In New York, big food ambitions often come in very small spaces. Some of the city’s coziest restaurants feature its most wildly original cooking. These tend to be solo debuts from former understudies striking out on their own for their first time. With the serious food comes mom-and-pop warmth—these are restaurants that are still jazzed to be showing us what they can do.
Three young expats from France joined forces to open this snug neo-bistro in the East Village last year. 24-year-old chef Andrea Calstier, a widely traveled veteran of Michelin starred restaurants, serves his globally inspired cuisine vagabonde from an alcove kitchen peering into the slim dining room. He combines exotic tastes and French technique in modern creations like a mix of crispy sweetbreads and white miso, of beautiful pink duck breast with cool Asian pear. The restaurant’s tailored look—white brick with navy accents—comes courtesy of partner, and hostess, Elena Oliver. Thoughtful touches abound, from the blue oxford uniforms to the silver toothpicks in the well-crafted cocktails designed by third partner, Nicolas Thoni.
127 E 7th St, New York, NY 10009. Papillesrestaurant.com
Black Sea Bass, Tangerine Glazed Turnips, Gremolata and Onion Jus
Soogil Lim, a transplant from Seoul, spent seven years on the line at Daniel, eventually rising to sous chef at that temple of haute French cuisine. He’s returned to his roots at his solo debut in the East Village, elevating Korean cooking in a homey space with yellow roses in tiny vases and white curtained windows. Classic Koreatown dishes are transformed into sophisticated sharing plates, updates on traditional mung bean pancakes, bo ssam (pork belly), and jap chae (beef with glass noodles). The chef’s years in fine dining inform more daring creations like a show-stopping roast marrowbone topped with Wagyu beef shingles.
108 E 4Th Street, New York, NY 10003. Soogil.com
Soogil Fried Sweet Potatoes & Kimchi Soup
After a few years cooking at Mirazur, the only American expat in the international brigade at one of the French Riviera’s most acclaimed modern restaurants, Nico Russell returned home to New York. Working on his own food here, he started small with a pop-up, before launching his ambitious new Brooklyn restaurant late last year. The long railroad space seems to have been designed in reverse, with an open kitchen in the front window and casual bar way in back. The front dining room is tasting menu only—offering a daily changing selection of four to six vegetable forward courses, well-priced at $60 a head (the bar is a la carte). The elegant comfort-food, served under farmhouse wood beams, highlights the best seasonal produce, like a recent winter selection of heirloom chicories tossed in a bright anchovy dressing, of charred cabbages folded into creamy farro risotto.
791 Washington Ave, Brooklyn, NY 11238. Oxalisnyc.com
Fluke, Nigella, Sour Onion, and Watercress
The abbreviated menu changes daily at this wildly popular, extra convivial addition to the Soho dining scene. The restaurant, from London transplants Jess Shadbolt and Clare de Boer—veterans of that city’s famed River Café—serves a continental mix of British and Mediterranean cooking, with a focus on live-fire grilling. Hot flames, charring steaks, fennel bulbs, plump scallops in the open kitchen, can sometimes smoke up the whole restaurant—which only adds to its homey charm. Start with panisses, chickpea fries tossed in parmesan and sage, if they have them. Desserts, a definite highlight, generally include a daily tart, like a recent flaky apricot-almond number.
18 King St, New York, NY 10014. Kingrestaurant.nyc
Provencal Fish Stew With A Aioli Crostino
Sebastien Pourrat, a native of Bordeaux, has transformed a dark basement in Soho into one of New York’s most appealing first date restaurants, with its snug wooden tables and decorative tiles overhead. The place is packed on most evenings with couples who seems to be sussing out if they, in fact, should have swiped left. A warm welcome and classic cocktail helps start things off right. Pourrat, whose grandparents live in the Basque region, finds inspiration for his cooking here from the French and Spanish sides of the border. And so there are Iberian charred txipirones—beautiful baby squid cooked in their own ink—and stuffed mushrooms served with chorizo on top. Miniature mussels drenched in garlic butter are entirely French, as is a popular frequent special of roast pheasant doused in Armagnac jus.
110 Thompson St, New York, NY 10012. Cocotte.nyc
Poulet Crapaudine Chicken Cocotte
During the day this miniature spot is a drop-in café, doling out top-shelf espresso from an old fashioned copper machine. By evening the lights have been lowered, the stools around the zinc bar reserved for serious food and top-shelf sake sipping. The concise dinner menu delivers an authentic trip to Japan, a journey to owner Yudai Kanayama’s native Hokkaido, featuring a homesick selection of street food snacks and offbeat fusion fare. A steam table atop the bar cradles the traditional components of Oden, a warming stew filled with braised tofu, vegetables and fish cakes. Italo-Japanese pastas, a mainstay, include a compulsive spicy spaghetti topped with an overabundance of briny sea urchin.
102 Suffolk St, New York, NY 10002. Davellenewyork.com
Uni Tomato Spaghetti