Where I Ate in ’05: Dining Out Narrows Down City’s Best Bites

In the past year, I’ve visited nearly 100 restaurants, eaten at least a dozen tuna tartares, over 20 plates of “crudo,” a flock of organic chickens, God knows how many pounds of grass-fed beef, and enough fish to fill a tank at the Coney Island Aquarium. So this week seems a good time for a pause and a look back at the best restaurants—those I think are worth spending your Christmas bonus on. You could, of course, blow the whole thing on the dinner of a lifetime at Thomas Keller’s Per Se. But you probably won’t get in, so here’s a list of my other, more affordable favorites of 2005.

If you’re lucky, you’ll get to see David Bouley himself at work in the open kitchen upstairs at Bouley Bakery and Market, 130 West Broadway (at Duane Street), 212-608-5829, where Japanese food is served alongside French/American cuisine. The cooking is superlative, and there’s a sushi bar that offers wonderful hot Japanese dishes as well. No prix fixe, no reservations.

In the Village, at Gusto, 60 Greenwich Avenue (at Perry Street), 212-924-8000, chef Jody Williams makes the best fried artichokes outside of Rome. In fact, most dishes at this chic black-and-white 60’s-style Italian trattoria are superior and authentic. Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s latest venture, Perry Street, 176 Perry Street (at West Street), 212-352-1900, also reflects mid-century glamour in its sleek dining room in Richard Meier’s glass towers. Some of the food is flawless, such as the red-snapper sashimi and a Thai-inspired dill broth that’s one of the best soups I’ve tasted. Over in the East Village at Uovo, 175 Avenue B (at 11th Street), 212-475-8686, Matthew Hamilton’s inventive cooking is rustic with Mediterranean touches: garlic, anchovies, bitter greens and strong, fruity olive oils. His Spanish almond soup is a masterpiece.

In midtown, Alto, 520 Madison Avenue (entrance on 53rd Street), 212-308-1099, is the most ambitious Italian restaurant to open in New York this year (apart from Mario Batali’s much-publicized Del Posto, which is too new to review). Scott Conant is serving the Austrian-accented Italian cooking of the Alto Adige, a mountainous area in the North. The décor is strange, but Mr. Conant’s marvelous, jewel-like food shouldn’t be missed. A few blocks west, Bobby Flay is cooking at Bar Americain, 152 West 52nd Street (between Sixth and Seventh avenues), 212-265-9700, and serious cocktails (no gimmicks) are dispensed at a huge zinc bar. Mr. Flay’s regional cooking presents American ingredients at their best and spices them in ways that bring out rather than mask their flavor. The shellfish cocktails are outstanding.

Another new addition near the theater district, Roberto Passon, 741 Ninth Avenue (at 50th Street), 212-582-5599, serves elegant Venetian cuisine in cheery surroundings. The pastas are excellent, especially the black tagliatelle tossed with clams, mussels and Prosecco. On the Upper West Side, at Onera, 227 West 79th Street (between Amsterdam and Broadway), 212-873-0200, chef/owner Michael Psilakis has reinvented Greek cuisine: Instead of stuffed grape leaves and taramasalata, there is raw meze, and the moussaka is made with braised goat, eggplant, potato and béchamel sauce.

In the Flatiron district, at Laurent Tourondel’s BLT Fish, 21 West 17th Street, 212-691-8888, whole, very fresh fish and lobster are sold by the pound and served with a choice of sauces and vegetables on the side, so customers can mix and match as they please. The ground floor is a New England seafood shack. One of my favorites is the Dungeness crab mixed with avocado and served in a tart grapefruit vinaigrette.

Refined Korean food sounds like an oxymoron, but chef Karen Young at Chelsea’s D’or Ahn, 207 Tenth Avenue (near 23rd Street), 212-627-7777, uses French techniques with traditional ingredients. This stylish hole-in-the-wall serves melting Korean short ribs with a French-inspired horseradish celeriac puree and a spicy chocolate soufflé.

Donatella Arpaia and chef Turibio Girardi pay homage to the cuisine of Puglia at Ama, 48 MacDougal Street (between Prince and Houston streets), 212-358-1707, a hot, young trattoria. There are buttery, grilled baby cuttlefish with clams and porcini and first-rate pastas. Terrance Cave’s HQ, 90 Thompson (between Prince and Spring streets), 212-966-2755, is a convivial new bistro serving modern American cuisine that’s sophisticated but accessible: steak with white polenta instead of fries, roast duck with parsnip purée and orange sauce.

Tribeca’s Lo Scalco, 313 Church Street (at Walker Street), 212-343-2900, is quiet, spacious and elegant. Chef/owner Mauro Mafrici produces magnificent pasta and risotto, as well as a roast guinea hen covered in a burnished layer of artichokes that looks like feathers.

Dan Barber’s Blue Hill, 75 Washington Place (between Sixth Avenue and Washington Square Park), 212-539-1776, now in its 15th year, is New York’s most underrated restaurant. Its casual manner belies the high caliber of the cooking—which gets three stars from me and none from those starchy Michelin Guide inspectors. The produce comes from Stone Barns Farm up the Hudson, where Mr. Barber has a sister restaurant. And no matter what the season, there’s a fabulous chocolate brioche bread pudding.

With Gramercy Tavern, 42 East 20th Street (between Broadway and Park Avenue), 212-477-0777, Danny Meyer and Tom Colicchio introduced a new form of “haute” dining, American style, when the restaurant opened a decade ago. The food is better than ever, and everything feels more relaxed now that heavy brown velvet curtains have been installed in the Tavern’s various dining areas, softening the hard edges and absorbing noise.

Last New Year’s Eve, I dined at Abboccato, 136 West 55th Street (across the street from City Center), 212-265-4000, which serves high-end regional Italian dishes. We began with a coffee cup of lentils topped with Osetra caviar and sour cream. Each lentil symbolizes a coin—good luck for the New Year. We could have drunk a bowl.

New Year’s Eve, of course, is the time for resolutions. Dear restaurant owners, you spend a small fortune on décor; please do something about lighting and noise. Those overhead pinpoints worthy of interrogation chambers and the screeching rush-hour din of so many dining rooms I visited this year don’t make it easy for customers to enjoy your hard-working chef’s good food. Fix the problem, and I resolve not to complain anymore.