This was supposed to be a rebound year for New York restaurants, one of the great culinary capitals of the world, and in some ways, it was. Indoor dining — a welcomed option when temperatures hover below freezing — relaunched on Valentine’s Day after the brutal winter surge. And restaurants, however short-staffed or low on cash, gave vaccinated patrons a lot to celebrate, including more accessible tasting menus, thriving modern Mexican cuisine, and really, really good doughnuts.
As the city’s most expensive restaurants seem to be busier than ever, smaller operators deserve credit for cooking up creative and technically precise dishes, but at non-blowout prices. The surge in sub-$100 tasting menus felt particularly vital, serving up an accessible-ish form of luxury as high-end French and Japanese spots increasingly commanded $1,000 or more for dinner for two.
New York’s Mexican food continued to evolve in fascinating directions as well. If the opening of Cosme seven years ago hinted at a new, innovative, and expensive era in how chefs interpreted Mexico’s diverse foodways, 2021 signaled that the modern Mexican movement was finally in full swing. Birria continued to boom. New tortillerias helped make better masa more widely available. Two young operators showed us the power of a bubbling cauldron of lard known as a choricera. And a certain raffish Williamsburg restaurant knocked it out of the park with a vegan mole for the ages. It’s easy to compare New York’s culinary scene with that of Los Angeles, home to the country’s largest population of Mexicans, but the Latin-American community here in the five boroughs is growing in its own spectacular way.
Finally, I like to think this is a new golden age for doughnuts; they’re a global treat, but their portability and ubiquity make them a particularly compelling — and sometimes elegant — pandemic-era snack for New York. I could go on longer about those wonderful pastries, as well as aboutall-you-can-drink sushi parties, and other things that energized the food scene in 2021. But the sad reality is that the pandemic is forcing a new wave of temporary bar and restaurant shutdowns. Many of us refrained from dining indoors during the depths of COVID, and now the new omicron variant is prompting scores of folks — including myself — to again hit the pause button on that riskier style of eating out. Indeed, the hospitality recovery remains in its infancy, and so while what follows is my list of the year’s best restaurants, allow me to say that we’re simply lucky to have restaurants, period.
Restaurants of the Year: Dhamaka and Aldama
Dhamaka: Do yourself a favor and swing by the bar at this Essex Street hotspot to sample the pork face salad from Meghalaya — a northeastern region of India that doesn’t get a ton of representation on local menus. The kitchen tosses the gelatinous meat in a metal tin with fresh onions and piercing chiles; it tastes like spicy, pork-flavored gummy bears. That preparation serves as a reminder that chef Chintan Pandya and Roni Mazumdar are willing to consistently showcase some of the most overlooked foodways of South Asia. One hopes their success paves the way for the next class of Indian, Bengali, Pakistani, and Sri Lankan restaurants — and helps shine a light on longtime operators in that space who might occupy less of the limelight. 119 Delancey St, near Norfolk Street, Lower East Side
Aldama: This hotspot is the city’s most creative and technically astute modern Mexican restaurant in years. Chef Gerardo Alcaraz garnishes tostadas with tart daikon ribbons curled up like Thai rolled ice cream. He forges mole negro with so much flavor the notes seem to last longer than a Lars Von Trier film. And he whips up what might be the city’s best al pastor-style taco, thanks to a modernist quenelle of pineapple gel that tames the umami-rich meats. One could legitimately serve this fare in the type of quiet, subdued rooms that Michelin inspectors seem to like; the crew here, however, prefers to hire a DJ. 91 South 6th Street, near Berry Street, Williamsburg
Restaurants of the Year: The Long List
Dame: This jewel box of a Village restaurant isn’t exactly easy to get into (that’s an understatement), but Patricia Howard and chef Ed Szymanski deserve credit for opening one of the city’s most innovative and non-exorbitant seafood spots in quite some time. Go for the cucumber mussel salad, the tuna tartare showered in briny bottarga, the fish and chips with a crust as craggy as a chain of small mountains, and the epic British-leaning desserts. It’s all a welcome antidote to the city’s more expensive French and Japanese seafood restaurants. 87 MacDougal Street near Bleecker Street, Greenwich Village
Taqueria Ramírez: This studio-apartment-sized Greenpoint establishment is where Tania Apolinar and chef Giovanni Cervantes sell some of the city’s best tacos. Cervantes fishes his meats out of a bubbling choricera as aromatic as a Sichuan hot pot, before ladling them onto lard-slicked tortillas. Expect excellent pork al pastor, beef suadero, trippa, nopales, and longganisa sausage. Nothing is vegetarian. 94 Franklin Street on Oak Street, Greenpoint
Sushi on Me: You go to a restaurant like Sushi Noz for immaculate nigiri, for chefs who drape extraordinarily expensive cuts of raw fish over lightly vinegared rice. You go to Sushi on Me, by contrast, for an extraordinarily good time. The omakase-only meal runs just $89, cash-only, for a one-hour, all-you-can-drink, expletive-strewn service. Chef Atip “Palm” Tangjantuk can also send out some very good nigiri, garnishing blowtorched white tuna with an umami-rich dab of chile garlic sauce. 71-26 Roosevelt Avenue, near 72nd Street, on the border Jackson Heights and Elmhurst
Sofreh Cafe: Nasim Alikhani and chef Ali Saboor are almost single-handedly responsible for modernizing New York’s Iranian culinary scene; in this case they’ve given Brooklyn what feels like a cross between an Apple Store and a Persian cafe. Patrons sit at a long communal table while snacking on rose rice pudding, rose almond cookies, rose custard doughnuts, and pirashki stuffed with braised beef or walnuts with feta. If I lived anywhere near Bushwick, I’d be there twice a week, typing away on my laptop for a few hours while sipping on free refills of black tea — laced with more rose. This is, without question, one of the bakeries of the year. 252 Varet Street, near Bogart Street, Bushwick
Falansai: Chef Eric Tran isn’t interested in serving safe, middle-of-the-road tasting menus at his American-Vietnamese-Mexican spot. He instead sends out bony fish cheeks, funky legs of sliced lamb, chicken heart skewers, beef tongue spring rolls, and bruleed pates of chicken liver as part of his ambitious, awesome $82 set menus. A la carte dishes are also available. 112 Harrison Place, at Porter Avenue, Bushwick
Fat Choy: Katie Lee and chef Justin Lee are the collective force behind what is unquestionably one of the city’s top new vegan spots. At this American-Chinese restaurant, Lee dishes up savory sloppy joes, chewy-spicy rice cakes, and a masterful rendition of beans and greens, all without the use of animal products or fake Silicon Valley meat substitutes. This is just simple, delicious, affordable food. 250 Broome Street near Ludlow Street, Lower East Side
Yellow Rose: The cheffed-up cherry coke smacks of concentrated, pulpy stone fruit. The homemade flour tortillas, which encase rich piles of beans, flake like good pastries. The vegan queso packs serious creaminess and spice. And the airy sugar-glazed doughnuts (weekends-only) are worthy of a visit by themselves. Shoutout to owners Krystiana Rizo and Dave Rizo for giving the East Village its next vital all-day spot, a heck of a Southwest restaurant right here in New York City. 102 Third Avenue, near 13th Street, East Village
Ursula: This New Mexican-leaning spot might have been the best reason to wait outside in a line in snowy weather in 2021. Chef Eric See rewards your patience with green chile cheeseburgers, cups of aromatic rose tea, puffy brioche doughnuts, and chile-laced burritos that will warm you to your core. 724 Sterling Place, near Bedford Avenue, Crown Heights
Salento: Jackson Heights has no shortage of excellent Colombian bakeries, but such institutions are decidedly more rare in Manhattan. Enter Salento, a Washington Heights cafe and panaderia that sends out all the South American classics: crisp corn empanadas; calentado breakfast platters with rice, eggs, beans, and arepas; guava-stuffed pandebono; sweet, crispy aborrajados de platanos maduros; and indulgent bandeja paisa platters teeming with picadillo or skirt steaks. 2112 Amsterdam Avenue, at West 165th Street, Washington Heights
Jasmine’s: Midtown boasts a solid bench of Caribbean restaurants, especially those showcasing the cuisine of Cuba or the Dominican Republic, but Jamaican or Trinidadian fare is a bit tougher to find in this slice of the city. Enter Jasmine Gerald and chef Basil Jones, who have brought serious jerk wings, ackee and saltfish, spicy-creamy rasta pasta, and brown stew chicken to the Theater District’s bustling Restaurant Row. 371 West 46th Street, near Ninth Avenue, Hell’s Kitchen
Ernesto’s: All restaurants serve nightly specials. Chef Ryan Bartlow, by contrast, seems to rewrite significant portions of Ernesto’s menu on a regular basis. Just about every item I’ve written about — his mutton chop, eggs txangurro, $45 iberico tart with black truffles, octopus skewers — magically disappeared not too long after I sampled them. And that’s okay. Some dishes will come back from time to time, but even if they don’t, there’s always something new and excellent to sample here. The current online menu shows grilled eel with tuna heart; and I can state with relative certainty it won’t be available by the time I go back. So be it. 259 East Broadway, near Montgomery Street, Two Bridges
Three Roosters: Here’s what $14 gets you in this corner of Hell’s Kitchen: a generous order of sticky rice, a bowl of powerfully concentrated chicken broth, and one of New York’s top new crispy chicken dishes, showered in sweet-sour zaab dust. Three Roosters is a sign that Thai fried chicken deserves a place alongside Southern, Japanese, and Korean poultry as one of the city’s great fried chicken traditions. 792 Ninth Avenue, near West 53rd Street, Hell’s Kitchen
Claudy’s Kitchen: Chef Claudia Berroa and her husband, Richard Berroa, a former paramedic, opened their Peruvian spot during the heart of the pandemic in the summer of 2020, and residents of Fieldston — including students at nearby Manhattan College — are all the better off because of it. Berroa was long known for her flan, sold at Zabar’s, but the chief draw here is the ample selection of empanadas, all baked to order and wrapped in paper-thin shells. The chicharron empanada is so light it almost seems to hover above one’s hand. 59-81 Broadway, near West 242nd Street, Fieldston