Open grills take center stage in New York’s innovative restaurants, creating dishes like this wood-grilled pork loin with thyme-mustard sauce. Photo courtesy of ALL PHOTOS COURTESY OF GORDON FOOD SERVICE. Across all segments, the city’s restaurants continue to surprise and satisfy with increasingly creative combinations of ingredients and flavors
By Gerry Ludwig
Nowhere in the country can a richer and more complex melting pot of cuisines be found than in the restaurants of New York City and its surrounding boroughs. In Manhattan, demand for real estate is so high that when a restaurant closes, a new concept usually appears in that location a short time later. The result is a steady stream of new restaurants aiming to create market differentiation with menu offerings that are just a bit more unique and creative than what dining consumers have seen in the past.
And whether the new establishment specializes in sandwiches, gastropub cuisine, sharing plates or farm-to-table fare, the ones that thrive all share the common trait of serving food with increasingly creative and exciting flavors. This is accomplished in a variety of ways, be it by sourcing the most flavorful ingredients, creating unique ingredient combinations, or employing more aggressive cooking methods.
FIRE AND SMOKE
Wood grilling is a flavor-forward cooking method enjoying a surge of popularity in many of the city’s new restaurants. But rather than stoking their fires with the usual oak, hickory or mesquite logs, New York chefs are creating new layers of smoky flavor by tossing in everything from wine barrel staves to nutshells, grapevines and fruit tree branches. The variety of ingredients being cooked on these grills is expanding as well.
At his Spanish tapas restaurant Tertulia, chef Seamus Mullen has placed his immense wood-burning grill adjacent to the bar area, where guests can watch as his cooks deftly grill wild mushrooms, mussels in the shell, lamb breast, baby squid and Padrón peppers.
At St. Anselm in Brooklyn, virtually all foods are considered appropriate for wood grilling, including avocado, artichokes, halloumi cheese, Berkshire bacon, marrow bones, fingerling potatoes, Chinese long beans, and whole young chickens gloriously presented with head and feet attached. Its classic patty melt gets two doses of fire and smoke, first while grilling the burger and onions, and again to char and crisp the finished sandwich.
The kitchen at chef Galen Zamarra’s restaurant Mas (La Grillade) has no conventional ovens or stovetops. The entire menu is executed using three wood-fired grills and a wood-burning fire pit fitted with a rotisserie.
So, a bar snack of peanuts with crunchy bacon and ground chile is prepared by grilling the peanuts on a screen. Popcorn tossed with fried herbs and Parmesan is popped directly over the coals. Whole heads of garlic, wedges of acorn squash and pots of cassoulet are roasted in the fire pit. Hudson Valley squab is spit roasted just to medium-rare and served with grilled apples and bok choy.
And the open grills are used for a wide array of appetizers, sandwiches and main courses such as wood-fired oysters on the half shell, grilled open-faced tartine sandwiches, Portuguese sardines, squid stuffed with bay leaves, and sea scallops grilled over preserved lemon. Grill-fired seasonal vegetable sides include cauliflower with paprika oil, baby fennel and pears, Bibb lettuce and hen-of-the-woods mushrooms.
The red sauce is key to the execution of inspired Italian dishes like this grilled scamorza — smoked mozzarella that’s carefully pan-crisped until just melted. RED SAUCE RENAISSANCE
There is no shortage of red sauce joints in New York, serving traditional Italian dishes of good quality and value. But today, a new breed of chef-driven, quality-focused Italian restaurants is taking the comfort-classic “red gravy” to new heights of flavor.
The trend began several years ago in Brooklyn, where two chefs — Frank Falcinelli and Frank Castronovo, also known as “the two Frankies” — opened their first Spuntino restaurant. Their idea was to recreate the classic Italian home cooking their mothers and grandmothers prepared for the massive Sunday family dinners enjoyed during their childhood years, but infused with a farm-to-table sensibility and a focus on impeccable product sourcing.
Brooklynites quickly fell in love with red sauce classics such as Frank Castronovo’s grandmother’s meatballs, made from ground beef blended with pecorino cheese, garlic, pine nuts and raisins, and delicate potato gnocchi bathed in marinara sauce and topped with a dollop of fresh ricotta.
As the two Frankies brought their Spuntino cuisine to Manhattan, other New York chefs opened their own concepts focusing on higher quality Southern Italian fare, often using family recipes of their own.
At Pane Panelle, chef Paul Di Bari’s menu features a wide array of red sauce-based dishes, including the restaurant’s namesake sandwich, composed of thin and crispy chickpea fritters layered with fresh mozzarella and red sauce on a seeded Italian roll; housemade ricotta cheese dumplings known as gnudi, tossed in a red gravy enriched with crispy roasted bits of the Italian cured jowl-bacon guanciale; and grilled scamorza — smoked mozzarella crisped in a pan until just melted, served in a pool of red sauce and finished with a drizzle of olive oil and a sprinkling of red chile flakes.
After gaining wide acclaim for their upscale tasting-menu restaurant Torrisi Italian Specialties, chefs Rich Torrisi and Mario Carbone opened Parm, a casual spot specializing in Parmigiana-style plates and sandwiches, featuring the diner’s choice of crisply breaded and fried veal, chicken or eggplant, generously topped with red gravy and melted Italian cheeses. Other menu classics include a signature meatball, fried chicken cacciatore and baked ziti with meat gravy.
The sign over the door of Frank Prisinzano’s new restaurant Sauce proudly hawks “Grandma’s Gravies and Ragus,” and indeed one section of the menu offers a selection of the meats and sausages slowly simmered in red gravy known as ragus, including a housemade fennel sausage, family recipe meatball, spoon-tender rolled and stuffed beef braciole, and eggs baked in red gravy with fresh peas.
And while Sauce is a fairly descriptive name for a red sauce joint, chef Saul Bolton takes the idea a step further at his new Italian restaurant in Brooklyn, aptly named Red Gravy.
New Yorkers are always on the lookout for the next great sandwich and each year new shops appear offering fresh takes on all forms of handheld foods — from steamed Chinese buns to grilled cheese sandwiches to Australian meat pies.
Some of the most unique and completely unexpected flavor combinations may be found in the sandwiches at No. 7 Sub, a three-unit mini-chain in Brooklyn and Manhattan, where chef Tyler Kord concocts ingredient mash-ups that seem literally crazy printed on a menu board, but coalesce deliciously when assembled on a house-baked roll.
Chef Kord’s ever-changing menu has featured such head-turning heroes as fried bologna with parsnip mole, ricotta, pickled red onions and pumpkin seeds; braised short rib with sweet potatoes, marshmallows and red wine vinaigrette; and cheesesteak with miso Cheez Whiz, Funyuns and pickled jalapeños. Vegetarians are treated to subs layered with fried turnips, creamed corn and pickled jalapeños, as well as Mongolian tofu with spaghetti squash, shiso and pickled ginger.
Cheez Whiz, with or without miso, is nowhere to be found at Little Muenster, where chef/owner Adam Schneider serves “super fancy grilled cheese.” While Schneider does offer one family-friendly version featuring grilled tomato, bacon and white American cheese, the balance of the menu is comprised of sandwiches layered with indulgently rich and intensely flavored cheese combinations that will challenge the faint of heart and delight the turophile.
Because of their bold flavor levels, the number of ingredients in each sandwich is usually limited to three and never exceeds four, such as the grilled Maytag blue and Muenster sandwich finished with a smear of pear purée, or Taleggio and Fontina layered with grilled wild mushrooms. A Latin version combining Oaxaca cheese with thin tomatillo slices and corn purée is cleverly garnished with a generous sprinkle of grated cotija. The grilled Gruyère, Fontina and membrillo (quince paste) sandwich is enhanced with a few thin slices of prosciutto.
A few years ago, chef Sara Jenkins captured the hearts and palates of New Yorkers with her porchetta sandwich, served at the East Village shop of the same name. A typical working man’s sandwich in Italy, porchetta is traditionally made by roasting a whole boneless pig rubbed with an herb paste and serving the chopped meat and skin cracklings on a long roll. Jenkins created a streamlined version, using the traditional herb paste recipe but spreading it on a boneless pork loin and then wrapping it in a fresh pork belly.
The menu at Porchetta includes a plated entrée featuring thin slices of the roast accompanied by white beans and braised greens, and a porchetta ragu simmered in red sauce. But it is the sandwich — filled with rich, succulent pork topped with crunchy bits of crackling — that remains the customer favorite and has spawned numerous imitators across the city.
At his restaurant, Locanda Verde, chef Andrew Carmellini puts his porchetta on a slicer, thinly shaving the roast and finishing the sandwich with grilled onions and provolone. Esteemed New York chef Michael White uses porchetta as a richly indulgent pizza topping at his recently opened pizzeria Nicoletta. And at Tiberio Custom Meats, the nose-to-tail butcher shop located inside restaurant Sauce, butcher Adam Tiberio fabricates porchetta roasts and sells them in the restaurant’s butcher case.
Pretty panna cotta can be kept to the traditional vanilla or chocolate, or dressed up with a variety of flavors and garnishes, giving restaurants an opportunity to customize. NO PASTRY CHEF REQUIRED
Outside of Times Square, casual chain restaurants are conspicuously absent in New York, whose neighborhoods are dominated by countless small independent operations. Because of their size, most of these restaurants cannot afford a pastry chef. Consequently, some chefs will purchase desserts from a local pastry shop. More often, they will create housemade desserts from simple recipes that are easy to prepare, enhancing them with creative tweaks in both flavor and presentation.
Unique variations of uncomplicated desserts such as bread pudding, rice pudding, panna cotta, pound cake, cheesecake, fruit crumbles and housemade ice creams are popular offerings on menus across the city.
At sharing-plates restaurant Traif in Brooklyn, chef Jason Marcus serves a simple but delicious vanilla-buttermilk panna cotta garnished with seasonal fruit, Key lime pie prepared from his mother’s recipe, and cubed and grilled fresh pineapple “petit fours” glazed with a bourbon-caramel sauce.
The vanilla panna cotta at Pane Panelle is finished simply with a drizzle of honey, and housemade olive oil pound cake is garnished with a small dollop of whipped cream. The pound cake on Tertulia’s dessert menu is glazed with lemon icing and served with housemade buttermilk ice cream and a sprinkle of chopped fresh thyme and sea salt. Rum-raisin ice cream accompanies a simple baked apple fruit crumble.
An apple fruit crumble is also on offer at Joey Campanaro’s The Little Owl, along with a chocolate chip and biscotti cookie plate, and chocolate bread pudding topped with whipped cream. At Monument Lane, chef Robert Berry serves a lemon-honey semifreddo pie topped with chopped pistachios and a parfait featuring alternating layers of chocolate and peanut butter mousse in an oversized rocks glass, topped with toasted puffed rice.
The sheer number of restaurants in New York, combined with the city’s talented and driven chef community, ensures that it will remain at the flavor forefront, a unique place in America for seeing and tasting the latest variations on a bounty of culinary themes.