Monday December 21, 2009
- Marea - New York, NY
In a year when fine dining seemed barely able to survive, Marea did more than just bravely open for business. It effortlessly established itself as one of New York's top restaurants. Prices are high (Adriatic Seafood Soup, $45). The room is snazzy, steely, and slick (onyx bar, glowing walls, bright red lampshades). All quite sumptuous, but primary credit for the glorious ascension belongs to Michael White, now America's top Italian chef. (Not bad for a fellow from Wisconsin.) Not only has he never met an Italian recipe he can't cook; he's cooking them all at the same time.
- Craigie on Main - Cambridge, MA
Some might call it a Best Moved Restaurant, not a Best New Restaurant. Tony Maws's old Craigie Street Bistrot, nearby, was nearly impossible to get into. Now that he's at a new location more than twice the size, his place is still nearly impossible to get into. The current spot doesn't have an open kitchen; it has an open-door kitchen. Walk in the restaurant and the cooks are right smack in front of you, working hard and fast. It feels like you're entering a home kitchen through the back door, although Maws's childhood probably wasn't the inspiration.
- The Bazaar - Los Angeles, CA
The first time you go, you'll find yourself deliriously lost. The Bazaar, in the SLS Hotel, is magically absurd, a fun house of possibilities, absolutely delicious and visually decadent. You drift. You circle. You won't know the Rojo room from the Blanco room, and you surely won't understand the half-hidden Saam room (tasting menu, fancier service). The food, by America's greatest Spanish chef, José Andrés, isn't the rustic dishes he learned to make back in Catalonia. It's Spanish food that's lost its exotic ethnicity, become whimsical, playful, and even molecular—mad-scientist stuff.
- Ping – Portland, OR
Chef Andy Ricker and his partners took over a building previously occupied by a Chinese restaurant with one of the best names ever: Hung Far Low. Ping is way far better, so ambitious its mere presence is revitalizing Portland's Chinatown. Ricker has assembled a menu that's multi-Asian, not Asian-fusion, the dishes rigorously executed and tasting uncannily authentic—there isn't much kowtowing to the West.
- Anchovies & Olives – Seattle, WA
The best empty restaurant I've ever seen. Anchovies & Olives stays open until midnight in a city where everybody is in bed by 10 p.m. I arrived an hour before closing time. I not only ate alone, I also drank alone—even the bar was vacant. The place, as you might expect, was dark, quiet, and still. I expected to encounter Edward Hopper painting a West Coast version of Nighthawks. All the same, chef de cuisine Charles Walpole was on the job, and his food was everything the ambience was not: bright, vibrant, and lively.
- Aldea – New York, NY
Here you'll find the stupendously well-trained (David Bouley, Alain Passard, Roger Vergé, Alain Ducasse, Martín Berasategui) Georges Mendes, New York's breakout chef of the year, finally graduated to a restaurant of his own. Mostly he prepares Portuguese cuisine for the best of reasons: He grew up eating it. If you've never had the slightest interest in such cooking, that will change once you try his upscale version.
- Bibou – Philadelphia, PA
Bibou (technically Bibou BYOB) is the latest and most improbable reason to head down to traditionally Italian and now somewhat Latino South Philly. It's pure French. Chef-owner Pierre Calmels is French. The hostess (his wife, Charlotte) is French. The butter is French. The music is French. The menus adorning the wall are French. The recipes are, of course, French. Dishes include such rustic favorites as braised pigs' feet stuffed with foie gras, and hanger steak with green-peppercorn sauce.
- 54 Mint – San Francisco, CA
Three not-so-young Italian guys got together and opened a not-so-great-looking wine bar in a downtown plaza. The decor: wooden tables, pots, vases, food products. Not so promising, right? Don't underestimate old Italians. They can make any dish seem uncomplicated and natural, no matter how many ingredients it contains. It's not only the food that seems Italian; the three guys are swell to customers, which is how guys who grew up in or around the south side of Italy are expected to act. I sat down on a cold night, and one of them pushed a platter of salumi, some housemade and some imported, in front of me.
- The Bristol – Chicago, IL
Superficially a simplistic spot. Blackboard menu. Metal chairs. Edison bulbs. Brick wall. Wood floor. No tablecloths. Nice beer list, better wine list. Very much the contemporary bistro, safe and sanitized. That is, until you notice the food. It's mostly offal, innards, and oddities. I ate roasted marrow bones with red-wine-shallot jam, carpaccio of lamb loin, stewed goat on chitarra pasta, and a fabulous tongue parfait en gelée—succulent bits of tongue mixed with a mirepoix of crunchy veggies and topped with a horseradish crème fraîche.
- Serpas – Atlanta, GA
Serpas is a big, shiny, modern spot in the Old Fourth Ward, where old-fashioned manufacturing played out. It's so noisy our waitress had laryngitis from yelling at customers. And the cooking of chef Scott Serpas is just as raucous—a little messy and a touch out of control, but I love his passion and sense of place. He does mostly southern and New Orleans food—sweet, hot, and spicy, with a bonus of being endlessly inventive. The fried oysters come with rémoulade, classic enough, but he tops them with pickled chilies. His caramelized-onion-and-beef-short-rib soup with a single Brie-topped floating crouton—not so southern, come to think of it—is what French onion soup dreams of becoming.