I was thinking the other day that with my days in New York drawing to a close (my heart literally just constricted as I typed that, like, spasmed) it might be nice to draw up a list of my very favorite places to eat, from the simple to the sublime, in this gem of a city. For me to remember. For those planning a trip to New York to mull over and crib. For you who live here a chance to compare with your own favorites. And then we can duke it out in the comments, all friendly-like. Doesn't that sound like fun?
I don't do it often here, but I am a list maker, a list lover. They make me feel all quiet and calm. And right now, while I'm switching madly back and forth between elation and a bit of a quivering lower lip, it feels like a good idea to order my thoughts. It's tough to narrow it down, of course, but these are the things at the very top of my list:
Sushi Yasuda - for the very best sushi I've ever had, but more than that, one of the best dining experiences I've ever had, seated at the bar for omakase, where the sushi chef behind the bar serves you piece after piece of incredible sushi, painted delicately with soy sauce, plated just so. It's expensive and special - a once-a-year kind of place, a celebration-worthy splurge.
Café Sabarsky - for the most refined cafe experience you'll find in New York in my very favorite New York City museum, Neue Galerie. Of course, this place has a special place in my heart because it always reminded me of Berlin, with its bent-wood chairs and its serious waiters. But the food is quietly spectacular, too. Delicate salads drizzled with vibrantly green pumpkin seed oil and flaky strudel with real whipped cream.
Back Forty - for simple summer meals in the back yard. Notice that I didn't write back garden. Because the space behind this Alphabet City restaurant almost feels like a yard, it's that generous. And with twinkling lights and a sky still tinged with light from the day, it can feel magical back there. The restaurant is simple and unpretentious and the food is just plain good. Not to mention the drinks. I've taken lots of international friends here, from English teachers who live in Beijing to French-Yugoslav accessory designers for Gucci, and they've all been impressed with its low-key, delicious vibe.
Indus Express - an Indian buffet on a glamourless Midtown West block. It looks like nothing special from the outside, but don't be deterred. In the hot chafing dishes you'll find quality Indian cooking that ranges widely from several different chicken and lamb dishes in gorgeously spiced sauces to a large assortment of delicious vegetable dishes, salads, chutneys and raitas. There's Indian beer, too, and best of all, once you've sat down with your filled metal plate (the first of many rounds, if you've got a cooperative belly), someone comes and brings you freshly baked naan, still hot from the oven, buttery and chewy and delicious.
Mary's Fish Camp - I like to come here on the weekends and sit at the bar alone for salad or maybe a sandwich. It's tiny and cramped, but from the bar you can watch the cooks in the kitchen and you can get in and out of the restaurant in a relatively humane amount of time. They used to have these roasted tomatoes in their salads which I loved, but the menu has changed, as it should, I suppose, and now I can't wait to try their Spicy Fried Sardine Sandwich with Pickled Vegetables.
Num Pang - I know, the banh mi craze is a little out-of-control. But where there's smoke there's fire: those crispy, crusty, multi-layered sandwiches are good. If you've not yet tried the Cambodian version of banh mi, head over to 12th and University and get yourself the num pang with veal meatballs. You will never look at a meatball sub sideways again. Spicy, drippy, crunchy, tart, and deeply, deeply delectable, it's one of the best sandwiches in the city. (Afterwards, walk across the street to Stand and order the homemade ginger ale for dessert.)
Safran - Do any of you remember the late, great Monsoon on the Upper West Side? When it closed, I thought I'd never eat good Vietnamese food again. The chef, Laura Lam, opened up her next place on 7th Avenue and 16th Street. Safran really shines at lunchtime, when there's a special menu that's not available in the evening (a fussier, more fusion-y menu takes over then). The one thing here I order over and over again is the traditional beef pho. The broth is incredible - fragrant with so many spices, the noodles chewy and perfect, the meat just as thin as can be, cooked delicately in the hot broth, and the herbs and sauces on the side bright and fresh. Pho perfection.
City Bakery - For the only breakfast pastries worth buying, especially the baker's muffin and the whole-wheat croissant. For the groaning lunch salad buffet. For inspiration with roasted vegetables, winter, spring, summer, and fall. For the addictive soups and the inside-out chocolate cookies. For the homemade marshmallows melting slowly into hot chocolate so think I can't even handle it (can you?). For, most importantly, the pretzel croissant. The hype is real, folks.
Chikalicious - I thought this was a gimmick if I ever saw one. But then I actually ate at Chikalicious, a dessert restaurant, and had my mind blown, wholly and completely. This is the kind of inventive, creative, totally original place I think most dessert chefs dream of when they decide to open their own place. The fromage blanc "cheese cake" still resonates, years later, as one of the most special and delicious things I've ever eaten. Interesting flavors, gorgeous plating, Chikalicious is inspired.
Vanessa's Dumplings - For cheap, hot, filling pork-and-chive dumplings doused in nose-wrinkling vinegar, you can't do better than this slightly expanded hole-in-the-wall staffed by efficient ladies who take orders and fry dumplings like masters. The night I gave my notice at work, I came here for dinner and almost cried because while watching the ladies work and the customers eat and the passers-by, well, pass by, I was just overcome with how totally awesome New York is. Yes, it's that kind of place.
Prune - In those awful, awful weeks after 9/11, my father drove down from Boston one weekend to spend the day with me. We went on one of our marathon walks around the city and ended up at Prune at five in the afternoon. We sat down for a strange, delicious dinner of fried chicken livers and salads and fish. I've eaten there many times since, but I'll never forget that combination of eating good food while still being shocked and scared to my core. It's a bittersweet memory, but I love Prune nonetheless. Gabrielle Hamilton's uncompromising taste and her wit are something special, plus she's the person who taught me to eat sardines on Triscuits with mustard, alone the reason to hold this restaurant high among my favorites.
Co. - Jim Lahey, of No-Knead Bread fame, opened his pizzeria in Chelsea and it's been packed ever since. I love the design of this place, and I love the Kelso beer, and I love some of the pizzas (the Boscaiola and the Cauliflower are two favorites). It's a wonderful place to eat at with friends, always warm and bustling and friendly.
Flushing's Chinatown - Take the 7 train out to Flushing's main street, then cobble together a walking meal from the various subterranean food malls and outdoor stands. My favorite menu would begin with slippery homemade rice crêpes with shrimp and a good squeeze of vinegar from Corner 28 at 42-08 Main Street, followed with a clutch of spicy, tender, cumin-dusted lamb skewers from the Xinjiang barbecue cart on 41st Avenue near Kissena Blvd, and finished with a plastic bowl of slippery, numbing dan dan noodles downstairs in the Golden Mall at the Chengdu Tianfu Small Dishes stall, 41-28 Main Street. (Use the map I linked to. You'll need it.)
Frankie's Spuntino - the one on the Lower East Side. The menu's a whole lot bigger than it was when I first fell in love with this place, but I don't let it distract me. I come here for a nice bowl of tender meatballs in sauce, very good bread, and those wine-stewed prunes with mascarpone. This sliver of a restaurant feels totally effortless and is adorably charming and pretty, plus you can walk around the Lower East Side afterwards to digest and feel all with-it. It's got a nice dose of romance, too.
Babbo, Blaue Gans, Peasant, Di Fara's, The Modern, Taam Tov, Sunset Park's Chinatown, the Red Hook ball fields, you're all going to have to wait until I come back. Please wait!
Okay, now it's your turn, readers, New York lovers, hungry ones. Go!