My 10 Best NYC Meals of 2014

Empire State Building from my Ace Hotel room in the morning

Empire State Building from my Ace Hotel room in the morning

Empire State Building from my Ace Hotel room at night

Empire State Building from my Ace Hotel room at night

Working on a video project this Spring for Tastemade, I returned to my old stomping grounds, a city I’ve long and intimately known, to dig in again, this time staying in the Flatiron district.

Waldorf salad prepared tableside at Eleven Madison Park

Waldorf salad prepared tableside at Eleven Madison Park

I kept fueled on coffee at the delightful Happy Bones in Little Italy/Nolita, shakeratos from Zibetto Espresso Bar, and faced perpetual coffee lines at the Stumptown downstairs from my room at the Ace Hotel. Next time I will share cocktail bar discoveries from this visit, but here are my top 10 restaurants/meals in NYC this year (years of additional recommendations here).

1. ELEVEN MADISON PARK, Flatiron

Eleven Madison's Baked Alaska set alight tableside

Eleven Madison’s Baked Alaska set alight tableside

One of the great fine dining restaurants anywhere in the world, this 3-Michelin star restaurant is as spectacular as the best restaurant visits of my life, like Osteria Francescana in Modena, Italy. I’d also easily call it my favorite NYC splurge (second place would be the modern classic Gramercy Tavern). Here is my full review and photos from this year’s visit.

2. RUBIROSA, Little Italy

Rubirosa pizza

Rubirosa pizza

At his cozy, low ceiling Little Italy haven, Rubirosa, Angelo (A.J.) Pappalardo serves recipes inspired from his father Giuseppe’s Staten Island restaurant, Joe & Pat’s, since 1960. A.J. opened Rubirosa with his father and chef friend Al Di Meglio. His paper-thin, almost cracker-like pizzas are dreamy, laden with cheese and meat, among my favorite pizza in Manhattan (slices available at lunch only). The family-friendly, rustic space begs for an amaro cocktail and hearty bowl of fantastic “Sunday sauce”, a changing weekly option of pasta and red sauce. Recently I had the choice of spaghetti or rigatoni ($21) in a downright fantastic red sauce, savory from multiple meats: braciole, meatball, braised rib and sausage, topped with grated Parmigiano-Reggiano.

3. ZZ’s CLAM BAR, Greenwich Village

Romantic & intimate: ZZ Clam Bar

Romantic & intimate: ZZ Clam Bar

ZZ’s Clam Bar, a 12-seat, reservations-only seafood and cocktail bar is an intimate oasis in The Village that sings of island breezes and upscale Tiki culture circa 1940s with its romantic setting, soundtrack of lounge, exotica and other musical treats. Sounds like my dream spot, right? In many ways it is. Opened Summer 2013 by Rich Torrisi and Mario Carbone of neighboring Carbone, it is, like that red sauce Italian haven, vastly overpriced. It can easily cost a few hundred dollars here for dinner and cocktails, the latter of which are $20 each.

The sole bartender didn’t seem interested in engaging or explaining the cocktails we tried, despite the fact that we have many friends in common as he came from SF and The Alembic (where he used to work and where I bartended for a few months – I did not present any of this information but should not have had to to receive quality service). Even a bit of genuine engagement would have made the difference between a mediocre and a fantastic experience commensurate with the fine dining price tag and merely 12 diners in the place for hours. Thankfully, service was warm from our waiter, which should be imperative from all staff.

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Shimaji tartare

It’s hard to say $300+ is worth it for a non-fine dining experience where portions are tiny, although in making reservations, one could request a couple seats against the wall and go just for drinks and a bite or two.

At the same time, ZZ’s is such a one-of-a-kind spot that imparts romance in its size and decor, worth experiencing if you can afford it and desire something different, as those of us do who dine and drink at hundreds of places each year around the world. While we’ve seen seafood crudo and raw fish menus before, ZZ’s interpretation is imaginative and the cocktails maintain tropical flair, each visually striking in gorgeous vintage glassware.

Cherry trout, trout roe, fried leeks crudo ($27)

Cherry trout, trout roe & fried leeks crudo ($27)

Menu highlights included uni toast on pretzel bread ($30) vivaciously accented by apple, mustard, horseradish, and also seared live scallops ($18), silky in brown butter and nutty with Sicilian pistachios. We splurged (big time) on rare shimaji tartare ($98), a square of lovely raw fish, with thick layers of ricotta and caviar. I tasted six cocktails, intrigued by combinations like Plymouth gin, creamy with pistachio and honey, tart with kumquat, or a Reposado Tequila-based concoction mixed with squash, thyme and allspice. I crave this type of creative, culinary experimentation in cocktails. While some worked better than others, I still appreciate drinks with a vision beyond the usual.

4. CAFE KATJA, LES

Cafe Katja's Emmentaler sausage

Cafe Katja’s Emmentaler sausage

Café Katja transports me straight back to Austria, owned by Austrian native Erwin Schrottner and business partner Andrew Chase. Though bustling with a Lower East Side vibe, it’s refreshingly comfortable for Manhattan, with a warmer welcome than at the majority of Manhattan restaurants, enhanced by plenty of woods and a candlelit glow. Most importantly, it’s a source for actual Austrian schnaps, expensive though a pour may be. While I have been bemoaning the lack of importation of real schnaps into the US compared to the amazing producers I tasted in Austria last fall, Katja pours a few of the greats, like Reisetbauer and Golles, albeit at high prices, $25 or more a pour. But there’s nothing better with a mountain of marinated herring ($11) and cucumber potato salad, or plump house sausages like an Emmentaler sausage ($14) – yes, filled with Emmentaler cheese, served with savoy cabbage and quark dumplings. Lovely food, drink and setting make this an ideal neighborhood restaurant.

5. THE SHAKESPEARE, Midtown East

The Shakespeare's burger

The Shakespeare’s burger

The Shakespeare just opened in December 2013 as a multi-room, wood-walled restaurant that evokes the classic pubs of England, Scotland and Ireland, serving all manner of cask ales and English drafts, from Jason Hicks and Yves Jadot who also run Jones Wood Foundry. The best part is that the food is top-notch gastropub fare, thanks to British chef Robert Aikens (from none other than London’s Le Gavroche). Despite the exhaustion of the gastropub category the last couple decades, this is one of the better ones in NY, serving flaky, beer-battered cod fish and chips ($23), and an excellent burger ($19) with a patty of aged NY strip and skirt steak, short rib and chuck, slathered in cheddar, smoked bacon and Brooklyn brine pickles.

6. DESPANA, SoHo

Afternoon tapas at Despana

Afternoon tapas at Despana

One of the great Spanish grocers (a Queens-based importer), Despana is not only killer source for all foods Spain, from cheeses and meets, to cockles and chocolates, it’s a winning tapas stop with changing Spanish wines by the glass and a few communal tables from which to enjoy a quick bite of fresh boquerones (anchovies) or octopus drizzled in silky olive oil.

7. LOUIE & CHAN, LES

Louie & Chan's Peking duck calzone

Louie & Chan’s Peking duck calzone

I almost jumped for joy when I heard about the opening of Louie & Chan in late 2013, a China-meets-Italy (due to its perch near both Chinatown and Little Italy) with an upstairs Neapolitan trattoria and a candlelit, downstairs Asian cocktail lounge. It’s the kind of mash-up I’d like to see more often, despite the heavy DJ and dance action in the downstairs bar (with thankfully good cocktails, like the Chinatown Daiquiri, a blend of Appleton’s Reserve rum, lime, ginger and honey syrups, Sriracha sauce and muddled strawberries). But the place still feels like its finding itself. A Louie & Chan calzone ($16) is a brilliant idea: a giant calzone stuffed with buffalo ricotta, mozzarella, tomato sauce, shiitake, bok choy – and, yes, Peking duck. It lacks cohesive unctuousness and the mushrooms are bland but the concept of an Asian-Italian calzone begs to be further explored.

Aperitifs and bites

Aperitifs and bites

The other very smart concept here is the Aperitivo menu, a pairing of aperitif cocktails with a bite, like a Negroni Blanco ($13 for drink and bite) with choice of bites like polpettine al limone (lamb/beef fried meatball in lemon, Parmigiano, herbs) or montanarina (fried dough, pomodoro sauce, mozzarella, Parmigiano). I’d love to see more of this kind of creative clash of cuisines happening everywhere.

8. MAHARLIKA, East Village

Maharlika's Filipino fried chicken and purple ube waffles

Maharlika’s Filipino fried chicken and purple ube waffles

This funky little Filipino spot, Maharlika, breathes life and even hip factor into the cuisine, honoring the authentic and playful (bottles of Jufran banana sauce – a Filipino banana ketchup – and black and white photo artwork of Filipina Miss Universe 1973). Nicole Ponseca, Enzo Lim and Noel Cruz’ intimate restaurant shines at brunch/lunch with traditional dishes like sisig (pig ears, snout, belly) and pancit bihon (rice vermicelli noodles). But it’s the funky, unusual entrees that make it a draw. Case in point: excellent, batterless fried chicken and purple yam waffles ($17). Filipino chicken and waffles are fun enough, but ratchet it up another level by dousing them in anchovy-bagoong (fermented fish/shrimp) butter and caramelized macapuno (a variety of coconut) syrup.

9. SKAL, LES

Skal's salt cod croquettes

Skal’s salt cod croquettes

I’m ever on the hunt for great Scandinavian food in the US. Skal (open since Summer 2013) is one of the better in the category I’ve been to in NY, although over the years, I’ve not found a Nordic menu I like near as well as Aquavit in its older days. Skal is a nod to Iceland (the name means “cheers” in Icelandic) serving the likes of pickled smelts on antique china in a cozy-chic space. The dishes don’t always wow and neither do the cocktails, yet both are consistently gratifying. Recent highlights: salt cod croquettes ($7) with horseradish remoulade, charred broccoli ($11) doused in green garlic and breadcrumbs, sugar snap peas ($12) artfully accented by crushed radishes, whey and Mangalista lardo, and smoked mackerel ($19) contrasted by sour onions, walnuts and shaved, frozen foie gras.

10. THE LIBRARY at the PUBLIC THEATER, NoHo

Inviting: The Library at The Public

Inviting: The Library at The Public

Upstairs above the Public Theater is The Library, a spacious, soothing restaurant lined with vintage theater posters. The place is refreshingly mellow, classy and half empty — until the theater lets out and all the actors and theater crew head upstairs, applauding each other over drinks and bites. While the food didn’t exactly impress, it is still good, and after a particularly hard day, I couldn’t imagine a more soothing setting in these parts of NY – with gracious service to boot. Andrew Carmellini (James Beard Award-winner behind Locanda Verde) and chef Michael Oliver (also of Locanda) keep it simple but comforting in dishes like smoked cauliflower cassoulet ($24) and crispy calamari and shishito peppers ($14) dipped in chipotle sauce, accompanied by decent cocktails.