Star Chefs, Standout Steaks: Last Year’s Finest Restaurants

Has there ever been a better time to write about food in New York? From the glitzy behemoths of the meatpacking district to the cozy neighborhood joint that serves a great sandwich, here’s my list of favorite restaurants from 2006, beginning with those places that are worth your year-end bonus.

The most anticipated opening of the year was Gordon Ramsay at the London. After all the publicity given to this pugnacious British chef, New Yorkers expected fireworks but instead found perfectly executed, flawlessly presented classic French cuisine. Highlights included an ethereal sautéed foie gras coated with caramelized hazelnuts and served with pear foam, and picture-perfect fillets of red mullet with grapefruit and puréed fennel.

Another globetrotting chef, this time from France, opened a branch at the Four Seasons Hotel. Fabulously expensive, with an open kitchen and a complex menu, L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon serves innovative, tightly focused dishes, such as sea urchins in lobster gelée topped with cauliflower cream and miniscule dots of parsley mayonnaise.

Mario Batali’s Del Posto, on the edge of the meatpacking district, was a radical departure from the laid-back style of his other Italian restaurants: formal and grandiose, with a marble staircase, silver domes and a tinkling piano. My experience over several visits was mixed: The food went from the sublime—ricotta and Swiss chard gnudi, garganelle Bolognese, pappardelle with wild boar sauce—to the mediocre, including a bland $49 risotto (for two, dished out in wildly uneven portions) and over-salted spaghetti with crab sauce. Well, it was a Monday in summer.

Andrew Carmellini’s A Voce has seriously good food, but I was put off by its rumpus-room décor, weird lighting and high noise level. I’d still return, earplugs in place, for the duck meatballs made with foie gras and pork, the quail saltimbocca and the fennel-and-honey-glazed duck with olive sauce.

Happily, game abounded on many menus last year. The all-game tasting menu at the refurbished Picholine near Lincoln Center was great, with most of it bagged in Scotland (truly wild as opposed to “farm-raised”). Each dish seemed more exciting than the last, from the roast red-legged partridge with foie gras sabayon and the wood pigeon pot au feu to the roast loin of wild Scottish hare with huckleberries. And, of course, there was the great cheese trolley to wind up the meal on a high note.

A few blocks north, Telepan, which concentrates on greenmarket produce, served seared duck breast with foie gras custard, cauliflower, hazelnuts and pears and a splendid cassoulet of pork, smoked sausage, spareribs and cured bacon.

In the Village, Tocqueville moved into larger premises next door. Chef/owner Marco Moreira’s cuisine has Spanish, Brazilian and Mediterranean accents and included pheasant with crunchy Marcona almonds, wild and Calaspara rice, and papery pieces of crisp skin.

Danny Meyer’s Eleven Madison Park, which had become a bit of a snooze, acquired a new chef, Daniel Humm, and he’s a star. His amuse-bouche, a “cappuccino” made of sea urchins flambéed with cognac and whipped to a foam with lobster stock, made everyone at the table sit up, as did his roast suckling pig.

Some people were put off by the minimal décor at Ureña, near Gramercy Park, but the modern Spanish cuisine served here is wonderful, with unexpected juxtapositions: sweet with salty, bitter with spicy, hot with cold. Halibut was crusted with duck cracklings, chorizo and breadcrumbs; lobster came on pickled rhubarb purée with blood orange sauce.

The Austrian food at Kurt Gutenbrunner’s gemütlich Tribeca bistro, Blaue Gans, drew me back again and again, especially the thick, peppery goulash, the blood sausage crumbled with roasted fingerling potatoes, with fresh grated horseradish and sauerkraut and, for dessert, the mountainous puffs of Salzburger nockerl.

Alas, Dona, one of the best of the new crop, fell victim to real-estate development just nine months after it opened. Now Donatella Arpaia and chef Michael Psilakis are looking for a new location to serve his cutting-edge Mediterranean cuisine.

Since I’m forever trying to find new places to eat in the theater district, I was happy to discover Tintol, a Portuguese tapas bar, where you can dine before or after a show on meaty red piquillo peppers, Serrano ham, fresh anchovies and barbecued chorizo marinated in grappa. Also, a new branch of Sushi of Gari has opened on West 46th Street’s restaurant row.

It was the year of the steakhouse, with varying success. Standouts were the tartares at Craftsteak, the oyster pan roast and tongue salad at Porter House, and the stuffed eggs sent out as a gift from the kitchen at Quality Meats, which has the sexiest décor.

Provided you’re not shunted off to a side room, Buddakan has one of the most magnificent settings in town (think Raiders of the Lost Ark) and surprisingly fine food for its size—especially the Peking duck. Chinatown Brasserie is the best place for dim sum: There are endless varieties in the repertoire of Hong Kong chef Joe Ng.

Other memorable dishes included the skirt-steak-sandwich lunch at the ultra-hip street-level café at La Esquina, and the frog’s legs “lollipops” and kaffir lime duck at Mai House, the new Vietnamese restaurant in Tribeca opened by Drew Nieporent and chef Michael Huynh.

I rang in the New Year in the West Village at Maremma, Cesare Casella’s Tuscan cowboy restaurant: white bean salad, linguine with spicy seafood ragout, rack of lamb and splendid Tuscan fries.

And speaking of the New Year, here’s a list of a few things I hope not to hear in a restaurant in 2007:

“You’re welcome to have a drink at the bar while you wait for your table.”

“We can’t seat you until your party is complete.”

“We can’t lower the lights; they’re preset by computer.”

“The manager has already turned down the [thumping techno] music.”

“I assumed you wanted me to keep pouring more bottles of water for the table.”

“Let me run through our list of [a dozen] specials.”

And most of all, never again, please: “Are you still working on that?”