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A patron uses chopsticks to lift the stretchy cheese up from a plate of rice cake fundido at Haenyeo
The rice cake fundido at Haenyeo
Alex Staniloff/Eater

Ryan Sutton’s Best Restaurants of 2019 So Far

The critic names Haenyeo, Kawi, Wayan, and others among his top mid-year picks

At the 23,000-square-foot coffee carnival that is Starbucks Reserve Roastery, a cocktail bar sits nearly empty at night while grease cakes on pizza slices at a barren kiosk. At Intersect by Lexus, a lifestyle space by a luxury automaker and Danny Meyer, a streetside cafe sits fallow while dinnertime patrons are sequestered upstairs. And at the billionaire’s neighborhood that is Hudson Yards, the sole “bodega,” hidden deep within the mall, closes at 5 p.m. Anyone who leaves a restaurant there after 9 p.m. can expect to lose their way in a labyrinth of depopulated hallways.

Starbucks Roastery
Starbucks Roastery
Alex Staniloff/Eater

It’s been a solid year for dining out in New York so far, but a streak of emptiness and corporate soullessness is plaguing the hospitality industry. A collection of large-scale operators have found a way to function while depriving the city streets, mall hallways, and their own cavernous spaces of humans. It’s almost as if a certain type of branded culinary establishment is becoming the de facto equivalent of an empty Fendi store — an aspirational diorama, a three-dimensional advertisement.

That said, what has truly defined Big Apple dining so far this year is something more uniquely on brand for the city: its diversity. Modern Korean fare continues to boom, even in ostensibly surprising places, from Park Slope to Hudson Yards. A Euro-inflected Indonesian spot is doing gangbusters in Soho, a stone’s throw away from Thai staple Uncle Boons. A ramen master has gifted New York with its next great pasta dish. And a Chinese hotpot hangout is killing it next door to Vandal, one of the city’s most irrationally packed restaurants. New York, as always, will find a way.

Below, here are the restaurants I’ve enjoyed the most so far this year.

The Best So Far: Haenyeo

In the late ’90s, long before Simon Kim was earning Michelin stars for his tabletop barbecue omakases, and even longer before the Atomix folks were packing the house with $175 tastings for two, Jenny Kwak was setting the groundwork for the city’s modern Korean movement. Now, at Haenyeo, she further cements her trailblazer status. In a remarkable act of fusion, she places rice cakes underneath melted cheese, chorizo, and gochujang, making for a stretchy, starchy, spicy stew that evokes baked ziti as much as it does queso fundido. The hour-plus waits and global melding of flavors — think: chile-flecked bouillabaisse and New Orleans-style grilled oysters — suggest modern Korean fare will continue to shape the city’s culinary scene for decades to come. 235 Fifth Ave, at Carroll Street

An assortment of dishes at Kawi, including raw blue crab, its shell stuffed with rice, and a pinwheel of roasted rice cake, which is dark red and topped with sesame seeds
Raw blue crab and other dishes at Kawi
Alex Staniloff/Eater

The Long List

Kawi and Momofuku Noodle

It’s almost hard to believe: In a posh mall filled with dull chophouses, David Chang opened his most uncompromising and resolutely Korean restaurant. At Kawi, chef Eunjo Park sends out strongly flavored dishes that balance tradition with modernity: raw blue crab with roe fried rice, foie gras kimbap rolls, and raw clams with chile-laced sofrito. And over in a different shopping center, at Chang’s Noodle Bar, the kitchen riffs on the katsu dishes of nearby izakayas, the Viet-Cajun sensibilities of Houston, and the classic luxuries of Time Warner, albeit more affordably. Chef Tony Kim pairs Dover sole (just $46) not with caper butter sauce but rather red and green salsas. At a mall without a Cinnabon, a Chang spot is the right call. Kawi is at 20 Hudson Yards, fifth floor. Noodle Bar is at 10 Columbus Circle, fourth floor

Wayan

From the Filipino kamayan feasts of Jeepney, to the incendiary Thai meat salads of Uncle Boons, to the coconut-thatched rice balls of Kopitiam, New York’s contemporary Southeast Asian culinary scene is picking up steam. Wayan by Ochi and chef Cedric Vongerichten (son of Jean-Georges) is yet another fine example, showing off Indonesian dishes with a touch of European sensibilities. Vongerichten whips up chicken satays as silky and rich as blanquette de veau. He gives a French-style sear on oxtail in restorative sop buntut, bursting with cilantro. And he layers passionfruit seeds over pandan custard to cut the indulgent pudding with tartness and crunch. 20 Spring St., near Elizabeth Street

Lobster noodles at Wayan get pulled up from a white bowl.
Lobster noodles at Wayan
Gary He/Eater
A waiter at Zhen Wei Fang sears wagyu
A waiter at Zhen Wei Fang sears wagyu
Louise Palmberg/Eater

Zhen Wei Fang

There is no short supply of affordable Sichuan hotpot spots in New York, but with Zhen Wei Fang, owner Wei Chan updates the format for a contemporary class of gourmands — be it the booming Chinese student population or any diner who wants to spend a few extra dollars on upscale fare. That means booths with psychedelic nature projections, karaoke rooms, and individualized hot pots for every guest, versus a single communal one. The kitchen, under the guidance of Guangdong native Wei Huang, whips up fiery, umami-packed broths for cooking almost too many items list, including silky Japanese wagyu, beef tendon shaved as thin as bonito, and paper-thin New Zealand lamb. 207 Bowery, near Rivington Street

Hunky Dory and Gertie

Claire Sprouse’s sustainably minded all-day cafe Hunky Dory is home to one of the city’s greatest egg sandwiches. Chef Kirstyn Brewer layers a pillowy brioche bun with creamy scrambled eggs, merguez-style sausage, pepper-y arugula, and a slick of fragrant curried onions. May every bodega in the city serve this masterpiece one day. Nate Adler’s Gertie, in turn, functions as a diner-like analogue to Gjusta and the other all-day cafes of Los Angeles. Expect frothy, fizzy egg cream, rotisserie lamb with anchovy sauce, and chicken seasoned with everything bagel spices. Both venues constitute something rare: counter-service spots that feel as warm and welcoming as full-service restaurants. Hunky Dory is at 747 Franklin Ave., near Sterling Place; Gertie is at 357 Grand St, at Marcy Avenue

The interior at Gertie has windows on the left and a pastel-colored geometric mural on the back
The interior at Gertie
Alex Staniloff/Eater NY

Niche Mazemen

“Japanese pasta” is how Shigetoshi Nakamura refers to his mazemen, a style of ramen that’s sauced about as lightly as most Italian noodle dishes. One could fall in love with the restaurant simply because of its ribeye pasta. The salty, iron-y juices of blow-torched beef bleed into fatty pork sauce, creating a succulent “steak spaghetti,” an instant New York classic. Price is also what makes Niche so compelling. As more European-minded pastas fall into the high $20s and low $30s, Nakamura deserves credit for being a place that New Yorkers can simply drop by for a plate of noodles for $18 or so. 127 Delancey St., near Clinton Street

Chef Shigetoshi Nakamura prepares ribeye mazemen at Niche
Chef Shigetoshi Nakamura prepares ribeye mazemen at Niche
Carla Vianna/Eater

Milos Wine

As Estiatorio Milos charges obscene prices for seafood (and $39 for a trio of dips), this more casual downstairs space asks no more than $16 for a single dish. A lone chef works the grill, searing up bouncy octopus tentacles and shaving spit-roasted pork into warm pita. A bartender, meanwhile, smartly guides patrons through a list of nearly 80 Greek wines by the glass, many of them rarely found elsewhere in the city, and the bulk of them priced under $15. It is one of the finest places to pass an hour or two in this exorbitant shopping mall. 20 Hudson Yards Ave, Fifth floor

The Fly

Chef-partners Katie Jackson and Nick Perkins are reliably putting out one of the city’s best roast chicken sandwiches. Onto a soft bun they pile white meat, dark meat, finely chopped skin, and fortified jus; it makes for a product that’s somehow more indulgent than pulled pork. Pair it with a peach-y skin contact sauvignon blanc from Slovenia, and you have yourself a proper summer meal in Bed Stuy — if only the prices felt a touch more in line with the neighborhood. 549 Classon Ave, near Fulton Street

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.

Momofuku Noodle Bar at TWC

10 Columbus Circle, New York, NY 10019

The Fly

549 Classon Ave, Brooklyn, NY 11216

Kawi

20 Hudson Yards, 5th Floor, New York, NY 10001 (646) 517-2699 Visit Website

Niche

172 Delancey Street, Manhattan, NY 10002 Visit Website

Zhen Wei Fang

207 Bowery, Manhattan, NY 10002 (646) 681-7580 Visit Website

Hunky Dory

747 Franklin Avenue, Brooklyn, NY 11238 (516) 418-2063 Visit Website

Haenyeo

239 5th Avenue, Brooklyn, NY 11215 (718) 213-2290 Visit Website

Wayan

20 Spring Street, Manhattan, NY 10012 (917) 261-4388 Visit Website

Gertie

357 Grand Street, Brooklyn, NY 11211 (718) 636-0902 Visit Website
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