When overwhelmed by the copious amounts of eateries in NYC, you should do what any smart eater would — call a chef. That’s why we sought out Food Network Star Season 8 winner Justin Warner (Do or Dine), vegetarian guru Amanda Cohen (Dirt Candy) and master of molecular gastronomy Wylie Dufresne (wd-50), three high-profile people with both of their hands deep in the city’s cooking scene. We asked them to give us the scoop on their favorite joints, as well as share some news about what’s going on in the restaurant scene.
When she opened Dirt Candy in 2008, the city flocked to the tiny East Village space to fill up on Cohen’s creative takes on vegetables. From carrot risotto and tomato cake to eggplant tiramisu, this chef knows how to turn a green into something glamorous. So fancy, in fact, that the cuisinier finally decided to give up her little, orange-tinged spot and prepare to move to a larger location on the Lower East Side in November. Maybe now it won’t be such a long wait for reservations, at least we can hope so.
What are you looking forward to the most about your restaurant move?
Having more space. Little Dirt Candy was tiny and that meant I could only seat 18 people at a time. I couldn’t have a big menu because I didn’t have room to prep a lot of dishes, and I had a short wine list because I didn’t have much wine storage. In the new Dirt Candy [which she calls “Big Dirt Candy”], I’ve got tons of room, so my menu is getting bigger, my wine list is getting longer. I actually have a bar where people can wait for their table, and my chairs even have four legs. I only had room for three-legged chairs before.
Is there a chic vegetable right now?
I’m not much for trends. Why do something if everyone else is doing it? But for me, I’m really excited about Vidalia onions right now. I’ve been spending all my free time trying to make a chocolate dessert out of them, so they’re all I think about.
Do you have any favorite restaurants in NYC right now?
Fung Tu. There aren’t enough restaurants taking big chances these days, but every single dish at Jonathan Wu’s upscale Chinatown restaurant is incredibly ambitious and smart. Pearl & Ash, because this is one of those places that has a wine list that keeps going, and going and going. I’ve never had a boring glass of wine there, and the food is as good as the booze. For me, it’s the ultimate “sit at the bar and have a snack” restaurant. Also, Annisa. It took a long time for people to realize how good Anita Lo’s restaurant is. She’s a chef who doesn’t want to build an empire or open a place in Vegas. She just wants to turn out some of the most flawless dishes in the city, night after night.
In 2003, Dufresne opened wd-50, a famous spot named after the chef’s initials and the address [50 Clinton Street] of his establishment. At the time, the use of liquid nitrogen, vacuum chambers and flavored smoke weren’t common in the city, but were the tools Dufresne used to set his restaurant apart. It worked and the chef garnered fame and favorable reviews. Unfortunately, due to rent increases, the Lower East Side staple is closing this year, but guests can still enjoy his food at Alder while a new spot is being discussed.
What are three of your favorite restaurants in NYC right now?
My favorite spot for sushi for quite some time has been 15 East. Masa-san’s rice is some of the best I’ve had. I do also love a burger, and New York City is one of the great places for burgers. The burger at The Nomad Bar [at Forbes Travel Guide Recommended The NoMad Hotel] is one of the front-runners in my book for burger of the year. New York is also great for Italian food and there are so many options. But far and wide, I still crave chef Mark Ladner’s take over all others, and a meal at [Forbes Travel Guide Five-Star] Del Posto should be on everyone’s bucket list.
After wd-50 closes, do you have any grand plans for another restaurant?
Let’s not forget that Alder is not going anywhere! Of course that being said, we have lots of ideas for new projects. We just need to find homes for them.
What’s the biggest change you have seen in the restaurant scene in the Lower East Side since you opened wd-50?
The price of rent.
What do you think the hot fall food trend will be this year?
People are always hunting for the next big thing, a new “it” vegetable, exotic fruit, obscure spice, cutting-edge technique. My version of the next big thing, as it relates to my menus, is a bit different. I’m always searching for how to take an old dish, one that’s rooted in nostalgia or with familiar flavors, and rediscover it. This fall it could be caramel apples or Thanksgiving stuffing, who knows?
In 2011, Justin Warner teamed up with some fellow alumni from Danny Meyer’s Four-Star The Modern and opened up a hip eatery, Do or Dine, in their collective neighborhood of Bed-Stuy in Brooklyn. Soon after, Warner’s face became well-known for his winning stint on the Food Network’s Food Network Star, where he worked under the tutelage of celebrity chef Alton Brown. Now, Warner is working on his first cookbook and regularly makes appearances on TV while still running the restaurant with his partners [Luke Jackson, Perry Gargano and George McNeese].
What ingredient do you think will take off this year?
This is the year of the collard. I see collards popping up here and there, wilted, as a salad, as a wrapper. I think truffle sales will be down. They just aren’t as celebrated as they used to be. I see less traditional — [read “cliché”] — uses of pumpkin. Less brown baking spices, and more elegant, fresh presentations. I’d love to see lamb have a moment and I think it lends itself just as well to fall’s harvests as well as spring’s.
What are you working on for the fall?
I’ve been developing a ton of recipes for my upcoming cookbook. I’m anxious to apply some of our discoveries to the kitchen. I made a really wicked habañero chocolate cake the other day. Maybe we’ll finally get a dessert program going.