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Big Bites Out of Big Apple 

A tour of new NYC eateries

New York is, and has been, the Number 1 food city in the US for quite some time. Nowhere else have so many talented chefs and restaurateurs come together in such a geographically small space and continuously set the bar ever higher for restaurants around the city and across the country. My interest has always revolved around the particular chefs and their latest aspirations, and on a recent trip I checked out some of the most talked-about chef-driven spots. Hopefully this will help you make some dining decisions during your next trip.

A few months ago Jean-Georges Vongerichten opened his tribute to southeast Asian street food. Spice Market (403 W. 13th Street), located in an old meat packing district warehouse, has an interior that looks as if it was designed for a Miss Saigon production: carved wooden latticework panels, overhead ceiling fans, and floor-to-ceiling windows that open onto the streets allowing the billowing curtains to flap through them. And through the windows wafts an "authentic" southeast Asian smell: that not-too-noxious garbage smell mixed with diesel exhaust. Only in New York could this be appealing. The center of the main dining room opens to a basement bar, the side wall of which is filled with small intimate dining nooks, many connected through a labyrinth. In the main dining room, long dark wood settees upholstered in cream fabrics are used to define the room. Female servers wear bold orange backless dresses offset by uber-hoop gold earrings.

With Vongerichten in this venture is celebrity chef Gray Kunz while Stanley Wong is executive chef. Dishes are meant to be shared. Our table became crowded with chicken samosas mellowed by a cilantro yogurt sauce, spicy shrimp sweetened with sun-dried pineapple, a green papaya salad with crystallized ginger, a sweet and tart pomelo crab salad, flavorful mushroom egg rolls with galangal emulsion sauce, curried duck, and wood-grilled chicken breast and kumquats. What these dishes excelled in were the smooth and layered sauces.

Uptown from the meat-packing district is New York's newest home for celebrity chefs. In February, Thomas Keller, one of the best chefs in the country and winner of back-to-back James Beard awards, opened Per Se in the spanking new Time Warner Center mall, er, large multi-storied enclosed shopping building. Unfortunately for those who snagged reservations, Per Se closed after a fire that occurred soon after opening. ("It was wonderful," gushed one restaurant manager. "Very minimalist: all about the food.") Time Warner will soon star other high-powered restaurants owned by Gray Kunz, Charlie Trotter, sushi master Masa Takayama and another Jean-Georges Vongerichten venture.

Tom Colicchio is one of my favorite chefs. Ten years ago he and restaurateur Danny Meyer opened the unpretentious Gramercy Tavern. Now Colicchio concentrates on his own dining trio: Craft, one of the most splendid restaurants in the city; the neighboring Craftbar; and "Wichcraft, a sandwich shop featuring unusual breakfast combos like fried eggs with gorgonzola, and for lunch a Sicilian tuna sandwich with shaved fennel and lemon. While the round-up of wild fungi on Craft's menu is still a vivid taste memory of my last New York eating adventure, this time Craftbar (47 East 19th Street), stole my heart. Here I scoffed down tasty snacks prepared by Chef Akhtar Nawab of deep-fried morsels of wild boar sausage stuffed in sage leaves, cured halibut with pickled ramps, and roasted sweetbreads with fiddlehead ferns.

Another preferred spot is Chef Tom Valenti's "Cesca (164 West 75th Street), a neighborhood hangout on the upper West Side. "Cesca features faultless Italian cuisine. Whether you eat at the bar or in the comfortable dining room with its round, high-backed movable booths, Valenti's take on Italian food is stunning. The best of the small bites were the beef carpaccio and the crispy prosciutto antipasto. The most humble was the farro peasant salad filled with pine nuts and crumbled goat cheese.

To the other extreme of comfort is the two-year-old Industry (food) (509 East 6th Street). This spot, popular with the restaurant crowd, is in the lower East Village and features a modestly priced menu. The interior design is reminiscent of a drinking bar in Aspen with its rough-hewn walls and wide pine planked floors. Although the ambience is casual and the banquettes worse for wear, Chef-owner Alex Freij has a penchant for lobster, the best of which is his lobster bruschetta with pancetta and tomato.

At Ilo in the Bryant Park Hotel (40 W. 40th Street) chef-owner Rick Laakkonen prepared succulent wood-grilled sardines with thin slices of baby fennel and tacconi pasta drizzled with a tomato sauce with pine nuts. Better still was his marinated hamachi with pickled sunchokes and ultra tiny honshumeiji mushrooms.

And at RM (33 E. 60th Street), I delighted in chef Rick Moonen's lobster tempura appetizer presented on five oyster forks, each filled with a bite-sized portion of lightly battered fried lobster with a smaller piece of watermelon.

The only disappointments were Charlie Palmer's Aureole and DB Bistro Moderne, home of the Daniel Boulud $29 burger, for their lack of bar seating. Aureole doesn't allow eating at the bar: "Our manager said absolutely not," the hostess informed us, while DB doesn't have a bar, only a couple of high tables set between the two packed dining rooms.

Someone, maybe my husband, said a great restaurant is the result of a thousand little decisions. Nowhere is the evidence of this more clear than in some of the best of New York's chef-driven restaurants.

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