Prufrock measured his life with coffee spoons; an avid New York City restaurant-goer might have marked the passage of 2014 in mezcal, bulgogi, brisket, and lardo. These, along with pig heads and endive salads, were some of the contenders for the year’s most valuable culinary player. Meanwhile, chefs left the tyranny of small plates behind and showed a newfound penchant for shareable entrees to feed two, three, or a crowd.
This was also the year we faced the spectre of paying for reservations, as new apps promised to secure eight-o’clock seats at trendy restaurants for a price. For the many New Yorkers already spending a foolish amount of their take-home pay on going out, the prospect of an additional expense was an outrage. Milling on the sidewalk for ninety minutes—equal parts pleasure, pain, and creatively elliptical answers to the insistent questions about whether the party is complete—is how it should be done. After all, a meal out isn’t just about the food.
In the Tables for Two column, we seek to savor all aspects of dining out in New York. Here are some of my favorite expeditions of the past year, as well as five favorite tastes, and a prediction for the new year, too. This is not a ranked or comprehensive list, and the restaurants mentioned are not all new establishments. But when their hosts tell you that your table is ready, you should follow them.
1. Bâtard. Finally, a new restaurant in Tribeca that doesn’t exclusively cater to plutocrats. Three courses for sixty-five dollars isn’t cheap, but it doesn’t feel outrageous, either. What I remember from eating there back in the sweltering heat of late August: a shimmery, pearl-colored milk punch in a little bottle labelled trink mich (the restaurant is vaguely German in focus); an octopus terrine dusted with pastrami spices and chunky with ham hock; lamb bacon and bundles of fennel in a marigold-yellow Le Creuset pot brought to the table; heirloom tomatoes which announced themselves with a faint wave of vanilla essence; the sommelier, cheerfully parrying with the Amazonian humidity of the outdoors by suggesting a Grüner Veltliner for under fifty dollars. What I don’t recall: the L-shaped room, which apparently has a single window and bunker-level ceilings, features which didn’t for one moment detract from the joy of eating in it.
2. Hometown Bar-B-Que. There are many food-related reasons to head to Red Hook, beginning with heroes at Defonte’s and ending with meatballs at IKEA (the Swedes know how to settle an argument about sofa beds). But I find myself occupied by the memory of a lunch on a rainy day at Hometown, which opened late last year, and which offers some of the best barbecue in the city. The owner, a Brooklyn native named Billy Durney, cooks it over oak fires, out on Valentino Pier, three blocks from the restaurant’s garage space, using the smoking techniques he perfected at his South Park Slope apartment. My colleague Hannah Goldfield, who is never wrong about food, recommended the beef rib. It is gigantic, served with the bone on, the layers of rendered fat and meat encrusted in the “sugar cookie” beloved by Texans. The meat falls apart on eating, as it should, and is both intensely peppery and slightly sweet. It’s served on a butcher-paper-lined metal tray, with accoutrement in paper cups, but this is a meal which requires neither sauce nor niceties.
3. Contra. The reasonably priced tasting menu, offered not in uptown temples of fine dining but little spaces on the Lower East Side and in Williamsburg, was a theme of 2014. Sometimes it seemed a premature move by a chef who was perhaps not yet accomplished enough to deny diners the choice of what they would eat for dinner. Contra, however, was a remarkably assured entrant, serving intricate and even challenging food with a simple conceit: five courses for fifty-five dollars. Although the kitchen was enamored with dehydrating things, and scattered little crescents of celery in the elderflower-granita dessert, there was none of the chilly self-regard you might expect from an avant-garde restaurant. The sommelier had a story for each of the wines, which were mostly organic; each ingredient, though at times elaborately prepared, tasted fully and richly of itself. I keep thinking of the steak tartare, which was ingeniously doused in XO sauce, cut with radishes, and served with raw sea scallops for a beguilingly fishy aftertaste. It sounds weird, and it was. But it worked.
4. Gotham West Market. A food court in a condo building on Eleventh Avenue really shouldn’t be on any list. But every time I go to Gotham West Market, I eat something different, and delicious, which usually costs less than twenty dollars. Plus, like at Eataly, you can walk around with a “Scandal”-sized goblet of wine, trying different things from the food stalls. Don’t expect atmosphere; the bussing of trays and awkward sharing of communal tables makes it feel like eating at a high-school cafeteria. Yet Ivan Orkin’s lemon shio—chewy rye noodles served in a chilled dashi broth—was one of my favorite dishes of the summer. For the fall, there was the buttermilk-battered-chicken sandwich with apple-celeraic slaw from the unpretentious Genuine Roadside. As winter encroached, a sprawling, multicourse meal at the bar of Seamus Mullen’s El Colmado felt just right. (The devilled eggs, in particular, are smoky and extraordinary.) We’ll be seeing more of these food courts—Berg’n, in Crown Heights, is an example, though it has yet to take off—and if they were all as thoughtfully assembled as Gotham West, it wouldn’t be a bad thing.
5. This is not a fifth restaurant but rather five excellent tastes from the year that was. Madeleines from Rotisserie Georgette were as light and deliciously insubstantial as a Rupert Murdoch tweet. The green salad at Foragers City Table actually seems to have been worthy of the overused word “curated,” such is the quality of its every leaf. The paper-thin skin on the Korean-style fried chicken at Turntable Retro Bar & Restaurant tastes even better after yogurt soju. Fellow Tables for Two correspondent Shauna Lyon advised ordering the anchovy toast at Buvette back in 2011, and it remains a testament to the fact that none of us are eating enough butter. Pierogis baked with turnip and squash at Brooklyn Beet Company taste perfect when it’s pitch-black at five o’clock on a Saturday.
5a. A controversial New Year’s prediction: So long to the tiresome dictates of good taste, normcore hits cocktails in 2015. Cosmopolitans are the new negronis, and you should have one at the downstairs bar of the Lambs Club, where the bartender promises no judgment.[NewYorker]