I'd been confident that no matter what happens, I'll have work, because there's always a restaurant hiring. Front, back, bookkeeping, shove me somewhere that sells food and I'll figure out how to be useful. The pandemic proved me wrong. We all feared different things at the start of this—our most vulnerable loved ones getting sick, getting laid off work, running out of toilet paper. Hardest for me was watching the restaurants in my neighborhood shut down one by one. As we walked the dogs every morning, the East Village quickly transformed as our favorite spots closed up shop, some just for the moment, and too many for good. Even the restaurant group (yes, the entire group) Ham was working at shut down for months. I truly thought I had the unstable gig working at a magazine (who reads magazines anymore, anyways?).
This year I'm grateful to have restaurants back and proud of my neighborhood for getting vaxxed and staying masked, so we could all return to dining. This was my favorite summer in New York, seeing all the creative ways restaurants set up their outdoor dining spaces. Upstate now has more seating outside than they ever did inside. We had a romantic dinner at Empellon Taqueria under their tents during a summer downpour. And I love getting pizza on the sidewalk at Motorino. I still think about Prune and hope they come back in some form.
Here are some of my favorite meals of 2021.
I know what you're thinking...fusion? But Chef Christine Lau and her team at Kimika have single handedly changed my perception of the word. At Kimika, Chef Lau combines Italian and Asian techniques, with local ingredients, and the results are pure New York. Start your meal with a selection of tsukemono, Japanese-style pickles, made with the best the market has to offer. There's fried tortellini in a brodo with the silky body of egg drop soup. Her cheesy lasagna swaps the pasta for crispy rice cakes, and lightens meaty crumbles of Italian sausage with perky bites of kimchi. And do not leave without trying Pastry Chef Clarice Lam's Yakult soft serve with seasonal fruit or mochi-topped crostada with bitter kimchi caramel.
I’ve already talked about how Atomix is my favorite tasting menu experience in New York City, so it should be no surprise that they make this list. The husband and wife team of Junghyun and Ellia Park really knock it out of the… park! Chef Junghyun classically starts the meal off with with a generous helping of uni, crowning a traditional "alcohol" bread called sul bbang. I found myself learning about Korean dishes that I had never heard of before, like delicate persimmon leaf tea that gave me whispers of the the fruit at its ripest, and cheonggukjang, a funky fermented soybean that was turned into an umami charged sauce for lamb. Ingredients like ayu, a Japanese sweet fish, were so fresh, I appreciated that their simple fried preparation allowed them to shine. The star of this experience though are the cards that you are presented throughout the meal, giving you the context you need to fully appreciate each meticulously prepared course.
There is no better person to be in charge of your sushi omakase than Chef Eiji Ichimura. His mastery of the craft is apparent in every carefully assembled piece of nigiri placed in front of you. He specializes in aging fish, something that is mostly reserved for beef in the New York dining scene. By lightly seasoning the fish and letting it sit at a specific temperature and humidity for a certain amount of time, the texture transforms and the umami deepens. His meticulously aged fish has a tender snap and explosive flavor that I haven't found in any other sushi before. When it came to opulence, this meal took the cake. There were perilously stacked, thick slices of fatty tuna, generous dollops of caviar adorning house made tofu with the wiggle of a perfect panna cotta, and silky uni galore. As soon as we entered the restaurant it felt like we left NYC behind and entered a serene oasis. This was a splurge, but one that was well worth it.
Opening a restaurant is incredibly difficult, but when we went to Nura its first week, it seemed like Chef Jackie Carnesi and her team have been open for months. Starting your meal with the bread course is mandatory. The pillowy parker house rolls stained with aji dulce, and the buttery, chewy garlic naan set the scene for a meal filled with a lot of dipping. My favorite part? When there was a streak of sauce to sop up with bread. The snappy grilled prawns with fiery habanero and bright pomegranate left plenty for me to drag my bread through, as did the garlicky green chorizo kofta, whose texture reminded me of my mom's lamb kofta. The menu isn’t expansive and is very easy to share, so with a large group, you can definitely explore it all.
Tip: Don’t you dare leave without trying the spicy and puckery Tajin peanuts. They may have been my favorite bite of the year.
What can I say about Chef Brooks Headley that hasn’t already been said. He is a great human being, the Dr. Doolittle of vegetables, and the best gelato maker in town. He usually combines a unique gelato flavor (like tortilla chip or polenta) with a scoop of seasonal sorbet. The gelatos are lusciously creamy without any eggs, and the sorbets taste like biting into perfectly ripe fruit. Be sure to explore the specials as this is where Brooks and team become market produce whisperers. I have had everything from tender honeynut squash glazed with tart tamarind and filled with a meaty (but vegan!) farce, to a rich braised collard green sandwich with gooey melty cheese. No other person has fed us more in the past 3 years than Brooks. If you haven't been, you won’t be able to try it right now as they are in the process of moving into a bigger space, but I cannot wait for Superiority Burger 2.0!
They may call them adobada on the menu, but Tacos No. 1 make the best tacos al pastor in town. Inspired by Lebanese immigrants, tacos al pastor are made with marinated, thinly sliced pork stacked on a vertical spit, similar to a shawarma or gyro. These majestic mounds are called trompos, and at Tacos No. 1, they are always slowly spinning by the flame, getting deeply caramelized and crispy. This is key, because when that meat is sliced off, you get a combination of the crunchy exterior and the succulent pork underneath. The shaves of pork top a tortilla so fresh it's still steaming, along swipes of bright red and green salsa. Don't be discouraged by the long line, they may be the most efficient kitchen team in town. You'll be savoring your taco adobada before you know it, but I always get a horchata to sip on and sweeten the wait.
Chef Nate Lingwan and her team dig deep into classics not typically served at other Thai restaurants. I've had hot and sour Tom Yum soup before, but Soothr's dry sukhothai tom yum noodles is the best version of the dish I've ever tried. They concentrate the flavor of tom yum into what seems like not enough sauce, but after you toss the bouncy noodles with the sauce and garnishes, like dried shrimp, peanuts, and fishcake, the distinctive flavor of tom yum explodes with an unexpected vibrancy. The Nam Tok Moo, a fiery soup thickened with pork blood and garnished with thin rice noodles, pork, and greens isn't something I've even seen on other menus, and it's now what I order on repeat. Be sure to save room for dessert, too. Soothr makes a great mango sticky rice with (somehow always) perfectly ripe mango, creamy coconut milk, and chewy sticky rice.
Texan cuisine isn’t something we come across often, so when Yellowrose came to town with their supple and chewy flour tortillas, there was a stretch when we ate there at least 3 times a week. Another husband and wife team that has knocked it out of the park, Krystiana and Dave Rizo really nail both the San Antonio aesthetic and food. When you walk in you feel like you are walking into a saloon ripped right out of an old Western. While I never visit without leaving with a hearty bean and cheese taco, the specials are where it's at. I'm talking garlicky white bean and charred seasonal greens on a crispy chalupa and sloppy braised boar tortas made on their own fresh bollilo bread.
Our first post-quarantine meal was here and man, biting into a steaming hot potato pierogi (always fried!) never felt so good. I've started taking all my in-person meetings at Veselka, and nothing takes the chill off a cold corporate chat better than a plate of latkes. It's my favorite place to have a classic diner breakfast, the bacon shows up hot, crisp, and fast. Ham always gets the burger, even at 8am, and I always eat his fries. The best part—the freaking hospitality! Even when they are bumping, every server treats you like family. It’s Vito’s favorite place to hang out, too. He gets better service here than us humans get at some other restaurants.