I’ve always been a little suspicious of record reviewers who don’t play in bands. How can they properly evaluate an album if they’re unfamiliar with the delicate art of sticking quarter-inch cables in holes and/or screen freezes and “ProTools has unexpectedly quit” errors? Consequently, as I appear to be incapable of making toast without burning my face, I am doubly suspicious of me when I take to the computer to review a restaurant. I don’t want the same things out of a restaurant experience as the average man: I don’t drink, I eat meat once in a blue moon, and I much prefer bumbling, endearing, drop-the-fork waitresses to smooth-ass pro service. I’m also pretty sure I don’t want the same things from a restaurant as a sophisticate diner does, either: for instance, I have tried to do the multi-course omakase tasting thing, and… no thanks. Dinner should never last as long as a Springsteen show. Give me some bread, a light appetizer, a main course (usually pasta), and maybe a scoop of ice cream and send me home grinning.
There’s one other thing that might make me a suspect dining critic, but this one I’ll stand by: unlike Joe Yelp, I don’t care at all if the plate I’m given is small. A tiny bit of something good is always preferable to a whole lot of mediocrity — and that is true at any price. I never need to be inundated with food: if I just wanted to fill my belly, I could stay home with a paw in a box of Cap’n Crunch. The relationship between value and volume is a funny one to pin down. After 40 years of eating out in restaurants, I’ve come to understand that it’s the cheap joints and barangrills that rip you off, not the fancy establishments with pretentions. A plate of pasta cooked at a Michael White restaurant in New York City could cost you twenty-five bucks, and it might not overflow the bowl the way a fifteen-dollar macaroni grill option at a strip highway restaurant does. But the difference in quality between the two dishes is not ten dollars. It isn’t even ten hundred dollars. It actually approaches infinity. One dining experience was conceived and executed by artists, and the other one is just bulk provided to sop up the beer.
If you order like I do, it’s possible to eat at Michelin-starred places without breaking the bank. Of course, if everybody ate like I did — pasta, a little side dish, nothing to drink, sil vous plait — there wouldn’t *be* any Michelin-starred restaurants. They’d never turn a profit. No restaurant likes to deal with a bunch of lushes, but that bar tab does pay for a hell of a lot of good ingredients for the chef to work with. But I don’t feel too guilty about it. Even in the past five years or so, I’ve noticed a big change: the modern-day chef-auteur prefers it if you’re on your toes. He does not care for a customer who is too blotto to appreciate his taste notes of cardamom, hibiscus, and mahogany wood chips or whatever. Just as Joanna Newsom cares that you notice the subtle vibrations of the rebec and the tarhu in her mixes, a really good chef wants you to apprehend the full depth of her craft and culinary erudition. I do. Or at least I try. Let that be her consolation as I send her off to the poorhouse.
My ten favorite restaurants of 2016, in reverse order, starting with:
#10. The Dabney (Washington, DC) We threw the dice on this relatively new restaurant for three reasons. 1.) the name reminded me of Dabney Coleman, whose work alongside Geena Davis in the Buffalo Bill Show I appreciated. 2.) It’s located in Blagden Alley, a post-industrial, historically preserved area of DC that I’d never visited, and 3.) the chef had cooked at McCrady’s in Charleston. Southern-style restaurants in Washington are always a dodgy proposition, since no matter what the locals try to tell you, DC is effectively extra-regional. The Dabney didn’t remind me much of the Low Country. But what we had was mostly delicious and commensurate with the Dixie farmhouse theme, including ricotta and sunflower sprouts on a pumpernickel toast, smoke-saturated vegetables charred in a big wood-burning hearth and served over whey, a skillet of corn bread and sorghum butter, and some sort of farro thing with sweet potatoes that I still think about. Plus they make reezy peezy, which is tough to find north of Cape Fear. We’ll be back.
#9. The Grocery (Charleston, SC) See, a real Charlestonian restaurant is guaranteed to have seafood on the menu that us Yanks have never heard of: triggerfish, barrelfish, wreckfish, zipperfish, etc. I think I made the last one up. But the other three are real and caught somewhere beyond the point where the Ashley meets the Cooper, and then they’re brought directly to the table, or at least it tastes that way. Carolina seafood ruins me for fish caught and cooked elsewhere, and as far as I can tell, the best place to have a seafood dinner — even better than FIG — is The Grocery. I got a triggerfish, or maybe it was a barrelfish (pretty sure it wasn’t a wreckfish, because I would have made ceaseless, unfunny “getting wrecked” jokes, and I would now not have a girlfriend) and it blew away all the other seafood I’d had in ’16, including the outrageously delicious grilled hamachi collar coated in fish sauce I ordered twice at Uncle Boons. My worry is that the Grocery was almost entirely empty when we went. It’s not a small operation. Hope it’s still around when we visit Charleston next.
#8. Staplehouse (Atlanta, GA) I read a bedazzled review in Atlanta Magazine that suggested that Staplehouse was a restaurant worth flying in for. Atlantans are always trying to get you to visit and wagging bait in your face; guess I’m a sucker because I made us a reservation when we were in Georgia, and lucky us, although we had no idea what we were in for. I figured Staplehouse for a comfortable Southern dining plus daring experience akin to the one I’m accustomed to having at Miller Union. Instead I got some of the weirdest and most compelling food I’ve ever put into my mouth. Many of the dishes were as difficult to describe as an acid trip, but I distinctly recall a carrot and edible flower arrangement that looked like a big orange crown, and a great swirl of green farro and peanuts over some kind of transmogrified mushroom that may have been sentient. Honestly, I’m just guessing. Staplehouse is the kind of place that serves you a gigantic plate of scorched alliums, and you’ll be thinking “how am I going to eat an entire plate of onions?”, and then you take a nibble and oh my god that’s amazing. Next thing you know, the ole platter has been wiped clean. A few months after we visited, Bon Appetit named Staplehouse the best new restaurant in the country. Word’s out. Flying in for a reservation isn’t going to be as easy as it was.
#7 Sarma (Somerville, MA) If you, like me, prefer vegetables and grains to meat and fish, Middle Eastern restaurants are always a decent option. Over the past few years I’ve become aware of some outstanding ones, including the absurdly cheap-n-good Taim falafel shops in New York City, Zaytinya in Washington, the Dizengoff hummus empire that now extends from Philly to the Chelsea Market, and Zahav, a knock-you-dead Israeli place on a hill in the middle of Philly Center City. Sarma, however, beats them all. Since it’s in the Winter Hill neighborhood of Somerville, a Boston tourist may have to take a long trip on the T to get there. Once you’re in, it’s just one fantastic, creatively conceived dish after another, including (when we went) brussels sprouts bravas, red lentil kibbeh made with crab, a stinging-nettle spanikopita, and a ridiculous “seven layer” hummus platter with every grain in the Levant assembled around it. Part of the fun, too, is that the waitstaff bring around dim-sum style plates that aren’t on the menu, and dangle them in front of you like a kitty treat. This kitty finds it difficult to resist, and that sure does run up the bill.
#6. Little Park (Chambers Street, Manhattan) This place is part of a very well known New York City restaurant group, but it doesn’t seem to get the landslide of love that the other NoHo Hospitality establishments do. It’s possible they hired the wrong publicist, or maybe the place’s well-foregrounded resemblance to J-G Vongerichten’s ABC restaurants has damaged its rep. Little Park is no mere knockoff, though, so I’ve got to wonder what gives. Ordinarily, to make it in New York, the city of FOMO, where it’s more important that food look good on Instagram than that it’s edible, a restaurant needs to come up with a signature, photo-friendly dish: the veal chop upside down, or the aluminum siding remoulade or whatever. Little Park’s food is pretty, but I don’t think they’ve got one of those. What they do have is pasta, cooked at an extremely high level, by a chef who understands simplicity and what elements to emphasize. I didn’t think she could top the green spaghetti with walnuts and ricotta until I tasted her girandole and minced mushrooms. (She calls it a “mushroom bolognese”; she’s a card.) Also, good as Sarma was, none of their vegetable dishes were better than the roast carrots with dukkah I had at Little Park. Again this felt like it was kindasorta borrowed from the carrot salad at ABC Kitchen, but I didn’t mind: a visit to ABC means a good twenty minutes spent on the PATH plus a walk over to Broadway from Sixth Avenue. Close enough, but an odyssey compared to the trip to Little Park, which is five blocks north of the World Trade Center. Depending on tunnel traffic, it might take me longer to get into Hoboken. Also, ABC Kitchen is always booked up. Little Park tends to be wide open.
#5. Vedge (Philadelphia, PA) Food at vegan places used to taste like sawdust, tennis racket strings and moral superiority, but that’s changing, I’m glad to say. The restaurant we went to the most in 2016 was a new vegan place in the East Village that could easily have made this list. What I like best about Avant Garden is that the chefs let the ingredients speak for themselves and don’t attempt to disguise them or apologize for building their dishes around them. You’re there because you like to stick plants in your face, and for no other reason. It annoys me a little that the couple that runs Vedge always casts vegetables and grains in the role of meat — it seems unnecessarily envious. Is meat really that great? I sure don’t think so. But if I was ever craving a big juicy slice of skirt steak, I think I’d be more satisfied with a slice of Vedge’s seitan, which will make you forget all the lousy wheat gluten you’ve ever had to eat. Likewise, Vedge’s grilled rectangle of tofu, glazed with ssamjang and served with mushed-up edamame, knocks the stuffing out of most of the fish dishes you’d get at good Japanese restaurants. You don’t believe me, and that’s exactly why Vedge is so amazing — everybody leaves the house converted, even if it’s just to an understanding that vegetables and grains have expressive powers we never thought they possessed. The carrot with sauerkraut, for instance, doesn’t exactly replace a Hatfield hot dog at Citizens Bank Park, but it may make you look at one differently. (Or it may just remind you of the broccoli dog at Dirt Candy.) The composed desserts, on the other hand, are works of a total culinary visionary; I mean, who would have thought that there was room in the stomach of Philadelphians for a zucchini blondie plus rosemary ice cream and a squash blossom gazpacho? I’m glad she had faith in us. I probably would have chickened out and served a pretzel or something.
#4. Frances (San Francisco, CA) This has become one of my favorite spots on the planet, and if it wasn’t on the far side of the continent, I think I’d probably set up a bed somewhere in the dining room. I’m not sure what it’s local rep is, since it’s small and somewhat cramped, it sure ain’t cheap, and it’s buried pretty deep in the Castro. Nothing about it feels particularly fashionable. But as I have come to realize, my preferred style of cooking is Northern Californian, and dinner at Frances feels to me like tipping the entire state of California into my mouth as if it was a giant golden lavash. We have an unfortunate tendency to order the entire menu here, since everything looks so good and then ends up tasting even better than it looks. At the conclusion of the evening I am like a cartoon character too fat to fit in the cable car. San Francisco: where I behave shamefully. Especially when the Giants win.
#3. L’Artusi (West Tenth St., Manhattan) New York City, bless its soul and its bleached Italian roots, is loaded with pasta palaces. Over the past two years of dedicated testing, I have come to the conclusion that the very best of them — better than my beloved Osteria Morini, better than Locanda Verde and Via Carota, better even than the justifiably heralded Batali-Bastianich places — is this understated, long-running Greenwich Village restaurant. Pasta perfection is difficult to attain anywhere; even the macaroni kings miss most of the time. L’Artusi is the swinger with the highest batting average — we’ve been there enough to recognize patterns, and we have experienced pasta perfection at more than half of our visits. Which is unheard of, and might defy some lesser-known law of physics. It’s almost impossible to go wrong here: the vegetarian classic is the preposterously good garganelli with mushroom ragu, but their jaw-dropping spaghetti aglio e olio with breadcrumbs, simple and straightforward as it is, is pasta in its Platonic form. Seriously, if you ordered a dish of pasta in the realm of ideas, this is what you’d get. Meanwhile, Hilary always chooses the tagliatelle bolognese. Her educated position as a dedicated tagliatelle fan and notable pastasmith: nobody does it better.
#2. Piora (Hudson St., Manhattan) Even if some of its dishes are unusual, a place like L’Artusi is easy to explain. It’s an Italian restaurant, it serves pasta, crudo, bottles of wine, and some main courses that, delicious as they look, nobody in their right mind would ever order. If you’ve been to Manhattan, you know exactly the type of place it is. L’Artusi just happens to be the best one of its kind. (mind you, we haven’t been able to land a table at Lilia yet. We’re working on it.) Piora is a different story. I have never been able to describe this place to anyone in a manner that makes it seem interesting or even palatable. I’m going to try again, and I’m sure I’ll fail. What you’ll get here is American cuisine, whatever the heck that is, cooked by a chef who knows his way around the Italian kitchen and adds Korean accents to what he does. The owner of the restaurant is a Korean-American, and he’s frequently out and around the dining room, leading a team of absurdly friendly waiters and waitresses; nearly every time we go, which, given the steep price tag, is maybe once or twice a year, we’re recognized and assured that our presence in the dining room is a total delight. To a Jersey guy accustomed to rude treatment at pizza places down the shore, this kind of courtesy can be downright disorienting. Piora ran a prix fixe until they switched over to the dreaded tasting menu, and then one day they brought back the a la carte option while preserving some version of the omakase experience for high rollers. It’s all a little confusing and maybe even challenging, and if I’ve accidentally made it sound like a fusion restaurant, allow me to bite my tongue. Because it’s not that; not at all. The chef is scrupulous about the food he cooks — nothing here is a slapdash juxtaposition or cultural experiment or even a playful inside joke. He’s got a peculiar and fascinating aesthetic, and everything he does is a perfect expression of his authorship in the kitchen. Imagine a musician with a sound that he can realize effortlessly; drop the needle and within seconds, you know it’s him. That’s what Piora is like. Nothing in this room could be cooked anywhere else, or by anywhere else, and it’s almost incidental that the style is Italian with Korean influences, or American with Italian underpinnings and Asian highlights. Because anything a marketer might call it is inaccurate — what it really is is Chris Cippolone’s personal cuisine, derived from his own experience and imagination and served in Simon Kim’s beautiful dateworthy dining room. (Even the bathrooms are gorgeous.) Portions can be dauntingly small and fussily tweezed — I’ve never left Piora hungry, but then I’m a small feller who would not be able to handle a healthy Middle American portion anyway. You might find the price unjustifiable for what you get. I’m of the opinion that Cippolone is a pasta wizard, and wizardry is something that can’t be priced. The best you ever can do is guess. I concede they’ve guessed pretty high.
# 1. Cotogna (San Francisco, CA) I ask myself to picture my ideal restaurant — a place that I’d invent if I was in the midst of a SimCity-type game and designing a fantasy habitat-neighborhood that catered directly to my tastes. It would have a healthy selection of pastas in high-profile positions on the menu, but not so many that I felt like there was any chance that the kitchen played favorites. There’d be a pizza possibility that I probably wouldn’t avail myself of, although I might be tempted, and the pies and a whole lot of other stuff — mainly vegetables — would come out of a centrally-located wood burning oven. Even though the flames would be visible from the restaurant’s main area, it wouldn’t feel like a farmhouse; instead, the place would be designed to look a little like the front room of an architecture firm but a little more like somebody’s stylish apartment if the local zoning laws were changed to allow big wood-burning ovens in residential developments. Everything from the art on the art on the walls to the utensils would be chosen to reflect the aesthetic of the neighborhood the restaurant is in, thus allowing me to indulge my Godzilla-like fantasy of actually devouring the city itself. (Daintily, mind you.) The service would be friendly but not slick, and nobody would push alcohol or the seventy-five dollar Porterhouse for fifty and then act hurt/disappointed when I didn’t want it. They’d all understand that I was there for a plate of pasta and a scoop of gelato, and maybe some ricotta, and beans, or ricotta with beans, all piled on a grilled piece of bread straight out of the oven. Well, such a place actually exists, and naturally, it’s in the Bay Area. Cotogna is in the Jackson Square area of San Francisco, which is right in the shadow of the Transamerica tower and a not-long walk from the Embarcadero and the Ferry Building. Downtown, in other words; right on the edge of the financial district. It’s the little sister of another place called Quince that’s supposed to be even better, and no, I don’t believe that for a second, because how could it be? Granted, I’ve only ever been to Cotogna during the summer, when there’s a corn pasta on the menu — a triangular ravioli — that is such a perfect expression of summer corn flavor that it’s actually painful to finish. That last bite feels like August turning into September and the ring of the bell and back-to-school supplies at the corner drugstore. Alas there is no more; parting is such sweet sorrow. The only bad thing about Cotogna is that eventually you do have to leave. Come to think of it, I don’t know that for sure. Maybe they can just turn out the lights and stash us in the corner.
Honorable mentions (that haven’t already been mentioned): Houseman (Greenwich St., Manhattan), the retooled Hearth (East 12th Street, Manhattan), Faro (Bushwick), Primo (Rockland, ME), Garrison (Washington, DC), Cakes & Ale (Decatur, GA)
Best Ice Cream: Humphrey Slocombe, San Francisco. I know many bay Area locals swear by Bi-Rite. I don’t want to fight, people — I just want to finish my cone. Last summer they served me a scoop with salt and McEvoy Olive Oil drizzled on top, and holy cow. Sometimes you don’t know what you want until you get it, and then it’s all you want for the remainder of forever.
Best bakery: Tartine, San Francisco. By now you sense a theme. If I lived in the Bay Area, I’d weigh ten thousand pounds. Tartine is the gold standard and I won’t hear your counterarguments. That said, we’ve grown a pretty great one over here: the eight or so breads on sale at High Street On Hudson are amazing, eat-the-whole-loaf in a half-hour type experiences, so, yeah, maybe I shouldn’t be going there as often as I do. The rest of their menu struck me as strange, but we’re lucky to have the bakery. Thanks, Philadelphia, for this and Dizengoff; we owe you a restaurant to be named later.
Best pizza: Arturo’s in Maplewood?, you’ll always be tops in my heart, but the 2016 title goes to your little cousin. This summer, Razza was selling a pie covered in honey, ricotta and a variety of hazelnut developed by the agriculture department at Rutgers. Everything tastes better to me when it’s framed as a science experiment. Anyway, this was like no pizza I’d ever had, and I demand another one next summer. Don’t make me raid the laboratories in New Brunswick, Razza. In general, Jersey is woefully underrepresented on this list, which wounds my pride. What can I say?; we traveled a bunch. We’ll be looking to remedy this in 2017 — stay closer to home, eat more fried dough and Italian bakery cookies, etc.
Best restaurant decor: Probably ABC Kitchen, since I’m twee like that. Make my restaurant look like fairyland, Vongerichten.
Best meat dish I ate: After going to see the Fischli & Weiss exhibition at the Guggenheim with George The Monkey, we stopped at the Sant Ambroeus on Madison Avenue. We were tired and wet (it was snowing), and I ordered a culatello panini with artichoke cream, thinking it was some kind of cardoon. Seriously, I didn’t know what it was. Well, I found out what it was: totally delicious. I always feel bad about eating a mammal that I could have been friends with, but trust me, that pig died a hero.
Best sandwich, period: The Noble Eatery in Phoenix sold me eggplant-leek puree plus Anaheim peppers stuffed into a hollowed-out bread that played like an Italian reinterpretation of a pita. This came with a salad of so many various grains I blacked out momentarily from herbivoric joy. Instead of going out for dinner, I ought to just roll around in a vegetable patch. It would probably have the same effect, and I’d get more exercise.
Best beverage: We’ve taken to ordering mocktails at fancy restaurants, which helps undercut some of the guilt I feel about not blowing a hundred stacks on bottle service. I think of it as a challenge to the bartender to come up with something good, and usually she’s game. But my very favorite places have nonalcoholic concoctions at the ready: Avant Garden used to serve hibiscus juice that I would happily swim in. My favorite, though, was a glass of strawberry lemonade I got at Frances. I don’t even think it was carbonated. But it was an expression of California love if I’ve ever tasted one.
Best salad: Frances almost took this one too. They graced us with a panzanella with croutons the size of golf balls. That might not sound like a selling point, but listen, pal, you didn’t taste those croutons. But the winner was a pomegranate, radicchio, and blood orange salad we got at Maialino, which was a total Christmas-season delight. Hilary attempted to replicate it for her own Christmas dinners. I think she did, but she’s critical of herself and might say otherwise; you’ll have to ask her yourself.
and finally, just for the hell of it,
The worst thing I ate all year: It wasn’t the strange, oddly pebbly filling I received in the vegetable tacos at a place called the Mission in Scottsdale, Arizona, although that was probably my most disappointing meal out. It wasn’t the onion tater tots — pungent, festering greaseballs — I ate at a Dunkin’ Donuts en route to Great Adventure, although that was definitely my grossest meal out. No, it was an alleged chocolate ice cream cone we attempted and failed to eat at an innocuous shop on the main street in Providenciales. The ice cream, which may have accidentally fermented?, tasted of greywater and floor cleanser and had the consistency of a wet cotton ball. It’s our own fault: Providenciales is basically a desert climate. We shouldn’t have expected to get good ice cream there anyway.
Okay, if you enjoyed this examination of me in listicle form, tune in tomorrow, and we’ll talk about boardgames. Can’t eat those, but they sure are fun.