My top meal of the year occurred at my lowest point of 2019. On May 3, I woke up with a twinge in my back. Two hours later I was bent over at NYU’s emergency room, crippled by a kidney stone burrowing its way through my tender insides. Doctors administered ample morphine (thank you!) while my father left work to look over me. The interminable day of testing and recovery exhausted us, so afterwards we did what seemed logical. We went to Kāwi to eat raw clams.
I’ve always preferred these meatier bivalves to oysters. Their flavor reminds me of my early 20s in Long Beach, where the piercing aroma of the tide served as a beacon. Unlike others chefs, Kāwi’s Eunjo Park doesn’t shy away from the funk of the mollusks. She serves them cool, with a bit of gochu garu to light up the palate and only faintly tame the littoral musk.
Trying to find culinary inspiration or comfort at Hudson Yards is a lot like trying to form an emotional bond with an Equinox membership associate; most of the restaurants sell the same breed of basic hotel luxury. The modern Korean fare of Kāwi is an unquestionable outlier in this regard. But more personally, when I was suffering, Park’s cooking reminded me of home.
No one can predict how a diner will react to a particular dish, but here’s a larger thought to frame the year’s best new restaurants: As the population of New York continues to diversify, the city will only become a happier place when there’s a deeper bench of honest, uncompromising, and non-exorbitant places to eat. This was the ethos that epitomized the finest Big Apple dining of 2019, and one stood in contrast to the generic “let’s please everyone” extravagances of Hudson Yards and elsewhere.
Take Llama San. It serves as proof that an excellent Peruvian-Japanese restaurant can book up just as far out as a classical fine dining temple. Or consider Haenyeo, a packed French-Korean spot that’s packed on any given night thanks to a Mexican-Korean rice cake fundido. And for those craving the meaty, milky cuisine of Italy’s Emilia-Romagna, Rezdora is happy to take your name for an 11:30 p.m. seating.
Some of my most disappointing meals occurred at upscale Continental or New American restaurants, venues that championed clunky proteins, sky-high prices, and bland internationalism. One thinks of Gotham Bar & Grill’s cumbersome mains, TAK Room’s nouveau country club fair, and scores of others. These institutions are the culinary equivalent of blazers with padded shoulders and bad sitcoms with laugh tracks; they recall a bygone era of stifling, narrow-minded, forced fun.
But although some of these venues — along with Hudson Yards — dominated part of the dining conversation, they certainly did not define it. Headwinds notwithstanding, it was another stellar year for dining out in New York. Here’s a list of the best.
Kāwi: Modern Korean is one of the central culinary trends of contemporary New York. Eunjo Park, in her debut as a Momofuku executive chef, has instantly joined the top ranks of that movement at Kāwi. She sends out jiggly raw crabs, a reasonably rare dish in NYC, slathered in spicy gochujang. She anoints chile-spiked rice cakes with smoky Benton’s ham, a bit of alchemy that somehow evokes the wonders of Iberico. And because New York and LA are engaged in a brutal yet fake war, I am obliged to state that Kāwi is better than Majordomo.
Llama San: The space that once housed one of the city’s most popular Spanish restaurants, Tertulia, is now home to one of the best and most impossible-to-get-into Peruvian ones. The chef draw is chef Erik Ramirez’s creative take on Nikkei fare, a style of South American-Japanese fusion that is deeply ingrained in the culinary ethos of Peru. Here, that means chicken-stuffed maki rolls with creamy walnut sauce and nigiri forged from aged duck, cilantro rice, and banana. There is no other place like it in New York.
Restaurants of the Year: the Long List
Haenyeo: With so many well-financed restaurant groups opening infinite variations standard brasseries and meateries, it’s breathtaking to see a solo-operator strike out with something intensely creative. At a high-profile corner spot in Park Slope, Haenyeo serves French-Korean food, sometimes refined, sometimes rustic, alongside snow crab claws with passionfruit butter, New Orleans-style roasted oysters, and spicy Mexican-Korean rice cake fundido. Jenny Kwak has gifted New York with the type of small, intimate, auteur-style restaurant that recalls the wonders of pre-crash Manhattan.
Bread & Salt: Easily the pizzeria of the year, though Rick Easton doesn’t always make things simple. The shop can open an hour later than advertised, and the slices sometimes boast enough salt to jolt a hibernating polar bear. But at its best, the bread crackles and flakes with the fragile resistance of a croissant; the mozz oozes, and the tomatoes do their best savory impersonation of pure MSG.
Wayan: As Jean-Georges Vongerichten continues to open up copycat restaurants around the world, his son Cedric is slinging top notch French-Indonesian fare in a tiny Soho kitchen. Alongside partner Ochi Vongerichten, Cedric throws together a mean sop buntut, rich Javanese oxtail soup laced with cilantro. And he grills chicken satay with peanut sauce so softly that it evokes a rich Southeast Asian take on blanquette de veau.
Rezdora: Stefano Secchi, an alum of Osteria Francescana, has given New York it’s best Italian restaurant since Lilia and a $90 pasta tasting as nuanced as a stratospherically-priced sushi omakase. Good luck getting in.
Sushi Noz: Manhattan is practically swimming in omakase parlors. It would be tough to declare any one of them the best as they all bring subtly different approaches to the art of raw or cured fish over rice. A meal at Noz, however, is particularly breathtaking, with chef Nozomu Abe using the bar as a stage to dismember live king crab, to gril eel over eucalyptus, and to form ethereal bites of nigiri. At $325, the cost is high, but there’s an equally majestic side room, selling sushi only for $175, service-included.
Win Son Bakery: As Eurocentric boulangeries sprout up throughout Manhattan, New York’s thriving yet undervalued Sinosphere bakeries remain clustered around the city’s Chinatowns. This is partly what makes Josh Ku, Trigg Brown, and Jesse Shapell’s bakery, located in East Williamsburg, stand out. The other thing that sets it apart is the fine work of Danielle Spencer. The pastry chef sends out salty-sweet mochi doughnuts, almost as chewy as gum drops, and red rice yeast doughnuts, packing a Vegemite-style tang.
Yi Ji Shi Mo: As high profile rice noodle shops expand to Manhattan, from Joe’s to Guangdong import Yin Ji, the one I can’t stop thinking about is the smallest and humblest of then all. The tiny room at Yi Ji smells of rice as sweetly as a posh cookie shop smells of good cookie dough, while layers of noodles, sometimes laced with funky shrimp, exhibit no less complexity or firmness than tagliarini.
Gertie & Hunky Dory: If one were to look for an all-day restaurant so bright and white that it requires sunglasses, Nate Adler’s Gertie would be the top choice. His Williamsburg restaurant mimics the sunny ethos of Los Angeles while also acting as a neo-nostalgia factory for classic New York specialties, from Peking duck to “everything bagel”-rotisserie chicken. Claire Sprouse’s all-day Hunky Dory, by contrast, is a more laid back affair, with a sustainably minded beverage program (think: sunflower seed orgeat), cheap apple cider pancakes (just $4), and one of the city’s top egg sandwiches.
Maison Yaki: Greg Baxtrom and Max Katzenberg followed up their whimsical Olmsted with something very different: a French-Japanese skewer spot. Cooks use a binchotan grill to carefully char succulent meats and vegetables — the Japanese half of the equation — while also garnishing those creations with precise French sauces, from Bearnaise to Maltaise to Allemande (essentially a good turkey gravy).
Noodle Bar Columbus Circle: The big question about Momofuku was whether it would continue to innovate after an infusion of capital from RSE Ventures. So far, the answer is yes, a fact that holds true not just at one-off concepts like Kawi but also at Noodle Bar Columbus Circle, now helmed by chef de cuisine Zach Dunham. Expect stellar new bites like steamed beef rolls with French dip-style sauce, and impossibly underpriced Dover sole with fiery salsas.
Zhen Wei Fang & HaiDiLao: The Chinese hot pot scene in New York continues to expand and flourish, with my colleague Robert Sietsema counting over 21 in Flushing.
One of the best so far is HaiDiLao, the first local outpost of the Sichuan province-based chain. Located in a new high rise, the restaurant offers hand rubs, automated massage chairs, and free snacks to those who wait. Patrons cook thinly sliced lamb, beef, and other treats into aromatic broths bubbling away in the center of each table; spicy beef tallow manages to sting the tongue without overwhelming it, while tomato soup adds a rich level of umami. Be sure to try the thick noodles, which are pulled tableside in a breakdance routine.
Zhen Wei Fang on the Bowery entertains a bit more weirdly, if no less wildly. As diners dunk spam and beef tendon in semi-private rooms, CGI nature scenes are projected onto the walls. In a particularly fancy touch, each seat has an individual hot pot burner, preventing the need to agree on just one or two broths for larger parties.
Disclosure: David Chang is producing shows for Hulu in partnership with Vox Media Studios, part of Eater’s parent company, Vox Media. No Eater staff member is involved in the production of those shows, and this does not impact coverage on Eater.