Wrote this for my pals at Buffalo Eats, who always generously include this outsider in their insider roundup. Holds up almost halfway into 2023, I think:
This procrastinator and her consort actually ate better in 2022 than we ever did in the Before Time, mostly because we were much more discriminating as restaurant prices had to go up but also because I did research and made reservations. Winging it really doesn’t work when you have to scope out which places have tables outside in this tridemic, and which are worth braving indoors when COVID case counts are down.
Interestingly, our real standout meals were not mostly in the alleged food capital of America but farther afield (at least in Amtrak distance). Our favorites in Manhattan included Llama San in the West Village, a Peruvian/Japanese spot where every dish is exquisite, and which might be the only place anywhere where brunch is better than dinner. Steelhead trout ceviche with togarashi, avocado and crispy squid was sensational, as was duck confit with egg, rice and the Peruvian chile sauce huancaina.
At Wildair on the Lower East Side, we had four-star food (and killer wines) in the street, like jerk prawn skewers and pissaladiéclairs, the traditional pastries turned savory with a filling of anchovies, caramelized onion, tapenade and cheese. We went out for Mexican maybe 50 times this year, and while Fonda in Chelsea and in Tribeca always turned out classic queso fundido perfection, two meals from more innovative kitchens were most memorable: Arctic char aguachile with caviar, and a tlayuda layered with the unlikely but sensational combo of celeriac purée, beans, figs and endives on a crisp tortilla, at Atla in Noho, and roasted kabocha squash served over charred cabbage with sour orange mayo and pepitas at Empellon Waterline on the Upper West Side. Laser Wolf in Brooklyn was vaut le voyage for the salads and pickles alone, although the whole trout was one of the best fish we ate all year. (All meals comprise the platter of 10 salatin, a grilled main and a dessert of soft-serve “ice cream” with pomegranate and date molasses for one price.)
Our saddest favorite meal was at Rebecca Charles’s Pearl Oyster Bar in the West Village on one of the last nights before it closed for good, after an impressive 25-year run. The crab cake and the smoked salmon on johnnycake were, as always, stellar, the whole grilled pompano impeccable and the shoestring fries — the only shoestring fries worth eating — good to the soft/crunchy last bites.
For one of our rare eating expeditions outside the city, I picked the Washington Post’s restaurant critic’s brain before heading to Baltimore, which guaranteed we ate phenomenally well. Tom Sietsema was right about Alma, Charleston (“fine dining,” for sure), Cindy Lou’s Fish House on the waterfront overlooking the Domino’s Sugar sign and especially about the tennis ball-size jumbo lump crab cake at Faidley’s in the total-trip Lexington Market. But our blowaway meal was at Clavel, which did Mexican even better than New York, with masa made in-house that was so great we bought a bag to schlep home. Tostadas, tacos, tamales and mixtas (a twist on quesadillas) were all fabulous.
Because Philadelphia is only 80 minutes away by train, and because we have good friends there who loan us their houses, we made five treks south and had dazzling meals almost everywhere every time. It’s a seriously underrated food city. Fiorella, aKitchen, Parc, Kensington Quarters (now with a seafood-centric menu), Cantina La Martina, Barbuzzo, Pera, Pizzeria Vetri, KPOD (new-wave Korean), Down North Pizza, Via Locusta and Le Virtu were just a few of the greats. Even the Mike’s BBQ cheesesteak we had to eat on a park bench in the cold was a revelation.
Our favorite meal, though, was outside at River Twice, one stunning dish after another, with the most personable service. The charcoal-grilled soft-shell crab covered in golden Osetra caviar was just one bit of brilliance. Close seconds would be our two dinners at Gabriella’s Vietnam, starting with the water fern dumplings and ending with the justly celebrated shaking beef.
Finally, even I have to concede our trip to Maine was worth braving maskholes on crowded planes and airports. Eventide in Portland again produced many sublime dishes, like a crab roll with yuzu mayo, squash tempura with pickled mushrooms and wondrous bluefin tuna pastrami. In Biddeford, the “new Portland” just outside the bigger city, everything was fried right at Fish & Whistle, dinner at Magnus on Water was a revelation (not least for the Japanese turnips two ways with caviar and creme fraiche) and even the hipster Palace Diner was worth the crazy-long wait for the over-the-top bacon-egg-and-cheese sandwich with jalapeños.
Maybe the most memorable meal of 2022, though, was with friends in Boothbay Harbor. We had planned our Maine trip to stay with them, but a heart attack got in the way. We booked hotels and used the plane tickets anyway, then a medical miracle happened: Our host was sent home early and felt well enough to have us over for super-fresh raw oysters, corn chowder, perfectly broiled oysters, one of his wife’s gutsy salads and her signature dessert, sliced oranges dusted with cardamom powder. As with every meal in a streetery, it was reassuring to realize it’s the food and company that matter more than the setting in this weird age of uncertainty.