By Bill Addison
Last year, when I began zigzagging across the country three weeks out of every month as Eater’s restaurant editor, my primary assignment was (and remains) focused on assembling The National 38 — our roll call of the country’s most essential restaurants. The countrywide roster evolved out of the Eater 38 lists maintained by our local editors in 24 cities across the U.S. and in Montreal, collections of the restaurants that reflect and define their cities and, by extension, what it means to dine out in America. I stayed intent on that inaugural task. Every now and then, though, a friend or fellow writer would nudge me toward buzzy new arrivals, restaurants whose energized staff and mind-opening food lit up their cities’ dining scenes despite being open for only a few months. As I slurped lemony grilled oysters at Leon’s in Charleston or crashed my fork through the lacquered layers of Petit Trois’s napoleon in Los Angeles, I was reminded that the essential and the emerging always coexist in thrilling tandem.
Compiling a list of America’s best new restaurants made perfect sense, then, and it too has an analogue: It parallels the ever-evolving Eater Heatmaps on our local sites. And giving myself over to the pleasures of the hot and the new only confirmed: These are baller times to be eating in America. Scrolling through my list of the most promising new restaurants, patterns emerge: I see ever more chefs looking to their own background for inspiration in the kitchen, or to the culture of the city or region around them. I also see global takes on fried chicken, ethereal chiles rellenos (not an oxymoron), and a blast from the way past called pondemnast (read on!). Ultimately, these are restaurants intent on stellar hospitality that seem poised to make lasting contributions in their communities, and likely beyond.
All restaurants on this list opened between June 2014 and June 2015 and were visited by Restaurant Editor Bill Addison.
At Zahav, the mothership of Philly’s CookNSolo restaurant group, Michael Solomonov defines contemporary Israeli cuisine in America. The team’s newest venture expands the frontiers of Jewish diaspora cooking, focusing especially on the big flavors of Eastern European Ashkenazi traditions and the assimilated spinoffs that became delicatessen classics. Abe Fisher executive chef Yehuda Sichel tumbles a chunky dice of salmon gravlax with deep-fried latke shards over scallion cream cheese the color of guacamole; he pairs onion and pastrami jam with smooth-as-custard chicken liver mousse and craggy, thick-cut rye bread. But the main attraction is the already famous Montreal-style smoked short ribs, a beefy onslaught of terrifying proportions preceded by a feast of appetizers and surrounded by a flock of mustards and side dishes. It typically serves a minimum of four, requires advance notice, and more than warrants the effort. 1623 Sansom St., Philadelphia, (215) 867-0088, website.
San Francisco, CA
Exceptions like Chicago’s Topolobampo and New York’s Cosme notwithstanding, upscale Mexican is still inching toward widespread acceptance in this country. Which likely explains why Californios chef-owner Val Cantu veils his restaurant in ambiguity. Little about the boxy gray building with shaded windows reveals any kinship with the taquerias in the surrounding Mission district, nor does the clubby, 32-seat interior with tufted banquettes and art deco chandeliers. Diners receive no menu until the end of the meal, and even then the dishes are identified by oblique, one-word references. But there’s no mistaking the sultry, earthy flavors infused in a corn chip dolloped with sauces that relay crema and black beans and chilies, or a potato surrounded by a chipotle moat, or a mole verde over halibut bright from garlic chives and shishito peppers. His kitchen expresses sense of place and pride in heritage in ways that feel intimate, rather than forced or affected. 3115 22nd St., San Francisco, (415) 757-0994, website.
Dominique Ansel Kitchen
New York, NY
No cronuts? So what. Dominique Ansel may not sell the supernova croissant-doughnut crossbreed at his second,more-than-a-bakery Manhattan outpost, but he and his team devise plenty of rhapsodies that match or surpass it. For starters: the brown sugar DKA (Dominique’s Kouign Amann), a billowy knob of layered pastry with deep molasses intensity. A garlic croissant keeps the sugar jitters away, its catcher’s-mitt shape hiding soft garlic cloves and rosemary. Wallow in virtuousness by ordering the vegetables en papillote with farro and a runny soft egg, then blow it up with an assembled-to-order special like the recent fraises de bois tart, an extravagance of tiny strawberries over vanilla cream and almond sponge. Blocky bleacher seats inside offer front-row views of the clockwork-tuned kitchen staff at work; even better, the sidewalk tables allow for primo West Village people watching. 137 Seventh Ave. South, New York, (212) 242-5111, website.
Paul Kahan and his One Off Hospitality group conjure a diner straight out of an imaginary mid-century border town with their latest victory. Perch on metal stools amid wood paneling and kaleidoscopic shades of school-cafeteria brown while absorbed in plates of what the restaurant calls “Southern-inspired Mexican cuisine.” That translates to the most delicate chile relleno conceivable, an Anaheim pepper perhaps stuffed with farmer’s cheese reminiscent of ricotta, or Creole boudin sausage zapped with mustard vinaigrette. Peas and pearl onions offset (somewhat) the blanket of chorizo gravy blanketing chicken-fried chicken; collards lighten tamales surrounded by scrambled eggs and chile-garlic shrimp. The throwback digs may be illusory, but the swift service and nervy, nap-inducing comforts fulfill a true usefulness: Dove’s is the kind of fully realized neighborhood cafe that would be welcome in any corner of America. 1545 N Damen Ave., Chicago, (773) 645-4060, website.
Santa Fe, NM
John Sedlar helped pioneer Southwestern cuisine at his first Los Angeles restaurant, Saint Estephe, in the 1980s; he continued to expound on Latin flavors at his acclaimed (and now both defunct) Rivera and Playa. Earlier this year, Sedlar returned to his native New Mexico to launch a restaurant in the recently opened Drury Plaza Hotel in downtown Santa Fe. Rather than a downbeat professional coda, Eloisa (named for Sedlar’s grandmother, also a chef) is a command performance. The room, all white brick and smoky woods, lures a crowd inclined to linger, and the cooking celebrates local culture with more modern nuance than any other menu in town. Rivera habitués will recognize several dishes, including tortillas with flowers pressed in like fossils and served with avocado butter, or the blue corn enfrijolada encasing duck confit in a Cabernet-chile sauce. But there’s plenty of novelty as well, including a dazzling dish Sedlar calls “maize budino,” a custardy corn flan cradled in a red husk and sprinkled with quinoa, amaranth, and diced squash. 228 East Palace Ave., Santa Fe, (505) 982-0883, website.
New York entrepreneur-turned-Southern restaurateur John O. Morisano introduced an ascendant in the Georgia Lowcountry last December with the opening of the Grey. The space is instantly among the most beautiful in the Southeast: Morisano restored a worn-down Greyhound depot to its former Streamline Moderne glory and then some. Treats for the eyes — the numbers on the wall that correspond to former bus gate stations, geometric paneling, lithe fixtures and funky floors, a horseshoe center-stage bar — beckon from every direction. Leading the kitchen (once part of the ticketing area) is Mashama Bailey, a native of Queens and former sous chef at Manhattan’s Prune who spent time in Savannah as a child. She’sforging a subtle style that interweaves Southern, Mediterranean, and Continental influences. Start with her riff on steak Diane remade with beef heart and fragrant with Madeira. Her signature dish looks likely to be a variation on country captain chicken, the roast bird glossed with restrained curry sauce and a relish studded with currants and green pepper, best paired with a side order of sublime smoked greens. 109 Martin Luther King Jr Blvd., Savannah, (912) 662-5999, website.
Leon’s Oyster Shop
I’m cheating with this list’s June-to-June rules by including Leon’s, which technically opened at the tail end of May 2014, but the cooking, the carefree crowd, and the boss cocktails are all too magnetic to omit. More oysters and fried chicken? If my critical brain started yapping about trend-chasing and clichés when I first walked into this raucous dining hall far north on King Street, that naysaying voice fell mute when the plates started arriving. Chef Ari Kolender makes the universal personal with his sly calibrations of restaurant-world darlings. Char-grilled oysters slide around in their shells, sloshing in a mix of butter, lemon, and parmesan that strikes a narcotic balance of rich and piquant. The frisky Siam salad, a mix of East-West ingredients tanged by a fish sauce-spiked vinaigrette, cleans the palate before fried chicken debauchery begins: Kolender’s brined bird stays succulent under a copper veneer of breading that crackles like caramelized sugar. 698 King St., Charleston, (843) 531-6500, website.
Liholiho Yacht Club
San Francisco, CA
Tuna poke on nori crackers, cubes of house-made “Spam” with bamboo fried rice, and pineapple cooked, pickled, and frozen may all appear on Ravi Kapur’s menu, but he likes to be clear: What emerges from the kitchen at his always-packed sensation in the Tendernob neighborhood isn’t strictly Hawaiian. It’s reasonable to want to forgo labels when the cooking conveys such a liberated spirit. Lamb ribs sticky with black vinegar and dates might show up alongside clams in coconut curry with garlic naan, or a little gem salad mounded with avocado, corn, pistachios, and toasted quinoa. There’s no missing the photograph of Kapur’s mother as a young woman that spans the wall behind the restaurant’s bar near the entrance. Her euphoric expression sends a message to staff and diners alike: Let’s all have a blast tonight. 871 Sutter St., San Francisco, (415) 440-5446, website.
Too many restaurants in Atlanta, where I live, begin their runs conceptualized to the point of soullessness. Little Bacch, opened in late May, is idiosyncratic in all the right ways. (The name refers to Bacchanalia, Anne Quatrano and Clifford Harrison’s enduring upscale destination that occupies the space above its newly christened sibling.) Here is a teal-walled, quirky-elegant room where Truman Capote might have felt at home; the hidden space looks out on the lower interior courtyard of the Westside Provisions complex. I suspect the short menu of Continental derivations — escargot, shrimp cocktail with tomato sorbet, New York strip, a chicken for two that recalls the luxe bird served at the NoMad in Manhattan — might go through serious revisions before the restaurant’s first anniversary. But the talented, experienced kitchen, led by executive chef Joseph Schafer, turns out honest pleasures right now. Start with the deceptively memorable salad, made using vegetables from the owners’ farm and dressed with umami-rich green goddess, and conclude with a buttermilk tart that tastes exactly right on a balmy Southern evening. 1198 Howell Mill Rd., Atlanta, (404) 365-0410, website.
Behold the blueberry grunt, a New England forefather of cobbler that was typically steamed, but which Loyal Nine pastry chef Adam Ross bakes in the oven until the juices surge over their cast-iron dish and halfway submerge the tender dough on top. Its summery goodness capped one of my year’s most fascinating dinners. Named for a secret group of American Revolution-era patriots, this ingenious restaurant takes recipes from Colonial gastronomy and ushers them into au courant contexts. In the hands of chef-owner Marc Sheehan, what could be wincingly precious instead comes off as accessibly pleasurable. Ploye, a soft buckwheat crepe cooked only on one side, enfolds sweet Jonah crabmeat and ribbons of pork jowl in its crinkly edges. Pondemnast, which sounds like the name of some doomsday prophet, is a silken porridge enriched with egg yolk and meaty hunks of chicken mushroom. Odd treasures like this inform the whole compelling menu. By delving into the past, it seems Sheehan has found his moment of triumph. 660 Cambridge St., Cambridge, (617) 945-2576,
More compound than mere restaurant, Maketto’s stark, Japanese-inspired three stories contain a swank retail space (mostly men’s fashions, though you’ll also find cult magazines, art books, and hipster essentials like Brooklyn Grooming beard balm), a courtyard with striking black stairs and catwalks, a second-level coffee shop with seductive pastries, and a central bar serving cocktails stirred with things like turmeric drinking vinegar. In the heart of it all is a 60-seat dining space spotlighting the cooking of Erik Bruner-Yang, who made his local and national reputation on the silky tonkotsu ramen at D.C.’s Toki Underground. Here Bruner-Yang’s arresting dinner menu combines dishes from Cambodia and his native Taiwan: pungent Khmer beef sausage, flaky scallion pancakes, peppery Taiwanese fried chicken cutlets over milk bread, and a come-hither wagyu bao platter arrayed with greens, pickles, and condiments. It’s a testament to the kitchen that the food manages to pull focused attention among Maketto’s myriad amusements. 1351 H St. NE, Washington, DC, (202) 838-9972, website.
Crudo mania continues unabated across the land, but I wager that no version has ever married raw fish to the Southern culinary canon quite like the one at Olamaie. Chefs Michael Fojtasek and Grae Nonas mingle petals of North Carolina yellowfin tuna among a summery take on ambrosia salad starring peaches and blackberries. The stealth ingredient: coconut ash (steeped in mustang grape syrup), which lends pleasant grittiness and adds enough tropical flavor to recall the shredded coconut essential to classic ambrosia recipes. Fojtasek and Nonas modernize Southern cooking with haute technique and artistic plating, yet they never lose touch with the essence. To make their hoppin’ john, for instance, they’ll smoke purple hull peas and marinate an accompanying soft egg in bread-and-butter pickle liquid. The final dish, though, still satisfies with intrinsic rice-and-beans earthiness. If the cooking leans vanguard, the setting in a 1930s white clapboard house and the smiling staff couldn’t feel more timeless in their graciousness. 1610 San Antonio St., Austin, (512) 474-2796 website.
Los Angeles, CA
Most conversations around the bistro-next-door sibling to Ludo Lefebvre’s Trois Mec begin, deservedly, with the omelet. It is Brigitte Bardot blonde, this smooth beauty, rolled around black pepper Boursin that quickly assimilates into the eggs. A scattering of chives and a lightly dressed side salad complete this Parisian daydream, rare in a world where most restaurant omelets arrive tanned and rubbery. And this breakout dish is but one of many pleasures, some traditional (escargot unsparing in their garlic and parsley butter) and others fantastical (beef tartare barraged, in a quintessential Lefebvre move, with frizzled onion bits; a filthy rich croque monsieur that demands knife and fork). Petit Trois takes no reservations but remains open all day; it’s ideal for a mid-afternoon meal, during which the by-the-glass selections of rosé and champagne will tempt mightily. 718 North Highland Ave., Los Angeles, (323) 468-8916, website.
New York, NY
The past year saw two NYC whoppers from Rich Torrisi, Mario Carbone, Jeff Zalaznick, and their Major Food Group: Dirty French, a trippy homage to the eighties by way of playlist, party scene, and Gallic menu with post-colonial exoticism, and Santina, which basks along the sunny banks of the Italian-French shoreline in decor and cuisine. I admire both but favor Santina. Its glass-box dining room, tucked underneath the High Line adjacent to the new Whitney Museum of American Art, feels like eating in a Mediterranean terrarium: Vases overflow with birds of paradise; crystal flowers sprout from gaudy-exquisite chandeliers. Fuel the escapist fantasy by ordering a cecina, a thin flatbread from coastal Tuscany made of chickpea flour and embellished with things like gingery shrimp or cubed avocado tossed with cherry tomatoes, almonds, and basil. Among pastas, home in on the Chitarra Santina tossed with tomatoes, mussels, zucchini, garlic, basil, and a delirious trifecta of fats: butter, olive oil, and the gentle funk of lamb merguez. 820 Washington St., New York, (212) 254-3000, website.
“Vegetable forward” is a phrase echoing all over the coasts these days, a signifier of chefs nudging produce into the spotlight but enhancing its performance here and there with animal proteins. Jose Ramirez-Ruiz and Pamela Yung may be the country’s most expressive practitioners of the genre: They serve 10-course, $75-per-person tasting menus at their 18-seat Williamsburg cocoon that bounce from austere to soothing to electric and back again. My meal in May was a snapshot of spring moving at a blur: young, forked stalks of a plant called devil’s club encased in tempura; snippets of white asparagus hidden among rice and dabbed with roasted garlic sauce; a spring onion pancake served with a sunchoke vinaigrette; and gorgeous roasted carrots, shaved into singed petals and set over a smoked potato puree and ramp broth. And Yung’s bread, profound its tang and crunch and elasticity, is deservedly served as its own course with butter and buttermilk. 160 Havemeyer St., Brooklyn, (718) 782-3474, website.
New Orleans, LA
Nothing on the menu at the hottest restaurant in New Orleans harkens to the city’s fabled food traditions: no gumbo or panéed veal or riffs on Creole-Italian or Vietnamese dishes. The anchor to local culture is Alon Shaya, the longtime, James Beard Award-winning chef of Domenica and Pizza Domenica (both part of John Besh’s restaurant group). At his five-month-old Uptown namesake, Shaya plumbs the multinational foods of his native Israel. A silver tray of salatim (small salads) might hold a bowl of watermelon and soft Bulgarian feta revved with harissa alongside silken labneh (yogurt cheese) or tomatoes and cucumbers sprinkled with za’atar. Similar to the game-changing Zahav in Philadelphia, hummus can be crowned with any of gamut of proteins and vegetables; Lamb ragú sprinkled with pine nuts is one standout. And the flatbread for scooping it all up? Steamy and plush, it redefines pita. Among the Middle Eastern headiness, order one or two plates that nod to Eastern Europe, including matzo ball soup fragrant with herbs, and a soothing Hungarian chicken paprikash with dumplings. 4213 Magazine St., New Orleans, (504) 891-4213, website.
Spoon and Stable
Rarely have the Twin Cities seen frenzy around a culinary event like they did for the heralded return home of Gavin Kaysen. He grew up in Minnesota and ascended to a career that includes seven years as executive chef at New York’s Cafe Boulud and head coach for the Bocuse d’Or competition’s Team USA. Stylistically, Kaysen’s food could be served anywhere in the country. He buys from the finest local farmers, but his one sense of place dish is the fried cheese curds, a favorite Midwest snack, tumbled atop creamed spinach. Make no mistake, though: This is modern American cooking at its most fully realized. A recent chilled corn soup, garnished with crab and fennel balanced on a brioche log, was as golden in taste as it was in color. Many highlights followed: bison tartare with harissa aioli, grilled lamb loin with fava bean fritters and pureed marcona almonds, and a stunning roasted peach dessert by gifted pastry chef Diane Yang. A lofty looker of a space (in, yes, a former stable), a doting service staff, and an intelligent bar program help make Spoon and Stable one hell of a homecoming for Kaysen. 211 North First St., (612) 224-9850, website.
PIZZA 2.0: BEYOND NEAPOLITAN
We’ll never have too much first-rate pizza in America. In the last decade nearly every major metropolitan area has warmly received craftsmen who approach pulling mozzarella, hauling bags of double-zero flour, nurturing dough starters, and balancing acid in tomato sauce with monkish devotion. Style-wise, I think we’ve hit peak Neapolitan, or New York-Neapolitan: the thin crusts culminating in charred, puffy lips; the restrained toppings; the designer wood-burning ovens. In travels over the last year I’ve encountered restless creatives who are mastering other pizza styles from Italy, or who are following their own muses, with brilliant results.
Bread & Salt
Rick Easton is foremost an obsessed bread baker — the kind that works with a Pennsylvania farmer to develop custom wheat strains. His crusty, stretchy, smoky-sweet loaves (especially his pane locale) are life-affirming: They bring as much pleasure to the teeth as to the palate, and the dough makes the foundation for some intense pizzas. He bakes them in oblong pans and covers them with simple but potent toppings, like soppressata and provola, a stringy Italian cheese, or thinly sliced herbed potatoes with wisps of onion. And don’t overlook his calzone-like constructs: one stuffed with peperoncino, dill, and lamb’s quarters, a green with a mineral saltiness, was among the best things I’ve eaten so far this year. Bread and Salt is open only three days a week: Thursday and Friday, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m., and Saturday 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Go as early in the day as possible, as the choicest offerings run out quickly. 330 Pearl St., Pittsburgh, website.
Among this group, Cart-Driver cleaves most closely to Neapolitan influences: Round, swollen-edged pizzas quickly emerge from the flames of the wood-burning oven.Pizzaiolo numero uno Chris Bianco has stopped by to give the kitchen lessons. Yet owner Kelly Whitaker — who loosely modeled the tiny, 650-square-foot space after Italy’s Autogrill highway stops — and his crew build decidedly American pies. The crust resembles the appealingly sturdy texture of freshly baked pita, and the choice of toppings is entirely liberated from tradition. After oysters or velvety tuna mousse on focaccia, try Whitaker’s take on a New Haven clam number enriched by a foundation of cream simmered with clam juice, or the “four season” whose quadrants might include strawberries over pesto or ham clouded over by burrata. Bonus: It’s open from noon until midnight seven days a week. 2500 Larimer St., Denver, (303) 292-3553, website.
Fashioned after Roman pizzerias, through which Mike Easton and Johannes Heitzeberg chowed exhaustively for research, Gabbiano specializes in long loaves of thin, light focaccia baked in the morning and re-fired through the day with a whirligig of toppings. Beyond the classic margherita, few combinations skew traditional: You might find mozzarella and mortadella over pistachio-parsley pesto, or potato and cod brandade, or goat cheese teamed up with red onions, rosemary, olives, and Meyer lemon. The staff snips off rectangles and sells it by the kilo (technically $32 per 2.2 pounds). Important: Gabbiano is open for lunch only, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Friday. 240 2nd Ave. South, Seattle, (206) 209-2231, website.
Stephen Lanzalotta made his name at a local grocery store, baking billowy loafs of Sicilian flatbread that share little in common with the dense, rectangular pies often served in Italian-American restaurants. At Slab, which Lanzalotta opened last summer with four partners, the drink list rotates locally brewed beer and the menu dives into Sicilian street food dishes like an Arab-influenced version of hummus seasoned with whole crushed oranges, turmeric, fried sage, a mere scent of cinnamon, and homemade tahini. But nothing outshines Lanzalotta’s masterpiece: a one-pound slice, with a texture somewhere between focaccia and Parker House rolls, thinly painted with tomato sauce, and speckled with mozzarella and provolone. 25 Preble St., Portland, (207) 245-3088, website.