If you read the headline above and thought, “Sorry, what?” - don’t worry. That’s kind of the point. Because we didn’t know what to call this guide either.
Recently, we realized we didn’t have a great way to classify some of our favorite new restaurants - casual places like Wildair and Olmsted doing extremely inventive food you might only have seen on a tasting menu in the past. There’s no single unifying cuisine to lump them all under (“New American” still sounds like roast chicken and grilled striped bass, plus some of these places aren’t “American” at all), and we don’t have an encompassing “Perfect For” category either.
So, until we come up with something better, we’re just going with, “You know, places to eat the cool new stuff.” Even if we don’t exactly know what to call them, we can say a few things: these restaurants are all doing something new, mostly in fairly casual settings, and they’re some of the most exciting places to be eating in New York right now. (It’s also worth noting this guide is different from our Hit List, which covers the new openings we recommend checking out - but often includes pretty traditional places.) If that all sounds intriguing to you, here’s where to get started.
Wildair is the place that got us started on this whole “cool new stuff” business, because we haven’t stopped talking about it since it opened. This Lower East Side wine bar is actually attached to a pretty experimental tasting menu restaurant called Contra, but Wildair feels like the main event. You’ll eat things like beef tartare with smoked cheddar shavings, or a potato pancake topped with uni, or a salad covered in pistachio that will make you really excited about eating green things. All of it is extremely good, just make sure you’re OK with sitting at a slightly uncomfortable high top stool. Things get interesting on the drinking side too, as the whole wine list is made up of natural wines. When someone who hasn’t been to New York in a few years asks us where they should be eating, we send them to Wildair.
Hemlock is basically Wildair-lite: it’s also a small restaurant on the Lower East Side serving interesting plates of food and natural wines. The menu is full of dishes with names like “White Kimchi, Grilled Leaves and Brown Butter” and “Onions, Roasted Seeds, and Whipped Milk” (pretty good, actually). It’s a bit less polished than Wildair, but it’s a nice spot if you want to pop in somewhere quickly for a few bites and a glass of wine. Get the sweet potato bread.
One of our favorite new restaurants of 2016, Olmsted does the kind of dishes that might involve tweezers, but in a Prospect Heights space that very much feels like a neighborhood hang. The people behind this place worked at restaurants such Blue Hill and Alinea in Chicago, and they aren’t about to let you forget it - expect to eat stuff like a “carrot crepe” that’s basically a ravioli made out of carrot, filled with clams.
Some restaurants combine two cuisines in a surprising way, some restaurants use obscure ingredients, some restaurant cook dishes in a way you’ve never seen before. Metta just burns their food. While cooking food in a wood-burning oven hasn’t exactly been a revolutionary practice since literally Ancient Greece (yes we just looked up when wood-burning ovens were invented, and it did not happen in Brooklyn), Metta does take it to the next level by doing stuff like preserving and fermenting vegetables before charring them or roasting things in ash, and so on.
Lalito is a restaurant that doesn’t fit into boxes. It’s sort of Mexican/Latin American, and is located in Chinatown in a space that used to be a karaoke place. The “chicharrones” are vegan, the squid is stuffed with chorizo and hibiscus, and there are some dishes you might call “California-inspired,” but there’s also no avocado on the menu. Lalito is cool and different, and a very fun place to eat lunch or dinner.
Atoboy does the “casual restaurant serving fancy, kind of experimental stuff” with Korean food. Here, they hang on to the set menu idea, but that menu is just $36 and lets you choose any three dishes you want off the menu. Come with a few people and order a bunch of different dishes to share, from asparagus with dried scallop to pork jowl to incredibly good fried chicken with spicy peanut butter.
Think of De Maria as the “cool new stuff” spot version of healthy Lower East Side restaurants like Dimes. This is a trendy Nolita restaurant that serves grain bowls at lunch, so you can walk in here with the goal of figuring out what kind of jeans the cool people are wearing these days (the high-waisted vintage ones that look terrible on everyone). But at dinner, you can walk in here with the goal of eating some very interesting food - there’s a great mussel toast with fermented fennel, and a chicory-seaweed salad that’s shockingly good and different from any other salad we’ve had around town. Just know that service can be spotty.
When you first look over the menu at Mimi, a small Greenwich Village restaurant, you’ll notice some typical bistro items: a roast chicken, scallops, paté, and even some blood sausage. But look a closer and you’ll see that the blood sausage comes with soft shell crab and that there are also dishes like an arctic char tartare with strawberries. They combine the old and the new in unusual ways here, and the result is something different from anything else in New York right now.