New York bursts with venues for memorable holiday meals. Here are some of my favorites in categories that seem to be on the minds of those looking for recommendations, usually preceded by “What is the best (fill in the blank) restaurant in New York?”
Italian — One of the great changes in the New York dining scene in the ’80s and ’90s was the evolution of the Italian restaurant from red-sauce and red-checkered- tablecloth simplicity to trendsetting sophistication, with places such as San Domenico, Babbo and A Voce leading the way. Tony May, a restaurateur of great charm, closed San Domenico in 2008 and opened its successor, SD26, in late 2009. At first, I was disappointed, but now the restaurant is fulfilling its promise. Set in a soaring main room, it nonetheless conveys a feeling of intimacy —conversation is possible here!—and the service is notably attentive. On the menu, you will still find the egg yolk-filled ravioli with truffle butter that caused a sensation at San Domenico, plus wonderful pastas such as the homemade fettuccine with baby lamb ragu accented with mint, and main courses like beef cheeks braised in Barolo with caramelized onion and soft polenta. 19 East 26th Street (on the north side of Madison Square Park). Tel. (212) 265-5959.
French — New York was once full of superb French restaurants, almost all of which were offshoots of legendary Le Pavillon, started by Henri Soulé in 1941 at 55th and Fifth, which defined French cuisine in the United States for a quarter of a century. Among beloved places such as La Caravelle, La Côte Basque and La Grenouille, only the last survives. Ah, but with such style and grace. To walk into La Grenouille’s townhouse setting is to enter one of the most beautiful and romantic dining rooms in the world, with its crimson banquettes, mirrored walls and most of all, the glorious floral arrangements conjured every day by Charles Masson, whose parents created this singular place. The cooking is classic: Look for terrine of foie gras with brioche toast, the unmatched pike quenelles and the ethereal Grand Marnier soufflé. 3 East 52nd Street. Tel. (212) 752-1495.
Contemporary American — Long on my New York favorites list, Gramercy Tavern burst on the scene in 1994, thanks to the talents of chef Tom Colicchio (now of “Top Chef” fame). After Colicchio’s departure, the restaurant drifted and lost its luster. But the current chef, Michael Anthony (who won this year’s James Beard “Best Chef: New York City” award), has reinvigorated the kitchen. Representative dishes might include smoked trout with a purée of cipollini onions, and lamb with garlic, scallions and ruby crescent potatoes. The two-in-one space has a more casual “tavern” up front encircled by Robert Kushner’s lively murals depicting seasonal produce, while in the dining room, copper sconces and old paintings impart a feeling of warm hospitality. 42 East 20th Street. Tel. (212) 477-0777.
Fish— A young brother-and-sister team from Paris, Gilbert and Maguy Le Coze, opened Le Bernardin in 1988. When Gilbert died in 1994, Eric Ripert took over, and the restaurant ascended to a new pinnacle of achievement. Over the years, the dining room, with elaborately coffered ceilings and paintings of Old World fishing scenes, began to seem a little old-fashioned. So, late last year, a sleek new look was unveiled: The charming paintings have been replaced by a curtain of twisted steel suggestive of a waterfall, and a compelling 24-foot triptych of storm- tossed seas. The menu is as good as ever, with three courses under the headings “almost raw” — thinly pounded yellowfin tuna with foie gras, chives, toasted baguette and olive oil; “barely touched” — chilled peekytoe crab salad with baby radishes and avocado in a green apple- lemongrass nage; and “lightly cooked” — poached halibut with glazed baby bok choy in a bergamot-basil emulsion. The plates look like jewelry displays at Cartier and are served with grace and precision. This is a hard place to book, but reservations are not taken in the small lounge, so an early arrival generally secures a table. 155 West 51st Street. Tel. (212) 554-1515.
Wine — The cellar at Veritas contains more than 3,000 wines and 75,000 bottles, many of which came from the private collection of textile entrepreneur Park B. Smith. In late 2010, the new owner and chef, Sam Hazen, tailored the menu to the wine list. Today, the small restaurant is cozy and congenial, a feeling enhanced by the friendly and attentive service. The wine list is divided into two, with a lower-priced general list, plus a register of the treasures in the storied Smith collection. On the menu, look for the delicious scallops topped with foie gras, and main courses such as the flavorful maple-brined pork tenderloin with charred tomato and wilted butter lettuce. Regardless of where on the wine list you choose from, be sure to engage sommelier Rubén Sanz Ramiro for a most enjoyable and informative discussion. 43 East 20th Street. Tel. (212) 353-3700.
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