Manhattan's Newest Tables

Through a difficult year, the city has more than persevered—it has thrived. Mimi Sheraton takes a measure of the recovery in a crop of new restaurants.

Restaurants have always been reliable barometers of the economic and psychic climate of a city. It is encouraging, then, that as New York recovers from 9/11, optimistic chefs and restaurateurs are opening ambitious new efforts at a dazzling rate. This is true even in the hardest-hit area, TriBeCa, right at Ground Zero, where David Bouley has re-created his stunning original Bouley (Departures, July/August). Here's a report on what's happening now.

Atelier, in the new Ritz-Carlton on Central Park South, is the best of this year's newcomers. Its elegant, contemporary haute cuisine is served in a serene room with wood-paneled walls, soft lighting, silken curtains, and widely spaced tables set with white Frette linens and gleaming Bernardaud china. The only off note is a stiff, dated style of service that is nonetheless efficient and accommodating. The greatest triumphs of Gabriel Kreuther, former chef de cuisine at Jean Georges, reflect his Alsatian roots but with fusion accents. They include an extraordinary foie gras terrine with a white-wine gelée, and another of meaty rabbit under a sauce of hyssop, a Biblical herb hinting of sage and anise that's said to foster humility. There's nothing humble, though, about the poached egg on watercress with langoustines or the soul-nurturing Alsatian peasant soup, a golden roux with vegetable stock and nuggets of boned frogs' legs. Winning main courses, besides various poached fish dishes, include rack of lamb with a garlic-mustard crust; tender chicken en cocotte, in a creamy chervil-parsley sauce, reminiscent of Alsatian chicken au Riesling; and seductive squab, rosy mosaics of meat and foie gras in cabbage-lined pastry. Desserts range from a tangy citrus coupe to whimsical riffs on breakfast cereals like caramelized Rice Krispies with peanut-butter ice cream, chocolate leaves, and condensed-milk cappuccino. The impressive wine list includes several good, moderately priced choices from Alsace. Dinner, $145 (except where otherwise indicated, prices are for an average three-course meal for two without tax, tip, or drinks). The Ritz-Carlton New York, Central Park , 50 Central Park South; 212-521-6125.

By the time you read this, I predict, there will be a three-week wait for reservations at Giorgione. This rare snap judgment was made after a preview as a guest of Giorgio DeLuca, creator of Dean & DeLuca and now (with partner Jorge Neves) of this ultrahip trattoria situated between Greenwich Village and SoHo. With impeccable taste, DeLuca has stage-directed a romantically lighted, high-tech decor in basic white with trimmings like zinc-topped tables, a handsome long bar/raw bar, a gleaming marble-mosaic floor, and a blue-sky fresco on the back wall. The Apulian chef, Aldo Monosi, presents an appealing and moderately priced menu with winning choices like a sprightly seafood salad; a fragrant pesto tossed with trenette pasta and, classically, flecks of potato and haricots verts; moist, tender squab on a juicy saffron risotto; and lean, meaty rabbit with polenta that was a bit too soft and needed more salt. Undersalting, in fact, is a mild flaw here, especially in the otherwise well-made pizza Margherita, with its crackling, wood-scented crust. Desserts could be more intriguing, but there's always the tempting cheese tray. Potted herbs (to flavor olive oil for dipping country bread into) almost overcome my aversion to plants on a dining table. Dinner, $85. At 307 Spring St.; 212-352-2269; fax 212-352-8734.

Fiamma Osteria is an urbane SoHo addition, a polished setting of dark wood and mirrors bathed in an atmospheric glow from gauzy orange lampshades and red sconces. When it opened, in March, Fiamma (meaning "flame") instantly attracted celebrity moths from the show biz and fashion worlds. Owned by Stephen Hanson (along with Blue Water Grill, Ruby Foo's, Blue Fin, and other city hot spots), this effort combines his management skills with the artistry of executive chef-partner Michael White, who mastered the refined cuisine of Emilia-Romagna during six years at Ristorante San Domenico in Imola. The same menu prevails on the smaller and more casual main floor as on the livelier second level (a third hosts private parties). Skip the unimpressive, overly herbed antipasti in favor of a shared pasta, such as spaghetti chitarra (cut on a guitarlike rack) with tomatoes and basil; garganelli, the Emiliana quill shapes, with prosciutto and truffle butter; or Bolognese stracci, ribbons of spinach pasta tossed with braised rabbit, cream, and Parmesan. Then move on to grilled Mediterranean daurade with borlotti beans; a sage-flavored veal chop; or rosemary-scented squab with porcini mushrooms, broccoli rabe, and a custardy squab-liver timbale. Elizabeth Katz's best desserts are fresh-fruit sorbets, crisp ricotta beignets called crocchette, and her chocolate-hazelnut torta. Dinner, $105. At 206 Spring St.; 212-653-0100.

Who could have known that the often-denigrated cuisines of southern Italy would one day be considered cutting edge? The answer: Il Gattopardo's affable patrone, Gianfranco Sorrentino—formerly of Bice and Sette MoMA—and his talented chef, Vito Gnazzo, who both come from Campagna. Named for Giuseppe di Lampedusa's Sicilian novel The Leopard, Il Gattopardo opened in the aftermath of 9/11, and it has taken a while for the stylish, restrained versions of southern Italian dishes to gain the recognition that they deserve. Whether you find yourself in the somewhat stark dining room of white brick and mirrors or in the tiny enclosed garden, start with artichoke parmigiana baked with smoked mozzarella; light meatballs wrapped in cabbage leaves; or braised escarole with black olives, anchovies, and pignoli nuts. If not those, then order one of the pastas, like the spaghetti chitarra with a sauce of fresh tomatoes, the paccheri (rigatoni) with a meaty Genovese sauce sweetened with simmered onions, or the orecchiette ("little ears") with tomato and minced shellfish. There's a nurturing fish-and-shellfish soup-stew, and rosy, herb-encrusted lamb accompanied by potato croquettes. The masterpiece is the tomato-sauced meat loaf, flecked with hard-cooked egg, salami, and peas. If that leaves you too full for the Neapolitan specialty pastiera, a rosewater-perfumed Easter cheesecake, try the lemon tart. Dinner, $100. At 33 W. 54th St.; 212-246-0412; fax 212-246-3332.

California star chef Jonathan Waxman has made many appearances on the New York restaurant scene (with Jams, for example, which closed in 1989), and perhaps his latest effort, Washington Park, is here to stay. While the aura of California cuisine has dimmed, there is nevertheless a good deal of pleasantly diverting if not breathtaking food turned out in this sprawling, casual place that became an instant scene when it opened near Washington Square Park in April. The most congenial seats are in the glassed-in area facing Fifth Avenue; near the open kitchen; and on the lower level, close to stunning wine cellars that store bottles priced up to $6,900. Waxman's signature grilled chicken and crisp fries are perfectly fine, but far more interesting are sweetbreads with wild mushrooms, beautifully roasted leg of lamb, and tender, lean Niman Ranch pork with escarole. Fish can be disappointing. Worthy preludes include the petite red-pepper pancakes with smoked salmon and caviar, and the monumental gilded and greaseless fritto misto of shellfish and vegetables that four can share. Also wonderful is a velvety chocolate layer cake served with pistachio ice milk. Dinner, $100. At 24 Fifth Ave.; 212-529-4400; fax 212-529-6300.

It's surprising that, despite favorable reviews, Kai continues to be talked about only by its cadre of loyal fans. Chef Hitoshi Kagawa offers Japanese kaiseki (a table d'hôte menu, but really meaning a gathering of friends), prepared with a dash of French technique, in a calm oasis (taupe and gray walls, gleaming dark wood) above the Ito En tea shop. At the counter or tables, the adorable staff serves five-, eight-, or ten-course meals of exquisite dishes like creamy lily-bulb soup with baby abalone, silky black cod roasted in a salt crust, and miso-marinated beef filet with oyster mushrooms, garlic, and citruslike yuzu. Cool seaweed noodles, a sashimi sampler, and a pre-dessert of chilled-tea soba are other intriguing possibilities. Among the superb sakes, my favorite is one served from glass carafes set in ice-filled wooden bowls. An à la carte menu with sushi is served at lunch. Prix-fixe dinner, $55-$85 per person; omakase (chef's selection) from $110. At 822 Madison Ave.; 212-988-7277; fax 212-570-4500.

For mysterious reasons, barbecue—even when very good—has never really caught on in New York, but that hasn't stopped Union Square Cafe and Gramercy Tavern owner Danny Meyer, along with chef-partner Michael Romano, from opening the huge, young-spirited Blue Smoke. The din at the bar-lounge continues nonstop; I prefer the brick-walled back room. Romano, working with executive chef Kenny Callaghan, is still perfecting the wood-smoked meats. On two early visits the glazed St. Louis spareribs and the spice-dusted Memphis baby backs were meaty, lean, and authoritative, although the brisket and the Texas beef ribs lacked the typical melting softness. Not so the tender lamb shoulder, the chicken, or the fiery-hot links. Barbecue is, of course, about meat, but it's also about side dishes, and many here—barbecued potato chips, spicy baked beans, cole slaw, macaroni and cheese—are sensational. So, too, are appetizers like chilled smoked foie gras and the more down-home chipotle chicken wings, jalapeño-spiced mussels with tomatoes and smoked pork cheek, and pillowy fry bread. Beer is the perfect accompaniment to barbecue, and there are eight varieties on tap, 40 by the bottle. Try to leave room for the country fruit pies, the sticky-toffee pudding, or a dynamite banana split. Dinner, $75. At 116 E. 27th St.; 212-447-7733; fax 212-576-2561.

Two of the city's most stylish restaurants, Da Silvano and Craft, have opened spinoffs with less formal and less expensive menus. The more successful is Da Silvano Cantinetta, a tiny sliver of a rustic, noisy hangout adjacent to the main restaurant. The owner, Silvano Marchetto, makes sure that the simple Tuscan fare is perfectly rendered in standout dishes such as the chickpea appetizer fired with black pepper, the bread-and-tomato salad panzanella, and every pasta, in particular the meat-sauced penne strascicate. The Livornese fish stew cacciucco is convincing despite an overly dense tomato broth, but the real set piece on the menu is the massive grilled rib-eye steak for two (or maybe three). That—along with rosemary-brushed roasted potatoes and the best panna cotta in town—is my idea of simple perfection. Dinner, $80. At 260 Ave. of the Americas; 212-844-0282.

Inventive riffs on Italian country fare are presented at Craftbar amid the same high-style, high-tech decor found at chef Tom Colicchio's stunning next-door restaurant, Craft. This is a place for sharing small dishes like fried sage leaves stuffed with meat; fried oysters; stuffed risotto balls; grilled prosciutto-wrapped figs; and bruschetta topped with chicken livers or baccalà, snowy whipped salt cod. There are also enticing warm pressed sandwiches and a few main courses, the best of which are fish stew, braised rabbit, and veal-ricotta meatballs. Oddly, three different pastas were bland and characterless, but desserts restore confidence. Dinner, $65. At 47 E. 19th St.; 212-780-0880; fax 212-780-0580.

How to explain why Compass garnered instant attention when it opened in April and is so often crowded? Geography—it's in restaurant-deprived Lincoln Center—along with a trim, modern look and food that is usually satisfying yet sometimes bespeaks an overreaching kitchen. (Certainly it's not the inept staff. Clearly management gets the blame for dereliction of training duties.) Start with citrus-cured salmon and fried oysters, carpaccio of bluefin tuna, or a salad of mixed baby greens and herbs, perhaps followed by skate-wing meunière, halibut with seared bitter greens, very nice calf's liver with a kohlrabi "apple," or rare hanger steak with paprika potatoes. Successful desserts include the improbable-sounding basil cake with mint sorbet and the lemongrass panna cotta. The lounge has a lighter menu: grilled lamb burger on focaccia, raw shellfish, salads, and the like. Dinner, $90. At 208 W. 70th St.; 212-875-8600.

New, Noted, and Noisy

Noche, in Times Square, is a phoenix rising in spirit from the ashes of owner David Emil and chef Michael Lomonaco's World Trade Center restaurant Windows on the World. Here the pair have created a Nuevo Latino experience. The David Rockwell-designed setting—four levels centered on an atriumlike space—is a masterpiece of sparkle, with a madhouse of a main dining room (there'll be dancing when a cabaret license comes through) and a more serene mezzanine. Lomonaco and executive chef Ramiro Jimenez's inventive appetizers—ceviches, skewered-meat anticuchos, grilled octopus—are perfect for sharing. I'd skip main courses, except for the roast suckling pig, and move on to the seductive desserts. Dinner, $76. At 1604 Broadway; 212-541-7070.

Meet, in downtown's ultrafashionable Meatpacking District, is a trendy, polished space with red brick, dark wood, and three translucent yellow-onyx bars curved toward the entrance, the better for Sex and the City singles to check out arrivals. A professional staff of black-clad ninjas serves appetizers—fried oysters on spicy guacamole; squid stuffed with monkfish—that outshine main courses like the unpleasantly fishy red snapper and fatty duck in jam-sweet tamarind goo. The pinnacle, a chocolate-pistachio pyramid-shaped cake served with burnt-honey ice cream, may be the sweetest experience of the evening. Dinner, $80. At 71-73 Gansevoort St.; 212-242-0990; fax 212-242-1952.

Mimi Sheraton wrote about dining in Beijing in the September issue of Departures.

Member of Fine Hotels, Resorts & Spas.