Yes, it’s been a messed-up year. But looking back over it, like an ill-equipped mountaineer on a treacherous promontory, I find there have been just as many great dishes as in previous years, despite all the worries and challenges. In fact, sometimes it seems like there have been more. Perhaps the meals gobbled on park benches and the looming darkness of the pandemic have actually made food taste better. Or perhaps restaurants, facing a precarious existence and lack of government support, are trying harder than ever to attract and keep customers. Either way, we owe a profound debt of gratitude to the restaurant staff, who have endured far more than the usual obstacles this year.
Here is a diary of my favorite dishes of 2020, before and after the March lockdown, in chronological order.
Bisi bele bath at Adyar Ananda Bhavan (January 19): This East Side mainstay serves exclusively vegetarian, mainly South Indian food. Offered with a cumin-dotted papadum for dipping, bisi bele bath is a dish, originating in the state of Karnataka, more often seen in homes than in restaurants. The homely rice casserole arrives studded with lentils and diced vegetables, and flavored with mixed pickle and a subtle masala. It swept me away on a cold afternoon in midwinter. 1071 First Avenue, between 58th and 59th streets, Midtown East
Grilled sweetbreads at Romanian Garden (January 21): Really, almost nothing is better than perfect, fresh ingredients simply prepared. And that is true of these grilled — and not overcooked — sweetbreads at Romanian Garden, an elegant clubhouse with an emphasis on grilled meats favored by Eastern European immigrants. Slightly charred around the edges, the richly textured bovine thymus glistens on the plate, and the accompanying french fries couldn’t be better. Squeeze on the lemon! 43-06 43rd Avenue, between 43rd and 44th streets, Woodside
Barbecued pork butt at Lechonera La Piraña (February 15): This Puerto Rican lechonera, housed in an 18-wheeler parked on the street, opened nearly two decades ago in the Mott Haven section of the South Bronx, extending a business started by the parents of the current proprietor. It operates only on the weekends, when several skin-on pork roasts are rubbed with a proprietary sofrito and roasted for at least six hours in a pizza oven set up in a nearby vacant lot. The result, cut with a machete to include chunks of flesh and swatches of crisp skin, and doused with garlic sauce, is transportive, even when eaten on the pavement in an icy north wind. 76 East 157th Street, between Concord and Wales avenues, Mott Haven
It was slim pickings in the second half of March, when the coronavirus shut most eateries down, but by April the restaurant industry was showing its vitality as carryout and delivery started to reappear. By April Fool’s Day I found myself eating mainly sandwiches supplied by delis and reviewing forms of frozen food with my colleague Ryan Sutton, but gradually, restaurant food options became more profuse. A surprising number of places opened for the first time, pandemic be damned.
Panelle e crocche panino at Pane Pasta (May 11): Nothing better for stressed times than a carbo charge, and few dishes deliver one better than this Sicilian sandwich. It incorporates deep-fried new potatoes and the chickpea raviolis called panelle into a stubby seeded roll, and each bite is bliss. The sandwich comes from cafe and bakery Pane Pasta, a real Palermo-style focacceria that opened in mid-March for two days. It closed for two weeks after the lockdown, then pluckily reopened with its menu of sweet pastries, sandwiches, pastas, and square slices of topped focaccia. 58 West 8th Street, between Sixth Avenue and MacDougal Street, Greenwich Village
Pastrami sandwich at David’s Brisket House (June 7): By early June I was on my bike, bravely peddling around Brooklyn looking for the purest comfort food, and returning to favorite destinations of the past. I’d gone to Bed-Stuy, only to find many places still closed or at least on limited hours. So I ended up at David’s Brisket House wolfing its signature sandwich, and was it ever good, with a couple of very funky sour pickles on the side. 533 Nostrand Avenue, between Herkimer Street and Atlantic Avenue, Bedford-Stuyvesant
By midsummer, the city had rediscovered the joys of outdoor dining. Some places merely threw a table and a couple of dumpster-salvaged chairs out on the sidewalk, while others devised elaborate sidewalk presentations, the precursors of the heated and partly enclosed curbside installations ubiquitous today.
Scallop crudo at L’Accolade (July 28): As sweltering weather arrived, I found pure bliss at French natural wine bar L’Accolade’s backyard garden. Tenements could be spied over the high whitewashed fence, and a pleasant quietude prevailed, offering respite from virus obsession for a couple hours. Green buttons of a thick herbal sauce were piped upon the cool slices of raw scallop, and they sure were good as I forked them into my mouth with sips of a dry riesling. 302 Bleecker Street, between Grove Street and Seventh Avenue South, West Village
Spicy beef guo kui at Crop Circle (August 29): The dishes newly arrived from China haven’t ceased to surprise us, including the stuffed flatbread called guo kui from Hubei that’s the centerpiece of the menu at this new spot just off the NYU campus. They’re cooked on the interior walls of a round vertical oven and fished out with a hook, and this one, stuffed with meats seasoned with dried red chiles, black sesame seeds, and Sichuan peppercorns, will blow the top of your head off. It’s that wonderful. 126 MacDougal Street, between West 3rd and Bleecker streets, Greenwich Village
Heirloom tomatoes at Kimika (September 7): En Japanese Brasserie and other Japanese and Chinese spots taught many of us to love freshly made tofu in its sweet and silky opulence, but newly opened Japanese and Italian fusion concept Kimika carried the curd one step further. The product was poured into a shallow bowl to harden, then topped with some of the season’s last heirloom tomatoes in various colors and sizes. The result was like some crazy version of caprese salad, and overwhelmingly delicious. 40 Kenmare Street, at Elizabeth Street, Nolita
Makloubeh at Qanoon (September 19): Qanoon popped up early in the year on a corner in western Chelsea surrounded by townhouses, a stone’s throw from the 160-year-old Union Theological Seminary. Somewhat surprisingly in a neighborhood filled with effete comfort food, it specialized in Palestinian cuisine, thoughtfully presented. My favorite dish was makloubeh, an entrancing cube of rice stuffed with eggplant and lamb, with yogurt cascading over the top and decorated with red-tipped radish matchsticks. It was almost too pretty to excavate. 180 Ninth Avenue, at 21st Street, Chelsea
Tosilog at Bilao (September 25): This restaurant appeared on the Upper East Side likely to fulfill the culinary needs of Filipino hospital workers, but rapidly became a neighborhood favorite for a broader range of customers. Open all seven days, Bilao serves wonderful breakfasts like tosilog, a large plate featuring garlic rice, cured pork belly with a sweet glaze, and two runny fried eggs, providing a makeshift sauce. A vinegar dip rounds out the square plate. 1437 First Avenue, between 74th and 75th streets, Upper East Side
Birria tacos with consomme at Chofi (September 26): If nothing else, 2020 has proved to be the year of the birria taco. This Tijuana import featuring long-braised beef served with soup has appeared in three boroughs and on the cliffs above the Hudson in Union City, New Jersey. Of the many tried, the best was at Chofi, obscurely located in a residential neighborhood. The tortillas are first dipped in red rendered fats before being luxuriantly overstuffed, and the consomme is so good that you may treat it as a separate dish. Just don’t drink it all before you dip your tacos in it, as is conventional. 170 Summit Avenue, between 17th and 18th streets, Union City, NJ
Hamburger at Cozy Royale (October 10): Who doesn’t love a good, juicy burger? This one, at a restaurant offshoot of Williamsburg’s Meat Hook butcher shop, descended from the famous cheeseburger at Fritzl’s Lunch Box in Bushwick, and maybe did it one better. On a toasted potato bun, the dish smothered a well-seared patty with mild cheddar, adding a strongly garlicked aioli on the side. It defined burger bliss — and made me want to eat another immediately. 434 Humboldt Street, at Jackson Street, Williamsburg
Chasha shamdey from Café Himalaya (October 25): This long-running Nepalese cafe on the southern verge of the East Village produces a spectacular chicken curry, one of the most exciting in a city teeming with the chicken curries of many nations. The orange-colored sauce, rife with pureed aromatics like garlic, ginger, and onions, spills over the sides of the oblong bowl, and you’ll want to sop up every bit of it with the accompanying basmati rice. 78 East 1st Street, between First Avenue and Avenue A, East Village
By November, the weather was getting colder, and not only were restaurants adding heaters to their outdoor spaces, they were also enclosing them, forcing me to make spontaneous evaluations of just how safe each place was before sitting down to eat.
Paris brest a la pistache at Frenchette (November 28): On a recent revisit to Frenchette — 2018’s restaurant darling — I enjoyed several dishes, but none quite as much as this dessert selection. The classic flaky choux pastry is ringed with toasted pistachios like a jumbled green smile, and inside you’ll find further strong pistachio flavor via a praline creme, with a newfallen snow of powdered sugar gracing the top. This meal concluder was so rich, I shared it with my two dining companions and none of us felt deprived. 241 West Broadway, between Beach and White streets, Tribeca
Pomelo crab salad at Bolero (December 5): Some want heavy food as winter descends, filling their stomachs with dense stews and grilled meats. I prefer to go in the opposite direction, and little made me as happy this year as sitting down to this salad featuring pomelo and snow crab meat in Bolero’s tea garden. The raw materials would have been good enough alone, but when seasoned with a vinaigrette that highlighted fish sauce, tart tamarind, and limey calamansi juice, the effect was devastatingly good. 177 Bedford Avenue, between North Seventh and North Eighth streets, Williamsburg