New York’s ever-changing dining landscape defies easy or finite categorization. On my most recent visit, I simply waded into the city’s sea of restaurants on an empty stomach. The meals came together, in a haphazard way, as a vignette on dining in New York right this minute — and not a moment longer. Last week I reported on meals at three starry newcomers and an established (and singular) Georgian restaurant. This week I flip the script, weighing in on one of the season’s buzziest newcomers as well as three reliable exemplars that help their respective cuisines stand out within New York’s chaotic hodgepodge.
Ordering cecina, a thin flatbread from coastal Tuscany made of chickpea flour, is one swift way to grasp the summery world of Santina, the latest restaurant from the Major Food Group (Carbone, Dirty French, ZZ’s Clam Bar). Across the Ligurian Sea, along the Côte d’Azur, the people of Nice call the crepe-like snack socca. This is Santina’s inspirational locus: It basks along the sun-soaked banks of the Italian-French shoreline. At once lacy and sturdy, cecina bakes in a pan and makes a supple base for a variety of possible embellishments: tuna tartare sharp with tomatoes, capers, and chiles, say, or gingery shrimp, or cubed avocado tossed with cherry tomatoes, almonds, and pesto. These options sport names like "gamberetti" or "avocado Trapanese." Most of the menu reads with this kind of ambiguity. Woe to the diner whose server hasn’t committed the main ingredients of each dish to memory. Happily, ours had.
Once the staff deciphered the menu, lunch careened along with a breezy lightness. The glassed-in dining room, part of the new Whitney Museum of American Art building underneath the High Line, feels like eating in a Mediterranean terrarium. Vases overflowing with birds of paradise perch atop the bar, crystal flowers sprout from gaudy-exquisite chandeliers, and waiters work the floor in a blur of pastels. Santina exists in perpetual beach weather. And let’s face it: New York, with its cruel winters, drizzly springs, and oppressive summers, could use a climate-controlled oasis.
The food needs to excel to prevent the ambiance from spiraling into campiness, and my recent meal kept up.
Of course the food needs to excel to prevent the ambiance from spiraling into campiness, and my recent meal kept up. Among pastas, the Chitarra Santina most fascinated. Strands of zucchini mimicked the shape of the noodles. Tossed with tomatoes, mussels, garlic, basil, and a judicious trifecta of fats (butter, olive oil, and the gentle funk of lamb merguez), it all came off as a modern, protein-spiked riff on pasta primavera. I dug a spoon into a bowl filled with fried artichokes and found a dreamy layer of braised artichokes, hazelnuts, and grapes underneath. Vegetable crudité, the other must-share starter alongside the cecina, veered more toward rustic than glamorous: Whole turnips and carrots and cucumbers (among other flora) sprouted from a clay urn. It came with three on-point sauces: one with capers and anchovies, a cheese-laden almond pesto, and a smooth, romesco-like puree of grilled peppers brightened with pickled piquillos.
Only the bass Agrigento (named after a Sicilian city) needed calibrating: The fish arrived in a painted oval platter, the picture of a dinner party centerpiece, but among its roasted peppers and artfully strewn herbs the composition needed a jolt of lemon or other acid. Dessert provided citrus wattage in the form of grapefruit Italian ice served in a hollowed half of the bitter-tangy fruit and covered with juicy pink and orange segments, ribbons of candied rind, and mint. Its taste brought to mind warm places far away and capped the escapist fantasy. 820 Washington Street, New York, (212) 254-3000, santinanyc.com
If Santina’s sultry ways with seafood sent my taste buds overseas, then a trip to Parm, also a Major Food Group production, replanted them squarely in Manhattan. Owners Mario Carbone, Rich Torrisi, and Jeff Zalaznick opened a second location of their love letter to Italian-American classics in December on the Upper West Side, with more outposts likely coming soon. But there’s no replicating the sense of place engendered at the original on Mulberry Street in Nolita, where red sauce has simmered on stoves in the neighborhood’s six-story tenements for generations. At a table near the back of the narrow dining room, I shoveled in disarmingly delicate mozzarella sticks alternated with vinegary pickles speckled with dried herbs.
Eat at Parm once and you’ll likely latch onto a dish that becomes a go-to. Perhaps it’s the freshly caught calamari battered in rice flour and tossed with hot peppers, available only when the neon in a painting of a squid is lit. Or the meatball parm sandwich, shaped into a thick puck and served on a round sesame roll. For me, it’s the baked ziti — an obscene brick of pasta, marinara, mozzarella, and parmesan reinforced by a crusty, cascading layer of melted mozz that leaves only enough room for the tubular pasta to peek out at either end. I happily pay the $3 upcharge for meat gravy (grand total: $17), and I eat so much that I don’t save any room for Parm’s famous strawberry, pistachio, and chocolate ice cream cake, regrets and sprinkles be damned. 248 Mulberry St, New York, (212) 993-7189, parmnyc.com
I quizzed a bunch of colleagues: Any suggestions for a tradition-minded Japanese restaurant that trades in exceptional fish and might be available for a last-minute reservation? (The last part of that query fairly ruled out current leading lights like Shuko and Sushi Nakazawa.) Several of them mentioned 15 East, an unassuming haven near Union Square with a sushi bar and sedate adjoining dining room. From the pristine sashimi spread that kicked off the meal — which included unusually creamy shrimp and shimmery, not-too-pungent saba (mackerel) — I could see why.
The quality may quicken the pulse, but this is a place geared to slowing the pace of life for a couple of hours. Servers pamper unobtrusively. The sake list, without overwhelming, runs the breadth of styles and prices and the informed staff offers sure guidance. The menu covers ground without rambling on and on. My friend and I smirked at the name of the seaweed salad ("degustation of sea lettuces") and were glad to find it was an unpretentious presentation of 11 varieties startlingly diverse in texture and color. Shards of ponzu granita contrasted lush shigoku oysters with an icy crackle.
Beyond sushi and sashimi, chef Masato Shimizu’s kitchen produces superb handmade soba. The noodles’ subtle buckwheat flavor stood out earthy and elegant against oceanic gildings of uni, salmon roe, and caviar. I tend to sidestep green tea crème brûlée and likeminded desserts in Japanese restaurants, but I was drawn to a simple sweet here called mineoka, a fluffy pudding made with ground sesame seeds sitting in syrup made from kurosato, Japan’s version of brown sugar. It brought an appropriately gentle end to a quiet, gratifying meal. Remember 15 East as a midday getaway.15 East 15th St, New York, (212) 647-0015, 15eastrestaurant.com
Mansaf is a celebratory dish of Jordanian and Palestinian cooks that rarely shows up on restaurant menus in America. It traditionally features hunks of lamb simmered in dried and salted goat’s milk yogurt, called jameed, that’s been reconstituted in water. The lamb splays across a bed of rice pilaf set over flatbread with sprinklings of almonds and pine nuts. At Tanoreen, a corner restaurant in Brooklyn’s Bay Ridge neighborhood (about a 45-minute subway ride from midtown Manhattan), chef-owner Rawia Bishara uses fresh yogurt, substitutes pita chips for the flatbread, and decorates the plate with a radish shaved into the shape of a flower. This streamlined, gussied-up derivation still expresses the communal spirit of the dish. No one is tackling a mound of creamy, comforting mansaf solo, particularly after the de rigeur spread of meze that should precede it.
In my ongoing fixation with the emergence of Middle Eastern cuisines across the U.S., I've come to value cultural specificity. Much of Tanoreen's food certainly qualifies as specific: Bishara is of Palestinian descent and grew up in the northern Israeli town of Nazareen. She started the restaurant in 1998, expanding to its current bistro-esque space about six years ago. Many of the recipes that Bishara prepares came from her mother. Fried brussels sprouts may be a menu staple, and black bean soup can appear as a special. The dishes of her homeland ring truest. Fattoush, the classic salad, crunches with toasted pita and tingles with herbs. Fried cauliflower, painted with lemon tahini and pomegranate molasses, has just enough bite. Mhammara, a red pepper-walnut dip, hums with spices both sweet and earthy. A collage of these small dishes energizes the palate before a dish like mansaf lulls it into succor. Finishing with a dessert like Bishara’s knafeh, phyllo dough layered with sweet cheese and perfumed with orange blossom water, tips diners into a final contented stupor that lasts all the way home. 7523 3rd Ave, Brooklyn, NY, (718) 748-5600, tanoreen.com