, independent-ish restaurants where dinner doesn’t cost the shirt off your back and where walk-ins are (almost) always welcome.
If last year was the worst year for new restaurants since the advent of the Great Recession, a year characterized by the boring, the expensive, the exclusive, the everyday rich people restaurant, the first half of 2018 is shaping up to be something decidedly different. Thrilling and diverse mid-range restaurants — not fine dining spots, not fast-casual spots — are rightly stealing the show.
David Chang expanded Momofuku Ko in order to transform part of his most expensive establishment into an unusually affordable one. A new generation of operators from mainland China and Taiwan continued to open up restaurants like Ho Foods, Le Sia, MáLà Project, and Little Tong — hangouts for fellow expats, and places to introduce New Yorkers to a distinctly modern style of East Asian cooking.
Two first-time restaurateurs in Prospect Heights struck gold with MeMe’s, a diner where inclusivity and hospitality aren’t performative nonsense but rather as deeply ingrained in the venue’s DNA as the patty melt. Chef Marie-Aude Rose rolled the dice with a solo stateside debut of her own at La Mercerie, and so did Riad Nasr and Lee Hanson at Frenchette; the result was two of the city’s best new French restaurants since Le Coucou (if only La Mercerie held more tables for walk-ins like a proper cafe should).
I’ll go deeper on these issues later, but for now, here are my best new restaurants of 2018 so far:
Momofuku Ko opened as an affordable tasting counter in 2008 but morphed, over the years, into a restaurant where a dinner date could easily scratch at $1,000. Ko Bar, situated one door down, is the more accessible-ish return to form; a collection of small plates plus drinks can easily come in at under $200. Chefs send out cold fried chicken brushed with garlic sauce, pickle sandwiches paired with bourbon, and peppered pork rib tips meant to be torn apart with black plastic gloves. This elevation of backyard American staples isn’t a study in unnecessary refinement or elevation; the dishes achieve their greatness from gentle tweaks and perfect execution, which is why they deserve to be served at such a high-minded institution.
Le Sia: Put simply: Tina Chen, Zac Zhang, and Yang Liu run one of the city’s best restaurants for non-rip off shellfish. Expect heaps of boiled crawdads, lobsters, snow crabs, and Dungeness crabs, all doused in incendiary and aromatic sauces, and all meant to be consumed with loose plastic gloves. Fingers will be licked. Beer will be consumed.
Frenchette: Nasr and Hanson could have packed the house with a Minetta Tavern 2.0, yet another expensive bastion of beef. Instead, they did something different: They opened up a hip brasserie hawking ambitious small plates — smoked eel fritters, spicy blowfish tails, snails over scrambled eggs — and clever riffs on French classics, like duck frites and lobster drenched in curry butter. These established players, in short, did what so many young chefs fail to do: something new.
La Mercerie: Cafes are typically everyday institutions for espresso, pastries, and quick, informal meals. La Mercerie, however, is something a bit different, with lunchtime reservations, no dedicated tables for walk-ins, and caviar service. The setting? A design showroom where a couch can run over $16,000. But even though it’s not quite the democratic establishment it could be, Marie-Aude Rose’s (savory) cooking is what makes this a destination for any francophile; her technical, precise renditions of boeuf bourguignon or chicken crepes wouldn’t be out of place at, say, Le Coucou or Daniel.
MáLà Project Midtown: Where you go for Sichuan dry-pots: giant brown salad bowls filled with copious quantities of meat and fish, from filet mignon, to beef tendon, to crab sticks, to testicles, to mini hot dogs. The chefs slather everything in enough fragrant chiles to make even the sturdiest humans tear up. A filling meal for one is possible for under $30.
MeMe’s: The endangered species that is the New York diner gets a modern and majestic update. From the epic brunch — complimentary dry cereal and chile oil eggs — to the nouveau-nostalgia dinner — neon cheeseballs, drippy patty melts, and buffalo chicken caesars — owner Libby Willis and Will Clark have gifted Prospect Heights an awesome new neighborhood staple.
The Starters and Desserts at Una Pizza: Last year I found the desserts at Alex Stupak’s Empellon to be of such significantly higher quality than the tacos that I penned two separate reviews of the space, a three star write-up for the sweets, and one star for everything else. Just the same, I was most intrigued by the “everything but Anthony Mangieri’s pizza” part of the equation at Una — from the natural wines, to Jeremiah Stone’s modern starters, to Fabian von Hauske’s aggressively salted ice creams. And while it’s tempting to say none of the above pairs with the main event; I’d counter that if pizza restaurants are going to evolve, they deserve to break free of tradition as much as any other culinary style.