Love him or hate him (and we love the guy), what John Mariani says about restaurants carries a lot of weight. That’s why his annual Best New Restaurants story in Esquire is eagerly anticipated each year, and is a big deal in the world of American chefs and restaurants.
We were sworn to secrecy, so didn’t post this until someone else did.
Here they are, and congratulations to Kim Canteenwalla’s SOCIETY for being the only Las Vegas restaurant to gain this recognition.
RESTAURANT OF THE YEAR:
The Bazaar, Los Angeles – The Bazaar is chef Jose Andres’s masterpiece, where he has poured everything he knows about tapas into a menu that marries regional culinary traditions with his formidable creativity. Here you can choose from two dozen traditional tapas, including piquillo peppers stuffed with goat cheese and codfish croquettes with an aioli sweetened with honey, but there’s an even wider selection of fresh inventions that elevates the honored tradition of bar snacks to new heights: liquefied mozzarella with brussels-sprout leaves and the most intense cherry tomato you’ve ever popped in your mouth.
CHEF OF THE YEAR:
Barton Seaver of Blue Ridge, Washington, D.C. – Chef Barton Seaver, age 30, is a voice of reason at a time when priggish, competing factions – from vegans to slow-food zealots – deal more in polemics than real solutions. According to Seaver, we’ve become slaves to words like local, fresh, and seasonal. His solution: “Eat more broccoli. Broiled vegetables are the future.”
THE INAUGURAL ESQUIRE RESTAURANT HALL OF FAME INDUCTEES:
Alfred Portale, Chef – Since 1985, Portale has been manning the kitchen at the consistently excellent Gotham Bar and Grill in Manhattan, turning out food that is astonishing in both its flavor and its ability to satisfy. For the most of the past quarter century, he’s been on East Twelfth Street, winning multiple stars and prestigious James Beard Awards and, more important, making and constantly reinventing the kind of bold American cuisine he helped define.
Danny Meyer, Restaurateur – From the night New York’s Union Square Café opened in 1985, hospitality has been its most ineffable advantage. Its source: Danny Meyer. At Union Square Café and the parade of places Meyer has opened since, he has crafted a hospitality system that virtually guarantees a great experience without ever feeling formulaic.
THE BEST NEW RESTAURANTS OF 2009 (sorted geographically):
Pacci Ristorante – Pacci is positioned as an Italian steakhouse, and chef Keira Moritz has an expertise that takes nothing on the menu for granted. In a city with a lot of dreary Italian restaurants and precious few very good ones, Pacci sets the bar higher, and not a minute too soon.
Paces 88 – Paces 88’s culinary team melds French-American and southern culinary traditions into seamless cuisine that befits both the deluxe trappings of its home in the St. Regis Hotel and Atlanta’s eminence as a southern city. The friendliness of the place pairs well with a kitchen that carries off crab-shack fare with the same finesse as classic French cuisine.
Perla’s Seafood and Oyster Bar – Few restaurants to open this year get the tenor of the time so impeccably right: bright yellow and blue everywhere, trays of shellfish glistening on the bar, an umbrella-shaded patio, and a menu on which every item sounds irresistible.
The Bedford Post Inn – There’s something about the honed atmosphere and confident
food at the Bedford Post Inn that tells you that its famous owners, Richard Gere and his wife, Carey Lowell, didn’t just lend their names to a vanity project. Thanks to the creative talents of young chef Brian Lewis, the menu goes far beyond the usual suburban clichés. Finish your meal with the warm huckleberry corncake with spiced port wine and mascarpone gelato and you’ll be ready for one of the comfy beds upstairs.
L’Albatros Brasserie & Bar – At his new brasserie, chef Zack Bruell’s menu looks straight from Paris – onion soup gratine, mussels with pommes frites, and choucroute – but with a Midwestern twist. Bruell has been around long enough to see every culinary style come and go, but he is still a guy from Ohio who knows that French pate is just another name for meat loaf – but who also knows the difference.
Las Vegas, NV
Society Café Encore – At the new Wynn Encore, Steve Wynn has continued his practice of nailing chefs’ clogs to the kitchen floors instead of simply buying a celebrity chef’s name to put on the door. He hires people like chef-partner Kim Canteenwalla, who make sure everything is done better than anywhere else in Vegas. The food itself is a reformulation of old favorites done with extraordinary panache, like the addictive mac-and-cheese bites with a truffle dipping sauce.
Los Angeles, CA
Rivera – It becomes very clear very quickly when a chef is having a ball, and John Sedlar is having a ball. But he is dead serious that Mexican food – careful, high-end Mexican food – should get as much respect as French and Italian cuisine, and he makes his case with wonderful dishes like braised barbecued pork short ribs with toasty, dried-guajillo-chile sauce.
Area 31 – Area 31 gets its high-quality fish via Fishing Area 31, a patch of ocean that can be seen from the 16th-floor dining room. Each day the menu lists the fish that arrived before noon that chef John Critchley is dying to cook for dinner – corvina, mahi-mahi, red drum, dorade – and you choose from a list of dressings like piquillo pepper and basil. It’s uncomplicated, as it should be when your product comes from the waters outside your window.
Sra. Martinez – At Sra. Martinez, set on two tiers of a 1920s art-deco post office in Miami’s Design District, Spanish tapas are done with a Caribbean spark. The restaurant serves tropically colorful plates, each masterfully planned for a savory balance and texture, such as chef Michelle Bernstein’s shrimp tiradito topped with fresh popcorn.
Sea Salt – With its soft lighting, patio packed with young mojito drinkers, sit-down carpaccio bar, and bright tablecloths, Sea Salt is a place you see from the street and can’t wait to try – especially once you read the menu. After a head-to-head comparison between chef Fabrizio Aielli’s dishes and some of the best in Italy, Mariani found that Sea Salt is one more reason to not fly across the Atlantic.
New York, NY
Corton – Paul Liebrandt made his name creating eccentric dishes – eel with chocolate sauce, anyone? – that led some to praise him as an innovator and others to dismiss him as a prankster. Now at Corton, where he is partners with restaurateur Drew Nieporent, Liebrandt has toned down the sensational, exercising his fertile imagination within the precision of French cuisine.
Locanda Verde – Robert DeNiro’s and chef Andrew Carmellini’s new restaurant has a nightly buzz due to people having a wonderful time eating the heartiest Italian food and drinking handpicked wines – including a lot of good ones for less than $50 a bottle.
Marea – Chef Michael White’s menu at this sleek, shimmering Italian seafood palace begins with crudo, and his pastas taste as fresh as the air in Portofino. His entrees impress in one of two ways: with naked simplicity (grilled cuttlefish) or with his expert composition (sea scallops with endive, rosemary-laced lardo and sour cherry mostarda in an anchovy bath).
SHO Shaun Hergatt – Australian chef Shaun Hergatt’s dishes have always been showpieces. At his new restaurant, they become artistic achievements. If you were to have just one dish at SHO – spiced double-duck consommé with ravioli filled with chicken and black truffles – you’d see how it succeeds the way people say the best modern-dance ensembles succeed: Each element perfect on its own while also enhancing the rest.
Paradise Valley, AZ
Prado – The way the great food (a juicy pork chop with Muscat grapes and brown rice) from chef Claudio Urciuoli, wine (a superb bottle of Lopez Cristobal) and social chemistry play out in this fine dining room make this a meal to remember.
Lemaire – With the re-opening of Lemaire, Chef Walter Bundy is pouring everything he knows and loves into dishes like sweet-tangy fried green tomatoes showered with Gulf lump crabmeat, sherry vinegar, and verbena – proof yet again that southern cooking long ago moved past Paula Deen’s “Y’all want s’more gree-uts?”
San Francisco, CA
Nopalito – Nopalito was born in a supermarket parking lot, and its food is rigorously Mexican. Nothing costs more than $15, but if you put this same food on Limoges china and replace the waiters’ green T-shirts with suits, it couldn’t taste any better.
Blue Ridge – Blue Ridge is home to Esquire’s pick for “Chef of the Year,” and if you eat a few dishes prepared by Barton Seaver, you will feel good about living on Earth: aged country ham, a perfect chicken potpie with hot rosemary-flecked biscuits, and sweet-potato fritters with honey mustard, among other masterful creations.
Bottega – With Bottega, chef-owner Michael Chiarello of Food Network’s Easy Entertaining and Top Chef Masters fame, returns not only to the kitchen but to his roots, serving a menu including crudo, house-cured salumi, homemade pickled vegetables, polenta cooked in a jar, and a local sweet-sour eggplant-and-goat-cheese lasagnette with red-pepper-tomato sauce.
ESQUIRE ALSO SELECTED THE FOLLOWING
NOTEWORTHY HONOREES OF THE YEAR:
ANOTHER FIFTEEN PLACES NOT TO MISS
Ajax Tavern, Aspen
Apiary, New York
Aureole, New York
The Bristol, Chicago
8100 Mountainside Bar and Grill, Avon, CO
Il Casale, Belmont, MA
Minetta Tavern, New York
Passionfish, Reston, VA
The Publican, Chicago
Rambla, New Orleans
RH, Los Angeles
Vermilion, New York
West Side Tavern, Los Angeles
FOUR BREAKOUT CHEFS TO WATCH:
David Katz, Meme, Philadelphia, PA – A damn good chef in a damn small restaurant.
Chris Lusk, Cafe Adelaide, New Orleans, LA – Operates with gusto at the high end of New Orleans’s fertile food culture.
Victoria Ann Moore, The Lazy Goat, Greenville, SC – Fortunately for Greenvillians, Moore hasn’t (yet) brought her Mediterranean-Latin fare to the big city.
Raymond Mohan, Onda, New York, NY – One of the most creative South American chefs – via Guyana – working in the U.S. right now.