The Best Food, Oddest Drinks, and Strangest Nights From My Year Eating New York

As of this writing, I’ve eaten 315 on-the-record meals for my tenure as the diner-at-large. I should feel utterly sated and ready to hang it up, and yet if there’s one thing eating professionally throughout New York City demonstrates, it’s just how impossible it is to try everything, and it makes you want more. We all eat to survive, but what’s clearer is that it’s a string that pulls us together, through communal tables, bizarro cocktails, street meats, and tableside noodles. All of this is to say my heart is full, but I’ll be hungry tomorrow. Cue the highlight reel!

I could have devoted this entire column to new Korean restaurants. Why has New York experienced a burst of creativity and ambition in Korean cooking that might even rival Seoul? My guess is the growing financial power of Koreans in New York (and Jersey) and the popularity of K-things coupled with the chefs’ own aspirations to make it in the city where many came out of institutions like the CIA. With so many places to choose from, there’s a specific vibe for every occasion. Here are some of my recommendations of places both old and new:

For a chef’s table: Hooni Kim’s Meju
For a classic tasting menu: Nate Kuester’s cooking at Naro is smart and witty without losing any of the essential pleasures of Korean cooking. The vegetarian menu is particularly stunning.
For dinner with the homies: Ariari, the Busan-style seafood restaurant.
For a midtown lunch: Olle, a new spot on 30th Street, has dishes I don’t often see, like snails, braised pomfret, and a stew made of shiregi (dried radish leaves) that’s cooked with short ribs for a hearty winter meal.
For no-fuss delivery: Woori, a mom-and-pop shop near Fort Greene Park, always hits the spot.
For a night out before or after karaoke: I’ve had a lot of great nights at Bangia … I think.
For BBQ: Take the LIRR to Murray Hill, Queens, to Daori, a duck BBQ place where the loan sharks go. Get the potato pancake while you’re at it.

Restaurants are in their big IP era: Post-lockdown, restaurateurs are going Marvel: opening big, pricey boxes that often resemble ’roided-out mass-market versions of smaller ideas. French-Italian fare is the restaurant equivalent of a four-quadrant tentpole film, and there are a lot of big swings down the middle: Bad RomanCafé Carmellini, Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s Four Twenty Five, and on and on. Some are solid (like Carmellini). Others aren’t.

My most surreal dining experience: Across from Little Island is an expensive Korean restaurant at Genesis House, an “immersive” showroom for Hyundai. I arrived one night in March and went to the second floor to an empty dining room — a huge glass space with a wooden structure of open shingles and beams modeled after Korean palaces. The food riffs on royal cooking — one of the chefs who “curated” the menu was ordained by the government as a protector of the cuisine — as the hanji table mats and silverware celebrate Korean artisanship. Here was a display of Korean cultural history organized around selling luxury cars. Watching the cars zooming under my feet, I felt as though I was eating at the edge of civilization.

Favorite celebrity sightings:
 1. Tracee Ellis Ross having dinner with Thelma Golden at Hav & Mar.
2. Austin Butler with a gaggle of girls at I Sodi.
3. A pre-breakup Antoni Porowski with his fiancé along with Bravo employee Leah McSweeney at Raf’s.
4. Was that Boy George at Indochine?? We debated.

Four thoughts on lunch:
1. There’s a case to be made that Xi’an Famous Foods is the best restaurant in New York because of its combination of consistency, convenience, price point, deliciousness, and various signs of admonishment on how to eat the noodles. My only note: Bring back the Tiger Vegetable Salad!
2. It’s hard to beat a bowl of udon at Raku.
3. Here’s my hack for Torrisi: Go when it opens for lunch at 11:30 a.m., grab a seat at the bar, and get whatever the sandwich special is, which will certainly come on one of its football-size sesame loaves. It might be porchetta or an Italo-Cubano with layers of salami, mortadella, mustard, and olive relish pressed down into a panini.
4. “Power lunch” is still an anachronism, but for those with corporate expense accounts, the Grill is the place to be. I’ll have the New York strip, thank you.

The tacos I wish had not gone viral: I used to have a nice Sunday routine. I would get a strong cup of coffee at Commune (black, no sugar) and tacos de guisados from Border Town, a pop-up by Jorge Aguilar, who makes beautiful, limber flour tortillas in the café each weekend. The 15-minute wait was enough time to caffeinate and dissociate before the tacos, sometimes filled with eggs and bacon or braised chicharrón or pork colorado. Then, Jaeki Cho arrived. His Righteous Eats videos are very good at spotlighting smaller, salt-of-the-neighborhood places — and after he featured Border Town, those Sunday-morning waits transformed into lines down the block. I am very happy for them, but I do miss those tortillas.

Most convivial dining experience: Ayo Balogun’s Dept of Culture in Bed-Stuy brings diners around a communal table in a way that marries form with function. When everyone takes that first spoonful of his goat pepper soup, there might be some coughs, some giggles of recognition, and then the sounds of slurping and silence.

Most dazzling tableside feat: Order the dancing noodles at Haidilao in Flushing, and a noodle-maker will appear with a piece of dough that they will gradually stretch and pull into a long ribbon as though they were an Olympian competing in rhythmic gymnastics.

Most delightfully confounding bite: Is it chicken? Is it shrimp? The Hakka Flower Blossom Chicken at Hakka Cuisine in Chinatown is an ingenious construction: What looks like a spatchcocked chicken is a thick layer of shrimp paste sandwiched between crispy chicken skin and fried rice vermicelli with taro for a bouncy, crunchy bite.

Most delightfully confounding sips: Alexis Belton’s cocktail menu at Metropolis by Marcus Samuelsson often has a shouldn’t-work-but-it-does quality, with drinks like a bubblegum sour that has a woody plum note to keep your brain from masticating upon first sip, or a refreshing jasmine sbagliato.

The best rice I ate this year:
1. Sailor’s snow-globe-size ball of radicchio stuffed with rice and beans that are, respectively, crusty and creamy, bound together with an inky wine sauce. Somehow, it’s all vegan.
2. Coconut-curry-infused crispy rice salad with sour pork and sorrel made by Chinchakriya Un’s pop-up Kreung at Pioneer Works’ Supper Club series will live in my mind forever.
3. Pork-jowl fried rice with all its crackling bits at Bangkok Supper Club.
4. Bone-marrow malabar pulao at Kebab aur Sharab.

The best $20 I spent: Since the pandemic, street vendors have been in a tug-of-war with city officials. The good news is that the tacos, pambazos, and cemitas are back — albeit in a vastly scaled-back fashion — in Corona Plaza. After getting ousted from Sunset Park, Plaza Tonatiuh found a workaround, transforming an unused parking lot into an open-air market reminiscent of one you might find in Mexico City.

The restaurant that made me wish I could sign up for another year: Naksthe Filipino restaurant by Eric Valdez and the Unapologetic Foods crew that just opened in the East Village. There’s a bar with an à la carte menu in the front, and kamayan — a feast served on glossy banana leaves — in the back dining room. There’s plenty of pork, offal, fish sauce, banana ketchup, and the all-important vinegar in various forms, from a welcome shot in an eggshell in its take on balut, or infused with coconut on top of sea cucumbers. The lechon simply might be the best I’ve had, pork belly served as a ballotine around lemongrass and garlic with a deafening crackle of skin and meat where the juices happily run down your chin. Kanin po!

Where you’ll probably see me eating off the clock next year (in no particular order): EyvalTaqueria RamírezEstelaLeland Eating and Drinking HouseMacosa TrattoriaGene’sSuperiority BurgerLong Island BarCho Dang GolWu’s Wonton King, and La Chacra.