In the pre-opening rush of publicity, restaurants don’t look much different from books or movies: the ones everybody talks about come from proven hitmakers. But after the buzz recedes, a key difference becomes clear. Novelists and directors can focus their full attention on the next project, but successful restaurateurs have to keep winding up the springs of their earlier places as they build the gears for a new one.
This may be why some of the best new restaurants I reviewed this year came from chefs or owners who were relatively unknown, while established operators came up with places that weren’t quite convincing. Ken Friedman and April Bloomfield gave us a taqueria, Salvation Taco, where the tacos were cold and the guacamole was even colder. Michael White’s Altamarea Group opened a steakhouse, Costata, where things like too-small teapots and distractingly lame music broke any spell cast by the pasta, which was sensational, and the meats, which were unreliable. At Lafayette, from Andrew Carmellini, the service felt offhand and undertrained while the interpretations of French cuisine were less compelling and original than those at Le Philosophe or Calliope in the same neighborhood.
But 2013 was a great year for debuts. It was the year when a sous-chef emerged from the kitchen of Eleven Madison Park with an impressive set of skills and a sure sense of what’s delicious. It was the year when two Per Se cooks who had left the mother ship began to make Thai food with clear, vibrant seasonings and ultra-fresh, unusual ingredients like blowfish tails. It was when a Smorgasburgvendor finally took his long-smoked brisket indoors and changed New York’s barbecue game. And most of all, it was when the trodden-down apprentice from the documentary “Jiro Dreams of Sushi” got a stage of his own to serve his remarkably nuanced, deeply memorable creations.
All of them, the newcomers and the streetwise veterans, wanted their restaurants to be great. They wanted it very, very badly. Their anxiety was our good luck because it made them strive for the kind of excellence you can feel in the dining room and taste in the food. And that excellence, born of nerves and skill, is what I remembered most clearly when I looked back on a year full of more delicious meals than any human can reasonably expect.
A small footnote on methodology: Because I let restaurants settle in for two months or more before I review, some places that opened at the end of this year aren’t eligible for this list, and some that opened late in 2012 are. Here, in order, are my favorites among the new restaurants I reviewed this year.
1. Sushi Nakazawa
In an era when money and opportunities flow to chefs who think like corporations, the year’s best restaurant came from a Bronx restaurateur’s crazy middle-of-the-night dream. Alessandro Borgognone watched “Jiro Dreams of Sushi” before bed and became determined to bring the film’s young apprentice, Daisuke Nakazawa, to New York. It shouldn’t have worked, but it did. A meal at Mr. Nakazawa’s counter is a guided tour of the potential of simple seafood on rice to amaze. With subtle fine-tunings of temperature and seasoning, he can make a piece of sushi into the kind of sense-filling experience you wish could last and last. The restaurant doesn’t look or act particularly Japanese, but the food is so transporting and the service so gracious it doesn’t matter. 23 Commerce Street (Bedford Street), West Village, 212-924-2212.
Carbone is the year’s most polarizing restaurant. The chefs Rich Torrisi and Mario Carbone, with their business partner, Jeff Zalaznick, imagined a stylized, exaggerated red-sauce joint recast in the fine-dining idiom, and it takes nerve to pull that off. Yes, the captains are pushy and talky, but good New Yorkers ought to know how to push and talk back. Yes, the prices are dizzying, but so are the portions, the quality of the ingredients and the sheer exuberance of the preparations. Carbone doesn’t use dust-flavored farmed shrimp for its scampi alla scampi; it uses remarkably sweet and delicate langoustines caught off the coast of Scotland. The lobster fra diavolo is the size of a sea monster and is head-spinningly rich with Cognac and shellfish reduction. At times it’s all too much, but too-muchness is at the heart of the Italian-American restaurants that Carbone celebrates.181 Thompson Street (Bleecker Street), Greenwich Village, 212-254-3000.
Opened by several alumni of Eleven Madison Park, Betony offers similar pleasures without the extravagant commitment of time and money. Servers dress formally in black and white, but they’re not at all remote; they’re so in touch, so intent on figuring out what you want before you do, they’re almost telepathic. Like his old boss, Daniel Humm, Betony’s chef, Bryce Shuman, toys around with fun, everyday food, putting sophisticated spins on bar snacks like potato chips. The best of his cooking is both technically polished and soulful, a rare mixture. He makes a seared foie gras in ham-hock broth that’s both earthy and luxurious, and a short rib, slow-cooked in aged beef fat then grilled over intensely hot charcoal, that is supremely tender but still hits you in some primal spots. 41 West 57th Street, Midtown, 212-465-2400.
4. Uncle Boons
Opened in the middle of a trend toward restaurants exploring recipes from Thailand’s north and northeast, Uncle Boons skips all over the country and takes respectful liberties. The result could have been superficial, but it’s nuanced and smart. The chefs, Ann Redding and Matt Danzer, offer carefully considered breaks with Thai tradition. In their hands, shredded potato and melting beef cheek taste right at home in a musky, complex massaman curry, and sweetbreads are a natural fit for a rounded, rich bowl of mee krob that’s tart and fruity with tamarind. Chile freaks can find the heat they crave in a chicken-and-banana-blossom salad or an unusual warm laab of chopped lamb fried to a caramelized crunch in a wok. Like the cooking, the service has a degree of polish you wouldn’t necessarily expect of a place where the restroom has a monster-movie poster with the rousing slogan “Once again dinosaur shake the erath!” 7 Spring Street (Elizabeth Street), NoLIta, 646-370-6650.
For traditional Korean food, the place to go is the far eastern reaches of Flushing, Queens. But for delicious modern interpretations of the cuisine, nothing comes close to Hooni Kim’s two packed, casual pubs. As he did at Danji, Mr. Kim split Hanjan’s small-plates menu into traditional dishes and contemporary ones, but his flavors feel so true that you can’t always tell which is which. He turns pajeon, the flat and starchy Korean pancake, into a crunchy cloud of squid and scallion, and while the texture is completely different, the taste isn’t. Hanjan’s food is exciting; people wave their chopsticks around, urging their friends to try the grilled mackerel under a shiny sheath of soy glaze or the rice cakes slick with pork fat and chile paste. 36 West 26th Street, Midtown South, 212-206-7226.
6. Mighty Quinn’s Barbeque
If you are unlucky enough to get into an argument with some Texans over whether decent barbecue exists in New York, sit them in front of Mighty Quinn’s smoked beef rib, a wall of meat riding on a long surfboard of bone. It may not change their minds, but the sheer mass may move them to temporary silence. That will give you time to admit that the rib and the brisket at Mighty Quinn’s aren’t as profoundly smoky as what you’d find atFranklin Barbecue in Austin, but we New Yorkers think it’s pretty moist and peppery, etc., etc. While you distract them with this business, you can eat all the meat on your tray and theirs, too. If this doesn’t work, ask them how the smoked and fried chicken wings glazed with soy and sesame seeds compare with the ones at Smitty’s Market. 103 Second Avenue (Sixth Street), East Village, 212-677-3733.
7. The Elm
Paul Liebrandt’s escape from the hushed fine-dining atmosphere in which he’s spent most of his remarkable career doesn’t feel fully realized yet. The service could be sharper, the room could be at any hotel in America where style is measured by square footage of poured concrete, and Mr. Liebrandt’s idea of jumping on the shared-plates trend is to put two servings of his usual elaborately composed dishes into one deep casserole and let you do the plating yourself. But he can make flavors do things that nobody else can. If you close your eyes and taste, say, the tender, lip-smacking lamb neck swabbed in a black and intensely smoky purée of charred eggplant, or the delicate remix of bouillabaisse that tamps down the garlic and brings up the orange and fennel, you could believe that you were eating in New York’s best restaurant. King & Grove Williamsburg Hotel, 160 North 12th Street (Berry Street), Williamsburg, Brooklyn, 718-218-1088.
Estela is the ideal restaurant if you’re bored by pasta but you’ve stopped believing there are thrills to be had from dipping sugar-cube-size pieces of meat into micronipples of emulsified whatever. Ignacio Mattos, Estela’s chef, gives you permission to enjoy unmanipulated ingredients with straightforward Mediterranean flavors by skewing things a little until they don’t seem so straightforward. The crunch in a mound of hand-chopped beef tartare comes from golden chips of earthy sunchokes. Above raw scallops are wheels of raw summer squash that should taste dull but are dancing with citrus; they’ve been infused with grapefruit and yuzu. Mr. Mattos’s dishes are original and, in their way, simple, and it’s that combination that makes you want to give in to them. 47 East Houston Street (Mulberry Street), NoLIta, 212-219-7693.
9. Pearl & Ash
The wine list, with aged magnums of vintage Champagne and nine pages of Burgundies, reads like uptown. Yet you’re on the Bowery, and the wine director straddling the bench next to you while he runs through the pinot noirs of Clos Saron is wearing a Black Flag T-shirt. Pearl & Ash kicks down the walls that snobs have built around wine and lets the rest of us walk in. The list, whose markup philosophy might be summed up as “don’t be evil,” is as approachable as the menu. You can treat Pearl & Ash as a restaurant or a wine bar, order a few plates or fill the table, depending on your mood and how much you’ll be drinking. The chef, Richard Kuo, is fluent in spices, from Southeast Asia to North Africa; his small plates are seasoned with a sense of adventure. 220 Bowery (Prince Street), NoLIta, 212-837-2370.
Wylie Dufresne waited a decade after opening WD-50 before branching out. He must have been filing away notes the whole time because he and Alder’s executive chef, Jon Bignelli, have stuffed the menu with ideas. Foods from the American pub canon are turned inside out: The chips for scooping up cheese dip are made of squashed potato rolls, and a classic, creamy New England clam chowder is served with oyster crackers that are, in fact, oysters. Some of the inventions are warped, some make you laugh, and more than you’d think turn out to be delicious. Yes, people go out to eat now to be entertained, but there’s a place for entertainment that makes you think, and Mr. Dufresne and Mr. Bignelli have found it. 157 Second Avenue (East 10th Street), East Village, 212-539-1900.