I cheered for Greg Baxtrom, a product of several famous tasting-menu kitchens, when he brought a similar level of creativity to Olmsted, an affordable neighborhood spot in Brooklyn. And I smiled every time I spotted a bottle of wine for under $55 at Le Coucou, a reformed and refined homage to the fancy old-school French restaurants that have mostly vanished from New York.
Month after month, I was surprised by the good, resourceful kitchens I found squirreled away in spaces that barely qualified as restaurants: wine bars and bar bars and a nostalgic lunch counter called Mr. Donahue’s, where $20 buys a full dinner of American food my grandmother would have recognized.
The cost of running a restaurant is notoriously punishing. Often the pain is passed on to us, but sometimes it inspires chefs to think a little harder. This year, those are the restaurants I want to tell you about. They are presented here roughly in the order of the intensity of my desire to go back again, which diverges here and there from the number of stars that flew above their reviews.
1. Le Coucou
The genius of this project from the chef Daniel Rose and the restaurateur Stephen Starr is that it gives us almost everything we loved about New York’s old-line French restaurants without the things we didn’t. The dining room isn’t stuffy, the service isn’t snooty, and people don’t get seated in Siberia if their pronunciation of boeuf bourguignon doesn’t have the right backhand spin. (As far as I can tell, Le Coucou doesn’t have a Siberia.) The wine list covers the historic old appellations of France, but it also embraces emerging ones and exciting regions from other countries while pricing bottles in a range that’s unusually democratic. Meanwhile, Mr. Rose knocks the dust off some archetypal premodern French dishes. Sole Véronique gets its peeled grapes and its butter-girded sauce along with a sense of conviction that’s can’t be faked. The fleecy quenelles of pike, half-submerged in a lava flow of sauce Américaine, have a finer flavor than the ones at La Grenouille, which some people still think of as the city’s standard-bearer. Mr. Rose isn’t simply hauling out museum pieces, though. He’s making them fresh again, and relevant. ★★★; 138 Lafayette Street; SoHo 212-271-4252; lecoucou.com.
Look around the concrete-floor dining room, glance at the one-page menu, and you could be at any number of casual Italian restaurants. Start eating, though, and you realize Lilia has something else going on. That something is Missy Robbins, the chef and owner. She’s a sleight-of-hand cook. You don’t see her tricks coming, but you taste them and wonder how she did it. Like Jonathan Waxman at Barbuto, she relaxes the tight grip of Italian cuisine without changing it in ways that are cheap or tortured. It would be easy enough for her to tidy up her seafood appetizers, her main courses of fish and meat grilled on an open fire, and her pastas, which I can never eat without smiling, and serve them in a dressier dining room. It would be hard, though, to make them taste better. ★★★; 567 Union Avenue, Williamsburg, Brooklyn; 718-576-3095; lilianewyork.com.
3. Mr. Donahue’s
This tiny retro lunch counter has the attentiveness to atmosphere of a period movie. The lighting has a diffuse, analog softness. The music sounds like a Jonathan Schwartz radio broadcast with the soliloquies about Sinatra edited out. The most remarkable bid for nostalgia is the food proffer: an old-fashioned main course like roast beef or a nearly filler-free meatloaf of dry-aged beef, with a good sauce and a choice of two carefully considered sides for $19.99. The counter stools and handful of table seats aren’t as hard to come by as you’d expect, possibly because Mr. Donahue’s isn’t particularly celebratory. It has a contemplative, almost wistful mood. If that happens to be your mood, too, I can’t think of a more congenial place to eat well downtown. ★★; 203 Mott Street, NoLIta; 646-850-9480; mrdonahues.com.
4. Le Coq Rico
The Alsatian chef Antoine Westermann has built a poultry-focused bistro that’s more compelling and carnally satisfying than any modern steakhouse. His star dish is rotisserie chicken, and his secret is buying old breeds raised by farmers who let them feed and mature longer than usual. The meat has a depth of flavor you rarely encounter. Other birds, like duck and squab, play minor but memorable roles on the menu. The dedication to poultry continues with eggs and livers; the foie gras is very fine, as you’d expect, but a more telling sign of how much care goes into the ingredients is the plate of gorgeous, creamy chicken livers. The prices can make your eyes pop, but so can the portions. And while Mr. Westermann spends half his time in France, he hasn’t hit autopilot on Le Coq Rico. He was in the house one recent night, and new breeds of chicken have strutted onto the menu since my review. ★★; 30 East 20th Street, Flatiron district; 212-267-7426; lecoqriconyc.com.
The ambitious Nordic invasion of Grand Central Terminal by the Danish entrepreneur Claus Meyer has many facets, including a food hall and a Danish hot dog stall, but Agern is the one that has food worth missing a train for. The chef of this comfortably formal restaurant is Gunnar Gislason, importing the philosophy of cooking with underappreciated ingredients from nearby that he follows at Dill in Reykjavik, Iceland. The beet baked in ashes and salt that is carved at tableside, like a steamship round, may not be as exciting as its ceremony, but like much of the cooking, its flavors are honest and appealing. You can order à la carte or amble through the “field and forest” tasting menu ($140) or a nonvegetarian excursion ($165). Both prices include service and a round and tangy loaf of house-made sourdough with a memorably crackling crust. ★★★; Grand Central Terminal, 89 East 42nd Street, Midtown East; 646-568-4018; agernrestaurant.com.
“Oh, not a New Nordic tasting menu,” I hear you say. “We had a New Nordic tasting menu last night!” Well, this one has reindeer lichen and the cinders of burned lambs’ hearts — you didn’t have that last night, did you? It also has a chef, Fredrik Berselius, who has become very adept at broadening and intensifying the flavors of his ingredients. Some of these are imported, like wild wood pigeon from Scotland. Others are grown or foraged nearby. Mr. Berselius is not dogmatic. He does have his share of strange ideas, but even the odd stuff pays off when you eat it. Upstairs in the selectively lighted dining room, the Unabridged Berselius is a 19-course tasting menu for $215, and the abridged, 10-course version is $145. (All prices include service.) Down in the basement is a casual lounge with small plates, none costing more than $16, although you won’t find any blackened hearts down there. ★★★; 47 South Fifth Street, Williamsburg, Brooklyn; 929-337-6792; askanyc.com.
7. Hao Noodle and Tea by Madame Zhu’s Kitchen
Forget about the name. Tea is never mentioned by the servers (though it should be, because it’s good), and noodles may not always be the best thing on the table. It doesn’t matter. There is skillful, contemporary Chinese food all over the menu, and color photographs to let you now what you’re in for. Most of the dishes are drawn from either Beijing, Shanghai or Chongqing. Peppers are not quite everywhere, but they are strongly represented in many dishes. So many fresh green chiles lurk in Madam Zhu’s Spicy Fish Stew that eating it is a contact sport. There is some shading to the cooking, too. I counted three distinct frying styles, and clearly need to return to finish the survey. ★★; 401 Avenue of the Americas, West Village; 212-633-8900; madamzhu.com.
8. Günter Seeger NY
Two of my meals were stunningly good and pure. A third had a few too many ordinary moments, which kept me from writing a full-blown rave for a restaurant where the only option at the time was a 10-course dinner for $148. Since then, a four-course, $98 menu has been added. If you can swallow either price, then I say: Go. Mr. Seeger, who earned national praise when he was in Atlanta, has a formidable command of classical European techniques, but he keeps his skills in the service of simplicity. Changing the menu every day, he almost seems to undress his ingredients, revealing the beauty of what’s under the surface. It’s high-risk cooking, and watching him pull it off can be thrilling. ★★; 641 Hudson Street, West Village; 646-657-0045; gunterseegerny.com.
One problem with the rise of expensive tasting menus is that a lot of culinary intelligence and imagination is locked up inside restaurants that are hard for most people to afford more than once a year, if that. Olmsted’s chef, Greg Baxtrom, worked at some of those places, but he makes his own smart, inventive food inside a Brooklyn spot where I could imagine eating once a week. The carrot crepe with littleneck clams, an immediate Instagram star, is both a novelty and a fine way to start dinner. Prices are kept in line in part through affordable ingredients like guinea hen, roasted and confitted in a memorable main course. There’s an inviting garden where you can have drinks and elevated bar snacks while inspecting the backyard agriculture. Homegrown kale greens up Olmsted’s take on crab Rangoon, while eggs are supplied, one at a time, by a resident pair of quail. As of Sunday, they’ve weathered their first winter snow. ★★; 659 Vanderbilt Avenue, Prospect Heights 718-552-2610; olmstednyc.com.
10. Llama Inn
As far as I’m concerned, there ought to be two Peruvian restaurants in every New York neighborhood. One would serve rotisserie chicken, and the other would present more adventurous pieces of that country’s kaleidoscopic cuisine, as Erik Ramirez does at Llama Inn. Mr. Ramirez makes an excellent ceviche and a tiradito whose marinade looks on the plate like lightly reduced Tang and tastes spicy, fruity and quietly thrilling. He also makes the only quinoa salad I’ve ever looked at without feeling pity, either for the salad or for myself. ★★; 50 Withers Street, Williamsburg, Brooklyn; 718-387-3434; llamainnnyc.com.
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