Good luck to anyone attempting to articulate a fixed, coherent identity for New York and its restaurants. The ways in which the city satisfies our hungers are forever changing. Nothing is sacred except the idea of the metropolis itself as a living organism — an organism clamoring for variety in its diet. For food-focused visitors, and probably some denizens, plotting where to eat is like trying to trap a chameleon. It shifts color and texture before you can really wrap your hands around it. Sometimes I go overboard analyzing trends (oh, Continental is suddenly the thing again?), collecting advice from colleagues, and agonizing over choices.
On my most recent visit, I simply waded in on an empty stomach. The meals came together, in a willy-nilly way, as a vignette on dining in New York right this minute — and not a moment longer. I consumed enough to merit dividing the report in two: The first dispatch zeroes in on experiences at three new luminaries and a Lower East Side surprise that might have been my favorite meal of the week.
The block of duck meat cooked carnitas-style arrived with skin that appeared crackly but then registered flabby against the teeth. It was the finale in a series of dishes that presented stunningly but ended up flatlining. By that point our group of three was bandying theories about the exact state of Cosme, the first New York restaurant of Mexican virtuoso chef Enrique Olvera, at its five-month mark. It could have been a mere off night, but it may also have been the post-review slump — a temporary blip in standards I’ve noticed now and then at a near-universally lauded new restaurant after an exhausted crew has won the stomachs and minds of marquee critics. Whatever the case, the dinner confounded.
It wasn’t the subtlety of the food: I recognize that finesse is as innate as the use of corn in true-minded Mexican cooking. But execution misfires abounded. Lobster sculpted over a puddle of black bean puree and crumbled chorizo was under-seasoned; its flavor receded against the earthier ingredients. Likewise the potato mixture in a tamal was overwhelmed by a gorgeous cloud of ricotta and ayocote beans. The hazelnut mole underneath a curvaceous octopus tendril needed a pinch more salt to illuminate its depths. Among the savories, only the enfrijolada dazzled, highlighting the kitchen’s sweetly fragrant tortillas drenched in bean sauce with a supple blanket of hoja santa (a wide-leafed herb with a licorice nip), dabs of ricotta, and crème fraiche. And the much-Instagrammed corn husk meringue dessert — staged to resemble an egg cracking open and spilling its yolk, the canary-yellow center here being corn mousse — hinted at the greatness in both conception and precision that the meal otherwise largely lacked. A bottle of Austrian red wine that our dispassionate server recommended didn’t jibe with the food or enhance the evening; sipping tequila did that job much more effectively. 35 East 21st Street, New York, (212) 913-9659, cosmenyc.com
Mission Chinese Food
"Can we get a larger table? I promise we’ll order enough food to make it worth it." I pled this request after the hostess tried to seat our trio around a piece of furniture roughly the size of a hotel night stand. She acquiesced by shuffling us to a banquette. I understood her original impulse, though: Everyone wants in on the second coming of Danny Bowien’s Asian-American funhouse in the Two Bridges neighborhood near Chinatown. (The new location on East Broadway even has a trippy installation of explosive crinkled mylar reflecting revolving lights in the back of its main dining room. It brings to mind a ransacked Christmas ornaments store.) I dug the all-in, we-do-what-we-want spice thwacking at Bowien’s first New York location, and at the original in San Francisco, but I even more admire the shrewd calibration that executive chef Angela Dimayuga brings to Bowien’s vision.
Under their command, the slam and clang of so many flavors grips the senses without discombobulating. Our table filled with dishes like kung pao pastrami (a Bowien classic), fried chicken with an umami blast of koji (fermented rice) and bitter lemon sauce on the side, green papaya and banana blossom salad punctuated by pickled tea leaves, a wholly unnecessary but entertaining pizza covered with buttons of pepperoni. My only complaint: When we asked the server to slow the pummeling pace of dishes arriving at once, she smiled broadly, shrugged, and said, "The kitchen paces the meal as it sees fit." So when it took us several minutes to work our way through the pile-up and reach a bowl of matcha green tea noodles, the strands were by that time glued together. Does hospitality need to be sacrificed for the sake of the kitchen’s unplugged groove? 171 East Broadway, New York, mcfny.com
Few New York addresses have rolled with the decades, under the leadership of one canny restaurateur, like 239 West Broadway in Tribeca. When I worked in Manhattan restaurants in the mid-nineties, I read Ruth Reichl’s review of Montrachet, run by the ebullient Drew Nieporent, and scraped together my server tips for a splurge. I remember the food’s understated elegance — salmon with truffle crust, Champagne grapes dappled over Champagne sabayon — and the taste of a premier cru Chablis that gave me a lifelong thirst for white Burgundy. I returned as a critic 14 years later to write about the place after it became Corton, when Nieporent united with vanguard chef Paul Liebrandt (I recall dishes like foie gras in beet-hibiscus gelée) and the subdued space became a white-on-white affair with bas-relief images of budding branches winding over the dining room’s walls.
Nieporent and Liebrandt parted ways in 2013, and now the space houses Batard, a partnership with Nieporent, front-of-house maestro John Winterman, and chef Markus Glocker, a native of Austria. The avant-garde edge gave way to grownup comfort: more buttery colors (though with the wall’s leafy print still visible) and a flexible menu of two courses ($55), three courses ($65), or four ($75). I ordered a quartet I’d happily revisit weekly, starting with an appetizer of crisp sweetbreads cubes over thin cucumbers, lemon curd, and smashed green chickpeas. Glocker ingeniously tossed in a few fried garbanzos among the fresh ones to snap the eyes and palate to attention. Nubbly schnitzel is the batter forming more of a halo than a crust around the pounded pork, and its side of potato salad did Glocker’s heritage proud. Winterman dotes on the cheese selection. He’s been playing with presentations, lately arranging three different ripe wedges on individual ceramic plates and setting them in a lacquered bento box. Striking. For dessert: milk bread with a shattering exterior, like crème brûlée in cake form. It was served in winter with blueberries and brown butter ice cream, the same garnishes as was when the restaurant opened last summer, but the set-up didn’t come off as a seasonal snafu. Some treats lend themselves to year-round availability. 239 W Broadway, New York, (212) 219-2777, batardtribeca.com/batard.php
In January I wrote a piece on national trends that included a wish for the cuisines of the post-Soviet states, particularly Georgian cooking, to appear in more dining rooms across the country. A couple of readers wrote to recommend Oda House at the edge of Alphabet City. Three friends and I boldly traipsed into the mobbed restaurant on a Saturday night sans reservation. "We’re booked," a staffer told us, gently shaking her head. I nodded at the small bar with four recently vacated seats and asked, "Mind if we sit there?" The woman grinned her consent and ushered us into the fray.
The foods of the Republic of Georgia, bordering the northeastern edge of Turkey on a jut of land bordered by the Black and Caspian seas, embody the country’s position along the ancient spice routes. Herbaceous stews, sultry salads, and kebabs skew much more Middle Eastern than the heavier viands typically associated with Soviet sustenance. Not that this food can’t be rich. The centerpieces of nearly every table at Oda House were the breads known as khachapuri, the most popular of which is a caloric joyride called adjaruli. A golden barge with tapered ends held a blend of mozzarella and feta cheeses in its center, festooned with a raw egg and a blunt stick of butter as it left the kitchen. We stirred the ingredients into a molten blob and then lost our minds for a little while, clawing and swiping and swaying with pleasure until nothing remained but saturated crumbs.
Blue fenugreek seeds lent an elusive, compelling muskiness to lobio, a pot full of long-simmered pinto beans. Tarragon and mint lit up lamb in white wine. We ordered too many pickles (some showed up on entree plates) and ignored some flaccid dumplings. Conversation kept returning to the hypnotic khachapuri. I have a feeling this bombshell will be ubiquitous across the land by 2020. 76 Avenue B, New York, (212) 353-3838, odahouse.com