Spring blossoms and vaccinations are bringing the city out of hibernation. Pete Wells shares his favorite places that opened while many of us were staying home.
Kokomo, in Brooklyn, is an island vacation for people who haven’t been able to travel.Clay Williams for The New York Times
By Pete Wells
As spring takes hold, the sidewalks of New York are filling with people. Their bodies are loaded with vaccine-induced antibodies, and their heads are throbbing with an urge to enjoy city life again. The restaurant business staggered, but never stopped, and if you spent the past year cooking at home you’d be surprised how many new places have sprung up. Here are some of my favorites, all opened during or just before the pandemic, and all offering outdoor seating. I reviewed five of them last year, when I wasn’t convinced anyone was paying attention. The others I checked out and enjoyed, but decided to save in my back pocket for the right moment. Here they are now.
If you have fixed ideas about how a dim sum restaurant should look — waiters trundling steel carts between round tables big enough to seat the Yankees’ starting lineup, and so on — forget them. AweSum DimSum is trying to fast-casualize the genre. You order your har gow and siu mai at a counter in the back of the concrete-and-blond-wood dining area. Then you carry your tray, stacked with bamboo steamer baskets, to one of the small tables nearby or outside on 23rd Street. Each basket is big enough to hold three or four dumplings, their fillings showing through the taut, translucent wrappers like saltwater taffy. The rest of the menu isn’t as awesome, but the dumplings are small marvels that outclass the ones at some celebrated Chinatown banquet halls.
160 East 23rd Street (Third Avenue), Flatiron district; 646-998-3313; awesumdimsum.us.
Ayat presents Palestinian cooking and halal meat grown on small local farms.Adam Friedlander for The New York TimesAyat
Although the graffiti-style sign over the door advertises “Palestinian Street Food,” there is more riveting hummus and falafel elsewhere in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, like the superb Al-Aqsa Bakery & Restaurant on Fifth Avenue. Where Ayat excels is in the more complicated dishes of the Levantine home-cooking canon. Kousa are small Persian squash hollowed out and filled up again with rice and onions. Mussakhan piles sumac chicken and fried onions over a pillow of bread that serves as a plate and then as a second course. Mansaf is a deep-dish amalgam of yellow rice, lamb stew, toasted almonds and spiced saj, a crepe-thin flatbread made over a domed griddle in the front window. All the meat is halal and comes from small regional farms that also supply an eastern Mediterranean grocery store across the street that shares an owner with Ayat.
8504 Third Avenue (86th Street), Bay Ridge, Brooklyn; 718-831-2585; facebook.com/ayat.nyc.
Restaurants on the Rockaway Peninsula are generally divided into longstanding taverns lighted by neon beer logos where locals in baseball caps talk about boats, and scruffy new establishments where day trippers in board shorts talk about coffee grinders. Bar Marseille is something else, a vaguely Provençal date-night venue at the foot of a high-end apartment building. The menu bounces between stuff you might actually find on the Côte d’Azur, like bouillabaisse, Pastis-scented mussels and olive tapenade, and resort food like tuna burgers. But the cold French whites and rosés are authentic enough, the grilled oysters in warm pools of seaweed butter slide down easily, and the sprawling patio is dotted with propane heaters in case there’s a chilly evening breeze rolling off the Atlantic, a block away.
190 Beach 69th Street (Rockaway Beach Boulevard), Arverne, Queens; 718-513-2474; barmarseille.com.
Crispy pata is one of many Filipino classics at Bilao.Jeenah Moon for The New York TimesBilao
What was meant to be a tiny, all-day Filipino canteen became an al fresco Filipino party after Bilao took advantage of outdoor-dining rules to annex the sidewalk and pitch a picnic tent on First Avenue. Granted, it is a particular kind of al fresco party, one at which a noticeable subset of the guests are dressed in medical scrubs. The bet was that the location, and a kitchen versed in the classics, would help lure the many health care workers from the Philippines who work in hospitals on the Upper East Side, and they were right. Like a diner, Bilao will make anything on the menu at any time of day. If you want sizzling sisig, a hash of pig parts on a searing-hot plate, first thing in the morning, you’ve come to the right place. If it’s getting dark and you want stubby longaniza sausages or sweet, cherry-red cured pork belly with sunnyside-up eggs and a heap of garlic-fried rice, Bilao is ready for you, too.
1437 First Avenue (75th Street), Upper East Side; 212-650-0010; bilaonyc.com.
The arrival of a new Hunanese restaurant in New York is always worth noting, but Blue Willow’s appearance in Midtown just before the pandemic was an event. The restaurant is in the hands of the same owner and the same chef as Hunan Cafe in Flushing, Queens, formerly Hunan House, which for at least a decade has been the city’s finest practitioner of the eye-wateringly pungent cuisine of the Hunan province. They gave their Manhattan outpost an intimate, softly lamp-lit interior; it looks like the kind of decadent, westernized restaurant that Hunan’s most famous son, Mao Zedong, would have targeted in the Cultural Revolution. He might not have been wild about the indifferent red-braised pork that bears his name, either. But the whole steamed sea bass in spicy bean sauce is spectacular, the longevity chicken soup with ginseng tastes like it was watched over by a roomful of grandmothers, and the cocktails are so well made that you can’t quite believe you’re drinking them inside a plywood box down the street from Trump Tower.
40 West 56th Street (Avenue of the Americas), Midtown; 212-213-2299; bluewillownyc.com.
The kotatsu tables outside Dr Clark have space on top for a grill and underneath for your feet.Clay Williams for The New York TimesDr Clark
New Yorkers associate the Japanese island of Hokkaido with excellent sea urchin. People from Hokkaido, though, associate it with mutton. Dr Clark (“NYC’s first Hokkaido restaurant and karaoke bar,” per its website) gives you both, though not necessarily on the same plate. Sea urchin is stirred with rice and stuffed into the bellies of squid; warmed with shaved bottarga to make a sauce for noodles; and used as a dressing for French fries. The mutton steals the spotlight, though, even though it is, in point of fact, lamb. It’s prepared in about a dozen ways, but almost everybody at Dr Clark orders jingisukan, marinated lamb cooked with bean sprouts and onions on a domed griddle that is said to be a descendant of Genghis Khan’s helmet. It’s a meal for a group, and all the better if you have it outside at one of the sunken kotatsu tables, which have built-in heaters and blankets for cool nights.
104 Bayard Street (Baxter Street), Chinatown; 917-426-4454; drclarkhouse.com.
Empanology at the Bronx Brewery
After losing its bricks-and-mortar shop in the pandemic, Empanology may have found a forever home in the backyard of the Bronx Brewery in Mott Haven, under the tracks where freight trains and Acela coaches clack along regularly. The empanadas are palm-size, with flaky, thin wrappers, but they are stuffed to capacity. Fillings change frequently, and on a recent weekend the Empanologists’ range stretched from mozzarella with tomato sauce and garlic (the “piece of pizza”) to a bananas Foster pocket with graham cracker dipping sauce. There are also tacos, burgers and sandwiches including, in a true expression of the terroir, a vegan chopped cheese. The cooking is impressive for a kitchen inside a modified storage container hiked up on tire jacks; it easily keeps up with the brewery’s left-field notions like an I.P.A. that tastes like mango lassi.
856 East 136th Street (Walnut Avenue), Mott Haven, the Bronx; 718-402-1000; thebronxbrewery.com.
Masa is ground from purple, yellow and blue Mexican corn at For All Things Good.Adam Friedlander for The New York TimesFor All Things Good
Masa is still the Achilles’ heel of New York’s Mexican food scene. For All Things Good, a cafe in Bedford-Stuyvesant, spent the early months of the pandemic learning to make it from old Mexican strains of blue, purple and yellow corn. The masa, rolled and stretched into different forms, is at the center of almost everything on the menu: half-moon quesadillas, griddled or fried for quesadillas doradas; tender, thick sopes under chorizo and refried beans; salsa verde and supple melted Chihuahua cheese inside an isosceles triangle of masa called a tetela; crunchy round volcanes covered with the same fillings that go inside the tacos. The cooking leans toward a lighter, somewhat Brooklynized view of tradition, meaning vegans will have an easier time with the menu than they would at a regular tripe-and-tongue taqueria.
343 Franklin Avenue (Greene Avenue), Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn; 929-204-4154; forallthingsgoodbk.com.
It takes a light hand to mash up Italian and Japanese cuisines and not get mush. At Kimika, that hand belongs to Christine Lau. Her pizzettes, topped with things like shaved mortadella and strands of stracciatella, are airier than fried pizza has any right to be. A dish called “roe roe roe roe spaghetti” turns four kinds of fish eggs into a sauce that skims across the ocean without drowning in it. Ms. Lau even finds a smart new use for shishito peppers, stuffing them with soy-enhanced Italian sausage before frying them. The theme is carried into the intelligently assembled cocktails, like the reworking of Bar Goto’s Sakura martini focused by a few drops of brine.
40 Kenmare Street (Elizabeth Street), NoLIta; 212-256-9280; kimikanyc.com.
Jamaican-style Rasta pasta is a flatbread topping at Kokomo.Clay Williams for The New York TimesKokomo
The Caribbean getaway that’s been almost impossible to take this past year has come to us instead, setting up its palapas, palms and rum drinks across from the Williamsburg waterfront at Kokomo. This being New York, people eating there tend to dress up in their nightclub outfits instead of cabana wear. But the food is transporting, and fun: wings in a sweet gochujang glaze; a flatbread carrying a substantial load of Jamaican Rasta pasta; chicken and waffles with both whipped coconut cream and a piercing Scotch bonnet hot sauce. Even the vegan dishes are lavish, like the fried lentil balls in rich coconut curry. Pandemic gloom isn’t much in evidence, and nobody seems to miss it.
65 Kent Avenue (North 10th Street), Williamsburg, Brooklyn; 347-799-1312; kokomonyc.com.
The Migrant Kitchen
The menu begins with the Arab imprint on Latin American food, then scrambles everything up into new, cumin-scented forms. Sumac lamb goes into a torta; carnitas go into a shawarma sandwich; falafel goes into a waffle iron and emerges as “fawaffles,” which then become a partner for fried chicken, of course. What might be kitchen pranks are executed with solid culinary chops abetted by a more-is-more seasoning philosophy. The Migrant Kitchen is certainly one of the most original restaurants ever to land on Stone Street, not least because it doubles as a charity; for every $12 spent, a free meal is sent out to a New Yorker who needs one.
45 Stone Street (William Street), financial district; 917-747-5601; themigrantkitchennyc.com.
Korean cuisine hovers over the imaginative cooking at Mokyo.Jenny Huang for The New York TimesMokyo
If you’ve been to Kyungmin Hyun’s first restaurant, Thursday Kitchen, you already know she has the rare gift of setting her imagination flying and then calling it back to earth when it counts. At Mokyo, around the corner on St. Marks, she proves it again with a fresh series of aerobatics. The flavors of a sidewalk vendor’s elote are encapsulated in a ravioli filling. Basil leaves and Brazil nuts bring a twisted pesto aspect to Taiwanese flat noodles in Sichuan chile oil. She hovers over Korean cuisine, but always seems to have time for a quick side trip to Maine or Louisiana or Spain. Her original intent was for Mokyo to be the straight-faced younger sibling, but she had to adapt to pandemic life, which is why her more serious second restaurant will give you a glow-in-the-dark cocktail in a plastic pouch.
109 St. Marks Place (Avenue A), East Village; 646-850-0650; mokyony.com.
Last year, a floating Burmese pop-up called Rangoon NoodleLab put down roots on Prospect Place in Brooklyn and shortened its name to Rangoon. Noodles are still very much in the picture; the mondi thoke, cold vermicelli enhanced with chickpea powder, is excellent, as is the mohinga, a fragrant fish soup with rice noodles and a lacy onion fritter. But Rangoon also has curries with dense overlapping layers of spices and a modern rendition of the classic Burmese tea-leaf salad lahpet thoke that crackles with toasted seeds and nuts. The tiny dining room was not built for the age of social distancing, but there’s a charming backyard and an all-white louvered platform in the street that should someday go in the Museum of Pandemic Architecture.
500 Prospect Place (Classon Avenue), Crown Heights, Brooklyn; 917-442-0100; rangoon.nyc.
Silver Apricot applies a seasonal farmers’ market approach to Chinese cooking.Emon Hassan for The New York TimesSilver Apricot
A Hudson Valley farm-to-table approach is generously interwoven with Chinese ideas at Simone Tong’s latest restaurant, Silver Apricot. In the fall, thin coins of Chinese sausage clung to caramelized brussels sprouts in a sweet-spicy maple glaze. With spring, she has moved on to grilled asparagus and steelhead trout given a sweet-and-sour treatment. The same sensibility is in place, though, and so are the spirals of puff pastry seasoned with northern Chinese zha jiang, a savory sauce more commonly found on noodles. All the wines are American, and many are made in the gentler, less pumped-up style of the past two decades. There are discoveries to be made, and one of them is how readily these wines harmonize with Ms. Tong’s cooking.
20 Cornelia Street (West Fourth Street), Greenwich Village; 929-367-8664; silverapricot.nyc.
Ann Redding and Matt Danzer wanted Thai Diner to be the more casual sister to Uncle Boons, one of the city’s defining restaurants of the past decade. Then they closed Uncle Boons permanently in the pandemic. This painful loss for New York is partly offset by the survival of a few key dishes at the newer place, like the potent khao soi and the straightforward fried rice made with enough lump crab meat to silence a Baltimorean. There are fresh consolations, too. Because it’s a diner you can have breakfast, like an egg sandwich filled out by sai oua, or a plain American hamburger with crinkle fries for lunch. And the candy display definitely outshines that classic diner send-off, a dusty bowl of pastel mints with a spoon. The dish that may cause you to make up reasons to wander down Mott Street, though, is the pink mound of chopped liver laced with red curry paste; spread it on a scrap of roti with some fried shallots.
186 Mott Street (Kenmare Street), NoLIta; 646-559-4140; thaidiner.com.
Kub klaem or kap klaem are what people in Thailand eat when they’re not really eating — whiskey snacks. A few years after Andy Ricker’s Whiskey Soda Lounge tried to make kub klaem a thing, four Thai-American restaurant workers are having another go at it at Tong, in Bushwick, Brooklyn. The chef, Chetkangwan Thipruetree, has assembled a big list of little bites: mum, a crumbly and tangy beef-and-liver sausage; beef tartare in the Isan style, raging with chiles; banana-blossom fritters, which unfold as they fry to look something like soft-shell crabs; and grilled octopus and red chiles splashed with a sort of vinaigrette of lime juice and fresh herbs. A few of the cocktails sound like fruit salad with alcohol, but a homage to the manhattan, the Old Pop, only goes as far as orange blossom water.
321 Starr Street (Cypress Avenue), Bushwick, Brooklyn; 718-366-0586; tongbrooklyn.com.
Tex-Mex is probably the least respected of America’s regional cuisines. In part this is because, like some Texas politicians, it doesn’t always stand up to scrutiny once it leaves the state. Yellow Rose is a rare case of a Tex Mex taqueria in New York that honors the legacy of refried pintos, salsa tatemada and the all-important flour tortilla. To avoid starting an interstate war, let’s pass over the queso, which is made with cashew cheese. Instead we shall zero in on the wonderful fresh tortillas and the tacos built on them: chicken stewed in salsa verde until it’s olive green; beef-cheek barbacoa; fried cubes of potato warmed in ranchero sauce; and beef braised in what Texans, and pretty much only Texans, call “chili gravy.” If you buy a dozen, it costs $50 and you get to carry them away in a pizza box, which leaves one hand free to carry a jug of margaritas.
102 Third Avenue (13th Street), East Village; 212-529-8880; yellowrosenyc.com.
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