Dine-O-Fight! Dueling Foodies Stein and Ozersky Carve Up the Best Eats of 2014

They sort of behaved.

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Illustration by Fred Harper

There were no cronuts or ramen burgers this year to spark the madness of crowds. Instead, 2014 was a year of quiet retrenchment for New York City restaurants. Established players like David Chang, Danny Meyer, Alex Stupak, Eric Ripert and Keith McNally consolidated their roles as restaurant patriarchs. Last year’s gimmickry wasn’t entirely gone; the aftershocks rippled through the highly anticipated Birds & Bubbles and the Torrisi boys’ Dirty French.

Risible though these are, 2014 was also the year of a terrifically good time, from unstuffy elegance of Bâtard to the Mexican import Cosme. At the center of the party was a wake for the closing of wd-50, Wylie Dufresne’s game-changer on the Lower East Side.

The real innovation was in restaurant tech. Apps like Resy and Cover helped us nab tables and take-out, respectively. Behind the scenes, developments like ticketing systems and no-tipping policies may seem wonkish at first blush, but will likely prove more sea changing in years to come than whatever is the hotspot dujour.

Best New Restaurant, High-End
Best New Restaurant, Budget
Most Underrated Restaurant
Best Dish
Best Atmosphere
Best Trend
Worst Trend
Saddest Closing
Chef of the Year
Most Overrated Restaurant
Surest Sign of the Dining Apocalypse
Best Food Neighborhood
What Can We Expect for 2015?

***

Best New Restaurant, High-End

Ozersky: Bâtard was pretty much the only classic-model high-end restaurant to open this year, with the possible exception of Shuko. Most of the others, like Dirty French, Bowery Meat Company, or Dover, position themselves as neighborhood restaurants or drop-ins for wealthy boulevardiers. (Photo by Francesco Sapienza)

Ozersky: Bâtard (pictured above) was pretty much the only classic-model high-end restaurant to open this year, with the possible exception of Shuko. Most of the others, like Dirty French, Bowery Meat Company, or Dover, position themselves as neighborhood restaurants or drop-ins for wealthy boulevardiers. (Photo by Francesco Sapienza)

Stein’s pick: For the last six or seven years, “high-end” and “fine dining,” concepts once coterminous, have  drifted apart. While restaurants that look like dive bars can cost an arm and a leg, one place that remains a very relevant interpretation of fine dining, however, is Bâtard. In the stripped down bones of Corton, Markus Glocker is in the kitchen—replacing Paul Liebrandt currently in self-imposed exile in Williamsburg—but Mr. Glocker proves culinary genius needn’t come with a side of dick. Drew Nieporent still is cheerful Charon at the door and, as maître d’, John Winterman delivers the five-star service that really is the only differentiator these days between just expensive and legitimately high-end.

Ozersky rebuttal:It may be the best, but it’s also one of the most boring. I can’t understand why those guys didn’t rejigger the room more; it was a morgue for mummies under the Liebrandt administration and it’s only slightly less stultifying now. The food is superb though, and the wine list a beast. But I feel like Mr. Burns when I eat there.​

Ozersky’s pick: This is a category akin to “best Holocaust comedy of the ’90s” or “Most Unexpected Sex Scandal, Elderly Comedian.” Bâtard was pretty much the only classic-model high-end restaurant to open this year, with the possible exception of Shuko. Most of the others, like Dirty French, Bowery Meat Company, or Dover, position themselves as neighborhood restaurants or drop-ins for wealthy boulevardiers. But, despite its fine food, I thought Bâtard soporific, and so am putting my vote for the re-opened and revamped River Café. Nothing could have been easier than for legendary restaurateur Buzzy O’Keefe to throw in the towel after Sandy and retire; certainly, it would have been easier to open a new place than to re-do that architectural singularity. But now it’s back, and again the very model of opulent New York dining, and not the least for its stubborness and durability. Note: Shuko might well be my pick if I had eaten there. It’s so expensive though! 

Stein’s rebuttal: First of all, I can’t believe Mr. Ozersky thinks Schindler’s List was a comedy. As far as The River Café goes, I’m all for a Sandy recovery story and have nothing but admiration for Buzzy O’Keeffe, though I would dispute that “nothing could have been easier” than for O’Keeffe to retire. But The River Café is a special occasion restaurant and meant to be one, which, I think, precludes it from being the best new high-end restaurant. The River Café is like that hovercraft toy you get at Hanukkah, charge for three days only for it to poop out after 10 minutes of use. It is the most impressive toy, but the best? I think not.

Brodo.

Brodo.

***

Best New Restaurant, Budget

Ozersky’s pick: Brodo. Aside from its being a fairly radical concept—meat consommé taken as a health beverage—Marco Canora’s genius concept is maybe the cheapest way ever to get truly high-end restaurant broths. Add to that the chance to get them without going into a restaurant or paying more than the cost of a burger, and you have something stupendous. Disclaimer: Marco is a good friend.

Stein’s rebuttal: From the hundreds of daring and ambitious restaurants at an accessible price point, Ozersky has chosen a take-out window attached to a decade-old mainstay that serves only one thing, soup broth, which has also been served, incidentally, in various iterations at the restaurant to which the takeout window is associated, also for a decade. I heart Hearth, as well, but choosing Brodo for best new restaurant, budget is like selecting from all the art in the world, a poster of a Warhol silk screen.

Stein’s PICK: History can be a drag and legacies a millstone. When you carry the burden of Russ & Daughters, the single-most beloved New York food institution, this can lead to paralysis. But owners Josh Russ Tupper and Niki Russ Federman are treating their load lightly. Their full-service restaurant, Russ & Daughters Cafe, keeps alive all that is beloved about the original whilst carrying it into the future. Plus, with a full bar, it’s an excuse to eat their silky nova lox and soft-scrambled eggs and get soused at the same time.

Ozersky’s rebuttal: ​I can’t say I disagree with this, except to say that if this is a budget restaurant, I’ll take the belly lox. I share Mr. Stein’s appreciation for it though; it’s the only place I know that has opened in the last year that couldn’t just as easily be in another city.

***

Most Underrated Restaurant

Biryani from Awadh.

Biryani from Awadh.

Stein’s pick: Most critics, like the rest of the world, stick to what they know, partly since they are asked to write with a modicum of expertise. While that’s understandable, it does mean a game-changer like Guarav Anand’s Awadh, a new restaurant on the Upper East Side, goes unremarked upon. Awadh focusses exclusively on Awadhi cuisine from Uttar Pradesh in Northeast India and the regional technique of dum pukht (slow cooking). Most of the spices here are complex masalas, which can seem daunting to decipher. But just because the pleasure of this newness, not to mention the food itself, is ineffable, doesn’t mean a critic shouldn’t try.

Ozersky’s rebuttal:​ Who knows? Crazier things have happened. I’d have to go there first. It’s the very complexity of it that put me off—but your review has put in on my radar, so let’s report back on this one.

Ozersky’s pick: ​Let me tell you a story about a restaurant called The Clam. It was original, brilliantly executed, with a costly and impeccably cool design, and came from a chef of spotless pedigree in the world of American cookery. It was in a fashionable section of town and served two or three dishes that outshone anything in New York—the spaghetti with clam sauce, the fried clam and lobster slider, and the clam chowder. And the reviews came out, The New York Times was among the first to … wait, it never got reviewed. Adam Platt also chose to ignore, lavishing his mordant praise on a dozen other places inferior in every way. It’s just weird. I don’t get it. How can a restaurant like The Clam not get reviewed by the Times or New York?

Stein’s rebuttal: I have not been to The Clam, so I cannot assess the claim that it deserves more attention. I can say, however, that a costly design, a chef with a spotless pedigree and a menu of East Coast seafood house favorites don’t seem compelling reasons to review a restaurant.

Dirty French. Photo by Annie Schlechter)

Dirty French. (Photo by Annie Schlechter)

***

Best Dish

Ozersky’s pick: The feijoada at The Cecil and the gumbo at The Cecil both have a fair case, but they cancel each other out. The Nomad Bar pot pie got my nod in Esquire, but as a meathead, speaking strictly for himself, I’d have to say Rich Torrisi’s dry-aged duck breast at Dirty French. When it goes from being duck l’orange to Cantonese roast duck, this won’t be an open question any more.

Stein’s rebuttal: I dislike Dirty French and haven’t had the dry-aged duck breast there. On principle though, a very good dish in a very bad place seems like it should be a wash.

Stein’s pick: The Bowery steak at the just opened Bowery Meat Company takes two of the most cliché words on New York menus these days and makes it new. Josh Capon hornswoggled Pat LaFrieda to give him only the deckles—the second smaller portion of a ribeye—which Mr. Capon rolls up and then broils. Deckles have long suffered from overcooking when attached to a rib eye but here the cut finally gets its due. Mr. Capon has innovated something I thought was beyond innovation.

Ozersky’s non-rebuttal: ​I thought hard about the Bowery steak, which is in fact the dish I want to eat the most of anything that came out this year. But it seemed like too much of a layup. Pat Lafrieda fabricating an all-rib cap steak from Snake River wagyu beef, and Josh Capon laying a perfect salsa verde on top. On second thought, I want to vote for the Bowery Steak too, with all due respect to the Dirty French duck breast.​

***

Best Atmosphere

Kappo Masa.

Kappo Masa.

Stein’s pick: The knee-jerk reaction here is to conflate “a lot” with “best.” But Kappo Masa, the collaboration between the legendary chef and barracuda art dealer Larry Gagosian glows with a quiet self-confidence, quite unlike any other restaurant. With walls of Ooya stone, a massive plinth-like floral vase at the entrance, an impressive Cy Twombly on the wall, smart Lisa Perry-designed uniforms for staff, and a kitchen from which focus and care emanates like heat from a potbellied stove, the 82-seat room proves volume, aggression and extravagance are no match for elegant wabi-sabi minimalism.

Ozersky’s rebuttal:Having never been to Kappo Masa, I can’t say. But I agree with Stein here. Loud and lively is not really what I am looking for in a restaurant. If I want screaming woo girls and pounding techno music, I’ll go to an Atlanta nightclub.​

Ozersky’s pick: The decadence, extravagance, and singular weirdness of The Heath put it in a class by itself. The live music, the lighting—it’s almost like the culinary equivalent of The Box, but with Ricky King’s lardcore-in-British drag food subbing in for trans strippers.

Stein’s rebuttal: Give me trans strippers over beef-and-ale pie any day.

***

Best Trend

​Ozersky’s pick: The rediscovery of a New York culture previously thought extinct—that of old-time soda fountains, many of which have brought phosphates, rickeys, and of course egg creams back to the world. Now if only we could get a working Automat!

Stein’s rebuttal: Not only do I have trouble casting soda as a new trend, but I have also been unable to find more than two places—Hamilton’s and Russ and Daughters Cafe—that are capitalizing on it. So unless Ozersky knows of some soda-jerk speakeasies—now that’s a trend I can get behind—this one doesn’t pass muster.

Stein’s pick: No tipping. What seems prima facie to be an anti-labor trend is actually the best thing that could happen for food service workers. (That and, god bless BDB, a livable minimum wage.) Tipping takes the burden off the business to pay fairly and exacerbates the disparity in pay between front- and back-of-house staff. Now restaurants like Amanda Cohen’s Dirty Candy 2.0 (which will open in January) as well as Sushi Yasuda and Restaurant Riki and a bunch more Bay Area restaurants are banning the practice.

Ozersky’s rebuttal: Built-in gratuities is so self-evidently the right thing to do that it shouldn’t even be a trend; it should be law. But that said, not enough people are actually doing it for it to be a trend. I wish it were otherwise.

***

Worst Trend

Worst trends: Wood ovens. (Photo By Tom Williams/Roll Call/Getty Images)

Worst trends: Wood ovens. (Photo By Tom Williams/Roll Call/Getty Images)

Stein’s pick: Though pleased as punch Anna Wintour can now eat Mighty Quinn’s at the Brookfield Place or that the Far West Side can feast on Seamus Mullen’s deviled eggs at Gotham West or that Todd English is, at least, contained in a basement at the Plaza Food Hall, the trend toward massive food courts seems to undermine the specificity (of time, place, vibe, etc.) that dinner at a restaurant offers. Convenient, food courts are. But so are plastic bags and you still shouldn’t use them.

Ozersky’s rebuttal:What individuality? The whole city is basically a food court now. They just haven’t gotten around to putting a giant condiment station in the center of Union Square Park yet.​

Ozersky’s pick: “Wood ovens” that are in fact powered entirely by blue gas flames. The dishes they produce may be good, but have no more wood flavor than does the WPIX yule log.

Stein’s rebuttal: How about naming names? I’ve seen a lot of wood ovens in my time—Bustan, notably, is a wonderful recent example—but they all seem and taste woodsy.

Suenos.

Suenos.

***

Saddest Closing

Ozersky’s pick: Suenos. There are other high-end Mexican restaurants in New York, some of which were more technically advanced. But none were better, and none more respected and loved within the chef community. The blow dealt to Sue Torres by the transformation of New York chilled the soul of every man or woman who owned their own restaurant.

Stein’s rebuttal: When a thing—a restaurant, a loved one, a man’s youth—passes after a long, healthy and happy lifetime, there is no reason for sadness or mourning. Suenos was sweet, indeed, but its time had come to end. To mitigate the sadness, Ms. Torres has already signed on to another restaurant, Espoleta, the funeral baked meats coldly furnishing forth the marriage tables.

Stein’s pick: It’s been an annus horribilis for beloved New York restaurants: wd-50 is obviously a big and painful one. Suenos, as well, was rudely awakened. But the closing that smarted the worst is Mountain Bird, Kenichi Tajima’s strange poultry-centric restaurant on 145th. Whereas Dufresne and Torres will both be fine and their restaurants will leave a long wake of influence, Mountain Bird’s sudden infant restaurant syndrome death means we’ll never get to taste the evolution of a mind from which a chicken heart and gizzard cigarillo or a foie-gras dumpling consommé came.

Ozersky’s rebuttal:​ Again, I am struck by how much on the same page we are here. Is Mr. Stein coming around, or am I? I came close to naming Mountain Bird, which was so good—so precise, so heartfelt, and such a rare expression of classicism—that I was going to put it on Esquire’s Best New Restaurants list. But after six months their idiot landlord doubled the rent and drove the place out of business. I hope he never gets another tenant. ​

***

Chef of the Year

Jonathan Benno. (Photo by Brian Ach/Getty Images for New York Magazine)

Jonathan Benno. (Photo by Brian Ach/Getty Images for New York Magazine)

Stein’s pick: Straight out of Mérida, septuagenarian chef Jeremiah Tower strides into town like the motherfucking BFG to rescue Tavern on the Green from its WTF FUBAR implosion. With its Katy Sparks disaster behind it, I hope—mostly because I’m a New York City taxpayer—that Tower is up to the job. It’s a huge challenge, financially and logistically, but if there’s a chef who can take it on, Tower is that chef. And even if he fails, he gets the nod for his bucket-list commitment.

Ozersky’s rebuttal: As Yoda said, “There is no try. There is only do.” And he won’t, because it can’t be done. Tavern is bad for good.​

Ozersky’s pick: Jonathan Benno, Lincoln. No chef produces food so much better than it has to be; no chef has a lower profile, or more spotless integrity. And, most impressively, especially in this day and age, the ability and willingness to turn tasting-menu-quality food out to a 200-seat restaurant populated largely by elderly vulgarians. The New York culinary world is more geared to Q-ratings than the People’s Choice Awards, and pro skills are as relevant as powdered wigs, which is exactly why Benno matters so much.

Stein’s rebuttal: What exactly is an elderly vulgarian? Do you mean the people who frequent the opera, ballet and symphony because I’m not sure if vulgar is the first word that comes to mind. Anyway, Mr. Benno is a great chef, true, who opened Lincoln five years ago, which alone might disqualify him. But not because he “produces food so much better than it has to be.” According to what code can a restaurant charge $55 for a plate of pasta and serve food that doesn’t have to be very good?

Sushi Nakazawa. (Photo by Daniel Krieger for the New York Times)

Sushi Nakazawa. (Photo by Daniel Krieger for the New York Times)

***

Most Overrated Restaurant

Ozersky’s pick: Without question Sushi Nakazawa. My experience there was probably the most disappointing of the year. I wouldn’t go there again if it were half the price and tuna were about to go extinct. The fish was good, but not in any way better than what you would find at 15 East or Sushi Zen, or for that matter Blue Ribbon a few blocks away. There is no soy sauce served at all—a heinous omission even in an airport sushi counter. Worst of all was the horrendous apathy, so un-Japanese, towards cleanliness and decorum. I sat at the counter staring at a filthy gray Rubbermaid trashcan, and watched the guys wrap up the fish in saran wrap while I was still mid-way through my omakase meal.

Stein’s rebuttal: That there are trash bins visible, that fish of such superlative quality is stored assiduously, and that chef Daisuke Nakazawa prefers his creations not be drowned in soy sauce at the diner’s whim doesn’t seem to indicate his restaurant is overrated but merely that Sushi Nakazawa is a serious endeavor.

Stein’s PICK: The Torrisi boys have gone from egalitarian and elevated Italian grocers to catering exclusively to a gross oligarchy. Carbone was my least favorite of the splashy openings of 2013 and Dirty French, their stab at a new bistro, is my least favorite opening this year. No one disputes the lads at Major Food Group (Torrisi, Carbone and Zalaznick) are talented business men and chefs, but they are perhaps immoral.

Ozersky’s rebuttal: ​A restaurant has to be hyped to be overrated and I’ve heard only guarded praise at best for Dirty French. I personally am wild about their meats and their armagnac program, but I can see why some people don’t like it. But nobody is overrating it, other than possibly myself. ​

***

Surest Sign of the Dining Apocalypse

Stein’s pick : I’m not sad that wd-50 is closing. Anyone who has read Ecclesiastes will know why. But it does portend a dystopian future in which even very successful restaurants, like wd-50, don’t make financial sense for landlords. In a few years time, the space that is now wd-50 will be the living room of some hedge funder. And the real irony is, where will he eat now that he’s made it impossible for restaurants to survive?

Ozersky’s rebuttal: To me, the mystery is that wd-50 was able to stay open as long as it was. Wylie Dufresne is brilliant, but how many nights do people want to be dazzled by audacious acts of deconstruction? Once a year is a lot. And tweezer food of the kind the restaurant practiced has become very dated, I think—it’s still stuck in the same rut as 10 years ago, when it consisted in many ways of recapitulating what was done overseas by Adriá, et al. 10 years before that. That was a rarefied restaurant and its end was never far off, even at the beginning. Only the squalor of its surroundings allowed it to flourish as long as it did.​

Union Square Café.

Union Square Café.

Ozersky’s rebuttal: ​I think it’s safe to say that Union Square Cafe not being able to afford to stay in Union Square would take this one. The defining restaurant by the most influential New York restaurateur of the last 50 years is priced out of the neighborhood it invented, despite an almost mythic level of popularity? Yes, I think we can say that is a pretty conclusive sign of doom.

Stein’s rebuttal: Sure, both Union Square Cafe and wd-50 are symptoms of the underlying economic problem. 

***

Best Food Neighborhood

Stein’s pick: The best food neighborhood, in my mind, is one in which every block has a surprising or inviting place to eat. Such is the case with the unloved and underappreciated quartiere of Midtown east. Once the home to the city’s best French restaurants, now it is a mish-mosh of bistros (including my favorite, La Mangeoire), cafes, strange steakhouses and lots of bars. It’s exhilarating to wander late on a Friday night, peering into restaurants that have long escaped critical mention. Just watch out for the bros spilling out of bars wanting to punch something.

Ozersky’s rebuttal: ​So what are these Midtown east restaurants? It’s hard to beat Midtown west, with Le Bernardin, Aldo Sohm Wine Bar, Sushi Yasuda, Sushi Zen, Milos, Marea, The Modern, Seäsonal … The only places I eat at in Midtown east are Sip Sak, Teodora and Le Relais de Venise, and those are all places I eat at alone and stoned.

Ozersky’s pick: ​There are no neighborhoods in New York. Outside of Rego Park or Brighton Beach, every place is now essentially the same.

Stein’s rebuttal: A half-assed feint at outer borough love doesn’t undo your demonstrably untrue generalization.

***

What Can We Expect for 2015?

butternut

Butternut squash from Take Root.

Ozersky: Other than the exodus of young talent to other cities, I don’t see there being any new trends that begin here; New York is where trends go to die. Expect more highbrow comfort foods, power cocktails, “haute douchebag” ​restos catering to Ho-Ho-Kus grandees, and so on.

Stein: A continued focus on vegetables (i.e. Narcissa, Take Root, Dirt Candy) with the hoped-for end that a very good meatless restaurant isn’t ghettoized as a vegetarian place but known rather as a very good restaurant. Also, the return of Orange Julius. I’m not sure if this will ever happen but a man’s gotta hope.