A veteran travel writer—not fixed in foodie mode—reviews restaurants with a focus on where the diner is transported.
Taiwanese Tapas? New York City’s fabled #7 subway is an above-ground stop-by-stop showcase of Queens’ multiethnic diversity. A prize at the terminus of this journey is Flushing’s rooftop-garden oasis LEAF BAR & LOUNGE. The panoramic views of Queens and the Manhattan skyline come alive by sampling the botanically inspired cocktails and Chef Henry Lin’s elevated menu of six small plates priced from $5 to $9 (salt & pepper popcorn chicken, braised pork belly buns, beef noodle soup). Upscale with a twist, and that uninterrupted view, the soft electronic music hints at the clubbiness to come as the night evolves. Modern and chic, One Fulton Square’s several eateries create an ambitious neighborhood transformer, but the top-floor Leaf steals the show. Their Hellcat (jalapeño-infused tequila, agave nectar, lime, coriander, smoked red alder sea salt) makes you feel all over. There’s also the raspberry-vinegar-vodka Magnificent Mule cocktail, but you shouldn’t mix liquors, right? This is a craft cocktail empire with bomb snacks. Leaf Bar & Lounge. Last Queens stop on the 7 train, then a short walk to 133-42 39th Ave at Prince St. (via Hyatt Place lobby). 718.865.8158.
Flashy Union Square has an underground Brazilian cuisine secret called BOTEQUIM. Tucked under its sister establishment The Fourth, a cachaça-based cocktail awaits. One of their signature sugarcane-spirit classics is the Novo Fogo Barrel-Aged (in American oak) and infused with banana bread, cinnamon bark and coffee (served neat or over a sizable coconut-water ice cube). The Novo Fogo therefore has dark bourbon-like notes, but no bourbon-like hangover. If that’s too complicated, trust the Classic Caipirinha (cachaça, muddled limes, sugar). Although you are below street level, the open kitchen and high ceiling reinvents the dining room. Add graffiti murals, driftwood boards, dangling artsy bed frames and clubby samba rhythms and the frenzied pace of the city melts away. Traditional bar snacks include Pasteizinhos De Carne, an empanada creation filled with ground beef, tomatoes and olives. My highlight was the Sopa De Palmito, a puree of heart-of-palm soup and sweet peppers. I’ll also be returning for the Moqueca a Baiana: wild striped bass and prawn, tomato-coconut broth, sweet peppers and coconut cashew rice. Their wine list is 300 strong, with several Brazilians by the glass. They also serve rare Brazilian brews. The knowledgeable, attentive servers wrap up your experience like a gift. The last time I drank cachaça, it was in a sketchy Sao Paolo bar. This hideaway was a certified upgrade. Botequim, 132 Fourth Ave at 13th St., 212.432.1324.
KOA Restaurant redefines the art of noodling in a pleasing brick and reclaimed wood space illuminated by birdcage chandeliers, travel-scape videos projected on the wall and superb service. Your mood leads you to options for their large central bar, long communal table, standard tables and a semi-private room. This contemporary Chinese culinary crusade blends the best of Japan and China. The mellow clubby tunes begin to make sense when the Golden Nest arrives: beef tenderloin wrapped in crispy wonton with black pepper sauce. Don’t shy away from the Yuzu Crispy Shrimp: sweet & spicy yuzu pepper cream sauce. Spice in a few Flatirons (Bourbon, blood orange juice, lime juice, bitters; yes, this is the Flatiron District) and the lounge music starts to make sense—the Flatirons also double as a hot pepper ambulance. After the show-stealing appetizers, it is made clear that this is a top-notch ramen “sorba” noodle place with their signature dish, the sinful Soymilk Dan Dan Sorba. This deep orange-colored sumptuous meal is not first date food. But the Asian staff, a mix of Chinese, Japanese and Thai professionals, makes it easy to breathe between courses. KOA Restaurant, 12 West 21st Street, 212.388.5736.
UTSAV is a wide-open, spacious Indian grill perched above a broad pedestrian walkway (connecting 46th and 47th streets) that defies the chaos of its midtown locale. Festive yet mellow, the second level overlook/getaway rises above and is insulated from the standard Times Square areas intensity. The Bombay Butter Garlic Crab (blue crab, garlic, cracked black pepper, crispy cumin cracker) may not sustain your diet, but it’s worth the deviation. The vegetarian Lasuni Gobi (crispy cauliflower, sriracha garlic sauce) tastes equally naughty but puts you back on that health kick. Chef Hari Nayak’s other Indian classics (try the kabobs) are served up by content ethnic-Indian “actors” versus the more typical theatre district’s supply of waitstaff who are often aspiring actors. And, they fashion great cocktails too. The Spice Trail is a dessert-like whiskey-based potion that takes flight with spicing only an Indian magician could concoct. Without trying, Utsav is fun. 1185 Avenue of the Americas (enter on 46 or 47 St., West of 6th Ave via the building’s plaza). 212.575.2525.
Spanish and Asian cuisines unite at TASCA CHINO. The unexpectedly fluid fusion moves beyond exquisite tapas and dim sum options. The Park Avenue South location’s big windows also invites you to sample the colorful sidewalk pedestrian circus. Spice in sexy jazz, locals with mellow kids and a few tourists-in-the know. Then, to keep it really interesting, add an Algerian GM and internationally trained award-winning chef Alex Urena, who has Latin roots. Enter…wild mushroom & truffle dumplings, ceviche, ginger lobster & shrimp and the Paella Matador (for two) with lobster, pork, chicken, clams, English peas, mussels and Chorizo—I think you get it. The wine list will also knock you over. Get there between 5 and 7pm and beat the rush. Fun casual. Conclude with a peanut butter tart and this destination will land back on your calendar. Tasca Chino. 245 Park Ave South at 19th St. 212.335.2220.
I brought two 10-year-old foodies with me to DEWEY’S PUB, an inviting, spacious bi-level Midtown sports bar with (according to the fifth grade ladies) “awesome bathrooms and lots of cool TVs.” Along with the 22 flat screens, classic rock, a hearty menu and a proud beer list set the mood. Our knowing server started us off with Short Rib Beef Sliders (on pretzel buns) and the Lobster Mac & Cheese (no scrimping on the lobster or gruyere), and we were off. My culinary highlight was the Short Rib Chili Soup; satisfaction guaranteed. Picky vegetarians won’t be disappointed by the Mushroom Burger. While I was segueing from a Heavy Seas Winter Storm ESB to a Southern Tier Old Man Winter, the girls freed their ponytails to make beards with their long hair. By the time I concluded with a Delerium Tremems Belgian pale ale, the young ladies’ ponytails were retied as they dually sampled lava cake and French fries and shared two more opinions: Play more 2K15 music. Cool skylights. You don’t have to be a loyal sports fan to dig this place. It also offers relaxing sidewalk dining, as the building’s façade is recessed compared to neighboring building fronts. Also check out the downstairs lounge/hideaway—a bar doubling as a stylish fallout shelter. Dewey’s Pub. 135 W 30th St. 212.685.7781.