The pressure is on for the perfect Valentine's Day dinner. Time's a-wastin' to book a table. Look for open spots at Daniel Boulud's many romantic destinations; special prix-fixe menus are in effect February 14–15 at Daniel, Cafe Boulud, Boulud Sud, Bar Boulud, DB Bistro Moderne and DBGB Kitchen and Bar. Flowers and a poetic card are always nice but a lusty Italian dinner will earn you extra points, especially at downtown neighborhood gems like Hearth, Lavagna and Il Buco Alimentari & Vineria. If your mood is skewing more Asian, the West Village's dark and sexy En Japanese Brasserie has an elaborate Valentine’s Day kaiseki menu whose courses include sea urchin rice and Wagyu strip loin. Sitting side by side at a sushi bar is another intimate solution, and you'll be in the hands of masters at Sushi Yasuda, Soto and Ushiwakamaru. For our slideshow we have some more novel ideas, the most enchanting restaurants—both in terms of ambience and food—to open in the past year. They span Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens and come in all varieties: high-end spot and really cool dive, amazing steak house and offbeat Thai. Be this your first V-Day together or your umpteenth, these places should inspire amore.
Jean-Georges Vongerichten's Latin offshoot of ABC Kitchen evokes a grand, crumbling hacienda. ABC Cocina is romantic and sexy, akin to when the space housed its former tenant, a Spanish restaurant called Pipa. Executive chef Dan Kluger shares duties with chef de cuisine Ian Coogan, turning out a thrilling roster of tapas-like gooey spicy ham and cheese fritters, mezcal-cured salmon and spring pea empanadas. Beef tenderloin burnt ends with chimichurri sauce is an enticing mash-up of barbecue and Buenos Aires, while crispy fish tacos whisk you away to Baja. Just like ABC Kitchen, there is a strong dedication to eco-technology, boutique producers and seasonal ingredients. Those without reservations might luck out with seats at the bar or communal table.
Can it be true? Wylie Dufresne doing a casual tavern where all food is under $25? The maverick chef took the food world by storm with wd~50, which is now 10 years old. Alder is only his second restaurant. Three cocktails are on tap, including the Applethy—horseradish-infused vodka blended with green apple juice, so bracing that apathy is impossible. You'll be surprised how much you like it and how fast it disappears. A billow of pub cheese surges across a slate board, a purplish blend of aged cheddar, cream cheese and red wine; adding crunch is pistachio-fig brittle and potato chips made from compressed Martin's Potato Bread. New England clam chowder is lustrous and benefits from kitchen sorcery, wherein oysters are turned into oyster crackers. Another dish that plays with expectations is rye pasta coiled around tender shavings of pastrami. More pastrami, from jerky, is grated on top.
The buzz is building about Betony, an elegant bi-level restaurant near Carnegie Hall. Partners Bryce Shuman and Eamon Rockey are both vets of Eleven Madison Park and have brought on a staff that's attentive to details. Some sample soundbites of their hospitality from a recent evening: “Wouldn't you be more comfortable here?”; “We make our own orange oleo-saccharum for the cocktails”; “The potato chips are dehydrated so they're not any less healthy than the crushed zucchini.” Chef Shuman and his team are so precise you get the feeling work is done by tweezers, not tongs. Topping the aforementioned potato chips are crème fraîche and a dice of microscopic chives. Bread sticks are nearly as slim as a blade of grass; ultra-thin cheese crackers shatter when bitten. The modern American food is so lovely to look at (gnocchi with corn and purslane, seared brook trout with artichokes and lovage), don't neglect to look up—the ornate carved ceiling, a holdover from when the space was Brasserie Pushkin, is museum-worthy.
New York City's first (self-proclaimed) Afro-Asian-American brasserie has come to Harlem, a place where spicy prawns are served on yam flapjacks and the collard green salad is studded with azuki beans and seasoned with coconut dressing. Executive chef Alexander Smalls built a wide-ranging menu for this handsome 140-seat space, from savory oxtail dumplings with green apple curry to a completely satisfying and gooey macaroni and cheese casserole laced with pepper ham. Lunch, brunch and dinner are all being served, and the menus vary for each. The staff is so welcoming it's almost jarring. Former Time Warner chairman Richard Parsons is behind the restaurant as well as Minton's, the jazz supper club next door.
Fung Tu is on the edge of Chinatown, but don't expect takeout or delivery. It's not that sort of experience. Chef Jonathan Wu (Per Se) and dream-team partners Wilson Tang (Nom Wah Tea Parlor), John Matthew Wells (Mas) and sommelier Jason Wagner (L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon) have built a spare, stylish restaurant serving creative Chinese cuisine. For starters, smoked and fried duck-filled dates have a sweet-salty balance; supple egg rolls may be stuffed with pork belly and cilantro—ingredients change periodically—to be dipped in citrus mayo. Whole steamed fish for two with fennel, tangerine peel, chili and fermented black beans is highly recommended, as are reservations. Wagner must have found it a fun challenge to assemble an astute list of wine, beer, sherry and cocktails to match the complex flavors.
The opening of Margaux has been so hush-hush that hardly anyone outside of Marlton Hotel guests seem to know it's open. Apparently the cool, canny hotelier and restaurateur Sean MacPherson (The Maritime Hotel, The Bowery Hotel, The Jane Hotel) wants it that way. He is also a partner at The Waverly Inn, which Margaux somewhat resembles with its low lighting, clubby seating and back garden-like dining room. If you find yourself in any part of the Village—central, West or East—the bar is a suave place to chat over cocktails and snacks like Jerusalem artichoke chips with lemony labneh and little toasts spread with truffle-touched robiola cheese and honey. At dinner, look for buttery day boat scallops with mushrooms and Colorado rack of lamb with winter greens. The restaurant's chefs arrive with pedigrees: Jeremy Blutstein came over from MacPherson's Montauk hotel, the Crow's Nest Inn, and Michael Reardon is known for his work at Shutters on the Beach in Santa Monica.
M. Wells Steakhouse is the most thrilling restaurant Long Island City has ever seen and one of the most important openings in all of New York City in 2013. This is not hyperbole. Quebecois chef Hugue Dufour's bold, robust food grabs you by all five senses, including hearing, considering all the exclamations rising from the tables. The staff is in befitting steak-house attire here; the interior details, which allude to the space's former incarnation as an auto body shop, are both apparent and useful—the concrete floor makes it easier for a server to wheel around an old-school dessert trolley laden with black forest cake, tiramisu and cheesecake. Brick walls are painted red, vintage wallpaper covers the ceiling and a fire roars in the open kitchen, beautifully charring chateaubriand for two, among other cuts. There are many craveworthy sides and starters, from traditional poutine to a shell filled with rich, creamy scallops under a lid of crusty potato puree; and someone's got to get the bone-in burger. The bone is a removable handle, for presentation purposes only, and the burger itself is so incredibly luscious that all others pale in comparison.
Piora has an Italian-sounding name but it's actually Korean, meaning “blossom,” which is perfectly appropriate, since this restaurant offers Italian-Korean dishes (with American and French influences). This is no fusion cuisine, however, but singular dishes divined by the talented Chris Cipollone, who first grabbed our attention at Midtown's Tenpenny. This time out he's partnered with Simon Kim, of Korean heritage, who formerly managed The Mark Restaurant by Jean Georges. That means service is polished and professional. The space has an understated elegance, the long, stone-topped bar leading to a dark dining room framed by an enchanting, diorama-like back garden. Cipollone's lusty food is Instagram-worthy, from barbecued octopus with fermented pepper to suckling pig to black garlic bucatini laced with chili, dungeness crab and maitake mushrooms. The wine, beer and spirits collection is well curated, geared for advanced tastes.
Ex–Per Se people making Thai food? That's an instant attention-getter. Owners Matt Danzer and Ann Redding (who has also cooked at Daniel and Jewel Bako) are a married couple who seem to see eye-to-eye in this dark, beguiling spot off the Bowery that's crammed with chowhounds, Asian thrift-shop art, Thai movie posters and artifacts collected from Redding's Thai family (Boon was an actual uncle). A rotisserie roasts chicken to juicy perfection, and it's served with spicy dipping sauces and green mango salad. Pork, baby octopus, prawns and blowfish tails get the charcoal grill treatment. Two can share an incredibly flavorful bowl of Northern Thai–style golden curry with egg noodles, chicken leg, pickled mustard greens and coconut milk, and cool the heat with wine on tap or a slushy beer dispensed from a rotating barrel behind the bar.
Whiskey Soda Lounge is a fantastic name for a joint like this: the moniker sounds old school and the space looks that way too, with wood paneling and strings of Christmas lights. But when you hear Thai covers of Donna Summer's “Hot Stuff” and Wild Cherry's “Play That Funky Music,” you know you're not on the outskirts of Chicago in 1950. Instead, this is the Bangkok-inspired world of Andy Ricker, whose Pok Pok and Whiskey Soda Lounge in Portland, Oregon, led to their wildly successful duplication here. Whiskey Soda Lounge, located down the street from Brooklyn's Pok Pok, is meant to handle the overflow from that restaurant, but this place holds its own. Drinks are the main event, the spicy Thai bar food meant to accompany an evening of imbibing. Ike's Vietnamese fish sauce wings are here, along with deep-fried anchovies with sriracha sauce, stir-fried Manila clams with chilies and garlic, and smoky, sour-cured pork riblets with shaved coins of fresh ginger.