New York’s Top 10 New Restaurants of 2021
After a year that began with indoor dining banned in the city, our critic Pete Wells cherishes the places that celebrate sharing — and life.
A panoply of dishes at CheLi on St. Marks Place.Credit…Evan Sung for The New York Times
By Pete Wells
“Eat every meal as if it were your last,” Nora Ephron once said, “because when the last one comes you probably won’t be hungry.” I’ve always appreciated the gallows humor of that remark, but its advice struck me as unwise. Every meal? I love you, Nora, but I’ve got school lunches to make in the morning.
Or I did, until school shut down. Once the city was in the grips of Covid, I had plenty of opportunities to sleep late. What I didn’t have was a place outside my own apartment to eat and drink and carry on. And look, I know many people had it worse than I did, but going out is my job. At some point last winter, when I was writing about the risks of indoor dining, I started to wonder when my editors were going to ask whether they really needed a restaurant critic who seemed to spend most of his time telling people not to eat in restaurants.
Spoiler alert: I’m still here. But over the past two years, during which my mother and many of my idols died, I’ve come closer to seeing things Nora’s way. I believe now that she wasn’t advising gluttony and hangovers, necessarily. To eat every meal as if it’s your last could just as easily mean choosing food and drink and company that make you feel alive.
That, at least, was my guiding thought as I ranked my 10 favorite new restaurants of all those I reviewed this year. Last December, when the time came for this annual ritual, I couldn’t do it. I hadn’t been able to write more than a handful of reviews in 2020. But I’ve been filing reviews more or less weekly since February. I was grateful to be back on the job then, and I’m still not taking it or anything else for granted. If the pandemic wasn’t quite a near-death experience for restaurant critics, it was closer than I expected to come.
And it left me with a sharper sense of the meals I want more of. I think I’m less patient now, less interested than ever in sitting for hours waiting for some exquisitely arranged dollhouse plate that is gone in less time than it takes to snap a picture of it. I want less ritual, more reward. I want food that I can share with the other people at the table — food that makes me say, “You have to try this.” I want food that makes me glad we’re alive.
Half of Dhamaka’s success must have been its timing. New York was still coming out of a pandemic-shutdown fog when it opened in February, a period of glitchy video calls, undefined working hours, creeping anxiety, reheated leftovers and repressed pleasures. Life had gone prematurely gray. There’s nothing gray about the food at Dhamaka, though. Every dish comes at you as if it wants to either marry you or kill you. The chef, Chintan Pandya, had started moving away from polite urban sophistication at Adda Indian Cuisine, in Long Island City; with Dhamaka he left the big cities of India behind, traveling to small villages and home cooks for inspiration. The food is relentlessly unfussy. Goat for the biryani is left on the bone — the neck bone, to be precise. Chicken pulao is served in the pressure cooker in which it steamed, along with its bed of basmati rice — so you can scrape up the golden crust at the bottom of the pot. Mr. Pandya doesn’t strafe every single dish with chiles, but he doesn’t hold back, either. For all the heat and spice in his cooking, though, there’s a lot of nuance to be appreciated once your heart has stopped racing.
119 Delancey Street (Essex Street), Lower East Side; 212-204-8616; dhamaka.nyc
Other Chinese restaurants have arrived in New York to greater fanfare than CheLi, which slipped into St. Marks Place and then, once it had practiced its moves for a few months, sent its chefs (Wang Lin Qun and his wife, Fang Fang) to Flushing to open a Queens location. But don’t be fooled by its modesty: CheLi’s debut was a major event. The focus is the cuisine of Shanghai. This means more than just xiao long bao, although CheLi makes them very well, as it does other little buns and dim sum treats. The heart of the menu is seafood, prepared with Shaoxing wine and other subtle, aromatic seasonings that support the main ingredients rather than muffling them. Sweet small shrimp, which turn up in a swirl of dry-ice fog, are quietly accentuated by Dragon Well tea; dried peach sap thickens and flavors a crab meat stew; green and red chiles don’t overwhelm the broth in which Qianlong’s Favorite Fish Head is braised. All this is served in a room built to look like the kind of traditional village that China has almost completely erased from its landscape; now that the country has been so thoroughly modernized, rusticated nostalgia signifies sophistication.
19 St. Marks Place (Second Avenue), East Village; 646-858-1866; che-li.com
133-42 39th Avenue (Prince Street), Flushing, Queens; 917-285-2555; che-li.com
A tribute to the Basque cooking of San Sebastián, Ernesto’s might be New York’s most unfiltered representation of the food people actually eat in Spain. Ryan Bartlow keeps the brusque, blunt qualities that another local chef might try to edit out or at least rein in: the heads of garlic, the crates of onions, the showers of olive oil, the parade of organ meats. Sometimes they all meet on one plate, as they do in the Madrid-style tripe or the bar sandwich of head cheese in a glistening brick of aspic, served on a bun with raw onions. The less confrontational dishes, like salt-cod fish sticks draped with fried green peppers, or grilled pork collar facing a crowd of minted peas, aren’t pussyfooting around, either.
259 East Broadway (Montgomery Street), Lower East Side; 646-692-8300; ernestosnyc.com
The owners of Contento started with the idea that people with disabilities should be able to go anywhere in the dining room with almost no fuss. They ended up doing more than removing barriers; they came up with a thoroughly new idea of hospitality. Yes, on any given night there may be guide dogs by the tables, wheelchairs at the bar, and knives and forks designed to be held by people with hand tremors. But there’s more going on: Everybody in the room seems to feel as if they belonged there. Of course, it helps that Contento has enough good things going on that you want to keep coming back until you belong, too. Oscar Lorenzzi, the chef, has a sophisticated sense of how bring French, Peruvian and other cuisines into the same conversation. Contento would be a destination solely on the strength of its wine list; it makes you want to ask questions, and then follow up on the answers by drinking something you’ve never heard of.
88 East 111th Street (Park Avenue), East Harlem; 646-410-0111; contentonyc.com
The food is Middle Eastern, and the tone is exuberant. Ayesha J. Nurdjaja seems to throw everything she’s got into her menu at Shukette, which radiates a love of pickles, a passion for dips and charcoal-grilled skewers, a near-mania for breads hot from the oven. Fresh herbs are tossed without restraint over the hummus and salads and meats. They even make their way into the elaborately composed sodas called gazoz; a big hit in Tel Aviv, they look like floral arrangements suspended in seltzer. Needless to say, the energetic approach extends to the dining room. Plates rain down minutes after they’re ordered, even the best-mannered diners reach and grab and poke, and quiet is as scarce as an empty square foot of tabletop.
230 Ninth Avenue (West 24th Street), Chelsea; 212-242-1803; shukettenyc.com
6. Gage & Tollner
First, let’s take a minute to be glad we’ve got Gage & Tollner to talk about. We almost lost it in 2004, when the gas chandeliers in the Victorian dining room in Downtown Brooklyn were snuffed out for the last time. If New York were Paris, Alain Ducasse, Jean-François Piège or another chef with a knack for scraping the rust from classic restaurants would have scooped up the space years ago. But in New York, property goes to the highest bidder, no matter how gruesome the outcome. It took almost two decades, give or take a pandemic, before Sohui Kim, Ben Schneider and St. John Frizell got their hands on the lease and brought Gage & Tollner back to life. The chandeliers are electric now, but the room has a soft, honeyed glow; the mood is life before Edison, to say nothing of life before Zuckerberg, and the menu offers a contemporary view of Gilded Age indulgence, starting with Parker House rolls, platters of oysters and bowls of Edna Lewis’s she-crab soup; building to steaks, chops and (Lewis’s hand again) fried chicken; and reaching a crescendo with a baked alaska the size of a woolly mammoth’s head. All this, plus a punctiliously made cocktail or two, may have you wondering whether there’s a cure for gout. But the space is unquestionably giving more to Brooklyn’s civic life now than it did as a store selling scrunchies and cellphone cases.
372 Fulton Street (Smith Street), Downtown Brooklyn; 347-689-3677; gageandtollner.com
John Fraser and Rob Lawson give us a fresh look at the Greek and Turkish cooking of the Aegean coast at Iris. Generally a rigorous simplicity reigns where Greek cuisine is concerned, but the two chefs manage to complicate the picture without confusing the matter. To a mashed eggplant salad, they add roasted peppers, toasted pine nuts, fresh herbs and more than a trickle of vinegar. Hummus is soured with both lemon juice and sumac, then finished with sesame seeds. A Turkish pide, a canoe-shaped feta pie, is seasoned with leeks, fresh dill and crunchy pink pickled onions. Amy Racine’s wine list goes off in original directions, too; I doubt any restaurant in the city sells as many bottles from Turkey, and the stylistic range goes from new school to ancient school.
1740 Broadway (West 56th Street), Midtown; 212-970-1740; irisrestaurant.nyc
I’m tempted to say 2021 was the year of the plant-based restaurant, but I have a feeling that 2022 is going to be intensely plant-based, too. Out of the new crop, Cadence may have the most surprises up its sleeve. The chef, Shenarri Freeman, serves an exquisitely tender pancake with syrup, but the batter happens to contain both garlic and black-eyed peas, and the syrup is green with fresh sage. Lasagna with fake-meat Bolognese is rolled up, like manicotti, but also breaded and fried, like catfish. And I, for one, did not expect that when the platonic ideal of picnic potato salad finally came to New York, it would be served at a vegan tasting counter in the East Village.
122 East Seventh Street (Avenue A), East Village; 833-328-4588; overthrowhospitality.com
9. Chapli & Chips
Pashtun-style patties of spiced beef, lamb or chickpeas, flattened by hand and fried in a cast-iron skillet, are the specialty of Chapli & Chips, a sidewalk cart on the eastern edge of Queens. While the patty is still sizzling from the oil, it is hacked into strips and either rolled up inside a flour tortilla meant for burritos or arranged over long grains of Pakistani sella rice, steamed with cloves and cinnamon. Both the sandwich and the platter are opportunities for deploying the many sauces cooked up by the cart’s proprietor, Karim Khan, particularly the smoky and gloweringly spicy hot sauce. All the details are carefully tended to, down to the French fries that are cut to order in a hand-operated press mounted on the side of the cart.
257-03 Hillside Avenue (257th Street), Bellerose Manor, Queens
10. Yoon Haeundae Galbi
Yoon Haeundae Galbi is a tribute to a decades-old restaurant in Busan, South Korea, that specializes in four items: grilled short rib, grilled marinated short rib, bulgogi and soybean stew. The meat is cooked on what looks like an ancient warrior’s helmet; all the fat and juices run down to a wide brim. Once the meat is finished, you can dip it in spicy sesame salt and roll it up in lettuce while the helmet’s brim is used to cook potato-starch noodles; they take on so much of the meat’s flavor that they almost qualify as a separate cut of beef.
8 West 36th Street (Fifth Avenue), Midtown; 212-691-8078; yoon-nyc.com
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