It seems that almost every thrilling new restaurant in America is Asian. Here are the Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese and Thai places causing the biggest sensation, for both their exceptional food and design.
New York City
BY KATE KRADER
Exceptional, not to mention elegant, Thai restaurants aren't easy to find in Manhattan. So when Kittichai opened in the summer of 2004, Thai-food fans celebrated. Ian Chalermkittichai, Thailand's first celebrity chef, came from the Four Seasons Hotel Bangkok to prepare exemplary dishes like clay-pot prawns with prosciutto, and supremely tender green currybraised short ribs. The silk-lined space, in Soho's 60 Thompson hotel, has a pool with orchids suspended in the air above it and a gorgeous cocktail bar with an equally gorgeous clientele. DETAILS 60 Thompson St.; 212-219-2000.
The serene, 26-seat dining room at this Time Warner Center restaurant may be small, but the flavors—and prices—are formidable. Chef Masa Takayama improvises tasting menus that start at $350 per person. Appetizers often include a luxurious sea urchin and truffle risotto. Next comes a procession of sushi, made with pristine seafood flown in from Japan. A purist, Takayama even refuses to set out chopsticks, serving sushi with lemon-infused finger bowls instead. DETAILS 10 Columbus Circle; 212-823-9800.
When Koji Imai opened Megu in 2004, he already owned nearly 30 restaurants in Tokyo. Megu is his most ambitious venture yet. Towering porcelain columns made of rice bowls and sake cups flank the entry; a giant ice Buddha slowly melts in the dining room as diners devour incredibly creamy edamame soup, rice crackercoated fried asparagus and ma po tofu, a stew made with Kobe beef instead of the usual pork. Imai is planning a smaller restaurant in the Trump World Tower near the United Nations, set to open in November, and a place in Times Square called Maimon that will specialize in skewers and oysters. DETAILS 62 Thomas St.; 212-964-7777.
Momofuku Noodle Bar
"I obviously love pork. A lot," says chef David Chang. Bacon and Berkshire black pork (a 300-year-old breed) appear in roughly half the dishes at Momofuku, a tiny, inexpensive East Village noodle shop that Chang opened after working at Craft, one of the city's finest restaurants. Customers eat at an oak counter that faces the kitchen, where they can watch Chang prepare addictively chewy roasted rice cakes with onions and sweet Korean chili sauce, or his clever riff on Peking duck—steamed buns with hoisin sauce and fillings of shredded chicken, sautéed shiitake mushrooms or, yes, seared pork. DETAILS 163 First Ave.; 212-475-7899.
Jackson Hole, Wyoming
Year-old Mizu Sushi offers minimalist decor—luminous sheets of translucent plastic covering the vestibule, dozens of large glowing glass pendants suspended from the ceiling—and creative sushi and sashimi made with fish that's flown in from Japan, Hawaii and both U.S. coasts. "Most of my customers tell me to just send out what's good," says chef Jarrett Schwartz, who prepares tasting menus that may include sashimi-wrapped tuna tartare with truffle oil or yellowtail sashimi with habanero-and-lime puree. Meat lovers can opt for the tenderloin imperial—charred beef with Gorgonzola cheese and wasabi aioli. DETAILS 3465 N. Pines Way; 307-734-5205.
BY BRAD JOHNSON
Chef Kazuto Matsusaka spent nearly a decade at Wolfgang Puck's influential Chinois on Main beginning in the '80s. Now he's serving some of the city's best Asian fusion food in the historic Helms Bakery complex. He prepares luscious miso-marinated black cod, grilled hanger steak with wasabi relish, and tuna sashimi pizza, an Asian version of Wolfgang's famous smoked salmon pizza. DETAILS 3280 Helms Ave.; 310-838-7500.
On the west side of L.A., a stretch of Sawtelle Boulevard has become an Asian pop culture epicenter. In the heart of it is Orris, a wood-and-stainless-steel place that looks like any sushi bar in town, only it isn't a sushi bar. Chef Hideo Yamashiro, who owns South Pasadena's Shiro restaurant, blends European, Asian and Californian cuisines in a selection of small plates that appeal to a sake-thirsty clientele—choices like delicate shrimp wontons in shiitake sauce or sweet shishito peppers with crisp prosciutto. DETAILS 2006 Sawtelle Blvd.; 310-268-2212.
In a Rodeo Drive shopping center, what is likely the most expensive restaurant on the West Coast—dinners start at $250—accommodates a maximum of 10 people. Chef-owner Hiro Urasawa serves exacting and exquisite dishes including his legendary sushi (baby barracuda over shiso rice, for instance) and grilled Kobe beef with a small pile of homemade salt, made from boiled seaweed. Japanese businessmen closing a big deal have been known to make reservations from the Tokyo airport. DETAILS 218 N. Rodeo Dr., Beverly Hills, CA; 310-247-8939.
At one of L.A.'s hottest spots, chef Rodelio Aglibot serves delicious takes on Asian classics: tender Vietnamese lemongrass beef, Chinese honey-walnut shrimp and everybody's favorite—Filipino deep-fried pork shank laced with foie gras. The decor features real-gold-and-wood panels illustrating the elements of feng shui and a two-story waterfall. DETAILS 7910 W. 3rd St.; 323-658-8028.
BY LISA FUTTERMAN
Meiji (named for a period of major democratic reform in Japan) flies in fish from Tokyo's markets that's not often seen in the Midwest, like kin medai (goldeneye snapper). The restaurant is also known for its unusual rolls, like the eel-and-jalapeño-tempura roll, topped with strawberries. Giant Brazilian steelwood panels hang over the heads of the busy sushi chefs. DETAILS 623 W. Randolph St.; 312-887-9999.
In a narrow dining room trimmed with red lacquer and decorated with antique Chinese vases, a 1930s-Shanghai atmosphere prevails. In the recently enlarged kitchen, old-school Asian chefs stir-fry peanut-flecked kung pao scallops while the more experimental cooks working alongside serve seared Kobe beef tataki with spicy sesame slaw. DETAILS The Peninsula Chicago, 108 E. Superior St.; 312-573-6744.
San Francisco & Napa
BY MICHELE REPINE
With its Japanese concept of sozai (a meal of small dishes), Delica rf-1 could become the new standard for delicatessens. Sparkling glass cases surround an open kitchen where cooks fry scallops in a crunchy panko crust and prepare seaweed salads with hijiki and dried soybeans or green beans with creamy sesame dressing. At under $10, the daily bento box is a great deal. Seating is minimal, but the room boasts a killer bay view, making the effort of snagging a seat worthwhile. DETAILS Ferry Building Marketplace, 1 Ferry Building, San Francisco; 415-834-0344.
When Luke Sung opened the small-plates restaurant Isa in 2000, he was named one of the city's most notable young chefs. At his 15-month-old restaurant, Lüx, the Taiwan-born Sung is trying his hand at haute Asian food. Customers at the long zinc bar drink powerful mojitos made with the Korean rice liquor soju, while those at the tables try halibut sashimi in a bracing citrus-mint broth and barbecued lamb chops with a dry rub of Indonesian spices. DETAILS 2263 Chestnut St., San Francisco; 415-567-2998.
With James McDevitt, an F&W Best New Chef 1999, in the kitchen, Restaurant Budo serves wonderful Asian-accented dishes. McDevitt stacks hamachi with paper-thin slices of fresh hearts of palm, or pairs pistachio-crusted soft-shell crabs with lemongrass jus. Budo is the Japanese word for grape, and this luxurious year-old Napa restaurant has an impressive wine list, along with a minimum of eight sakes. Guests can dine in the tasteful yellow-hued dining room, accented with oak wainscotting; in the intimate wine cellar; or in the courtyard dotted with Chinese pistache trees. DETAILS 1650 Soscol Ave., Napa; 707-224-2330.
BY JOHN KESSLER
Com Vietnamese Grill Restaurant
At this inexpensive grill, which opened in March in a strip mall, the kitchen willfully ignores tradition and stuffs tender rice-paper rolls with everything from sweet citrusy shrimp to seared flounder. The must-have is the smoky grilled la lot rolls: Traditionally stuffed with minced beef, the ones here might contain salmon, goat or lamb, the house favorite. The food at Com is so good that both the Vietnamese community and non-Asians have laid claim to the place. DETAILS 4005 Buford Hwy.; 404-320-0405.
The rear section of the fancy Westside Urban Market retail complex used to be home to a slaughterhouse; now it encompasses a sprawling troika of Chinese dining—casual Café Sampan, Suzy Wong's Lounge, which will offer cocktails and appetizers, and the ambitious centerpiece, Sampan. The highlight of chef Howard Cheun's elegant menu is Hong Kongstyle sea bass with silky tofu and pungent fermented black beans, served in a dining room lined with crystal beaded curtains and filled with black-lacquered wood furniture. DETAILS 1198 Howell Mill Rd., Suite 18; 404-367-8333.
With its glossy multicolored walls, velvet curtains and collages of images from Pacific Rim fashion magazines, this cavernous downtown restaurant could coast on atmosphere alone. Chef Marc Felix sees that it doesn't. His pan-Asian menu includes lettuce-and-herb-wrapped spring rolls stuffed with hoisin chicken, and tamarind-glazed pork shank in a lime-leaf broth. Lightly fried shrimp crackers, served in a cone made from colorful Asian newsprint, can be dunked in the accompanying wasabi mustard—possibly the best bar snack to come along since mixed nuts. DETAILS 1500 St. Charles St.; 314-436-9700.
Takashi Yagihashi (an F&W Best New Chef 2000) showed a genius for French food at Tribute, in Farmington Hills, Michigan. At his new showplace, Okada at Wynn Las Vegas, he's still creating brilliant dishes—this time with a Japanese emphasis. In addition to serious creations, like black cod baked in sake lees, he prepares playful ones, like a trio of fish tartare tacos with guacamole. Groups can reserve the chef's table at the end of a pier, beside a waterfall. Talk about privacy! DETAILS Wynn Las Vegas, 3131 Las Vegas Blvd. S.; 702-770-3320.
Richard Chen, fresh from Shanghai Terrace at the Peninsula Chicago, loves the classics: Peking duck with handmade crêpes, or peppery Szechwan chile prawns with garlic-spiked spinach. The 100-year-old pomegranate trees and curvy Botero sculpture get the hype, but Jacques Garcia's design and the incredibly attentive waitstaff make the Wing Lei experience exceptional. DETAILS Wynn Las Vegas, 3131 Las Vegas Blvd. S.; 702-770-3388.
This year-old Japanese restaurant in Las Vegas's MGM Grand hotel has an edgy Yabu Pushelberg design and a 60-bottle sake list. DETAILS 3799 Las Vegas Blvd. S.; 877-793-7111.
This isn't just another restaurant in Seattle's Little Saigon neighborhood. In the papaya-colored dining room, at tables surrounding a giant fire pit, crowds dig into crispy coconut rice cakes topped with shrimp, or spicy rice noodles in a rich beef shank broth, followed by homemade pandan-leaf ice cream that has an alluring vanilla-like taste. The extensive cocktail list includes martinis made with everything from lychees to lemongrass to, fittingly, tamarind. DETAILS 1036 S. Jackson St.; 206-860-1404.