What I Ate That Was Great in 2008

moira 9 What I Ate That Was Great in 2008“Dining out is a vice, a dissipation of spirit punished by remorse,” wrote the literary critic Cyril Connolly in 1945. “We eat, drink and talk a little too much, abuse all our friends, belch out our literary preferences and are egged on by accomplices in the audience to acts of mental exhibitionism. Such evenings cannot fail to diminish those who take part in them. They end up on Monkey Hill.”

This was in The Unquiet Grave, a book of musings that made a deep and lasting impression on me as a teenager. Yet I ended up on Monkey Hill, I fear, since I have never tired of dining out.

“Dining out is a vice, a dissipation of spirit punished by remorse,” wrote the literary critic Cyril Connolly in 1945. “We eat, drink and talk a little too much, abuse all our friends, belch out our literary preferences and are egged on by accomplices in the audience to acts of mental exhibitionism. Such evenings cannot fail to diminish those who take part in them. They end up on Monkey Hill.”

This was in The Unquiet Grave, a book of musings that made a deep and lasting impression on me as a teenager. Yet I ended up on Monkey Hill, I fear, since I have never tired of dining out. And this year, despite the recession, has been a good one for interesting new restaurants.

First, the bad news. A rent hike forced beloved late-night haunt Florent to close after nearly 23 years in the meatpacking district. The much anticipated Sheridan Square in Greenwich Village lasted only a few months, not long after the chef, Gary Robins, unexpectedly pulled out. Restaurant openings were down in New York, unlike in London, where, according to The Evening Standard, over 100 new ones have mushroomed in just the past three months. “Surely this record-breaking cluster of launches will end in a series of kitchen nightmares to rouse even Mr. Ramsay from his woes,” commented journalist Richard E. Rogers. I hope he’s wrong.

Meanwhile, here’s my list of favorites from 2008. (David Chang’s Momofuku Ko is missing because I—like every other person in New York City without a plutonium-powered Internet connection—have yet to obtain one of those coveted online reservations. The only place in the city harder to get into is Rao’s.)

 

THE MOST EXCITING restaurant I ate in all year was Corton, opened in September by Drew Nieporent in the space that used to be Montrachet. Paul Liebrandt’s food is nothing short of brilliant (my three favorite dishes being the sweetbreads topped with egg yolk, the squab with chestnut cream and truffles, and pastry chef Robert Truitt’s caramel brioche with Stilton). Corton is expensive ($76 prix fixe), but not wildly so considering the complexity of the food, or if you take into account the 30 bottles under $50 on its substantial wine list.

The best Italian food in the city is being cooked by Americans. And the best new Italian restaurant is Scott Conant’s Scarpetta, in the meatpacking district. If you can’t get a reservation, it’s worth dropping in: There are unreserved tables near the bar. Conant’s polenta with truffled mushrooms is the stuff of legend, along with his famous spaghetti with tomato and basil. L’Impero in Tudor City, where Mr. Conant used to cook, is now Convivio, another great restaurant, where Michael White is turning out first-rate interpretations of Italian classics, including exceptional pasta.

In 2008, the Upper West Side finally laid to rest its reputation as a culinary no man’s land. At Eighty One, near the north side of the Natural History Museum, Ed Brown’s deceptively simple cuisine is designed to show off the very best ingredients he can buy (even the peppercorns are hand-picked). Given Mr. Brown’s years at the Seagrill, you’d expect the fish here to be superior, and it is. Nearby, Dovetail, in a townhouse one block from the south side of the Natural History Museum, Jon Fraser’s carefully crafted, complex dishes are like works of art. (For winter, please bring back that smoky clam chowder with chorizo.)

Alain Ducasse refused to give up on New York, where, like Gordon Ramsay, he has been treated less than kindly. This time around he opened Adour, in the St. Regis Hotel, a restaurant much less stiff and formal than his previous place, but with terrific food (including a tongue-in-cheek bagel ‘Dubarry’ topped with cauliflower and Comté cheese) and a wine list of around 600 bottles, 70 of which are under $50.

In Chelsea, another French chef, Alain Allegretti, who is from Nice and formerly worked at Le Cirque, is serving a Provençal menu at his sleek eponymous restaurant, reinventing familiar regional classics.

There were hopes of a restaurant revival on West Eighth Street as its tacky shoe shops closed one after another. Perhaps it’s the times, but so far the only noteworthy new place to open is Elettaria, where I found good cocktails and food with an Indian accent. Further west, at Commerce, I loved Harold Moore’s three-star cooking, served in a setting strong on patina—Art Deco bar and wooden booths—but I couldn’t stand the noise. Go there very early or very late or not at all.