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Best New Restaurants 2011

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These are heady times for Westchester diners, who are finding their culinary dance cards filled with ever more and better choices. Sceney debuts like Juniper (from Chef Alex Sze) and Restaurant North (from Manhattan luminaries Stephen Paul Mancini and Chef Eric Gabrynowicz), mean that Westchester is no longer a dining hinterland punctuated by a couple of high profile standouts. The county’s new restaurant diversity means that even a hipster locavorian gastropub, Peekskill’s Birdsall House, can hop—pardon the pun—while, on the other side of our borders, bartaco is bringing surf-style heat to the humble shores of the Byram.

We hit the hottest openings and checked out each and every restaurant in our list, and while we can’t tell what the future will hold (some full reviews are still pending), we can say that these spots look like the winning picks in the bunch. We’ve put in the miles, so all that’s left for you is to keep your dialing (and clicking) fingers limber. Check out Westchester Magazine’s 2011 roundup of Westchester’s hottest tables.

Restaurant North
386 Main St, Armonk (914) 273-8686

Farmers’ market veggies and scallops at Restaurant North.

Stephen Paul Mancini was younger than 30 when he opened the doors to breezy North, yet he comes to his first ownership position with serious Manhattan restaurant cred. The former wine director at Union Square Cafe, Mancini reconnected with his old colleague from USC, Chef Eric Gabrynowicz, who was fresh from a praise-filled stint at Garrison, New York’s Tavern at the Highlands Country Club. Together, they are unstoppable, making Restaurant North the hottest table in town.

Sure, some well-heeled scenesters come to bathe in Mancini’s intuitive “enlightened hospitality,” though foodies seeking hearty, seasonal fare are just as likely to be fans of Chef Gabrynowicz’s menu. His trend-conscious, yet rib-sticking, cuisine is largely sourced from Armonk-area farmers, and we know we’ll return again and again for favorites like hanger steak with chickpeas, zucchini, and Swiss chard, especially when paired with Mancini’s tight drink program, which offers great picks at thoughtful prices.

Birdsall House
970 Main St, Peekskill (914) 930-1880

This is the restaurant that brought Billyburg north, with a loca-brewian ale selection that stresses craft beers sourced from producers within a day’s drive. Though its roster is ever-changing and mostly local, you’ll find the stuff of beer fantasists’ dreams; in the past, it’s hosted exotic draught rarities like Ridgeway Brewery’s Bad Elf from South Stoke, England, and NØgne Ø Imperial Stout from Norway. And, like its stylish—yet, somehow, anti-stylish—urban counterpart, New York City’s beer mecca Blind Tiger (also owned by Birdsall’s Tim Reinke and John Sharp), Birdsall House’s vibe perfects the weathered but warm embrace of a small-town tavern.

Now, such a serious beer program might overshadow the average kitchen, but Chef Matt Hutchins’s locavorian menu is an equal counterpoint to Birdsall’s brews. In the way that 10 of Birdsall’s 20 taps focus on New York breweries, Hutchins’s menu is sourced locally with grains from Wild Hive Farm, meats from Hemlock Hill, and the cream of New York cheeses. But, ethics aside, we can think of no better way to while away an evening than to be curled around a barleywine and a plate of Chef Hutchins’s charcuterie.

Juniper
575 Warburton Ave, Hastings-on-Hudson (914) 478-2542

Though Chef Alex Sze comes to Westchester riding a CV that features serious restaurant names (Michel Richard Citronelle in Washington, D.C., Adour and 10 Downing Food & Wine in New York City), the best thing about Juniper is its almost total lack of pretension. This small, BYOB restaurant could hardly be any simpler; its plan comprises a bakery case, a cash register, and a small, open kitchen. Still, the flavors produced in this storefront are as sophisticated as any uptown, AvroKO-designed foodie haunt.

Look for hanger steak with roasted bone marrow; strozzapreti with parsnips, poached egg, pancetta, and Pecorino; and delectable house-made terrines and pickles. Juniper’s lunch—the restaurant is the home of the subtle and compelling soups and sandwiches—is one of Westchester’s best-kept secrets. Plus, after the last crumb is gone, one can always linger with coffee and a perfectly chewy oatmeal-raisin cookie.

bartaco
1 Willett Ave, Port Chester (914) 937-8226

The folks behind Barcelona—that staple of style-conscious dining in Connecticut—are dipping their toes into the warm waters of super-casual dining. Port Chester’s bartaco, the first venture (another will follow in Stamford, Connecticut), takes its inspiration from the iconic taco stands of seaside Baja, Mexico. Look for a fabulous, industrial-chic interior that celebrates this building’s humble, Byram-side origins; it’s all centered on a square central bar and an open kitchen that plancha grills fish for tacos. Lengua (tongue), beef al carbon, and spicy chorizo are also tucked into tacos, while a rotisserie spins Peruvian chicken, and gorditas and tamales round out the spread. All are offered in sample-and-share servings, and all celebrate the clean herb-laden flavors of surfers’ haunts. Homebodies take note: take-out is also an option.

As befits its name, bartaco stresses its drink program. It’s overseen by Gretchen Thomas, the award-winning wine director of all seven Barcelona locations. She’s hand-selected about 40 tequilas and whipped up eight specialty cocktails—all feature juices squeezed to order at a rank of anvil-style commercial citrus presses. But if wine is more your tipple, none of this mostly South American list tops $60 per bottle. We can’t wait until summer comes, when we can park on the deck and eat and drink all night long—bartaco invested in a $40K sound system, designed to keep the summer vibe flowing year-round. (Look for a full review at a later date.)

Eliá Taverna
502 New Rochelle Rd, Bronxville (914) 663-4976

Elia Taverna’s Greek-spun seafood.

It seems like all of our guilty pleasures are enjoying their moment in the gourmet sun. First it was pizza, then hamburgers, meatballs, and fried chicken. When will gyros get their own 15 minutes of fame?

Whether or not they’re trendy, we love Eliá’s balanced gyros. They’re not wadded with lettuce hay, and you don’t need to remove tons of filler before you strike. Classic dips like hummus, taramosalata, and skordalia keep diners tearing off tender, fresh pita shreds, while standouts like house-stuffed grape leaves separate Eliá from the usual Hellenic pack. Eliá slings tons of lemony seafood, simply grilled, oiled, and served up on the plate, plus kebabs, moussaka and spanikopita for those looking for the heavy hitters. PS: Don’t miss Chef Mike Sarris’s crisp and fragrant baklava.

Taiim Falafel Shack
598 Warburton Ave, Hastings-on-Hudson (914) 478-0006

You’ve heard about cursed restaurant sites—well, how about a blessed one? Taiim Falafel Shack steps into Comfort’s former nook and proves equally as indispensable to Hastings’s hopping dining scene. We love Taiim’s cheap and cheerful Isreali comfort food, which includes juicy falafels, succulent shawarma, spicy kebabs, and bright salads. And, handily, Taiim’s menu offers a built-in glossary, so even non-Israelis can utter “warbat” (custard-filled phyllo pastries) with confidence.

Moderne Barn
430 Bedford Rd, Armonk (914) 730-0001

The Livanos Restaurant Group—the family of New York restaurateurs that launched Molyvos, Oceana, and Abboccato—has deep roots in Westchester County. Not only does much of the family live in Armonk, but it also owns the White Plains landmark City Limits Diner. Like its urban counterparts, Molyvos and Oceana, Moderne Barn offers a sophisticated décor, here, managing a difficult balance between woodsy rusticism and ultra-modern chic. Look for large-format photos by Robert Dutesco—these black-and-white images of Sable Island’s wild horses evoke untamed America with graphic punch.

Moderne Barn’s kitchen is overseen by Chef Ethan Kostbar, who offers a large, democratic menu that makes this an ideal destination for diverse groups. Salads, seafood, pizza, steaks—and ecumenical comfort foods like meatballs, taquitos, and matzoh ball soup—mean that there is something for absolutely everyone at Moderne Barn.

Also, Moderne Barn sports a hopping nightlife, where locals crowd four deep at the bustling bar. They come to sample Wine Director Christopher Gambelli’s vast selection, which is accessed by a precarious-looking catwalk over the bar. Also look for craft-distilled whiskeys, tequila, Scotch, and mescal—all perfect partners to small plates at the bar.

 

 

Arrosto
25 S Regent St, Port Chester (914) 939-2727

House-made pasta at Arrosto

This massive Port Chester newcomer comes via our most recent Manhattan restaurateur expat: Godfrey Polistina, who is former owner/founder in Manhattan’s ‘Cesca, Carmine’s, Virgil’s, and Ouest. (He still owns ‘Cesca.) Along with antipasti meant to share in array, Arrosto introduces large-format mains. Look for an 80-ounce, aged, bone-in rib eye meant to feed three to four diners, or a three-pound lobster with vanilla brown butter for as many as can take it down. This is the sort of restaurant that favors large groups with hearty appetites.

Yet wood-fired personal pizzas—with toppings like shaved potato, truffle cream, and guanciale or lardo, chili flakes, pomodoro, and Pecorino Romano—make this a seductive spot for just about anyone looking for a great, Italophilic meal. All of Arrosto’s pastas are made in-house and are offered in “a little” or “a lot” portions. They include chewy casarecce with gigante beans and duck confit, or sweet potato gnocchi with Brussels sprouts and walnuts. Plus, Arrosto’s 22 by-the-glass wines are additionally offered in 500 ml carafes and by the bottle, with many of these bottles in the $26 to $65 range (though a vast list of strictly bottled wines creep up to $125). Happily, Arrosto has many wines in that cheap and cheerful $30 to $40/bottle range. We love Arrosto’s motto: “Life is too short to drink bad wine.” (For a full review, see page 108.)

Lalibela
37 S Moger Ave, Mount Kisco (914) 864-1343

Lalibela, named for a northern Ethiopian town, swept into Mount Kisco on a warm African breeze, simultaneously introducing Westchester to the nuances of injera, wats, tibs, and berbere, while building a loyal group of devoted fans.

Though Lalibela’s digs are modest, with ochre walls, a few posters, and unclothed tables, the murky depth of two African spice combinations—berbere and mitmita—are all the geographical evocations one needs. Dishes arrive piled on spongy injera flatbread, which serves as plate, food, and fork. Diners scoop manageable mouthfuls with shreds of injera, hopefully washing down the spice with cool Ethiopian beer. While we love all the flavors and the warm hospitality of owner Selamawit Tesfaye, we especially applaud Lalibela for adding more diversity to our dining scene.

D Thai Kitchen
677 Commerce St, Thornwood (914) 741-1313

Unassuming (to the point of nearly invisible), D Thai Kitchen’s looks are deceiving. Behind its modest Commerce Street façade, Chef Tom Theuyoo slings remarkably complex, homestyle Thai food.

Look for well-poised, herb-laden curries that manage a judicious balance of mouthwatering acid and heat, where massaman’s coconut milky richness is countered by the funky snap of citrus and fish sauce. Drunken Man noodles are properly spicy, while satays come with irresistible peanut/chili sauce. Salads are also fabulous, especially candied duck slices on a crisp slaw of bright mint, lime, and green apple. Yum.

Piri-Q
360 Mamaroneck Ave, Mamaroneck (914) 341-1443

The indomitable Rui Correia, of Douro Restaurant in Greenwich, Connecticut, and the (sadly) now closed Oporto Restaurant in Hartsdale, has winnowed his Portuguese restaurant concept to offer a new kind of culinary fusion. Piri-Q takes its name from the blend of two traditions, piri-piri sauce from Portugal and good, ol’ American barbecue. Expect Chef Correia’s version of comfort food with wood-grilled meats to take center stage.

Along with the bolinhos (Portuguese deep-fried cod balls), you’ll find crowd-pleasing tapas like meatballs, hummus, and grilled chourico. These yield to char-grilled, piri-piri-dressed chickens, offered with a slew of available sides. Also look for barbecued ribs (seasoned with Portuguese spices), while meaty standards like bitoque (beefsteak served over Portuguese chips with fried egg and garlicky wine sauce) round out a carnivorous spread. Lighter eaters might share chicken paelha and simply grilled salmon with veggies. With options like these, who needs supermarket rotisserie?

Eclisse Mediterraneo Cucina
189 E Post Rd, White Plains (914) 761-1111

Eclisse joins Shiraz to make Westchester a nexus of Persian dining; never before has the word “borani” been spoken by so many locals. But unlike Shiraz, which sticks to Iran, Eclisse includes the cuisines of nearby Mediterranean cultures, resulting in a crowd-pleasing and neighborly culinary mix that dips into Greece, Italy, and Spain. Alongside standards like caprese salad and pasta, you’ll find Persian standouts like mirza ghasemi, an addictively tarry eggplant dip that defies all human restraint. Traditional Persian stews speak of subtle spicing, like warming ghourmeh sabzi, or beef stew with dried lemon, parsley, scallions, kidney beans, and herbs. Meanwhile, Eclisse’s fabulous cocktail list beckons with the heady Arabian Nights mixers rosewater and house-made falernum. For dessert, don’t miss stellar saffron ice cream with fragrant rosewater and pistachios. (Look for a full review at a later date.)

Alvin and Friends
49 Lawton St, New Rochelle (914) 654-6549

Mile-high plating by Chef Raymond Jackson at Alvin and Friends

Along with Cienega (see page 51), Alvin and Friends characterizes the new New Rochelle, a place that celebrates its cultural diversity, but in a moneyed, style-conscious way. Stunningly handsome owner Alvin Clayton—a former model from the pages of Vogue, Glamour, Elle, and Esquire—has culled friends from New Rochelle’s cultural elite, including interior designer Michelle Sanchez-Boyce. Together, they’ve created a chic meeting place that celebrates African American, Caribbean, and Southern cuisine.

Hung with Clayton’s richly hued paintings (he’s contributed work to the art collections of Denzel Washington, Halle Berry, and Robert De Niro), Alvin and Friends has all the charm of a very sophisticated private home. Meanwhile, Chef Raymond Jackson of Manhattan’s now-defunct Maroons charms with the universal appeal of jerk chicken wings, Louisiana oyster stew, fried chicken, and spicey fried catfish with cornbread. These are the sort of flavors that mark everyone’s soul food, regardless of their incidental ethnic background.

 

 

Thyme
3605 Crompond Rd, Yorktown Heights (914) 788-8700

Sesame-flecked cubes of tuna tartare at Thyme

Yorktown’s newest gem might be inauspiciously set in a strip mall (and its menu hews toward mid-market standards), yet this cozy, wood-and-stone dining room has a secret weapon in the finesse of its kitchen. The ubiquitous starter of tuna tartare at Thyme comes in perfect, die-sized cubes. They’re flecked with a miniscule chop of chives, and perfectly seasoned with a sticky slick of soy reduction. Skirt steak is grilled to nano-second perfection and is paired with a brightly herbal chimichurri, while its frites—often inattentively cooked and served in soggy (if massy) piles—arrive, at Thyme, in a tasteful cluster, snappably crisp ’til the last stick. At Thyme, even throwaway dishes like green salad are marked by consummate kitchen craftsmanship. You’ll find dull, winter grape tomatoes lightly roasted in thyme-flavored olive oil that, at least, recalls a summer breeze. Little touches like these elevate Thyme above its menu analogs—we know when we want perfectly executed standards, we’ll make for Thyme.

Orissa
14 Cedar St, Dobbs Ferry (914) 231-7800

this bijou restaurant-slash-boutique offers a stylish mix of East and West, where beets make a root-veg twist on cucumber raita and tandoori-spiced chicken salad comes over shredded romaine and avocado. Cleverly, Indian “paella” uses saffron and coconut-infused basmati rice laced with rings of calamari, shrimp, scallops, mussels, and chunks of tender chicken. Sure, other of Orissa’s fusion fare isn’t as witty (or tasty), but we love its gorgeous room and eager staff. Plus, where else in Westchester can one sip Indian-produced wine while casually browsing bibelots?

Dolphin Restaurant Bar Lounge
1 Van Der Donck St, Yonkers (914) 751-8170

Stepping into the former Pier View space, owner Elio and his son, manager Jimmy Rugova (with combined restaurant experience in Manhattan, Las Vegas, and Westchester), faced a major, site-specific challenge: How would they give this riverfront corner known for rowdy, youth-oriented bars, uptown flavor? The Rugovas started by ordering a top-to-bottom renovation.

With its neon-like cylinder lights and white vinyl sofas, the lounge at Dolphin feels less like a restaurant than Barbarella’s spaceship. However, those looking for less vibrant scenery can always opt for Dolphin’s quiet, street-side dining room—or, in good weather, they can also choose Dolphin’s centerpiece, a 5,000-square-foot riverfront patio. All areas partake of Dolphin’s vast wine list and its sea-centric, democratic menu. We love the Dolphin for old-school standards, like baked clams, linguine con vongole, scampi, and seafood fra diavolo. To finish, don’t miss the Rugovas’ house-made anisette, perfect to sip while savoring the view.

Vega Hartsdale
187-189 E Hartsdale Ave, Hartsdale (914) 723-0010

Once the home of Oporto Restaurant, Hartsdale’s Vega says it all with its transparent window gel of Frida Kahlo: Mexico’s patron saint of arty cool stares from her niche like a very intense Catholic icon. Purple and orange vinyl upholstery adds space-age chic, while lantern-and-tree décor evokes an outdoor Mexican plaza—to be honest, we found ourselves smiling even before our well-shaken, tart margaritas landed.

Look for table-side mashed guacamole; succulent tacos of trendy al pastor and carnitas; resonant, mole-dipped enchiladas; and char-grilled steaks paired with sprightly chimichurri. Best of all, Vega is supremely child-friendly while still managing a certain date-night cool. This is a great, fun option for the whole family.

Cienega
179 Main St, New Rochelle (914) 632-4000

Sugarcane-glazed lamb chops at Cienega

Architects-owners Pedro Muñoz and Vivian Torres have taken Steam’s awkward, inauspicious space and created a masterpiece of bold, modernist lines. Edison bulbs cluster, while muted murals soothe—with looks like these, it’s a good thing that Cienega’s food is equally stylish.

The partners come straight from critical raves for Fort Greene’s Luz, and, like that restaurant, Cienega is spinning crowd-pleasing Nueva Latino standards. Along with subtle ceviches—we love the pretty mixto (shrimp, octopus, rocoto, bay scallops, and squid, lightly scented with ginger and orange)—you’ll find trendy albóndigas (meatballs), arepitas, and empanadas. While Cienega’s small plates are seductive, we’ll always make room for cordera ron y caña: meltingly tender rum-and-sugarcane-glazed lamb chops with starchy malanga mash and huacatay sauce. It tastes like a tropical vacation—especially with alternating sips of sangria. (Look for a full review at a later date.)

Sakura Garden
531 Warburton Ave, Hastings-on-Hudson (914) 478-1978

To be honest, Sakura Garden is not drop-dead gorgeous, nor is it especially inventive. It’s just a plain corner sushi restaurant that happens to serve really fresh, well-prepared maki. You won’t find an Out of Control Roll, or anything that sprouts wings or tentacles—just standards like yellowtail, eel, tuna, Alaska, and California rolls, slung alongside a happy variety of soups, tempura, and hibachi mains. This restaurant won’t challenge iconic Sushi Nanase in White Plains, but then Sakura Gardens is open for lunch and you don’t have to reserve your table ahead—and with loyalists like Hastings-on-Hudson’s Chef Andy Nusser, who are we to differ?

trending up…

Here are the tasty waves that Westchester is surfing right now.

Craft Beer
While the unfortunate phrase “craft beer” sounds like something uttered during a commercial break, among today’s diners this is a buzzword for beverage focus. Only a few, quality-obsessed restaurants are willing to track down small-batch breweries, or are patient enough to introduce dunkels or rauchbiers to Stella-formed palates. We applaud restaurants like Birdsall House, Peekskill Brewery, and Bridge View Tavern for taking on the challenge, and we’re proud that Westchester’s Captain Lawrence has put Westchester on the super-snooty craft-brew map.

Bones/Guts/Brains
The scrappy culinary tag team of Fergus Henderson and Anthony Bourdain has made once-despised off-cuts the prized proteins du jour. Sheep’s brains at BHSB, duck tongues at The Cookery, and everywhere, the fiddly, primal pleasure of long scoops of roasted marrowbones. We can’t say where this is leading—eyeballs, bellybuttons, maybe wattles—but we’re delighted that conservative diners are finally going after new game.

Pop-Ups and Parties
The thing about restaurants is that they need a clear identity, a concept that’ll work in those pithy OpenTable descriptions. Pop-up events like Juniper’s holiday dinners, or The Cookery’s “Industry Night,” mean that local chefs can flex their off-message culinary chops, and freedom from genre restrictions only enriches our tables. In related news, savvy diners are now scanning their favorite restos for special events. Annual parties like BHSB’s beer dinner have become Westchester’s most anticipated dining galas.

Manhattan to Westchester/Westchester to Manhattan
Back in the day, for city chefs, opening a restaurant in Westchester was like a legitimate actor doing porn. Once you’d crossed that line, you could never go back again. Yet savvy restaurateurs like Zitoune’s Alain Bennouna, Cafe of Love’s Leslie Lampert, and Lulu Cake Boutique’s Jay Muse have parlayed successes in Westchester to debut New York City venues. We think it’s swell of us to return the favor of The City giving us Andy Nusser, Dan Barber, and
David DiBari.
 
Restaurants and Social Media—Perfect Together
Do you remember before the Flood when you used to have to call a restaurant? Or when you didn’t know what its specials were until a waiter bothered to tell you? Now, with free, super-targeted marketing tools like Facebook and Twitter, restaurateurs can get moment-to-moment messages out, straight to their customers. We’ve seen Facebook posts from Restaurant North alerting friends to how many soft-shell crab orders were left for the night or Birdsall House’s bulletins that list updates in their ever-changing draught list. Now, more than ever, restaurants and chefs are cutting out the marketing middlemen—which means more info for diners, and, for restaurateurs, lower overhead.
 
Market Mania

One of Westchester’s great dining stories actually happened in its food markets. The debuts of Fairway Market, Tarry Market, and Juniper’s new prepared food counter mean that some of our tastiest grub can be eaten on the sofa in front of the tube. We can’t decide whether to be proud of this trend or just a little bit ashamed.

Julia Sexton is a Westchester-based restaurant critic, food writer, and CRMA Award-winning blogger. When not high tailing it to every damn restaurant opening in the County, she cooks and writes in her home in New Rochelle.

Captions: Photos opposite page (clockwise from top left): Alvin Clayton, handsome owner of Alvin and Friends; Nuevo Latino cuisine from Cienega; Thyme’s cozy dining room; Chef and Owner Tom Costello of Thyme; Eliá Taverna serves more than gyros; warm, house-stuffed grape leaves from Eliá Taverna; Arrosto’s democratic casual Italian; simple and perfect steak frites at Thyme; Restaurant North’s menu celebrates local farms.

 

Former Union Square Cafe’s wine director Stephen Paul Mancini (center) now co-owns Restaurant North.

 

Though in Port Chester, Arrosto’s owners have Manhattan pedigree.

 

 

Former model Alvin Clayton’s restaurant, Alvin and Friends, showcases his paintings.

 

Thyme’s chic interior belies its strip-mall location.

 

Cienega’s architect-owners triumph over an awkward space.

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