Here's a rundown of my favorite restaurants of 2011 by my very own "award categories":
Most Innovative Omakase
Sushi of Gari takes the cake on having the most innovative omakase offerings I've had in New York City. Sushi Yasuda and 15 East are my other favorites for fresh varieties of fish, but Sushi of Gari really showcases the potential of where you can take raw fish and transform it with some simple dressings. The chef can broil squid directly with a sea urchin sauce on top. He can also add another dimension to tuna with rich creaminess and a nice grainy texture. Uni can also be blow-torched slightly before serving. Sautéed tomatoes can transform raw salmon into something savory and slightly sweet. Golden eye snapper can also have a nice crunchy finish with crispy seaweed sprinkled atop. Lastly, the neighborhood vibe at Sushi of Gari makes it very unpretentious and comfortable for its patrons. Everyone is so friendly and happy, which is quite contagious during any meal there. And as with any great sushi spot, please request for seats at the sushi bar. It'll make it more dramatic and theatrical as well as personal (since you get to talk directly with the sushi chefs).
Best New Restaurant
The Dutch is a great all-around New American restaurant to satisfy any palate, generous or fastidious, where the menu's cuisine, created by Chef Andrew Carmellini, has clean and fresh flavors with ingredients that are "new" and refreshing for traditional American cuisine. Highlights include a nice glass of Furmint Sec (a Hungarian white wine) on the list of wines by the glass -- a great alternative to my usual Rieslings. The starting courses on the menu boasts a fun list of snacks and appetizers for sharing, like the Little Oyster sandwiches, which are scrumptious and a must-order! The fish "second courses" are perfectly silky with subtle Asian flavor influences like the black cod in yuzu-chili broth. Ideal place to go with friends to catch up over some solid grub.
Best Ingredient-Focused Tasting Menu (Pasta!) and Most Practical Wine Program
Chef Shea Gallate's Ciano boasts a cohesive five-course, pasta-inspired (more pasta-centric, if you ask me) tasting menu for lunch and dinner for a bargain price of $79! Highlights include a ravioli con carbonara -- combination of pecorino, smoked guanciale, hen egg, fried parsley, and black pepper, which was the pasta version of a perfect brunch on a relaxing Sunday morning; gnudi "tre-colore" -- a "nude" ravioli (just filling, no pasta) comprising of three "colored" flavors: parmigiano (white), chevril (green), and black truffle ("red") that were densely savory; and a rotolo di pasta -- a pasta roll that contains broccoli rabe, sweet sausage, and tomato ragù, which was just the right amount of deliciousness inside the roll. The portion of each course was manageable (pasta even influence the last "dessert/sweet" course), and the featuring of pastas that aren't typically seen in nearly every Italian restaurant (spaghetti and meatballs, chicken parm, penne alla vodka, etc.) makes the pasta tasting menu that much more appealing.
John Slover, the restaurant's wine director, instilled "half bottle" program at Ciano. Essentially, every single bottle of wine in the cellar is up for grabs as either a whole bottle or a half bottle! How freaking awesome is that?! You don't have to commit to the entire bottle unless you wish to, plus you can opt to try something else if you're not totally feeling the first half of the bottle. Additionally, you can "shop" off the "already open" bottle list for wines that strike your immediate fancy! So practical and simple -- one more reason to get to Ciano, pronto!
Best Seafood and Extraordinary Wine Pairings
Le Bernardin is definitely up there on my list of "Best Meals I've Ever Had" -- the seafood courses are ethereal and explosive with multi-faceted flavors, textures, and temperatures. What made this meal so memorable and share-worthy were undoubtedly the wine pairings throughout the course of our dinner. Two courses particularly come to mind, as the pairings could not have been more spot-on -- I've never reacted this way to a wine pairing, where I was shockingly wide-eyed with my mouth gaping in a lauding awe. Aldo Sohm, the restaurant's wine director (and world-renowned sommelier -- in fact, named the best one in the world in 2008) certainly has a knack for synergizing the cuisine of Chef Eric Ripert with the magical powers of the fermented grape.
Under the "Almost Raw" section of the menu (i.e., the first course at Le Bernardin), a classic is the Yellowfin tuna, thinly pounded with foie gras atop a toasted baguette covered with shaved chives and extra virgin olive oil. The restaurant typically pairs this course with a Moscatel Seco from Málaga Spain, a dry muscat that works really well with the tuna-foie gras combination as the little bit of residual sugar "connects" (Mr. Sohm's words) the richness of the foie gras with the tuna marinated in lemon juice.
From the "Barely Touched" section of the menu (i.e., second course), you must have the charred octopus with purple basil, fermented black bean, peach sauce vierge and ink-miso vinaigrette. Paired with a Sauvignon Blanc from Marlborough, New Zealand, the octopus will become simply captivating to the palate, almost like you're tasting glorious octopus for the first time ever, being able to truly grasp all of its intricate flavors and nuances in the same way a colorblind individual sees colors for the first time.
Le Bernardin is the perfect place to commemorate a special occasion. Plus, many of the popular dinner items are offered on the not-so-abbreviated lunch prix fixe for a relative bargain price of $70 per person, so maybe play hooky from work and indulge in a fine lunch.
Best Overall Dining Experience
Eleven Madison Park offers what I believe to be one of the best dining experiences in New York City. The cuisine performs at the highest marks, and the service is impeccably welcoming without being overwhelming or too hovering. I always feel completely at home and relaxed, as the service team is so incredibly excited that you're there to share a culinary experience with them. In Chef Thomas Keller's words, it's all about finesse, andEleven Madison Park has always got it. This place will always have my heart (and my beloved tummy).
As the unconventional matrix-format menu changes every season, here are some highlights from the fall-driven prix fixe menu: lobster poached with sherry butter, served alongside with a medley of autumn mushrooms, spinach, and a sabayon of mushrooms -- a velvety finish, both rich and buttery, and the flavor carried throughout each tenderly soft chunk which melts with the creamy sabayon; variations of carrots roasted in duck fat with dates and wheatberries -- an ode to the fall season with its hearty choice of ingredients with the carrots' texture caramelized with a blast of savory flavor like a subtle curry; and the whole duck roasted in lavender honey with figs and turnips -- presents beautifully with a pink center, incredibly crispy skin, and a succulent taste and tender texture as the spices and herbs work harmoniously. Before the last course (i.e., dessert), you will receive an instantly made egg cream (made right before your eyes) -- whole milk, orange syrup and oil, cocoa nibs, and seltzer. It is courses like the duck and the egg cream that makes Eleven Madison Park even more special -- the performance aspect of the dining experience is incorporated so seamlessly into its multi-course prix fixe line-up.
Any meal (whether it be dinner or lunch) should not be missed at Eleven Madison Park. Just like Le Bernardin, the restaurant also offers a relative bargain brunch at a not-as-hefty price of $74 per person. Only difference at Eleven Madison Park is that the menu choices/options are not abbreviated -- lunch has the same exactly offerings as the dinner menu does (maybe just not as many "in between"/ad hoc courses as dinner does).
45 East 22nd Street
New York, NY 10010
155 West 51st Street
New York, NY 10019
Eleven Madison Park
11 Madison Avenue
New York, NY 10010