Check out Esquire's picks for the best new restaurants of 2013 (all text courtesy of Esquire):
Blue Dragon, Boston
Fifteen years ago, Esquire honored a young Chinese-American chef named Ming Tsai as Chef of the Year for his groundbreaking Asian restaurant, Blue Ginger, in Wellesley, Massachusetts. Since then, his trajectory has been ever upward, propelled not least by his role as host of the long-running TV show Simply Ming, on which Tsai's gentlemanly approach is a balm to all the screeching kitchen-throwdown nonsense these days.
He certainly took his time to open a new place, which helps explain why Blue Dragon, a ninety-seat Asian gastropub, is jammed from lunch till after midnight. The restaurant is a revelation of flavors and preparations, with Tsai right there in the open kitchen, picking up plates and schmoozing with wide-eyed guests. The quandary for you, the diner, is what to order. How do you stop yourself from ordering six, seven, or eight dishes when they're serving Japanese sweet-potato chips with an addictive charred-scallion-and-meat-jus dip; pot stickers jammed with rich braised beef cut with celery; curls of tender pork tail crisped to perfection over sticky rice studded with pulpy chunks of sweet mango; the phenomenal Mom's Salt-and-Pepper Shrimp; and a dozen other dishes I had to save for my next trip? Best not to try. Bring your friends, order rounds of the craft beers, and don't make any other plans.
I'm not positive German-Austrian food will be the next big thing (though it's got more grounding than the pffft New Nordic cuisine fad ever did). But Bronwyn, in the Boston suburb of Somerville, is a stellar new addition to the growing number of restaurants elevating wursts and beer to new heights. Chef and co-owner Tim Wiechmann is rendering everything from house-made wursts — a gargantuan platter for $25 gets you six varieties —to the best, tangiest sauerbraten outside Düdenbüttel.
You might begin your meal by smearing roasted-apple mustard on a giant Bavarian pretzel, then move on to beer soup with a cheddar-cheese kreplach (dumpling). The crisp, buttery jägerschnitzel are made to go with any of the forty beers, from the Warka pilsner (5.7 percent alcohol by volume) to the Zywiec Baltic porter (9.5). This is a neighborhood place that deserves national attention for reinventing food we thought we knew (or always wanted to).
Anyone who argues that authentic southern food has no place in Chicago probably also thinks a New Yorker couldn't edit a Faulkner novel. The Great Migration brought millions of southerners to northern cities in the early- to mid-twentieth century. Moreover, chefs today tend to go where the work is, so it's logical that a chef from, say, Johns Island, South Carolina, ends up cooking his heart out in Illinois and finding takers.
With communal tables and farmhouse accents that avoid Epcot Center phoniness, Carriage House is close in spirit and flavor to the best restaurants in Charleston, Savannah, Atlanta, and Memphis, and better than many. It's easy to love creamy she-crab soup and Carolina rice balls spiked with pimento cheese — that stuff is irresistible even when it's just okay, and these are stellar. But chef Mark Steuer has a deep strain of the low country in him, especially its sea islands and marshes. He refines beloved dishes so that they're true to form yet entirely his — like skillet corn bread with foie-gras butter, nectarine marmalade, and smoked salt. His low-country boil bubbling with shrimp, clams, corn, and rabbit sausage is, like everything he serves, steeped in history. But history isn't what makes his reimagined dishes so great. It's the reimagining.
Smoke — that's what hits you first. The aroma of sweet smoke coming off everything from skirt steak and sweetbreads to charred beets, mortadella, and cheese sizzling on a grill the size of an airstrip. That smoke underpins most of Peruvian chef Victor Albisu's phenomenal cooking at Del Campo, a grand South American restaurant in D. C.'s Chinatown.
Albisu, whose grandfather was a Cuban baker and whose mother ran a market where her son learned to grill from Argentinean and Uruguayan butchers, has created a menu on which everything tastes as if it were prepared because you came to visit. Seafood and ceviches lashed with good olive oil share plates with chiles, charred onions, corn, yucca fries, romesco sauce, chimichurri, and salsa criolla (a tangy onion relish). The bar serves street food when the kitchen closes — empanadas, albondigas (plump, juicy meatballs), chicharones (fried pork), and chivitos (sandwiches stuffed with seared rib eye, mortadella, ham, cheese, olives, hearts of palm, and fried egg).
But the heart of the matter is a platter piled high with chorizo, short ribs, rib eye, lamb shank, and pork belly, all of them gleaming, fat-rich, and deep red, rosy, or pink, but always charred black. If the Peruvian food trend in the U. S. — which has been about to become a trend for a couple years now — needs a leader, Del Campo is it.
Paul Liebrandt may never live down his grandstanding days, during which he pulled stunts like having guests dine in total darkness. But after proving how serious a chef he is at Corton for the last five years, he now has shown himself to be a masterful avatar of what modern cuisine truly is. At the Elm, in Williamsburg, Brooklyn — heart of Hipsterville, America — Liebrandt has stripped down his historically high-flying cuisine. His dishes are sleeker, the elements on the plate fewer.
The short menu has four categories: Raw, Sea, Land, and Share. The last includes dishes meant for two, priced between $48 and $56; most others cost about $20. The dining room, down a flight of stairs but with sufficient glass to see outside, has a cool coffee-shop look, with an open kitchen and lighting soft enough to make everyone look good.
It's a local clientele — Rag & Bone boots, Warby Parker glasses — and they come here not just to get something to eat but for cooking. Liebrandt's cuisine is about classic good taste embellished with whimsy: a two-inch-round foie-gras terrine comes with a spiced strawberry gelée, tiny pickled strawberries, and ginger. And his homage to chicken Kiev is a marvel: a juicy, seasoned chicken breast that, when cut into, floods forth a gush of butter. Such triumphs are the result of the intellect going beyond the sensational in search of true excellence.
There is a tendency among aficionados of Southeast Asian food to resist high-end restaurants in favor of storefront eateries where no dish costs more than $12. This can indeed be a rewarding way to go through life. But Embeya — "little one" in Vietnamese, the childhood nickname of chef Thai Dang — is that rare, beautifully designed Asian restaurant that can please big spenders and dumpling sniffers alike.
It's a large corner space with a hundred seats and a lively bar, done up with carved teak panels and chandeliers that look like airborne ice crystals. Vast windows frame the streets of the West Loop. You're greeted by the gorgeous Indian-born Komal Patel and her impeccably dressed Hungarian husband, Attila Gyulai, whose long tenure with the Four Seasons hotel chain invests Embeya with civilized hospitality. Dang learned the precision of Asian-fusion cuisine under two D. C.–based chefs, Eric Ziebold of CityZen and Susur Lee of Zentan, before helping Laurent Gras win three Michelin stars at Chicago's L20.
Embeya's menu is predominantly Vietnamese but reels in Thai classics, like plump mussels in a limey coconut broth, maitake noodles with sea scallops and the crunch of Chinese celery, pungent garlicky chicken, and head-on prawns with roasted pineapple, tamarind, and chiles. The flavors all sound promising on the menu. They deliver on the plate.
564 West Randolph Street; 312-612-5640; embeya.com
Hinoki & the Bird, Los Angeles
At the curiously named but enchanting Hinoki & the Bird, executive chef Kuniko Yagi and chef-owner David Myers have allied to show the world what California cuisine has become this century — an amalgam of American-Pacific and Asian ideas melded with extraordinary finesse.
Myers's West Hollywood restaurant, Sona, shows a fastidious respect for Japanese food culture, and he has five restaurants in Tokyo. At Hinoki & the Bird, he has given Angelenos a spectacular two-level dining room with a ceiling of twisted cedar planes, a walnut stairwell, a copper-covered communal table, denim-covered seats, and a huge open kitchen. It's like a tree house for gourmands.
No dish is composed of more than three ingredients. Yagi marries seemingly incongruous flavors and textures with impeccable grace, making friends of unlikely ingredients like a culinary secretary of state. Ramen salad is jammed with succulent ginger-braised short ribs and spiced English peas. An outstanding beef tartare is finely chopped and barbed with jalapeño. Monkfish, it turns out, pairs beautifully with a lovely yellow-curry noodle and soft eggplant. I don't know which of the two is Hinoki and which the bird, but all you need to know is that together, Yagi and Myers are working some magic.
When last in these pages, Australian-born chef Shaun Hergatt won honors for his sprawling namesake restaurant in Manhattan's Financial District. It should have lasted. Now in midtown, he's opened a restrained but thrilling fifty-seat venue where he is simplifying his cooking while intensifying his flavors. He calls one dish warm pork soup, which is like calling Esperanza Spalding a bassist. There are indeed elegant, smoky shards of pork, but it's the reduction of Tuscan kale to a deep forest green and the quivering golden egg yolk on top that make this a dish of astonishing goodness. I could make the same case for the masterpiece of a main-course salad made from nothing more than artichoke, oats, and lovage oil.
The dining rooms, in subtle variations of earthy brown, evoke the natural colors of, well, the earth. Hergatt's plate presentations are composed in colors that reflect the seasons — yellow corn, fresh cream, purple plums, fuchsia flowers. There is no artifice here, no mutations of ingredients. A great chef needs to do so little to make so much of what he finds perfect to begin with.
Last year, chef Ford Fry's The Optimist was Esquire's Restaurant of the Year. He must be in what they call the zone: Fry's new place, King + Duke, is his second-straight can't-miss spot. Where The Optimist celebrates great seafood, King + Duke (named after two grifters in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn) is all about executive chef Joe Schafer and Fry cooking over a hickory-wood fire on a twenty-four-foot hearth. The roasted carrots and beets with sheep's-milk feta transport you to a field (in a good way). The fire torches a candy crust on succulent lamb belly served with sheep's-milk feta, and sweet fire-roasted lobster is heightened simply by baby bok choy, garlic, and chiles. Even pastry chef Chrysta Poulos works the fire, grilling the sugariest of Georgia peaches to accompany a quivering dark-chocolate panna cotta.
Also, King + Duke serves thirty-two beers. So the place pretty much made this list before we even sat down.