2007: Let’s Eat, Not Fuss
AS 2007 drew to a close and I ricocheted around the city to sample the latest crop of restaurants, I was struck by how seldom I found myself in stylish showpieces beseeching rapt attention, how often I visited humbler, more peculiar haunts. That’s where the buzz was. Much of the talent, too.
What was your favorite restaurant of the year?
I went to Market Table, in Greenwich Village, where the team that made the Little Owl so wildly popular wasn’t looking to make a bolder statement. I reached its 32-seat dining room through a front area that’s essentially a grocery store, with maple syrup on the shelves and imported cheeses in a glass case. The simple message: good food here. Sold or served. Take your pick.
I stood to eat at El Quinto Pino, a flea speck of a tapas bar in Chelsea with even less space than its diminutive, beloved older sibling, Tía Pol. I was in and out in under an hour, during which I had the sandwich of my life, filled with vivid orange uni.
At Shorty’s .32, a dark hideaway in SoHo, I needed only a minute to read a menu of little more than a dozen savory dishes. Its chef, Josh Eden, previously assembled nouvelle Chinese cuisine under Jean-Georges Vongerichten at 66. Here he prepares short ribs, roasted chicken, a hamburger. And he prepares them very well.
Restaurants like these aren’t a new phenomenon. But in 2007 they seized the foreground in a new way, commanding more attention and drawing on the gifts of restaurateurs who might have once staked grander claims. They reflected a year in which low-key charm usurped flashy drama, small was big, and idiosyncratic shrines replaced haute temples as go-to destinations for gastronomes in the know.
It wasn’t that new restaurants cared less about their food, often fastidiously sourced and nimbly cooked. They just cared less about presenting it in traditional trappings.
Plenty has been written about the disappearance of white tablecloths and the retreat of formal dining over the past decade, but what happened in 2007 went well beyond that.
Restaurants broke free of convention in ever slier ways, sometimes by refusing to look or behave the way restaurants were supposed to, a movement underscored by the provisions displayed and peddled not only at Market Table but also at BLT Market and Borough Food & Drink. The open kitchen was joined by the open larder.
Stools made a run at chairs. Momofuku Ssam Bar, which expanded its menu and came into its own early this year, proved that when food is as surprising and impressive as it is here, diners will gladly forgo lumbar support and sit at a counter to eat it. For that privilege they’ll stand and wait for more than an hour. Ssam Bar, like many of its peers, doesn’t typically take reservations.
A few years earlier the successes of Prune and the Spotted Pig suggested that a new generation of food enthusiasts would trade convenience and comfort for pure deliciousness, but neither was worshiped quite as fervently as Ssam Bar.
Its chef, David Chang, picked up accolade after accolade. Food bloggers and off-duty kitchen hands from other restaurants turned Ssam Bar into their own late-night cafeteria and culinary salon. And Ssam Bar emerged as the most talked-about restaurant of the year, a compendium of long-growing trends that reached full flower in 2007.
Its menu rejects the appetizer-entree paradigm for an order-as-you-go patchwork of small and medium-size dishes. It weds exacting, enterprising cooking to a pared-down setting that evokes a glorified snack bar. It tries not to be a complete dining experience — for much of the year it had only one dessert, and no coffee — but a specialized, distinctive one.
That’s what food adventurers, many of them young diners with limited budgets but high standards, seemed to exalt, and their adoration flowed to places like El Quinto Pino, with its terse chalkboard menu and scattering of stools.
To Hill Country, which serves top-notch Texas barbecue to meat lovers willing to fetch their food at various service stations (one for the meat, another for the sides, yet another for desserts) and consume it at communal tables. To Resto, a relatively unadorned Belgian bistro that — unsurprisingly — didn’t take reservations in its initial months.
One after another, talented chefs launched atypical enterprises with lower stakes than some of their previous, more fanciful ventures.
Having left Jovia, a starry-eyed Italian striver in a gorgeous space on the Upper East Side, Josh DeChellis re-emerged at BarFry, a shaggier, less expensive restaurant in the Village devoted to tempura. For its part, Jovia became Zoë Townhouse, with food that didn’t try as hard to dazzle.
Alex Ureña converted Ureña to Pamplona, losing the foams and the multicourse tasting menu but adding chickpea fries, meatballs and a hamburger.
Daniel Boulud, who hadn’t opened a new restaurant in New York in more than five years, put the finishing touches on what has been characterized as an embellished wine bar near Lincoln Center. It will be called Bar Boulud, and it is scheduled to open in the coming days.
What else was he planning? A burger-centric brasserie.
And Mr. Chang’s next move? Had he found himself at this level of success a decade ago, it probably would have been a 100-seat, Nobu-glossy expansion of the canvases he has painted on so far: Momofuku Mania. Instead it’s Momofuku Ko, with just 14 seats and a fixed nightly menu determined for diners by Mr. Chang.
Gray Kunz, who once ran a four-star kitchen at Lespinasse, opened an odd enterprise, Grayz, that straddled the divide between cocktail lounge and restaurant, serving haute finger food and affirming the degree to which serious chefs and serious cooking popped up in unusual contexts that defied easy definition.
This was the year of P*ong, where the pastry chef Pichet Ong, having exited the hullabaloo of Spice Market, mingles savory with sweet, and vice versa, in a 700-square-foot storefront in the Village with just 34 seats, 14 of them at a long bar (more stools). And of Graffiti, in the East Village and even more intimate, where the pastry chef Jehangir Mehta also brings a dessert man’s perspective to the rest of the meal.
The restrained size (along with the tight focus) of so many of these ventures speaks in part to the desire of young chefs to call their own shots and do their own thing, even if it means downsizing the settings in which they work.
It speaks to economic factors as well: high rents, exorbitant start-up costs, a local economy with less swagger than in the past.
But I suspect it also taps into wider cultural dynamics, into the anxieties of a country, overextended abroad and self-doubting at home, that has lost some of its appetite for grand plans and grand gestures, that would prefer to play things safe.
That’s not to say that what chefs and diners have been doing is entirely cautious. Mr. Chang trusts his stool-straddling audience to go for veal head terrine and for sweetbreads, which are popping up on more menus than ever. They’re the filling of a raviolo among just a half-dozen appetizers at Allen & Delancey; one of the other appetizers combines poached marrow and paddlefish caviar.
Over at Resto, the main ingredient in a main-course sandwich is curry-braised pig’s head. But here, as elsewhere, the stage for the adventure is a modest one.
The accompanying list of what I deemed the best new restaurants of 2007 includes more than a few places that didn’t bother with showy décor or fussy rituals, that worked harder to soothe and to satisfy than to dazzle.
Brooklyn’s best restaurants, which had long been doing that, drew more attention from Manhattanites than in years past, and Manhattan restaurants took a page from such peers across the water as Franny’s, the Good Fork and Dressler.
While this was a year when utterly transcendent, acrobatic dining experiences were on the wane at new restaurants, it was also a year when diners were treated to an abundance of options for fine ingredients and earnest execution in laid-back, small-scale retreats without any special pomp.
They often got hearty or homey dishes in perfect sync with less gilded settings. This was a year of pork belly and poached eggs, short ribs and lamb ribs.
It was a year of frying. Fritto misto made a comeback on the menus at Insieme, Gemma and Morandi. At Centro Vinoteca, in the Village, the chef Anne Burrell fried up a glorious storm on a special menu of piccolini, a cute name for little snacks, the kind suddenly prevalent all around town. Diners didn’t insist on intricate dishes. Something tiny and tasty would do.
A lot of restaurant activity revolved around Greenwich Village, and that wasn’t any accident. That neighborhood’s small-footprint real estate was the kind of lure for restaurateurs that the mammoth theaters of the meatpacking district had been in years past.
And that neighborhood was where I frequently headed over the final weeks of 2007. I visited dell’Anima, a sliver of space where I sat in a high chair at a high table that, like the counter wrapping around an open kitchen, sent the signal that this wasn’t dining as usual. This was something looser, freer.
The wine list eclipsed the menu, which spotlighted make-your-own bruschette. Was dell’Anima an enoteca or an osteria? Do such distinctions really matter anymore?
I visited Belcourt, in the East Village, a Lilliputian brasserie with a no-reservations policy and a succinct menu, which includes a hot dog made with boudin blanc sausage, a burger made with ground lamb.
I visited Smith’s, on Macdougal near Bleecker, where the menu wasn’t all that much longer, and I ate a steamed egg, a beet salad and chocolate bread pudding. I wasn’t wowed. But like many of my fellow New Yorkers, I don’t always want to be.