2023 Was a Year of Wild Creative Ambition in Restaurants

The other evening, I broached the seemingly impregnable defenses of what appeared to be a Bond villain’s fortress. Nearly inaccessible from the street — its windows veiled, its entrance unmarked — it was, on the inside, an enormous warehouse, one side a “lounge” and the other a restaurant, nearly unbookable for weeks. Two bar seats were the concession to my arriving, unreserved, with the intention to wait as long as it took. “I have to be honest with you,” a kind hostess told me in an antechamber, as long curtains swished behind her, “I don’t think it’s going to happen.”

We sat anyway and selected drinks from a cocktail list divided florologically (“Daisy and Shochu,” “Cucurbits, Nightshades, and Agave”). “Psycho Killer” buzzed on the speakers. An enormous acrylic painting of a chicken bore down from a brick wall. It put me in mind of a restaurant the ladies might’ve visited on Sex and the City, not least when a waiter came over to reminisce about the space’s recent former life as a taxi depot, or was it a rubber factory? Then the antelope tartare arrived.

God, I thought, not for the first time in four months of eating out nightly, it’s nice to be back in a capital-R restaurant. Here at Ilis, the menu is a mix of Nathan Myrhvold and Lewis Carroll. We dined on aerated eel and sipped cold tomato soup from the lips of a giant clam, its carapace spice-dusted like a margarita’s rim. “Give the sumac a little kiss,” the bartender instructed, and bottom’s up. You may not want aerated eel every night. But when a clam, trussed in twine like an Araki nymph, offers a kiss you pucker up.

Isn’t it the least we can do? After a long limp out of COVID, a padded hangover of comfort food and timidity, New York eating is weirder, wilder, braver than it has been since the now-prehistoric days of three years ago. It’s a return to verve and energy after years in scramble mode: ideas and points of view and big swings. Not every new spot is Ilis — a Noma co-founder’s forager fantasy — but to eat around town these days is to encounter richness, diversity, and surprise.

I had the thought in Foul Witch recently, the “spooky Italian” spot from Roberta’s chef Carlo Mirachi, which began life as an art-fair pop-up, went into hibernation, and returned as a permanent fixture on Avenue A at the beginning of the year. “This restaurant can’t decide if it wants to be clean or dirty,” my dinner companion whispered, taking in the row of Murano-ish chandeliers, the mismatched chairs, and the thudding drum-and-bass on the stereo. Is it Roberta’s scuzz or fine-dining finesse or some goth amalgamation of both? On one hand, it has the stucco bones of a strip-mall Qdoba and a faux-Italianate mural of villa views; on the other, moussey veal-innard tortellini in a sticky broth of Amaretto that grounds this dish somewhere between “Primi” and “Cocktail.” It’s served, naturally, in what appears to be a cracked dinosaur egg.

“You love it or you hate it,” Foul Witch’s service director, Leslie Vinyard, said earlier this year. She meant the music, but the sentiment, I think, covers the whole spot and maybe the whole city. I won’t soon forget this Witch, nor many of its gutsy compatriots around town, each doing their own thing, the paths all different, the outcomes uniquely their own. The only uniting factor is variety and confidence in one’s own creativity. There are hits and there are misses, but at least there are options, a resurgent bounty: pasta palaces and Fauxdeons and 10eme wine bars and Michelin-starred Chinese. Korean food has supplanted French in the highest echelons of fine dining, and the most exciting new opening of the winter, Naks, serves Filipino beef-testicle soup. The dowagers are refreshed (Café Boulud, relocated to 63rd), and the miniatures have been maxed (Superiority Burger, rehomed on Avenue A). Order what you think will be the token tomato salad at your favorite Japanese cocktail bar — Martiny’s, in a former carriage house in Gramercy, whose pepper-and-garlic take on the Gibson was so potently breath-destroying I had to wait until my boyfriend was out of town to brave one — and you will instead be served a Kenneth Noland composition of ponzu gêlée, basil oil, and grapes.

That’s not to say the struggle is over. The restaurant business is, as it always has been, for the brave and the foolish, and even the best often fail to survive. Staffing remains an issue, and while inflation has cooled, prices remain high — high for restaurateurs and so high for diners, who have become uncomfortably accustomed to $70 chickens and $90 steaks. It’s value, not price, that guides us now. I have been wowed by Noksu’s $250-a-head tasting menu served in a subway station, where I nibbled an ethereal crab tart, and bored by $100 entrées in a luxury hotel, buried under a snow shower of white truffle. (Even I had to draw the line at a $200, five-ounce filet mignon served at Le B. Our server assured us the cow was massaged and serenaded before its demise. It counts in my book as an unacceptable indulgence — my corporate card would’ve melted.)

But whatever it costs, for us or for them, this is a restaurant town. Has there ever been a fall as packed with openings as this one? Not in my memory. Is that why all of my conversation has turned to interrogation — friends, neighbors, bare acquaintances — demanding to know where to eat? I recognize this as a professional obligation, to say nothing of a reasonable question. And yet the answer often leaves me feeling as if I’m speaking in tongues. (Probably with good reason—dine around New York of late and you can find yourself eating a lot of tongues. Tongues in the tacos, tongues in the pot-au-feu, tongues in tonnato …) Have you had the raw bounty of Ariari? The panelle of Café Chelsea? The cannoli at Roscioli? There’s no fox face at Foxface, but there’s prickly-pear gelato and kangaroo, too.

There are still the not-so-cheap and cheerful: an abundance of burgers and fries, brick-oven pizzas, seas of shrimp cocktail. The assembly line churns out natural-wine–pouring  small-plateries, and high-end showpieces that spoon out supplementary caviar by the ladleful. But when I think about where our restaurants are going, despite the odds and the impediments, the answer is: going nuts. To dine out is to risk a romance — in the double sense of story and love affair. Some fizzle quickly; the good ones stay with you. Not every kiss begins with clam, of course. But there are stranger routes to love.

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