We all look for meaning in life. As Eater’s national critic, I spend most of my life on the road; I seek out meaning in restaurants. I’m not just talking about why comfort food remains in fashion or how alligator pepper may be the next turmeric. I’m thinking about how restaurants reflect shifting cultural values — and about how their own creative achievements stoke diners’ imaginations and ambitions.
Cooking is always an autobiographical act to some degree. I’d argue that now, the dishes emerging from the country’s most exciting professional kitchens narrate personal stories like never before. There was something — I’ll call it an acute intentionality — that I could sense and taste in my most gripping recent meals. Chefs seem more willing to risk expressing their honest selves on the plate — that, or they can’t be bothered any longer with the limitations of public assumptions and definitions around the food they cook. They trust that we’ll eat what they prepare and know who they are; they take pride in where they come from; and they frame dining within the context of their communities.
With hundreds and hundreds of meals under my belt over the last year, it felt momentous when a meal distinguished itself as uniquely special, in moments where undeniable skill articulated the emotions and the ideas behind the food: when the details culminated into an intoxicating broth, or a singed slab of beef smeared with garlicky chile paste, or a banana blossom salad trumpeting 10 kinds of crispness.
I relished soba in Seattle made from locally grown buckwheat, and a whirl of Lebanese spreads and fire-kissed lamb shoulder in our country’s capital, and transcendent carnitas in San Antonio. A chef freshly transplanted from Utah is working quiet wonders out of Maine’s bounty; one of our biggest culinary celebrities is tackling a fresh, rhapsodic read on Southern California’s multiculturalism.
These chefs and restaurateurs stand out by gamely revealing themselves — by showing heart in their hospitality, remarkable ingenuity, and individuality on their menus. They are, each of them, leading lights and future influencers. (For the record: Each opened between May 2017 and May 2018.) Dining at their tables shows us why we’re eating what we’re eating, how we’re interacting with one another, and who we are right this moment. In this fractious time in our history, their ability to find meaning in their work helps me trust in a hopeful future.
Eater’s Best New Restaurants 2018
Bavel, Los Angeles | Bywater American Bistro, New Orleans | Canard, Portland | Carnitas Lonja, San Antonio | Cote, New York | Dialogue, Los Angeles | Elda, Biddeford, ME | Frenchette, New York | Kamonegi, Seattle | Hai Hai, Minneapolis | Hello, Sailor, Cornelius, NC | Majordomo, Los Angeles | Nyum Bai, Oakland, CA | Maydan, Washington DC | Suerte, Austin | Theodore Rex, Houston | True Laurel, San Francisco | Pacific Standard Time, Chicago |
Ori Menashe and Genevieve Gergis turned the high beams on Los Angeles’s Arts District with Bestia, an eternal flame of an Italian restaurant that opened in 2012 and still never sees a slow night. For years, they’ve been planning a second place to present both the foods of their heritage (Menashe grew up in Israel, with Turkish and Moroccan ancestry, and Gergis’s family has Egyptian origins) and the roots they’ve put down in Southern California. In Bavel they realize their goal. Nubbly duck ’nduja gilds some of the smoothest, most purely earthen hummus in America. Chermoula, preserved orange, smoked anchovy, and herbs wrap grilled dorade in a pleasing surround-sound of flavors. The flatbreads, the roasted lamb neck, the walnut and apricot variation on baklava from Gergis (who is a pastry chef): all sensational. The airy space is totally LA, featuring a suspended garden where vines tumble down from the ceiling. Israel’s melting-pot cuisine has proliferated in Southern California — and across the country — since the couple started planning the restaurant half a decade ago. But Bavel, instantly one of the finest in the genre, has arrived right on time. 500 Mateo Street, Los Angeles, CA, (213) 232-4966, baveldtla.com
Bywater American Bistro
Nina Compton, a St. Lucia native, won the James Beard Foundation’s Best Chef: South award this year for Compère Lapin, whose menu illuminates the Caribbean inlays built into New Orleans’s mosaic of cuisines. With her second restaurant, named after the gentrifying neighborhood in which it resides, Compton and chef-business partner Levi Raines (Compton’s sous chef at Compère Lapin) widen their lens. Several dishes still exalt in Caribbean flavors — a lush distillation of tomato, coconut milk, and spices ignites her rabbit curry — but the kitchen also embarks on a survey of the cultures that comprise this singular city. Hogs’ head boudin honors the rural Cajun influences that have prominently joined the urbane Creole traditions in the last decade. Fried gulf oyster over oyster rice and gravy sings a straight-up Southern hymn. Spaghetti pomodoro is the surprise hit: a nod to the city’s Sicilian immigrants, yes, but also a dish that’s usually a safety-net choice for an Italian restaurant’s most finicky customers. Not here. This pomodoro’s ruddy, buttery, acidic-sweet tangles have me wondering if Compton has the lock on the next pasta trend. Bye, cacio e pepe. 2900 Chartres Street, New Orleans, LA, (504) 605-3827, bywateramericanbistro.com
The look of Gabriel Rucker’s latest PDX project feels very bistro-du-jour: a curving bar where rows of wine glasses dangle in tight rows like chimes, gilded mirrors, the walls a chic shade of butterscotch. The food may careen into French territory here and there, but this is really exuberant, zigzagging American cooking. Just have it: oeufs en mayonnaise, scented with smoked maple, bacon, and roasted garlic and beaded with trout roe; sliders dubbed “steam burgers,” the beef patty revved with French onion soup; and the already-famous duck stack, a mound of pancakes pummeled with duck gravy, Tabasco onions, a runny duck egg, and, to add excess to overindulgence, optional seared foie gras on top. This all tastes way more of restrained balance than seems possible. Downing a last few drops of Champagne, I bounced out the door humming with a single thought: That was fun. 734 E. Burnside Street, Portland, OR, (971) 279-2356, canardpdx.com
Marveling over a feast at Alex Paredes’s counter-service restaurant on the South Side of San Antonio brought to mind Japan’s concept of shokunin, or absorption and virtuosity in one’s profession. Paredes is master of carnitas. He slow-cooks them for hours until the ropy, near-greaseless hunks of pork reveal a gamut of textures in every bite: crisp, supple, lacy, chewy. His staff fashions corn tortillas by hand with exactly the right heft to handle the carnitas, which are the breadth of the Lonja experience. Order sides of guacamole and chorizo (for yet more texture) alongside the complimentary red and green salsas. Grab a seat along the small counter or, like most customers, head outside to a shaded picnic table. In its devotion to one specialty rendered spectacularly well, Carnitas Lonja is complete, and it is wonderful. 1107 Roosevelt Avenue, San Antonio, TX, (210) 612-3626
The American steakhouse, as a class of restaurant, is always morphing to stay relevant — sometimes fresh models may resemble a nightclub or brasserie, or a chef will butcher steaks in-house to steer customers toward lesser-known but equally righteous cuts. In Cote, the chophouse evolves with a quantum nudge from owner Simon Kim, who grafts its fundamental qualities with the tabletop-grill format of Korean barbecue restaurants. Be sure to wander downstairs to the literal red-light district of prime steaks hung in dry-aging lockers, bathed in crimson designer lighting. Compare a range of steaks and different aging times via one of two prix fixe options: the “butcher’s feast” of four cuts for $48, or the $125-per-person, 10-course “omakase.” Both end with galbi, traditional Korean marinated short ribs, and both cleverly lighten and balance typical steakhouse gluttony by including banchan (an array of vegetable-based sides), lettuce wraps with condiments, and, to sidestep classic gut-bomb desserts, a final paper cup filled with vanilla soft serve drizzled with soy caramel. 16 West 22nd Street, New York, NY, (212) 401-7986, cotenyc.com
Dave Beran, for years a star player in Chicago’s modernist Alinea Group, makes his brilliant solo debut in the most surreal location: a near-windowless, 18-seat space in a remote corner of a touristy Santa Monica mall. In this tiny theater, via ticketed reservations, a master storyteller is spinning an original narrative — and finding his audience in the American restaurant world’s most creatively energized corner. Beran uses an aspect of Japan’s kaiseki tradition as a framework for his menus, which always cycle through three seasons, with an emphasis on the present one: for example, a glance back at spring, a deep meditation on summer, and a sneak preview of fall. Really, though, Beran cooks to the seasons of his own mind. This is heady, conceptual stuff — dishes are given titles like “hamachi in monochrome, sweet peas in pastel” — and the cooking, true to the restaurant’s name, engages in discourse with art, music, history, popular trends, and cuisines from around the world. Beran keeps up his end of the conversation by never veering too far afield. His food is even more a pleasure to eat than it is to mull over. 1315 Third Street Promenade, Santa Monica, CA, dialoguerestaurant.com
Biddeford is a quiet, coastal Maine town that’s on the cusp of giving Portland, its neighbor 20 miles north, some serious competition as a darling of East Coast food obsessives. Biddeford has one of the country’s most lovable diners, one of the nation’s great food-focused bookstores, and now it has Elda. Chef-owner Bowman Brown uprooted himself from his award-winning restaurant, Salt Lake City’s Forage, to return to New England, where he began his career. His approach is a paradigm of current modern American cooking: a short menu revealing Brown’s restless creativity; an exquisite sense of place with seafood and vegetables; and a style that doesn’t land on any one cuisine but shows off all kinds of imagination and chops. He might lightly dehydrate tomatoes by an open fire so they absorb a whiff of smoke, and set them on a crackery tart shell over herbed yogurt. Sashimi-grade Maine bluefin tuna might be surrounded with Japanese flavors, set in dashi broth with pickled wakame and lithe stems of sea rocket (a coastal green in the mustard family). Brown’s tour of flavors may defy easy pinpointing, but it’s worth a journey to experience it. 140 Main Street, Biddeford, ME, (207) 494-8365, eldamaine.com
At this history-repeats-itself moment, when French restaurants have come roaring back into vogue, chef-owners Riad Nasr and Lee Hanson differentiate their Tribeca hit in strategic ways. Nasr and Hanson have spent their careers interpreting Gallic cooking; their resumes include Balthazar and Daniel. Here, the menu actually meanders in and out of the French lexicon. Soupe de poisson, Provencal-style lamb stew, and cote de bouef hobnob alongside Spanish tortilla with trout roe (a must-try) and spaghetti with bottarga. The crux, though, is that Nasr and Hanson excel at cooking that lulls you into a bistro state of mind — at once animated and at ease. Also? The front-of-house staff is downright enchanting. While power summits transpire in the dim rear dining room, where prime-time reservations are all but impossible to secure, most of us gather in the sunny, swank front bar hoping for an unreserved seat. Hosts and servers make everyone feel genuinely welcome; they’re happy to grab would-be diners a cocktail or glass of rosé (from Jorge Riera’s impeccable list of natural wines) to ease the wait. The acts of small kindness at Frenchette feel disarmingly radical. Shouldn’t customers always be treated this graciously? 241 West Broadway, New York, NY, (212) 334-3883, frenchettenyc.com
Exceptional new restaurants sometimes rouse an old question: In cooking, where’s the line between art and craft? The fine points certainly blur at Kamonegi, where Mutsuko Soma, who learned how to make soba from her grandmother, does so entirely from scratch. She starts by grinding buckwheat (usually grown locally) to make the flour for the noodles over which she labors daily. These strands, at once taut and delicate, are practically sentient in their freshness. Begin first with tempura, nearly equal to the soba, with unorthodox but brilliant combinations like broccolini accented with Parmesan and miso-anchovy aioli. The soba comes in three variations: cold with a cold dipping sauce, hot in broth, and as “shrimpcado bukkake,” an intricate noodle bowl that includes shrimp tempura, avocado, and grated radish. I ordered all of them; the server returned and very politely said, “The chef wants to make sure there’s enough soba for every customer. Could you please choose two out of the three options?” I didn’t balk, and I passed on the cold version. I wouldn’t want a soul to miss out on Soma’s masterwork. 1054 North 39th Street, Seattle, WA, (206) 632-0185, kamonegiseattle.com
Chef Christina Nguyen opened Hola Arepa with her bartender husband Birk Grudem in 2014, doling out easy-to-love sandwich versions of Venezuela’s ubiquitous griddled corn cakes. Their second venture, though, is Nguyen’s breakthrough restaurant. She was born into the Vietnamese community that settled in the Twin Cities after leaving Saigon in the mid-1970s; she grew up in the restaurant scene and the food-focused social gatherings propelled by these immigrants. Her dishes at Hai Hai convey that experience. A bombastically colorful banana blossom salad includes fried shallots, peanuts, and sliced watermelon radish for echoes and echoes of crunch; she rejiggers Hanoi’s famous dill-scented grilled fish dish, chả cá lã vọng, by adding rice noodles and her punchy riff on Vietnamese pineapple-shrimp sauce. So much about this place uplifts: the beachy wallpaper prints, the citrus-fueled cocktails, and a confident, effervescent staff. But Nguyen’s stirringly personal food gives Hai Hai its depth of spirit. 2121 University Avenue Northeast, Minneapolis, MN, (612) 223-8640, haihaimpls.com
Throughout my career, I’ve been surprised that when readers ask for restaurant recommendations, they’re most interested in learning about seafood options. If only I had a place like Hello, Sailor to suggest in every community. Perched on the edge of a 34-mile, man-made lake, it’s the second local restaurant from Joe and Katy Kindred. The couple’s firstborn, Kindred in nearby Davidson, helped boost Charlotte’s national dining profile when it debuted in 2015. For their fish camp reverie — a midcentury modern vision of geometric patterns with a tongue-and-groove cathedral ceiling — they reeled in Craig Deihl, a Charleston heavyweight, to lead the kitchen. Regardless of the time of year, meals here feel like an escape into summertime. Anything with crab (deviled in a dip with pimento cheese, presented as claws arranged on top of a pool of wasabi tobiko mayo) brings joy, as do platters of impeccably fried shrimp and flounder and lobster rolls featuring Joe Kindred’s famous milk bread. Cocktails show pluck, with some Tiki numbers whose tongue-in-cheek glassware reinforces both the restaurant’s design and nautical themes. 20210 Henderson Road, Cornelius, NC, (704) 997-5365, hellosailornc.com
David Chang arrives in Southern California. This instant blockbuster didn’t need any more of an elevator pitch to create a fevered stampede to its concrete hangar of a dining room, located among a maze of renovated warehouses just north of Chinatown. The restaurant succeeds far beyond mere buzz factor. Momofuku’s chef-auteur relocated to Los Angeles for his first West Coast project; the cooking is his communion with the region. Chang has always exercised a certain fluidity with cuisines — the ways they can stand alone and the ways they might intermingle — but Majordomo shows the chef at his confident prime. His framing of cultures and cuisines triumphs in early standouts like the sausage-stuffed peppers (a Korean-inspired recipe, though the filling is a recipe from Tennessee’s bacon master Allan Benton) and in large-format behemoths like smoked short rib presented with rice wrapping paper and slew of condiments. This being Chang in the Golden State, there are stunning salads (perhaps tomatoes and stone fruits with sesame and basil) to offset all the overt meatiness. 1725 Naud Street, Los Angeles, (323) 545-4880, majordomo.la
It’s tempting to describe Nite Yun’s amok, her recipe for the fundamental dish of Cambodia, with Western culinary terms: pudding, souffle, mousse. It’s really none of those things. Yun steams diced catfish with coconut milk, egg, and a paste tingling with lemongrass and other spices in a banana leaf. It melds into an oceanic cloud, which Yun returns to earth with a final dousing of coconut milk. The dish is at the heart of Yun’s menu, which in turn is one of the new pinnacles among Oakland’s incredibly dynamic dining scene. Her cooking is a living document of her family’s journey from Cambodia to California, told through rice noodle soups and lacquered beef skewers and stunners like stir-fried minced pork served in a pool of coconut milk, fish paste, and palm sugar. The snug, brightly colored dining room, where 1960s-era Cambodian pop tunes often bop from the speakers, sits mere paces from the Fruitvale BART station. In myriad ways, this restaurant is too accessible to miss. 3340 East 12th Street, Oakland, CA, (510) 500-3338, nyumbai.com
Masa — made from corn purchased from local farmers who grow heirloom strains, and then ground and nixtamalized onsite — is the mortar on which Suerte is built. Executive chef Fermín Nuñez and owner Sam Hellman-Mass obsess over the ways they can shape it and express texture with it, and the gradations of flavor it can add to dishes in various forms. If the Texas sun had a fragrance, it would smell like the small, speckled tortillas that cradle confit brisket tacos with “black magic oil” (made from sesame and smoked morita chiles) and come alongside grilled fish with bacon salsa or a whopping goat shoulder cooked barbacoa-style. Nuñez alchemizes the dough into half a dozen other magnetic variations, including tlacoyos (plush dough pockets) filled with pork-belly carnitas, and incredibly thin blue-corn tostadas to add crunch to gorgeous red prawn aguachile. Savor this next-level Mexican-Texan cooking with a subtler sipping mezcal; try one in the pechuga family. 1800 E 6th Street, Austin, TX, (512) 953-0092, suerteatx.com
Beiruti-style hummus, flecked with diced tomatoes, green peppers, scallions, and parsley; smoky lamb shoulder, rubbed with baharat (a dusky-sweet, Lebanese-Syrian mixture of seven spices); carrots caramelized over coals and walloped with harissa. Maydan owner Rose Previte, along with co-executive chefs Gerald Addison (no relation) and Chris Morgan, train a honeyed spotlight on North African and Middle Eastern flavors. Their focus brings welcome attention to a span of the world whose wondrous cuisines remain perplexingly undersung in the United States. The restaurant’s centerpiece hearth — a blazing fire pit outfitted with grills and two clay ovens for baking delightfully misshapen, floppy-crackery flatbreads — sets a dramatic scene. Zoom in on dishes that particularly reflect Previte’s Lebanese heritage, including spreads like muhammara, a glossy paste of walnuts and red pepper twanged with pomegranate molasses, and hindbe, lemony dandelion greens textured with fried shallots. This is food meant for groups and sharing — though solo diners will find a warm greeting at the room-length bar. 1346 Florida Ave NW, Washington, DC, (202) 370-3696, maydandc.com
Would Justin Yu’s reboot of Oxheart, his career-defining Houston restaurant, fly? The question plagued admirers, including me; Oxheart was Houston’s finest restaurant, a place that broadened the definition of Texas cooking with its vegetable fixation and its don’t-label-us merger of cuisines. Oxheart’s tasting-menu format is gone, but wonderfully, the more casual T. Rex — located in the same snug, quirky Warehouse District space — showcases Yu cooking at the exact same level of exuberance and ingenuity. The signature starter is tomato toast, a layering of fresh and cooked flavors that flings umami thunderbolts with each bite. From there, look to the Texas seasons — to dishes like cauliflower braised in Bordelaise sauce and smeared with a roasted kale sauce in the mild winter, and pickled cantaloupe in cold melon broth with sorrel and peppers to cool summer’s swelter. Let sommelier Bridget Paliwoda nudge you toward the natural wines she favors; they fill out a meal’s timbre like one of Rachmaninoff’s wilder harmonies. 1302 Nance Street, Houston, TX, (832) 830-8592, trexhouston.com
Muddling the distinction between restaurant and bar isn’t a novel concept these days. Neither is the idea of a fine dining chef moonlighting to create a more casual menu of brainy small plates. But partners David Barzelay, chef-owner of the supper club-style phenom Lazy Bear, and bar director Nicolas Torres propel these notions to higher national standards with their new joint project. True Laurel feels like an art installation, with walls and dividers set at odd, beautiful angles and an undulating bas-relief sculpture designed as a tribute to midcentury designer Isamu Noguchi. Barzelay and chef de cuisine Geoff Davis bring the smarts with their riffs on Americana bar food: a patty melt crisped in autumnal beef fat, Dungeness and cheddar fondue potato chips and vegetables for scooping, and fried hen-of-the-wood mushrooms with a riff on sour cream and onion dip. Torres’s cocktails similarly quicken the mind. He uses an arsenal of infusions, tonics, obscure spirits, and local fruits to exquisite, unpretentious effect. We’re living through weird, wild times; this is a sanctuary for comfort with unusual wit and style, a welcome model. 753 Alabama Street, San Francisco, CA, (415) 341-0020, truelaurelsf.com
Pacific Standard Time
Erling Wu-Bower cemented his reputation in Chicago as chef of Nico Osteria, where he excelled at crudos, fish stews, lobster spaghetti, and other Italian seafood jewels. At Pacific Standard Time, his proven repertoire merges with a West Coast ethos, so that coils of chitarra snarl Dungeness crab and a salad starring milky stracciatella comes paired with Harry’s Berries strawberries, some of the finest fruit grown in California. But this is the Golden State of Wu-Bower’s own mind, informed by a freethinking multiculturalism rather than an adherence to any one cuisine. So pork and shrimp dumplings can be ordered alongside the pasta, and a handsomely charred mushroom pizza arrives dotted with XO sauce and served with a winky side of ranch dressing. His showstopper is a large-format, two-course duck presentation perfumed with Middle Eastern flavors, including a cast-iron pot domed with pita dough and filled with duck-beef meatballs in a fragrant chickpea stew. Pastry chef Natalie Saben drives home the Midwest-meets-California ideology, with feel-good desserts like the huckleberry sundae and a chocolate tart with peanut dukkah. 141 West Erie Street, Chicago, IL, (312) 736-1778, pstchicago.com
Editor: Erin DeJesus
Art director: Brittany Holloway-Brown
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