This year’s return to my youthful stomping grounds was one of my most “successful” trips to NYC in years on the food side. There is ever the over-hyped in the NY dining scene and always a couple “misses” each visit, despite my aggressive research and vetting of places. This time around, even when not perfect, each restaurant held a strong point or numerous strengths. I wrote about four top 2016 newcomers here and now talk about six spots that have been around awhile and are well worth a visit or revisit (more of my NY food and drink reviews here).
Rightfully Raved About
UNCLE BOONS, Nolita
I’d been hearing raves about Uncle Boons since it opened in 2013, the tiny NoLita hotspot for non-traditional Thai dishes, beer slushies and quirky, vintage Thailand decor. Long waits and tough-to-snag reservations as well as some mixed reviews from NY friends kept me pushing it to the bottom of my list each visit.
But I finally went and despite the packed, screechingly-loud environment where we had to shout to hear each other a couple feet away, the food was every bit as delightful as I’d heard. Though totally different than Kin Khao in SF, Pok Pok in Portland (adding a NY location years later) or Night + Market in LA, Boons is in that class of “a step above” Thai restaurants that make everything, including curries, from scratch (a rarity), cooking up Thailand flavors and dishes rarely found at American Thai restaurants.
Eat This: Uncle Boons makes an impression with its bold flavors in an already bold cuisine. Most dishes are so dynamic, they stay with you, leaving a fresh wave of heat and heart in your taste memory. Traditional, bite-sized favorites like mieng kum ($12) gratify, while salads are like an explosion of flavor, as with yum mamoung ($14), a green mango salad laced with avocado, crispy dried squid, crushed peanuts, chilies and lime. Charcoal-grilled dishes (like a Thai blood sausage) and crab fried rice please, as does a lush khao soi kaa kai, a Northern-style golden curry ($21), teeming with house egg noodles, chicken leg and pickled mustard greens.
Drink This: Unfortunately, this is the low point. Slushie cocktails taste watered down and lack focus, while cocktails in general dim compared to the vibrancy of the food. Better to stick with beers, like the special “Boon’s Brew” of a spicy Thai ale brewed with Thai bird chilies, lime and coriander by NY’s Barrier Brewing.
Open in 2013, Estela has since garnered a slew of raves, including placing on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list, which the New York Post called out as undeserved (while that is fair, I definitely don’t agree with this writer for the Post about Jean Georges, which to this day is one of the worst meals I’ve had anywhere in the world, especially for the price truly a case of “the emperor has no clothes”). Though I’d never place Estela in my top 50 restaurants in the world, the compact, Mediterranean-influenced, small-plates restaurant from chef-owner Ignacio Mattos (who hails from Uruguay, gaining some of those modern-Mediterranean chops cooking Cal-Med cuisine at legendary Chez Panisse) rides a wave that runs from solid to sometimes stellar.
Eat This: As with the best Cal-Med cuisine, dishes read simple and straightforward but can be far more exciting than they sound, expertly assembled with supreme ingredients. While silky, raw scallops (with thinly sliced green tomatoes and basil) were wasted in a crudo ($22) due to oversalting, and raved-about ricotta dumplings ($25) where lackluster compared to numerous superb versions I’ve had in San Francisco, Estela’s “wow” moments were high points, indeed. Beef tartare ($17), punctuated with sunchoke chips, brings life to a fantastic, if overdone classic, while fried arroz negro ($23) is a perfectly tender-crispy texture, despite merely a couple bites of squid. Crazy enough, the dish that stopped me in my tracks and my table of Manhattan residents was a seemingly simple salad of endive, walnuts, anchovies and Ubriaco Rosso cheese ($17). The salad was a lesson in textures and contrasts, alternately crunchy, earthy, bright, fishy and clean. We couldn’t stop talking about it.
Drink This: Cocktails were a bit disappointing (like the Roadside Cooler, lacking focus in its muddled mix of Manzanilla sherry, lime, watermelon, Benedictine), faring best when kept simple (but boring), as with a Another Negroni Variation ($15), delicately combining mezcal, Cynar, sweet vermouth and thyme. Best to go with wine director and co-owner Thomas Carter’s thoughtful wine and beer selections, like the excellent Off Color Brewing Apex Predator Farmhouse Ale from Illinois (12 oz. $8) or a funky-elegant glass of 2013 Buronfosse Varron Savagnin from Jura, France ($15/56).
OIJI, East Village
Wood and brick-lined, Intimate and warm, Oiji is a refined Korean restaurant in Manhattans East Village. Co-chef/co-owners, Brian Kim and Tae Kyung Ku, do right by the inspired dishes even if some are a bit lackluster. Their famed, salty-sweet honey butter chips ($8 inspired from a Seoul phenomenon) are worth the hype although, for me, laden with a bit too much honey. A few bites in I was on sugar overload, although their recommended combo of the chips with vanilla ice cream for dessert certainly shines when eaten in moderation.
Eat & Drink This: There is plenty to savor, whether mackerel smoked in pine leaves in a citrus soy ($16), beef tartare dotted with ramp aioli ($17) or slow-cooked baby octopus ($24) in a lush, lively butter gochujang. Cocktails are no slouch, especially the tart and thirst-quenching Ladyboy, which I wrote about here at Liquor.com.
INFIRMARY, Yorkville/Upper East Side
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Open at the end of 2013, Infirmary (yes, a St. James Infirmary reference) is blaring with loud, thumping music and crowds on a weekend night, giving the impression that the New Orleans theme is merely a gimmick. But during a quiet lunch hour or early dinner, I dig in to find there are numerous touches of the real Nola here, including ownership hailing from my beloved city, as well as bar manager James Cottingham, who came to NYC from the Big Easy post-Katrina.
Eat This: The food pleases, as with shrimp and grits ($25 yes, these are NY prices) using quality grits and Gulf shrimp, adding modern twists like the Worcestershire butter sauce. Their popular boudin balls ($13) walk that blessed savory-sweet line in smoked pork sausage rice balls contrasted by sweet-hot pepper jelly and Dijon mustard.
Drink This: Cottingham is doing proper Nola cocktails, like an absinthe frappe ($9), combining absinthe, creme de menthe, lemon and Peychauds bitters, as well as playful house drinks like Unfortunate Truth ($13), a blend of rye whiskey, Great King St. blended Scotch, grapefruit liqueur, kummel (caraway dill liqueur), grapefruit and Peychauds bitters.
SUSHI SEKI, Hells Kitchen
Open at the end of 2015 in Hells Kitchen a short walk from the theaters of Broadway the third location of NYs venerable Sushi Seki, named Sushi Seki Bar & Oysters, transports to Japan with its Zen-like, more traditional upstairs lined with individual tatami dining rooms, a sushi bar and an intimate whiskey and saké bar, or downstairs in the more relaxed, modern dining space marked by a long bar.
Eat This: There are seasonal tasting menus alongside a la carte offerings and a new chef on the cooked dishes side who had just started the week I visited in September. In keeping with chef Seki’s history and reputation for good sushi, the sushi was strongest offering. The cooked dish side ran a bit uneven but being the first week, I expect that will solidify with time as there are some promising concepts there, like crab and hotate (scallop) crispy rice ($12) accented by avocado, cilantro and truffle oil, which was dry and oversalted in my visit but is a winning concept/combination.
Drink This: Their cocktails are Japan-like in their subtle delicacy, listed in a charming Playbill menu as a nod to nearby Broadway. More here on the seasonal cocktails in one of my Liquor.com features. Given the refined cocktails and sushi, the bar is in an ideal stop for pre- or post-theater bites.
LEYENDA, Cobble Hill
Since opening in 2015 from bar pioneer Julie Reiner and bartender Ivy Mix, Leyenda has won acclaim for its Mexican and Latin American food and spirits, drawing cocktail geeks for expertly-balanced cocktails showcasing spirits from pisco to sotol (here is one of my top Leyenda drinks at Liquor.com), enjoyed in the candlelit, atmospheric space and back patio.
Eat This: Though the cocktails star, food is no slouch. Langosta tacos ($22) butter-poached lobster with charred corn pico de gallo and poblano salsa on red chile tortillas are too expensive for tacos but succulent nonetheless. A tequila-flamed shrimp white corn arepa ($11) is filling, brightened with chipotle lime shrimp and pineapple salsa, while savory bites and snacks ideal with drinks abound.